The Destructive Power of Religion by J Harold Ellens – Review

 By:  Robert D Brinsmead

The essay by J. Harold Ellens, The Interface of Religion, Psychology, and Violence, in The Destructive Power of Religion, chapter 6,  makes for some scintillating reading.  The following comments suggest a radical overturning of a religious and cultural worldview that has prevailed for 3000 years:

“…it is imperative to note that violence is bred in our Western societies, not only by the bizarre theological and ethical constructs of specific fundamentalist groups in  the Western religious worlds of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Violence is endemic throughout all aspects of the Western and Eastern world because of the long-standing and pervasive influence of the essential religious metaphor of cosmic conflict, present for the last three millennia in these religions and cultures, shaped as they were by ancient Israelite religion. Even the rather thoroughly secularized world of Europe and America, which has long since lost its conscious memory of Judeo-Christian roots, is still shaped by the unconscious psychological archetypes produced by the ancient Israelite religious metaphor. Both the religious and secular communities of the Western and Near Eastern worlds operate with the internal model that history is the battleground of a cosmic war between God and the Devil, good and evil.  This warfare is waged in the socio-political arena and on the battlefield of the human heart.  It is expected to continue until some final solution is found.  It remains to be seen, according to this worldview, whether good or evil will triumph in human history.  In any case, an unconscious longing to have done with this soul-wearing and world-wasting conflict increasingly drives a death wish for some kind of cosmic cataclysm, the relief and release of the final Armageddon

“Such unconscious ideation readily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as in the lives of the terrorists of September 11, 2001, suicide bombers, and designers of pre-emptive defence.  However, the problem is infinitely more extensive.  If you remember the very popular Rocky series of Hollywood productions, or the Rambo series, you will recall that a highly individualized form of this cosmic conflict shaped the plot and story line of each movie. More recently, almost addictive social attraction to The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and similar lesser features, in literature and film, plays out the same metaphoric psychological process:  the quest for final cataclysmic solutions in a world that is caught in a transcendental cosmic conflict.

“Moreover, one need only stop for a half hour in any game machine arcade in the Americas or Europe, Japan or Australia, South Africa or any other culture influenced by Western social values, to notice the glassy-eyed addiction of young people to acting out symbolic murder scenes and extermination of entire groups of persons, as well as massive property structures, in the most extreme forms of violence in the virtual reality of those machines.  One can see and hear the offensive animalist gestures and sounds of glee and satisfaction expressed by these young people as they create, in that virtual world, the abuse, destruction, conflagrations, and termination of people and things for which some dark archetype in their infected souls longs.

“Harold Kushner was infinitely closer to divine and human reality when he wrote his illuminating book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  The implication of his thesis is the grace-filled suggestion that this world is not an arena of cosmic evil and good, but a rather flat-footed pilgrimage of human question for growth, fulfilment, and goodness.  The presence of God in this world of human experiences is, as intimated by the bright side of the biblical narrative, a congenial and forgiving presence…We can image a perfect world but we can only create an imperfect one, so we experience the grief-loss of this disparity.  We call the shortfall evil, but that is too heavy a word for it.  It is human error, but as Martin Luther is said to have remarked, ‘sin boldly,’ for we live in a matrix of divine forgiving grace.

“However, this perspective of grace has been eclipsed for 3,000 years by the metaphor of cosmic conflict, with the divine violence that metaphor models and the human violence that metaphor induces.  If that metaphor had any reality in it, there would be some justification for this monstrous misdirection of religion and culture during these three millennia.  However, there is no evidence for a force of cosmic evil.  There is no place for that notion in a world of a God of radical, unconditional, and universal grace.  There is no empirical data to suggest such a mischievous metaphor or worldview.  There is no hypothesis that could function more poorly in accounting for the problem of pain that this immensely destructive psycho-spiritual subterfuge.  Instead of the worldview of grace and growth through which religious metaphors would create subconscious psychological archetypes of decency, gentleness, and mutuality, we have a worldview of paranoia, conflict, violence, and alienation.  Everywhere in the societies of the Western and Near Eastern world this is evident;  in every nook and cranny of our social process and psychological states, this mindset reigns.”

Note:  And who was the first great teacher who conceived of this grand narrative of the conflict between good and evil, God and Satan, the children of light and the children of darkness?  It was Zarathustra.  See the appendix of my essay, An Outline of Apocalyptic Theology from Zoroaster to Al Gore,

If you have not read Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos:  Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong, I highly recommend it.  Nagel is a self-confessed atheist, but he admits that as mistaken as they are, the Intelligent Designers raise some legitimate points.  He says that the Darwinists will not face up to the great gaps and deficiencies of their theory, that mutations, natural selection and all the other natural explanations they appeal to cannot explain things like the origin of life (too complex to begin by chance), the development of human consciousness from mere matter, and more.  He even says that the arguments of Behe, Meyer and Berlinski “should be taken seriously and that they do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met.  It is manifestly unfair.”  “Whatever one may think about the possibility of a designer, the prevailing doctrine- that the appearance of life from dead matter and its evolution through accidental mutation and natural selection to its present forms has involved nothing but the operation of physical law- cannot be regarded as unassailable.  It is an assumption governing the scientific project rather than a well-confirmed scientific hypothesis.”  (pp.10-11) He ends his little book (128 pages) with these final words: “I will be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two – though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid.  The human will to believe is inexhaustible.”