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The Weaponization of Religion
And the appealing to prejudices
Homo sapiens are primed for belief.
Our troglodyte ancestors were too ill informed to understand what stars, the moon, or lightning is, so they made stuff up to cope with the unknown. We evolved to seek some kind of otherworldly protection from strange and fearful things. It has also been suggested that there are important collective benefits to shared spirituality, and so it has been naturally selected for over the millennia.
It didn’t take long for it to become a method of control; a tool used by individuals and groups to raise themselves above others. Did such priests and shamans and religious leaders themselves believe in what they preached, or was it often a cynical method of achieving elite status?
Probably a bit of both.
The ancient Maya developed astronomy before the birth of Christ and used their knowledge of solstices and equinoxes to determine harvesting cycles for corn crops. They knew the science, and it was critical to their food supply.
But it was only a small handful that knew the secrets of such astronomy, and it was closely guarded within ruling families. “Hey. The gods tell us and only us when to plant that stuff that we eat, so we’re in charge. Got it?” If the secret got out, they might lose their power.
We have had divine right of kings, rulers ordained by God, rulers determined to be living gods, mandates from heaven, and slavery and genocide of entire races justified via religion. Anyone who has studied medieval history knows that the Crusades were a religious war sanctioned by Christianity. Well, it was also financially motivated because of the desire to gain access to eastern markets.
In World War II, Japanese soldiers often fought to the last man and engaged in suicide missions because their leaders told them it was what the emperor, and man they proclaimed a living god, wanted of them. American nations were built upon genocide and slavery that was justified via Christianity. Colonialism and Rudyard Kipling’s concept of the “White Man’s Burden” was also deeply rooted in Christianity.
India and Pakistan have nukes pointed at each other. Religion plays a role in that.
At present, 31% of the world is Christian, 25% is Islamic, 16% is secular, 15% is Hindu … So, what we have is 84% of the world adhering to a certain religion by varying degrees. Many of the 84% are just going through the motions, while others are most devout. It’s a spectrum of belief for any religion.
All groups have their extremists; some groups are more extreme than others.
Branch Davidians saw David Koresh as a kind of god, and he used that power to have sex with children then initiate a mass suicide. There are Mormon sects having sex with children. We all know about the scandal in the Catholic Church. Scientology uses Tom Cruise to get money and rule their followers with an iron fist, and they protected Danny Masterson from rape charges for decades.
People have always used religion to get what they want, because it works. It’s a tool for gaining power.
George W. Bush is a devout Christian. He was voted into office by a populace that was over 70% Christian. It may have been less obvious than shouting Allahu Akbar before blowing yourself up, but in some ways the invasion of Iraq in 2003 can be seen as a sort of holy war. A Christian nation elected a Christian leader who invaded an Islamic nation to avenge an attack made two years earlier that was done in the name of Islam.
The war wasn’t declared in the name of Christ, but in the name of destroying weapons of mass destruction. Both of those reasons are bullshit. But still, I would argue that the pervasiveness of Christian belief systems in the United States and its government were present throughout the process that led to war through the development of an “us and them” mentality.
How many people died in that one? The civilian body count in Iraq was around 300,000.
Christian terrorist groups also exist, and there have been a number of terror attacks that were based in religions other than Islam in the past decades. A weird cult was responsible for the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo in 1995. Religious leader Jim Jones led a Christian cult called the People’s Temple, and although it has often been depicted as a mass suicide of over 900 people in Guyana (where the term “drink the Kool-Aid” comes from), it was actually a mass murder carried out by Jones and his most devout followers against people who didn’t want to die.
In the modern world, there are differences between Christian supported violence and Islamic-based terror. Christian-populated nations are more developed and have more powerful military might. Their leaders also have more democratic legitimacy, and they exert greater control over the world and its resources. As a result, their use of religion to enforce their will can be done in a less obvious fashion.
Conversely, Islamic groups wishing to do violence have fewer options available to them. They are often populated with people who are impoverished, marginalized, and more tightly controlled. Colonialism and outside interference made the region ripe to become a hotbed of extremist movements. Few Islamic countries are ruled democratically, but instead are led by military strongmen who often use religion as an additional method of control. “It’s not our fault you’re living in poverty. Hate those Jews over there.”
In the 1953 science fiction novel Revolt in 2100 Robert Heinlein wrote:
“Take sex away from people. Make it forbidden, evil. Limit it to ritualistic breeding. Force it to back up into suppressed sadism. Then hand the people a scapegoat to hate. Let them kill a scapegoat occasionally for cathartic release. The mechanism is ages old. Tyrants used it centuries before the word "psychology" was ever invented. It works, too.”
Heinlein was talking about a possible future American theocracy, but his assessment of history in that paragraph is pretty fucking accurate.
My favorite Heinlein quote reads “You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic.” He’s right about that too. Inspiring hatred of “others” is proven to be a powerfully binding force. Hitler used it to great effect. Terrorist groups, to convince people to commit acts of murder and engage in suicide missions, must use religion in order to effectively motivate their followers. There are plenty of dumb things in the Bible that can be used to incite murder, and if the situations were reversed it could just as easily be Christian suicide bombers. But majority Christian nations often have drones, and you don’t need to motivate a drone pilot to shout praise to their lord when their life isn’t about to end.
Right now, in the United States, Christianity is costing lives due to overly restrictive abortion laws. It was evangelical Christians electing a very un-Christ-like Trump that caused that.
I do not see religion as inherently bad. I realize that throughout history it has been used, even weaponized, by bad people to do bad things. But it can and has been used for good.
The vast majority of the devout of all faiths are peaceful. Many of them derive strength from their faith to do acts of good in the world. I have many close friends and family who are devout followers of various religions, and they are good people. Some of them are amazing and wonderful people. They are better people than I am. Yes, there are the “You are going to burn in hell!” Christians, but there are also a lot of “Here. You can take half of my sandwich” Christians.
But yeah, I still make fun of belief in my writing, because most religions involve a lot of stupid shit. In one story I explained that Immaculate Conception wasn’t about Jesus, but was about Mary being born without original sin, and that when coupled with the virgin birth it made Jesus “the extra virgin olive oil savior.” Some people didn’t like that; it did contain the line “I guess you can’t create a god by lots of grunting and sweating and spurting of DNA and only one person having an orgasm.”
And while I see that stupid shit religion does every day, I lack the hubris to attack religion in its entirety. I will criticize extremism of all types, including atheistic extremism. That’s part of my motivation for writing this piece. Again, only 16% of the world’s population is non-religious, and I’m seeing some hateful blanket statements coming from atheists of late.
With 84% of the world’s population following some form of religious belief to varying degrees, I cannot imagine the audacity it takes for someone to proclaim that we should ban all religion. That kind of proclamation must make one’s circle of friends small indeed.
Ban it? Would never work. Reduce its power to ruthlessly rule people? Yes. Absolutely. Let’s work on that.
I don’t think religion belongs in politics, just as I don’t think corporate influence belongs in it, and the latter is arguably a bigger problem in North America. I know there are problems with things done in the name of religion, and it has held back progress, but we see the same thing from the non-religious. The anti-vaccine and anti-GMO movements are not overly religiously motivated, and those groups are killing people too. There is some religious influence in climate change denial, but mostly it’s about money. Money. Now there is a made-up concept that has killed a lot of people.
Humans will screw up left and right with or without religion.
There are extreme behaviors in politics, economics, and finance that do harm. And yes, there is extreme behavior done in the name of religion; sometimes overt, other times subtle.
Fight extremism. Fight those who do harm.
And let those who wish to live in peace live peacefully, regardless of which god or gods they do or do not pray to.
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