A Threat to Us All: Millions Buying Into Apocalyptic Religion Pose a Direct Threat to Modern Society
Aslan is not alone in saying this. Religion scholar Karen Armstrong suggested much the same in a recent Salon interview. But both are wrong. Rationalists - I’ll dispense here with Aslan’s spurious taxonomy and use a more appropriate term - are assertively making their case because religion, since the Reagan years, has been abandoning the realm of private conscience (where it has every right to be) and intruding itself into national life, with politicians and public figures flaunting their belief, advocating and (passing) legislation that restricts women’s reproductive rights, attempting to impose preposterous fairy tales (think intelligent design) on defenseless children in science classes, and even, in the case of Texas, recasting the Constitution in school textbooks as a document inspired by the Bible. Abroad, militants pursuing Islamist agendas have been raining death and destruction on entire populations, with religious extremism the main cause of terrorism the world over. Given the possibility that terrorists may acquire weapons of mass destruction and nuclear states with faith-based conflicts may let fly their missiles, religion may be said to endanger humanity as a whole. No one who cares about our future can quietly abide the continuing propagation and influence of apocalyptic fables that large numbers of people take seriously and not raise a loud, persistent, even strident cry of alarm.
Aslan has often argued that we atheists are eschewing interpretation and reading religious texts too literally. Well, if we want to see religion as the majority of believers do, we should continue to do so: three-fourths of Americans believe the Bible to be the word of God - numbers that, to the shame of the Republic, find reflection in our resolutely anti-science Congress. Pew research shows that a majority of Muslims believe only one interpretation of Islam is possible. Chances are it’s not the Latte flavor apparently popular in today’s university religion departments. Whether or not interpretations are possible, what the religious texts actually say does matter and must be taken seriously.
We understand the real purpose behind religion whenever it exceeds the bounds of conscience, as it has done throughout history, and seeps into politics. More than two centuries ago, the English and American revolutionary Thomas Paine penned words that still ring true: “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”
Your new book is a history of religion and violence. You point out, though, that the concept of “religion” didn’t even exist before the early modern period. What exactly are we talking about, then, when we talk about religion and violence before modern times?
First of all, there is the whole business about religion before the modern period never having been considered a separate activity but infusing and cohering with all other activities, including state-building, politics and warfare. Religion was part of state-building, and a lot of the violence of our world is the violence of the state. Without this violence we wouldn’t have civilization. Agrarian civilization depended upon a massive structural violence. In every single culture or pre-modern state, a small aristocracy expropriated the serfs and peasants and kept them at subsistence level.
This massive, iniquitous system is responsible for our finest achievements, and historians tell us that without this iniquitous system we probably wouldn’t have progressed beyond subsistence level. Therefore, we are all implicated in this violence. No state, however peace-loving it claims to be, can afford to disband its army, so when people say religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history this is a massive oversimplification. Violence is at the heart of our lives, in some form or another.