Undercover Kofer, a blogger whom I greatly admire and would love to meet some day, is back with an excellent post exploring whether “Monotheistic Faiths Are Violent By Definition.” My answer, perhaps surprisingly, is that they are not.
Their very violent track record notwithstanding, the cause of their violence is not found in the fact that they are monotheistic faiths. As religious apologists are fond of pointing out, atheistic Stalinism and Maoism have also produced extraordinarily murderous societies.
Exclusivist, doctrinaire authoritarianism is the foundation for intolerance. When a group of people (or even an individual) becomes convinced that it possesses absolute truth – a truth that is exclusive of any other possibilities – there is no room for tolerating other ideas. Exclusive incontrovertible dogma usually justifies removing anyone who stands in the way of its universal acceptance.
The source of ultimate authority need not be supernatural. A secular ideology, backed by a sufficiently powerful leadership, can suffice. Stalinism and Maoism, both forms of authoritarian Communist dogma, each produced horrifically violent results. Secular racist ideologies do the same.
Religion, however, has demonstrated much more durability in comparison. For while both religious and secular authoritarians recruit followers on the promise of some sort of ultimate utopia, the secular varieties do not stand the test of time. Since their promises are naturalistic and temporal, they struggle to persist. Their inevitable inability to deliver on their promises leads to much faster disillusionment and, sooner or later, to some kind of shake-up of authority.
Compare this to traditional Christianity or Islam. Their long-term promise is eternal life. For Jews it was always the promise of being re-established in the land of Israel by a messiah (plus an afterlife). These kinds of promises account for the resilience of religious authoritarianism. Since it promises an after-life or a distant utopian future, untested and based upon blind faith, it need never fulfill its promise in order to elicit zealotry. I’m convinced that one of the reasons that the majority of Jews are not traditionally religious is that the Jewish historical experience is one long string of broken promises. Ironically, the establishment of a Jewish state, interpreted by some as a step toward the fulfillment of God’s promises, has attracted many newcomers to traditional Judaism.The only human organization that has demonstrated any significant resistance to authoritarianism is secular democracy. As imperfect as they are, secular democratic systems generally guard against the creation of powerful, intolerant infrastructures. Individual fanatics may bridle against this. Terrorists may emerge who threaten the system. Still, a stable secular democracy will usually inhibit any single faction from taking over. Of course, if there is a great deal of instability, democracies can and do fall, quite frequently into the hands of religious or other ideological extremists.
Where does this leave the rest of us? There are plenty of monotheists who are gentle and peaceful people. This includes liberal Christians and Jews, the Baha’i, and many Muslims. They are not driven by exclusivist visions of absolute authority. They have learned that secular democracy allows them to be left alone to do their own thing so they’ve claimed those secular values as their own.
When I’m critical of liberal religion, it’s usually for philosophical, not practical reasons. To be quite honest, having arrived at my own non-theistic approach to life, I’m sometimes baffled by how otherwise rational friends can hang on to religious fictions. To the extent that I have any practical beef with them, it’s that they provide cover for their more radical theistic peers. (See this post, for example.)
More often than not, however, non-theists and liberal theists are on the same side of the big issues. To that extent I’m always happy to ally myself with them against the greater dangers. And as long as they’re willing to fight the good fight for a secular nation, they can believe in Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, Baal or Thor for all I care.