“Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions” - Blaise Pascal, 17th century mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic philosopher.
Point one: Before anyone of faith reads that and takes personal offense. I am NOT saying that everyone who believes commits evil. I know the temptation will be to comment with something like “I’m not evil, you shouldn’t accuse me of that.” Or “Don’t paint us all with a broad brush” I’m not. This is a criticism of the influence of religion not an examination of the morality of its adherents – they are NOT inexorably linked. I hope that is obvious but I’m finding that there is a strong persecution complex at work here. If it isn’t obvious let me know. I will devote more time to the topic.
Point two: I disagree with Pascal, somewhat. It isn’t religion alone that allows human beings to justify atrocities. I think it takes two things neither of which is exclusive to religion.
(1) A worldview that allows one group to identify with one community to the exclusion of another. (us and them)
(2) A justification for atrocities that can trump their own sense of morality.
These things are abundantly available in religious dogma, but not exclusively. It is the ready acceptance of these conditions that allowed for the horrific and secular regimes of Mao, and Pol Pot, and Stalin. It is this kind of faithful dogmatism that sustains the government of North Korea. It is this dependence on dogma, divorced from reason, which motivates skeptics to point to these political examples as being so much like religion.
A while ago I was commenting on an online article about the source for secular altruism, and the possible evolutionary roots for it. The basic premise was that there are evolutionary advantages to altruism. That self-sacrifice for the betterment of the community is probably one of the evolutionary traits that were key to our species survival when we were at a considerable physical disadvantage. It’s isn’t unprecedented, it’s common. Placing the benefit of the herd or the species above the benefit of self is a regular occurrence and well documented.* An argument against this theory was presented in the examples of altruism for those outside one’s community such as Hutu’s protecting Tutsi’s in the madness of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994**. This would seem to offer no benefit to the community/individual at all; in fact it could be to the aid of a competitor. My response was this: It was those individuals’ ability to see the Tutsi as part of their community, their human community in spite of the dogmas of ethnicity and religion (both contributed) that motivated them to altruism. As it will always be the case when people are willing to dismiss the current social/political ideals and stand up for the rights of others. This is what you saw when you saw whites march with blacks in Alabama. It is what you saw when you saw Mormons speaking out against Prop 8 and 102, something I regrettably failed to do. We need to identify, first and foremost, with our global community not a religious or political one if we are to overcome the divisive forces in our society, religious or otherwise.
There are some that would argue that their religion actually allows us to see all of humanity as part of the same community, as “Sons and Daughters of God”. This can be true, for some it is the very reason to dedicate time and resources to combat suffering all over the world. I fully acknowledge this but with two detractions.
1. This is a fairly new trait in any religion. Historically, religion has been extremely divisive and in most contemporary examples it still is.
2. The cases where it is divisive, its power to divide is unparalleled. There can be no dogmatic belief that can match the urgency and imperatives of eternity and divine will. If you think your religion is an exception to this, I would suggest you look closer at the history of your church. If you are a person of faith that identifies with no religion in particular, then look deeper into your holy books. If it is a Koran, a Holy Bible, or almost any other major religious text you will see that your God is indeed a God of violent exclusivity.
On the issue of trumping an individual’s sense of morality with the dogma they adhere to, once again religion is not alone but it is the dominant player. It is a system that defines morality that can twist it. If God is the source of morality than who are we to say any of the following were wrong?
- The worldwide flood at the time of Noah as described in Genesis, chapters 6 to 8. From the description, it almost completely wiped out the human race including innocent children, with the exception of Noah, his wife and sons and their wives.
- The Passover incident described in Exodus chapters 11 and 12, in which all of the firstborn of all Egypt were slaughtered. This included newborns, children, youths, adults, the elderly -- both human and animal.
- The conquest of Canaan, in which God ordered the Hebrews to completely exterminate the Canaanite people -- again from the elderly to newborns and fetuses. This is described throughout the book of Joshua as occurring in Jericho and other Caananite cities.
- The near extermination of the entire tribe of Benjamin by the remaining 11 tribes, triggered by the serial rape and murder of a priest's concubine by a few Benjamites. See Judges, chapter 20.
- The slaughter of 3000+ Israelites at the hands of their Israeli brothers and neighbors by the direct order of God, when Moses found them being disloyal.
- And many, many other examples.
If we MUST submit our will to that of the divine then, our moral compasses are of no use to us. It is “His” will that must be done.
So while I agree with Pascal in the principle of his statement I might rephrase it thusly: “People never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious or religious-like convictions” It loses some of the punch but that’s what happens, and why the more ‘careful’ statements often don’t make quotation collections.