(Free Inquiry, summer 1993)
(also printed in Freethought Today, June/July 1993
and distributed by The New York Times syndicate)
By James A. Haught
In the newspaper business, we deal in reality every day. Here's a reality of religion, as it comes across the news wires:
2,000 DIE IN RIOTS AFTER HINDUS SMASH MUSLIM MOSQUE
ULSTER CATHOLIC, PROTESTANT SQUADS TRADE MURDERS
OHIO CULT LEADER 'SACRIFICES' FAMILY OF FIVE
ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN SERBS RAPE MUSLIM WOMEN
SHIITES IN IRAN HANG BAHAIS WHO WON'T CONVERT
CHRISTIAN ARMENIANS, MUSLIM AZERBAIJANIS RESUME WAR
FUNDAMENTALIST PICKET KILLS CLINIC DOCTOR
BUDDHISTS AND HINDU TAMILS BATTLE IN SRI LANKA
EGYPTIAN FUNDAMENTALISTS KILL PRESIDENT SADAT
SIKH MILITANTS ASSASSINATE INDIRA GANDHI
900 TAKE CYANIDE AT JONESTOWN
CHRISTIAN-MUSLIM WAR IN SUDAN CAUSES FAMINE
And now the latest headline:
WACO CULTISTS DIE IN SUICIDE PYRE
At an editors' conference recently in Baltimore, actress
Shirley Maclaine told us:
"In the name of God, a 'fatwa' against Salman Rushdie. In the name of God, murder in the Balkans. In the name of God, the bombing of the World Trade Center. In the name of God, the siege at Waco, Texas.... In the name of God, Shiites and Sunnis are at each other's throats in Iraq and Iran, as are Arabs and Jews in the Middle East.... In the name of God, what is going on?''
What's going on is an aspect of religion the world avoids discussing -- the Mr. Hyde lurking behind Dr. Jekyll.
Everyone knows the good face of faith. In my city for instance, an Episcopal church serves "manna meals'' to the down-and-out, Samaritan Inn provides shelter for the homeless, the Salvation Army cares for winos, the Mountain Mission gives furniture and clothes to the needy, Covenant House works daily with street people, Catholic volunteers repair poor people's homes in rural hollows, churches run many food-banks for the jobless.
All these things reinforce the universal belief that religion makes believers kind and caring. But what can explain the opposite result?
As for the holy wars between ethnic groups, scholars and historians say the hatred isn't religious, it's cultural and political and economic. They're right -- but they're wrong. It's true that many factors mingle in any human conflict; yet the chief dividing element in some horrors is faith.
In Northern Ireland, how would two residents of Belfast know they're enemies if they didn't go to different churches? They look, speak and dress alike. They live in similar houses. Why don't their families intermarry, work together, socialize together and forget ancient grudges? Because religion keeps them alienated in hostile camps. "Religious tribalism'' is a name applied to it.
In Bosnia, next-door neighbors equally alike suddenly began killing each other. Why? Because they pray to different Gods. Otherwise, there would be no way to distinguish between the neighbors.
Religion-based gore has been recurring for at least nine centuries. When Europe's Crusaders marched off to rid the Holy Land of infidels, they first paused to slaughter "the infidel among us,'' Jews living in Germany. The Holy Inquisition burned an estimated 200,000 women in the historic witch-hunts. The Reformation triggered scores of Catholic-Protestant wars, including the Thirty Years War that killed half the population of Germany. England's Puritans and Anglicans waged ferocious combat. Anabaptists were executed by both Protestants and Catholics for the crime of double baptism.
The worst religious disaster of all time is little known in
the West. It was the Taiping Rebellion in China, which killed an
estimated 20 million a century ago. A holy man proclaimed that
he was Jesus' younger brother, and that God had ordained him to
make China a theocracy. He raised an army of 1 million which
loosed a bloodbath, until it was destroyed by opposing armies --
including one led by British Gen. "Chinese'' Gordon.
(Poor Gordon was cursed by religion. He later led an Egyptian army in the Nile valley and was killed by Muslim fanatics at Khartoum.)
A couple of years ago, I wrote what evidently is the world's only book on religious atrocities of all types. Later, people asked why I just chronicled the massacres instead of explaining why they occurred. But who can explain the irrational?
Why do ardent Sikhs gun down Hindu wedding parties to establish "the Land of the Pure''?
Why did medieval inquisitors think 200,000 women were copulating with Satan and execute them for it?
Why did the Waco cultists burn their children alive instead of walking out the door?
God only knows. All that can be said with certainty is that there's a beast in the shadows behind religion, and it lunges out periodically, trampling religion's message of compassion.