Those who listen to what I say or read what I write have often encountered assertions to the effect that religions are the source of much of the evil around us that, if we could somehow do away with all religions, we’d have less to fight about.
Well, I’ve concluded that I was wrong to make those assertions.
Religions are just a means to an end. If they were to be removed from the equation, we’d still be just as aggressive, territorial, and dominating, only we’d utilize another means to those ends. Alternative means might include ideology, the perception of scarce resources, the perceived right to pursue our own happiness at the expense of everyone else who gets in our way, to name a few. Putting a muzzle on religion or religious fanatics won’t diminish violence or other evils any more than controlling guns (almost anything can be weaponized). Remove guns from the equation and people feeling aggressive, territorial, or dominating will pull the biggest butcher’s knife out of the drawer and go after someone else. If no knives are conveniently available (like you forgot to bring one with you to the discotheque), break a beer bottle, sling stones, or organize a mob to pummel and kick someone.
The problem is human nature. It has been referred to as our reptilian brain, although MacLean’s hypothesis about the triune brain, that our brains were originally like the brains of reptiles containing just the basal ganglia and later evolved a paleomammalian layer around it consisting of the limbic system and relatively recently evolved a neomammalian layer around that consisting of the cerebral neocortex, has fallen out of favor. I think that reptiles don’t have the monopoly on aggressive, territorial, and dominating behaviors.
We also have the opposite behaviors: passivity, dispossession, and subordination. If we want to survive, we have only three options: fight, flight or, if you want to stay around, lick the alpha’s butt. The third option entails showing the alpha leader that you are not a threat (passivity), relinquish your worldly possessions to the alpha (dispossession), and do anything the alpha commands (subordination). Sometimes we find ourselves in a social hierarchy in which we have to be passive, dispossessed, and subordinate to those above us, but we get to be aggressive, territorial, and dominating to those below us. As long as you know your place in that hierarchy, you’ll get along, you’ll survive.
If you don’t have a place in the alpha’s hierarchy, then you are disenfranchised. If the alpha is hording scarce resources that you need in order to survive, then the only options left to you are to fight (attack or rob) or to flee (become a refugee).
This doesn’t just happen to bad people. It could happen to any of us. It doesn’t matter whether you live under a democracy, a monarchy, a dictatorship, or anarchy. If your social contract doesn’t account for everyone, if some of the people are disenfranchised, then there will be violence.
We see the alpha hierarchy in almost every organization: governmental, military, political, social, economic, and religious.
Why religion? Isn’t religion a force for good against evil? I’m sure that, if you look for good in the Bible, you’ll find it the same as you’ll find good in the Quran or any other religious book if that’s what you’re looking for. As Shakespeare said, however, “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” meaning that, if you are looking for evil in the Bible or the Quran, you’ll find it there too. The reason for that is that these holy books were not written by one hand. Biblical scholars say at least 40 different people contributed writings that were compiled over time in the Old Testament (the five books of Moses), people who lived in different times, in different places, and dealing with different situations. An example of what I find repugnant in the Bible is from First Samuel, Chapter 15, verse 3. God commands Saul, “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” Not to be outdone, the Quran, Chapter 9, verse 3, says “Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger [Muhammad] have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth [Islam], out of those who have been given the Book [the Bible, given to Christian and Jews], until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of [Muslim] superiority and they [Christians and Jews] are in a state of subjection [dhimmitude, i.e., third-class legal status for non-Muslims].” So much for the proclaimed tolerance of the earlier chapters of the Quran. In Chapter 5, verse 32, of the Quran, it says “That is why We decreed for the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul, without [its being guilty of] manslaughter or corruption on the earth, is as though he had killed all mankind, and whoever saves a life is as though he had saved all mankind. Our apostles certainly brought them manifest signs, yet even after that many of them commit excesses on the earth.” That’s not so bad but in verse 33, the Quran goes on to say “Indeed the requital of those who wage war against Allah and His Apostle, and try to cause corruption on the earth, is that they shall be slain or crucified, or have their hands and feet cut off from opposite sides or be banished from the land. That is a disgrace for them in this world, and in the Hereafter there is a great punishment for them.” I know one gentle soul, a sensitive Muslim poet, who quotes 5:32 but not 5:33 in order to show that Islam is a peaceful religion, and it is for him, but for the Hamas, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS 5:33 justifies their acts of terror.
“We have met the enemy, and they are us” (Walt Kelly, creator of the Pogo cartoon).
So what are we to do? Shall we give a free pass to anyone who commits violence on us because it’s human nature?
The answer is a resounding no. There are no free passes. No free lunches. Just a realization in the back of our minds to refuse to abdicate our responsibility to think for ourselves and that everybody, all seven billion of us, want a piece of the pie.