May 25 2011

Religion and Violence : What is the connection ?

Published by under Talks

Religion and Violence : What is the connection ?


(An account of the argument of John Teehan’s book: In the Name of God)
– Donald Feist 26 May 2011

All these crimes and sins committed by Americans are a clear declaration of War of God”.

[Osama bin Laden – 23 February 1998]

These events have divided the entire world into two camps, the camp of the faithful and the camp of infidels. May God shield us and you from them.”

[Osama bin Laden – 10 July 2001]

In this struggle, God is not neutral”

[George W. Bush – 20 September 2001]

Every nation, in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. … May God grant us wisdom, and may He watch over the United States of America”.

[George W. Bush – 20 September 2001]

Here I’ve put side by side, two quotes from Osama bin Laden, and two from George Bush. A visitor to planet Earth from Mars, who knew only the powerful positions these two men held ten years ago, would surely expect any public statement from either of them to deal with either political or military matters – or possibly both together. But why, this visitor might well ask, is each of these political figures talking religion ?


After reading John Teehan’s book “In the Name of God” it seems to me that this question was very likely the starting point, or at least the trigger, for his writing this book. Surely, in public statements before and after that dreadful attack on the World Trade Centre on 9/11, we could have expected to hear the political language of leaders who were preparing for war, and then justifying it.
Why was it that so much of what they said was said in a context of religion?
What part did religion play in these events?

In one of the public sessions in Allen Hall last year, run jointly by the Centre for Theology and Public Issues, and the Centre for Peace and Conflict studies, all the speakers on the panel were of the opinion that all the great world religions have always been firmly on the side of peace, and that any violence done in the name of religion – in Israel / Palestine, in Northern Ireland, longer ago in the Crusades,  or wherever and whenever — has always been a perversion of religion by misguided or over-enthusiastic adherents.


In the same way, Pope John Paul the second insisted that the Church cannot sin, but recognised that some sons and daughters of the Church have committed atrocities in “misguided zeal”.


But Teehan, in this book, doesn’t agree with this. He claims that:
“ …. violence done in the name of religion is not a perversion of religious belief, as many apologists would like us to believe, but flows naturally from the moral logic inherent in many religious systems, particularly monotheistic religions, and …. this moral logic is grounded in our evolved psychology”.


So, in order to understand the relationship between violence and religion, Teehan turns to evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is evidently a fairly new discipline. He says about it:
The foundational premise of evolutionary psychology is that behaviour, belief, emotions, thinking and feeling are all functions of a fully embodied brain. The brain we work with today is a collection of task-oriented, problem-solving mental tools – tools … that were designed to respond to an ancient environment.”


It is perhaps helpful to mention two other, different, basic assumptions about the human mind/ brain which have been the starting point for psychology:
1. That the mind is a tabula rasa – a blank slate – so that every new-born child starts from scratch to absorb the language, culture, moral system, and so on, of the people into whom it is born.
2. The second common view of the human mind is called the “rational actor” model. It assumes that every human being is motivated to act to maximize their own interests.
This view has long been favoured by economists, who like to think that humans act logically and consistently in always buying in the cheapest market.


Evolutionary psychology, on the other hand takes as a starting point the view that all of our ….
behaviour, belief, emotions, thinking and feeling
are produced by
a collection of task-oriented, problem-solving mental tools – that were designed to respond to an ancient environment.”


And Teehan says:
I find the evidence and the arguments in favour of an evolutionary psychology completely persuasive”.


Evolution – I hardly need to tell you, I’m sure – asserts that those individuals, and those species which tend to reproduce most successfully, and to survive over time, are those which are best adapted to their environment.


“Survival of the fittest” means the survival of those who adapt best or fastest to cope with their surroundings. And the fundamental unit by which this adapting occurs is the gene. This is why Richard Dawkins has said:
Any gene that behaves in such a way as to increase its own survival chances … will tend to survive.”


In other words, it is basic to any and every gene, to look after No. 1. So Dawkins goes on to add:
The gene is the basic unit of selfishness”.


And Teehan, having quoted all this from Dawkins, comments:
Here is the problem for an evolutionary account of morality: If successful genes are “selfish” genes, then it seems to follow that these genes will lead to organisms and traits that are also “selfish”.


But when we move on from genes, or cells or amoeba, to more complex organisms, we find that many kinds of plants and trees look after one another to the extent of growing close together to provide support or shelter or protection. So to this extent, the idea of selfishness needs to be modified.


And when we come to animals, it is very common to find that they have learnt to co-operate in hunting for food, in sticking together to provide protection from enemies – or in the case of Emperor penguins, to share their warm to protect all of them from the Antarctic cold. Some animals will go further than this and deny themselves food, when it is short, so that their offspring have enough to flourish. Some birds will draw attention to themselves, in order to draw a predator away from the nest – and so on.


All of this behaviour is easily explained in terms of genes which have programmed the animal to do what will help the survival of the family or the species and not just of the individual.


So, when we move on in time, and cross very blurred dividing line between other primates and early human beings, it isn’t surprising to find that these humans, too, were willing to go hungry, or to risk or sacrifice themselves for the well-being or the survival of their children.


In humans, like every other animal species each of the children shares 50 percent of the genes of each parent. In addition, each of that humans nieces and nephews shares 25 percent of their genes. So we find, from very early on – both among animals and early human beings – that the willingness to risk and to make sacrifices, extended beyond one’s immediate children to other offspring of the wider family.


So we need to understand this preferential treatment – this loyalty, or whatever we choose to call it – extended to a family group, an in-group — that is wider than the immediate nuclear family. And as humans became more and more self-aware, this behaviour became not just instinctive, but the subject of rules expressed in words.


Now let’s fast-forward, from 100,000 years ago, to one group of humans living near the Mediterranean a mere 3,000 years ago. They organised the most important and most basic of the rules for supporting and protecting the in-group into a list of Ten. And here’s the second half of the list:
You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, nor ….


Notice that the word “neighbour” in last two on the list makes it quite explicit that these rules applied only among themselves – only within their own in-group. But what is explicit in those two, was just as true about the first three –
They meant:
You shall not kill another Jew.
[Killing a foreigner in war was something quite different.]
You shall not have sex with the wife of another Jew.
You shall not steal from another Jew.


So these Jewish Commandments are one clear example of what Teehan claims is a universal rule about morality:
All morality, (says Teehan), is a matter of setting rules or standards for how to behave within the in-group and towards the in-group – and this often means in defence of the in-group against every out-group.


And that, I think, is a good place to pause to give you a little time to think about what I’ve said so far, and whether or not you agree with Teehan. I suggest you talk for up to 5 minutes, in twos or perhaps threes, where you sit.

Part 2


Now it’s time to move onto the next step in Teehan’s argument – which brings us to the question of Jesus.


“The supposition that Christ came to abolish any boundaries dividing human from human is a significant challenge to an evolutionary analysis of Christianity.
This position is famously expressed in Paul’s statement that in Christ,
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free,
there is neither male for female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
(Gal. 3.28)
This, it is argued, makes Christianity distinct and marks a new epoch in morality. Every other moral tradition, religious or secular, may advocate an in-group bias, but the teachings of Jesus explicitly reject that bias.”


So, what does Teehan make of this? Does Jesus defy what Teehan claims is universal about human morality, and refuse to recognise any in-group / out-group distinction ???


For answer, he turns to this verse in Mathew 12:
Here are my mother and brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, my sister, and mother”.


And this is what he says about these words:
“As in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus here redefines the boundaries of the group, in this case by rejecting family ties as definitive. My group is determined, not blood or ethnicity but, as with his redefinition of “neighbour”, by moral values.”


At this point I want to quarrel with Teehan – and this may well be something you may like to talk about later.


Teehan says that Jesus doesn’t reject the binary thinking of in-group / out-group, but rather he shifts the dividing line from being based on family, tribe, iwi, or race, and instead bases it on acceptance of the radical new morals of the Kingdom.


But it seems to me that the story of the Good Samaritan says that we should put no limit on the meaning of the word “neighbour”. Whoever is there, under my nose at the moment and in need, is my neighbour, and deserving of exactly the same loving care I would offer to someone of my own family or iwi.


Similarly, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus extends the command to love beyond family and iwi, to include all my enemies. So, to my mind, the gospels give us clear evidence that Jesus wanted his followers to drop the in-group / out-group distinction altogether.


But even if I am right, and Teehan is wrong about exactly what Jesus taught, this makes very little difference to Teehan’s overall argument about violence, as we shall see.


We need to move on now, from what Jesus did or did not say, and what he did or did not mean, to look at the early Church. It is quite clear, from the records we have – basically the writings of Luke and Paul – that many of the new Christian faith-communities did, in fact, among themselves, break down barriers of race and nationality. And that was a huge break-through – it was grounded in the teaching of Jesus, and it was a scandal to many observers. But within the societies in which they lived, those faith-communities were, inevitably, their own little in-groups.


Very soon – certainly by the time when Paul was writing his letters – the criterion for being part of one of these new Christian in-groups was not any family group, or tribal group or even a racial or national group – but nor was it the standard of loving behaviour which Jesus had asked of his immediate followers. Instead, the standard was faith in Jesus. And this was a very significant change.


Jesus had identified his group, his family, his followers, as those who do the will of God, that is, those who do what he set down as morally correct. But within 30 or 40 years, the yard-stick for deciding who was to be accepted in the Christian in-group, was not primarily behaviour at all, but your attitude to Jesus. So, behaviour became less important than belief. It was belief – being willing to say “Jesus is Lord” which became the real decider of who was part of the in-group of the Church.


I mentioned early on that evolutionary psychology is based on the view that:
The brain we work with today is a collection of task-oriented, problem-solving mental tools … that were designed to respond to an ancient environment.”
That means that what we humans have learned and internalised over maybe a million years – namely that willingness to defend our own in-group against any and every out-group – is of vital importance for the survival into the future of our in-group – this bias in us is very, very deep-seated, and very, very difficult to eradicate, or even to modify. It is located very deep in one of the oldest parts of the brain.


This is why, Teehan argues, many, and perhaps all, of the New Testament writers who give a faithful account of the radical teaching of Jesus, nevertheless slip back some of the time into polarising in-group and out-group.


So we find, for example, that the writer of the gospel of Matthew, records that Jesus said:
. whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, my sister, and mother.”


But, nevertheless, later on he also records, as part of the teaching of Jesus, a parable about the Last Judgment in which the King says to those on his right hand:
“Come O blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”.


But then goes right on to say to those on his left:
Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”.


In a similar way, although perhaps not quite so extreme, Paul, in writing to the Christians in Rome, encourages them:
if your enemy is hungry feed him; if he is thirsty give him drink …”
which is surely very much in the spirit of what Jesus said.
But then Paul lets his guard down, and the old evolutionary psychology asserts itself, when he adds:
“for by so doing, you will heap burning coals upon his head”.
In-group and out-group thinking – the assumption that there are others – outsiders – to whom different rules apply – was still there in to Paul’s mind, and here it re-asserts itself.


The final book of the New Testament, Revelation, is choc-full of in-group and out-group, the bliss of the saved in heaven and the torment of the damned in hell.
Teehan says about the Book of Revelation:
This book is, in my estimate, the most horrific story ever put to paper.
In it we are witness to the final wrath of a vengeful God …”.


In addition to these examples, Teehan offers many others, of how followers of Jesus, and leaders of the Church, starting with saintly men like Anthony and Athanasius, and moving on to Augustine and Luther and others, have not been basically different from leaders of other religions, but have operated in terms of “us” and “them” – in-group and out-group.


What Teehan says about Paul’s words about heaping coals of fire on your enemy’s head, can, I think, be applied to many, many others, down through the history of the Church:
There is something very powerful at work here, something very different from the gospel of love, of which Christians are so rightly proud. There is also a gospel of hate and enmity embedded in the moral tradition of Christianity; and with an evolutionary perspective we can see that both of these gospels have their roots in the same ground – the in-group / out-group mentality that infuses our moral instincts.”


On the basis of getting to grips with evolutionary psychology and a careful examination of many Biblical texts from the Ten Commandments through to Revelation, Teehan concludes:
If we want to combat religious violence we need to recognise the role religion plays in triggering deeply ingrained moral and emotional responses, the ways in which religion changes the very nature of the conflict.”


The other key element in the structure of religious violence is the bifurcation of human beings into in-groups and out-groups, with the consequent moral differential that comes with it.”


Some questions for discussion:


1.Has the group a question you want to discuss? OR:


2. Thinking in terms of “Us” and “Them” – “in-group” and “out-group” – is so deep-seated in humans that it is impossible for us to escape it.
Do you agree?


(a) “Religion is, by its nature, a force for peace”.
(b) “Violence against an out-group, in defence of, or to extend, the in-group, has been widespread throughout the history of Christianity.”
Which of these statements do you think is more correct?


(a) Jesus aimed to establish a new kind of human in-group – the Church – based not on blood-relationship, but on accepting his new way of life, shown in the Sermon on the Mount.
(b) Jesus wanted his followers to recognise no in-group at all, but to treat all people equally lovingly.
Which of these statements do you think is more correct?


What would be needed for religious groups to move beyond any kind of violence (physical or verbal), and all intolerance to other religions, and so to become truly forces for peace in the future?

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