Book Review – The Destructive Power of Religion

Amazon review of The Destructive power of Religion.

God’s Crimes, June 27, 2004

By:  William H. DuBay (Hong Kong and Coupeville, WA, United States) – See all my reviews (REAL NAME)

This review is from: The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam [4 volumes]: The Destructive Power of Religion [4 volumes]: Violence … Psychology (Praeger Publishers).) (Hardcover)

This series was inspired by the events of 9/11 and the mayhem caused by religious zealots in the Middle East. Most of this work, however, is about the religious violence spawned by Christianity. Harold Ellens, a theological researcher at the University of Michigan assembled thirty psychologists, pastors, and theologians, who, in fifty essays spanning four volumes, delve into the causes of religious violence.

In eleven of the essays, Ellens introduces and expands issues that others explore in depth. He begins by saying that even though the Bible sounds a clear and singular trumpet about the good news of God’s unconditional love, our religious traditions, are greatly infected with ambiguity. “The greatest tragedy,” he writes, “is religion that sounds the trumpets of violence and champions the metaphors of abuse, exploitation, legalisms, and a merely conditional grace.”

The traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share a common root, the Old Testament, in which we find the most explicit stories of divine violence. Those stories, in turn, reflect a violent metaphor, borrowed from Persian Zoroastrianism, of a cosmic contest between the forces of absolute good and absolute evil. “That metaphor,” Ellens claims, “has become the Master Story of Western culture. It has settled into the center of the psyche of the communities of faith we know as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”

According to Ellens, apocalyptic evangelists and producers of violent films and video games are all in the same category as Muslim suicide bombers “in terms of the unconscious metaphors by which they are shaped, to which they appeal, and that they constantly reinforce in our cultures…. The Western world will need to decide whether it wishes to change this destructive story and its vicious metaphors, or continue to wreak increasing psycho-spiritual havoc upon itself until the metaphor becomes so pervasive that we all feel relieved with the impending prospect of a final cataclysmic Armageddon, closing out history.”

The worst examples of violence in the Old Testament were in the practice of the herem, or ban, by which the Israelites were instructed to destroy a whole village, including every man, woman, and child, along with all the cattle, food, and property. Included in the ban were two demands: 1. Worship only one god, and 2. Kill those who do not obey the first demand or those who interfere with it.The effect of these images of biblical and historical violence on the modern mind is the subject of several essays. The thought of Freud, Jung, and Adler runs like a river through these works, which is not surprising. As the first to boldly explore the dark recesses of the human mind, they found unmistakable evidence of religious doctrine, speaking as forcefully as it did to Abraham and the Prophets.

Appearing in many essays is the work of Jacques Lacan and Ren? Girard, the recently retired Roman Catholic professor of French and Religion at Stanford. Central to Girard’s work is his concept of mimetic desire. Taking Aristotle’s famous concept of mimesis, or imitation, Girard shows how culture transforms our desires and fears. We want what others want and fear what they fear. Mimetic desire invariably leads to mimetic rivalry, in which two opponents trade insults and blows, each one thinking that the other has gone over the line. Such rivalry is always a danger to the community and can even destroy it. One mechanism used to defuse such rivalries is scapegoating, in which the killing of innocent third parties restores community harmony

In two essays, Ellens and Grant R. Shafer briefly take up the violent history of Jesus’ church. Soon after the Jewish Wars, Christians began assembling a hierarchical priesthood, a sacrificial theology, and the most brutal form of thought control the world had yet seen, applying herem on a scale the Jewish prophets never dreamed of. Along with the good news they brought to the nations, Christians also brought the message of God’s mighty wrath.

Prompted by bishops such as Ambrose, the religious persecutions conducted by Christians were not limited to pagans, but also extended to Christians who dissented from orthodox teaching. These religious cleansings, Ellens notes, “tended to be on a scale that approached genocide. The Christian Emperor Heraclius would certainly have exterminated the entire Egyptian (Coptic) Christian church in the 7th century if the Muslims had not invaded Egypt and saved the Coptic Christians and their church from extermination by their Christian brothers.”

The full extent of Christian violence, covered more completely in books such as Ellen Ellerbe’s The Dark Side of Christian History, is hard to imagine. It includes the centuries-long persecution of pagan religions and Christian heretics, the Crusades, the persecution of American Native religions, the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions, and the Thirty-Years War. As Nietzsche lamented: “God on a cross? are the horrible secret thoughts behind this symbol not understood yet….Christianity was a great victory; a nobler outlook of it perished?  Christianity has been the greatest misfortune of mankind so far.”

Psychologist Donald E. Sloat argues that the shame imposed on children by adults mechanically applying biblical texts is also a form of terrorism, one that cripples them emotionally and leads to further violence. Donald Capps writes about Augustine and the cycle of child abuse?the most poignant essay of the series. Augustine justified the beatings that he received as a child at the hands of his teachers. They no doubt contributed to his later pessimistic theology. Capps writes, “If there is a moral to this story, it is that an otherwise praiseworthy act of self-revelation–The Confessions–has legitimized the shaming of defenseless children. And for this, it seems to me, no amount of self-reproach could be too excessive.”

If there is anything missing from this extraordinary series, it is the lack of ecumenical input from members of other religions. Especially helpful would be more input by Jewish and Islamic scholars on how their religions have handled toxic texts. Also lacking is a discussion of the devil, mind-body dualism (the afterlife), and homosexuality.