RELIGION AND EVIL

This article was written in 1995 and posted on the Ariga web site in Israel where it remains on-line until today. The version presented here is updated (March 2008) to include a brief description of my own relationship to religion.

 

Introduction to article written by the Ariga editor:

The following article come into Ariga a few days after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. In this article, an American, Vince Giuliano, suggests that there is a hierarchy of belief that corresponds to a hierarchy of evil, which he outlines in a list ranging from Inclusive to profoundly evil. By no means does this article define evil as inherent to a particular religion -- but rather to the way some interpret what they refer to as "God's Will." Nor does this article accuse any individual religious believer of evil. "Extremism in the pursuit of liberty," said an American politician more than 30 years ago, "is no vice." Nor, perhaps, is extremism in the pursuit of spiritual strength. Ariga is publishing the following article in the interests of a free debate about religion, and hopes for reactions that contribute to our understanding of religion's role in the coming century.

Part of my cover message when I sent the article to Ariga:

The assassination of Rabin made me so sick and sad that I needed to do something to work out my thoughts and feelings. I ended up writing an article on religion and evil, mainly for my own internal benefit. I decided to send you a copy of the article, which follows. You are welcome to comment on it and, if you think it is appropriate, to post it on your site. I was originally raised as a Catholic, although I do not practice any religion today. My wife is Jewish as are my two younger children. I belonged to a Reform congregation for some time.

RELIGION AND EVIL

by Vince Giuliano

This is a short treatise on the topic of religion and evil. It was inspired by the multiple acts of terrorism and violence by religious fundamentalists that have been in the news recently. It was triggered specifically by the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in Israel by a deeply religious man who said he was instructed to do the killing by God.

We have been taught that religions stand for good, and that religion is the ultimate bulwark against all that which is evil. God against the Devil. Light against dark.

We have been instructed since childhood about the key role of religions in teaching morality that does good in the world. This article looks at the dark side of religion: that religions in various degrees create and justify evil, that they can and often do blind people to evil.

On the whole, it may well be the case that the result of passionate religion in the modern world is more evil than good. Finally, I develop the theme that the ability of a religion to do harm is a fundamental result of the basic tenant of most of our religions - that of revealed truth.

What is evil? For my purposes here, I am concerned with only one kind of evil which is fairly easy to define: religious evil. Religious evil is that which demeans or suppresses people or does violence against them or even kills them for religious reasons or because of religious justifications. Examples abound.

What about the mixture of religion and politics in creating evil? Kings ruled by divine authority, and many of the most evil religious factions in the world also have very strong political agendas. In many but not all cases, a political entity is involved in evil acts that are justified on religious grounds, be that political entity a terrorist group like the Hizbullah, or an entire government. In Iran, the constitution makes the laws of the Koran as interpreted by the Shi'ite clergy the basis of all other laws. One of the consequences is the suppression of all religious minorities by the government of Iran. Extremely conservative religious groups would have the same be the case in Israel, Afghanistan and Algeria, to mention just a few of the many candidates. For my purpose here, if an evil act is condoned, encouraged or required by religious beliefs, it is religious evil regardless of what political entities may be involved.

A. The Rating System for Religions

It's clear that religions provide the justification and energy for many evil acts in the modern world, whether one is considering the Fundamentalist Christian beliefs that justified the Oklahoma City bombing, the Moslem beliefs that justified the World Trade Center Bombing, the extreme Jewish beliefs that justified assassinating Prime Minister Rabin, or the religious beliefs of the cult which spread poison gas in Japanese subways. Yet all religions are not equal in this respect. Some are benign, and the last thing I want to do is try to lay down a blanket damnation of all religions. Some do good sometimes; some do good fairly consistently. So, I want to start out by discriminating among religions in terms of their ability to create and justify evil. For Hollywood movies, the rating system of G, GP, R, and X has been developed to provide guidance to the wary as to what they may be experiencing in the movie. I suggest a similar rating system for religions, based on their capability of doing evil, of being bad for people and for society. The rating categories are:

Here are the details of the ratings, as I see them. They apply to a religion as it is practiced in a time and place. For example, much of Catholicism in the US today is M; some is even I. However , Catholicism was PE in Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, and is still E in some parts of the world.

Rating I: Inclusive

Many Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish, Unitarian/Universalist, and Quaker congregations in the US qualify, among others. Some groupings of Sufi s and Baha'i in the Middle East more or less qualify. Occasionally, subgroups of Catholics, other Jews, and other Protestants rise to this level. Inclusive religions value life and respect of all humans. They do not generate evil as their social and psychological consequences, and some Inclusive congregations are seriously committed to doing good in the world. There is a propensity to stress intellectual ideals, often abstracted from any evident reality or practice. Adherents tend to believe in the unity of all mankind and similar humanitarian ideals.

Members of some Inclusive congregations don't necessarily believe in the same kind of God, or even in any God insofar as that goes. In the US, Inclusive congregations are recommended for affluent and educated people interested in Sunday or Saturday Morning social meetings with a moral twist but minimal theological dogma. Religious services may be inspirational, or just boring and wishy-washy. Some critics have called these "feel good religions," but I believe there is more to them than just that. Religious congregations across the spectrum offer community to their members, and that alone can be of great value. In religiously oppressive societies, members of Inclusive religions are among the first to be tortured and killed. Inclusive-rated religious groups tend to lack dynamism in the US. They are probably dwindling in numbers throughout the world.

Rating M: Mainline

Most of the Catholic, traditional-Protestant and Jewish religious groups in the US and in Western Europe today fall in this category. There is usually little in the religion or the practice of it that actively generates evil. Often there is explicit respect for life. The religions involved tend to have relaxed a lot of their more absolutist beliefs of the last century, and more or less try to keep up by accepting modern changes, such as allowing woman to be ministers. Fifty years ago in the US, the nuns told Catholic kids in Catechism classes that they would go to Hell for eating meat on Friday. A kid who told a small lie to his mother would get 10,000 years in Purgatory before the sin was burned off. Now days, Catholics don't go to Hell for eating the meat, and Purgatory has been abolished. Sometimes, I wonder what happened to the souls who were sent to Hell for sins that no longer send one to Hell, or to the souls who were in Purgatory when it was abolished. Did somebody shout "Everybody out of the pool. Some important religious guys back on earth have changed their minds and decided we should all be up in Heaven." The US Catholic church has been reaching hard for M, but has been held back by Rome and the Pope, old men who tend to have no idea of modern life.

Most religious expression in Western Europe and the US is in the Mainline category. The theology of M religions is still usually out of touch with the times, but this does not matter for most M congregation members do not take the theology seriously. In this respect, the religious ceremonies also have a "feel good" role, that is probably on the whole positive. What characterizes a Mainline religion is that its members are relatively educated and tend to belong to the religion more out of tradition than passion. Those involved with these M religions tend to believe in God and pursue religious rituals at least from time to time. They go along with the irrational beliefs of the religion in some compartments of their brains, but don't let them get in the way of their generally humanitarian outlook on life. For example, many if not most young women who consider themselves to be Roman Catholic in the US also practice birth control, no matter what Rome says. Sixty percent of Italian Catholics do not go to confession in 2008, despite the Vatican's attempts to reinstate more orthodoxy.

Contents of sermons in M churches and temples may often reflect humanitarian values. And M religious congregations sometimes organize themselves to do truly good deeds. Temples of wealthy Jews have sponsored the escape of people from oppression in Central America, and have given them sanctuary protection that even the US Immigration Service is afraid to attack. Sometimes, Mainline religions give birth to wonderful non-mainline splinters. I am among those deeply moved by the humanitarian work of Mother Theresa, for example. Catholic Liberation Theologians have done some great things in Latin America and have sometimes paid for them with their lives.

Nonetheless, because of the irrational beliefs they continue to embrace, there is always the danger that fragments of an M religion will mutate into the Z and worse categories.

M religions tend to be losing vitality in the world today. So few people are becoming Catholic priests and nuns today, for example, that the US branch of this Church will be in deep trouble unless priests can be allowed to marry or there can be women priests.

Rating Z: Zealous

These religions have strong ideologies, and tend to require internalization of patently absurd or irrelevant ideas that derive their strength only from the fact that they are (or purport to be) very old and have been much repeated as the revealed truth of God. Modern counterparts of such nonsense, without the mantle of "Godís revealed truth," would never be paid any attention to, let alone make the New York Times "top 20 best-sellers" list.

Zealous religions are not necessarily evil in their main thrusts, although evil (as well as good) may sometimes result as a result of the zeal. I would include here in the US the Mormons, the Jehovahís Witnesses, the Scientologists, some congregations of Orthodox Jews, and some of the Charismatic and Evangelist Christian congregations. The Hari Krishna movement is in this group, as is the church of Rev. Moon. Behavior is prescribed, and religious observance is insisted on. Zealous religions tend to be practiced among tight-knit communities of people whose lives largely revolve around their religions. Evil associated with Z religions, to the extent it exists, often consists of looking at the world one-dimensionally, and of depriving religious members of opportunities for growth and self-expression.

Some Zealous religious groups have dedicated themselves to doing what I consider to be good.

Hypocrisy can often result in Z religions when theory and practice get too out of phase. A number of religious cults have collapsed when chastity was the religious norm, but their charismatic leader was discovered to be having sex with substantial numbers of his disciples.

Zealous religious groups tend to want to impose their norms on others, such as on matters of abortion. A danger is that a Z group in its zeal can mutate into becoming an E (Evil) group which motivates its members to do evil. The Christian-based anti-abortionist movement gave license to killers of doctors who work in abortion clinics. Z religious cults can quickly slip from being simply Zealous to being Evil in their ratings. Remember the David Koresh and Jim Jones cult movements. Such has also been the evolution of some of the ultra-Zionist Jewish fundamentalist groups and some US right-wing fundamentalist Christian groups.

Z religious groupings tend to be aggressively involved in worldwide missionary activities and are growing today.

Rating E: Evil

Evil religions are ones that have great zeal and intense religious ideology, and that also denigrate humans or foster hate, suppression, harm or disenfranchisement of whole groups of people. Suppression, hate and verbal violence is condoned if not actively practiced in the name of God. The religious establishment may mandates it. Many Moslem groups in the Middle-East and Central Asia fall in this category, by virtue of how women are suppressed and treated like chattels for example. The inferior role of women and how they are treated is a matter of "the will of Allah" as supposedly in the Koran and interpreted by the Mullahs. Sunni Moslems in Saudi Arabia, as well as Shi'ite Moslem groups in Iran and Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East and Asia are plainly E. So are some of the Hindu groupings in India.

Often, hate is preached against "not us" people. The extreme Christian Religious Right, is an example in the US, as are some branches of the Black Muslim movement. Godís will, according to our understanding of God, is absolute, and everything else must give way. Some of the right-wing anti-Arab Hasidic groups fall in this category. There is a strong sense of "us" and "them" and "they do not bask in the light of God as we do, and are not to be trusted."

Evil religions ultimately justify, make people insensitive to, and in fact appear to demand violence against people as part of the religion itself. There can be countless acts of individual violence against members of the religion itself, such as beating or mutilation of wives and children, none of which make the news because they are legitimate in the religious culture concerned. Occasionally a story breaks through, like this item from this morningís (Nov. 8, 1995) Boston Globe:

"BOY DEATH TIED TO KORAN QUIZZES. Menomonie, Wisconsin. Ė A 16 year old Saudi Arabian boy was apparently tortured to death over the weekend, allegedly over quizzes on the Koran, authorities said. Police seized a wire whip and a butane burner yesterday as evidence. The boy, Abdullah Qahtani, was found dead Sunday in a house here with burns and other wounds. His back "appeared to have little or no skin," police investigator Frank Bammert said. Four Saudi men who had been living in the house were jailed in lieu of $100,000 bond. Ė Authorities said they would file reckless homicide charges."

This took place in Wisconsin. I wonder how many unreported deaths like this take place in Saudi Arabia, or in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, or Iran? How many beatings are there that do not quite result in death? How could it be that God wants these?

Evil is evil, and it exists in degrees. Just like Zealous is on the slippery slope to Evil, so is Evil on the slippery slope to the final rating of Profoundly Evil.

Rating PE Profoundly Evil

When the religion or a substantial branch of it takes the next step to where it is actively condoning and encouraging violence on a massive scale, war, mayhem and destruction in the name of God or Allah or Yaweh or whatever, then it deserves this rating. Both the Moslem and Christian religious movements that backed the Crusades were PE. The Japanese religious cult that was letting nerve gas loose in the Tokyo subways is a more recent example. Christian congregations in the US whose members supported Klu Klux Clan were in the PE category. So apparently is the fundamentalist Jewish sect to which Baruch Goldstein belonged, the devout Israeli Doctor who walked into a Mosque and shot 27 Arabs while they prayed. So is the Hizbullah (Party of God) in Lebanon that wages terrorism against Israel. So was the Catholic church when Jews were being burned during the Spanish Inquisition. So were the New England Protestant churches that condoned the burning of witches in Salem. The man who shot Prime Minister Rabin of Israel and the religious group he belongs to are PE. So are the Fundamentalist Christian churches in US that give birth to armed antigovernment paramilitary groups that commit acts of terrorism. So have been the countless religious establishments in history who have condoned and encouraged wars or genocide because "God is on our side," or because "This is what God wants."

To the zealots in Profoundly Evil religions, non-believers are little better than animals, to be slaughtered if that is what is most convenient. Thus, it is a responsibility to God to murder passers-by with poison gas in Japanese public places. In the good old PE days of the Crusades, it was considered generous for an army crusading in the name of God to invade a city and give its inhabitants an instant choice of converting to our True Religion and becoming slaves, or being slaughtered. (Some times, only women and children were given this choice. The men were automatically slaughtered.) It was the same process, no matter whether the invaders were Moslem or Christian.

It is not necessary to look back in history to find PE-inspired wars. The recent wars and slaughters in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Croatia were religiously inspired. The ethnic differences among the Serbs, Bosnians and Coats basically reflect the differences between Moslems, members of the Eastern Church, and Roman Catholics. Mass graves of thousands of men, slaughtered this summer in cold blood, were discovered last week in Bosnia. From the viewpoint of history we just happen to be in a current chapter of the Crusades.

Killing and maiming adherents to another religion in the name of God is an almost daily happening in Iraq as PE Sunni and Shi'ite factions engage in holy war against each other. Mosques and religious pilgrims are particular targets. From a Reuters release 25 Feb 2008: ďSuicide Bomber Kills 40 in Iraq -- Hilla, Iraq - A suicide bomber detonated a vest packed with metal ball bearings in a refreshment tent full of Iraqi pilgrims heading to a Shi'ite festival on Sunday, killing 40 people and wounding 60, police said. -- The attack was one of the deadliest in Iraq this year and happened despite a major tightening of security for the annual Arabian festival in the southern holy city of Kerbala. It is one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest events. Most of the casualties were hit by the ball bearings, said a doctor at a hospital in the city of Hilla, --. A wounded woman there said the attack happened in a tent where pilgrims were offered refreshments.Ē The suicide bomber probably thought his act would transport him directly to heaven.

An often-striking characteristic of profoundly evil religions is a positive attitude towards death, just as inclusive religions value life. Some islamicists have stated this quite explicitely. "Each of us lives his days and nights hoping more than anything to be killed for the sake of Allah," according to Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah. And we remember Reverend Jim Jones and his First Peoples Temple. He initiated a ritual called "White Nights" to prepare his followers for an act of mass suicide. In 1978, the good reverend ordered his followers to drink from a tub of grape-flavored Kool Aid laced with cyanide and tranquilizers. Many were fored to drink and all 908 died.

It is important to stress that being Evil or Profoundly Evil is not an absolute characteristic of a religion, but is rather an attribute that varies by time and place and that can come or go. The New England Protestant congregations that encouraged burning witches over 200 years ago still exist, but are no longer Evil. The Catholic Church in Spain that tortured Jews and nonbelievers during the Inquisition still exists, but is, by-and-large, no longer Evil. Most Christian congregations in most of Western Europe have no interest whatsoever in crusading against anybody. Evil is thus like a virus, to which religions, particularly zealous religions, can fall victim. But, they can also cure themselves in time.

B. The Basic Evil

I believe the basic evil lies in the process of religious irrationality itself, that the steps of it are in believing:

1. Godís will is more important than anything else, certainly more important than laws or emotions or ethics of humans. Godís will is absolute and cannot be questioned. It is the extreme authority.

2. My main and total responsibility is to do the will of God.

3. Godís will is revealed in the sacred documents (The Torah, The Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Book of Mormon, etc.).

4. The teachings of my religion are the one and only true interpretation of the sacred documents, and are therefore of Godís will. My Priest (Minister, Mullah, Rabbi, etc.) are the experts in what God has said.

The problem is that the "sacred documents" are open to a very broad range of different interpretations. They tend to be rambling folk stories of primitive people, full of supposedly-specific events and names, and containing much generally-good advice for survival of those people along with advice that is not so good today. You can find almost anything you are looking for, ranging from "if you are hit on one cheek, turn another" to "smite your enemies; show no mercy."

So, what this ambiguity does is put the current interpreters of the sacred works in the drivers seat to say that "the will of God" is anything they choose it to be. Just about absolutely anything can go. Give a smart person just about any viewpoint on humanity that is possible, and he can find the passages in the New and Old Testament, or the Koran, or the Vedic documents, that absolutely justify it. We can find Mother Theresa's, Ayatollah Kolmeni's, and every shade in-between. "Love your neighbor" and "Hate your neighbor" can pass equally well in the game of religious morality.

So, some of the "moral truths" that have been dictated by religions are:

∑ "White men are devils and we must at least live apart from them. We blacks may need to fight a Holy War to liberate ourselves from them."

∑ "Black people are the descendants of Ham who were driven out of paradise. They are inherently inferior, and have no place in our white churches. We must live separate from them."

∑ "We are Godís only Chosen People."

∑ "We must re-affirm out Christian Aryan values, and purge our country of Negro, Communist and Jewish influence."

∑ "Moslem (Hindu) temples have no place in the Hindu (Moslem) Holy Places." ∑ "Moslem (Jewish) temples have no place in the Jewish (Moslem) Holy City of Jerusalem."

∑ "God says we should kill Jews (Arabs, Indians, Moslems, Christians, native people of all kinds, you name it)."

∑ "God gave us Jews Judea and Samaria. It is written down right there clearly in the Torah. Those lands are ours, and we have every right to drive others from them."

∑ "It is Allahís (Godís) wish that infidel Christians (Moslems) must be swept out of our country."

∑ "It is the role of the woman to be subservient to and obey her father or husband, and she has no separate rights of her own. Women may not show their face or the shape of their body in public."

∑ "Slaughtereth thine unbeliever neighbor before he slaughtereth thee."

In other words, the problem of evil in religion goes to the roots of religious beliefs themselves. Being irrational and arbitrary and absolute, these beliefs can dictate anything, and absolve their followers from any responsibility for their acts because they are only exercising "the Will of God." Religion is the ultimate cop-out for taking responsibility for being a human being.

Isnít it about time we humans grow up?

Vince Giuliano Vince Giuliano vegiuliano@comcast.net

My personal relationship to religions

At present I regard myself as a deeply faithful though not religious person. God exists for me, though not as an anthropomorphic projection. God for me is the organizing set of principles that allows the universe to function and life to exist as it does. These principles are deeply mysterious and compatible with though not understood by science. How is it that dozens of critical physical constants have to have exactly the values they have for otherwise the Universe would be vastly different and hostile to life? And I believe there is an underlying value system that favors organization over chaos, what we normally call good over evil. As to religion, I was originally raised as a Catholic. I was baptized and confirmed in that faith and attended three years of Catholic Middle and High School. I dropped out of the Church and went to a secular school much more to my taste at the age of 14. During one three-year interval as an adult, my family and I belonged to a Unitarian-Universalist congregationn in Arlngton Massachusetts. I participated heavily but was somewhat less than a Pillar of the Congregation, perhaps just a Post. During another three-year period my wife and I were members of a Jewish Reform temple in Sudbury Massachusetts. I attended classes on the Torah and on Jewish mysticism as expounded in the Kaballah. Two of my older sons converted to becoming Jehova's Witnesses in their teen years and raised their own families in that tradition. For a while, they proseletized me. My two younger sons have Jewish mothers and are therefore Jewish by the traditions of that faith. My current wife Melody is Jewish and also an American Sufi (an Inclusive branch of the Moslem faith)and frequently attends Sufi events. I sometimes go too. My boss for many years was a good friend and a devout Mormon and shared with me much about his religion. Another boss was a Christian Scientist who did the same. I worked for years with full members of the Opus Dei branch of Catholicism. Hy half-brother and half-sister were devouted Scientologists for years. My travels and relationships have exposed me a little to the Bahi, Vodoo, Suni, Shi'ite, Santeria and Candomblť religions, not to mention Zoroastrian fire-worshippers in Iran. And my best friend Hal Lyon is an Inclusive Charismatic Christian. A have been open to learning something about each of these faiths and a little of each has rubbed off on me. I can be reached at US tel: 508-358-5629 or vegiuliano@comcast.net.

A few years back I was taking an acting class and was asked to create a monolog for my gradution performance. I made the monolog about what my life would have been like had I choosen what my grandmother wanted - that I would be a Catholic Priest. You can read that monolog here.

Copyright 2008 by Vincent E. Giuliano, all rights reserved




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