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November 13, 2015 5:06 am

Is Extremism Fundamental to All Religions?

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Religious symbols. Graphic: Wikipedia.

Religious symbols. Graphic: Wikipedia.

There are more and more books and articles apologizing for religion, claiming that it is all really peaceful and positive; that only a few adherents are narrow-minded fundamentalists; that only a minority of extremists are responsible for the murder, torture, rape and brutality committed in the name of religion. I am finding this a little bit wearisome.

The truth is that extremists of all religions are the ones who carry the weight, determine the agenda and cow the rest into acquiescence or silence.

Here are some examples I have come across in these past few months of no doubt well-meaning religious apologists:

“We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanizing force it has been at its best. The sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the insistence on peaceful modes of resolving conflicts, forgiveness of the injuries of the past and devotion to a future in which all the children of the world can live together in grace and peace.”

Indeed we should. But if time and again Abrahamic faiths have failed and are failing to do this, should we not ask why, and wonder what has gone wrong or whether it is an inevitable feature of religion and its preoccupation with power and control?

“We also need to insist on the simplest, moral principle of all: the principle of moral altruism, otherwise known as tit-for-tat. This says: As you behave to others, so will others behave to you. If you seek respect, you must give respect.”

Religions of all sorts have fed us slogans like: “Love your neighbor,” “All men are created equal,” “Liberty, equality, fraternity (or the right to happiness),” “Make love not war,” “Give peace a chance,” “From each according to his ability, to everyone according to his need.” We have had hundreds, even thousands, of years of all this and where has it gotten us? More slit throats?

“Fundamentalism — text without context and application without interpretation — is not faith but an aberration of faith.”

But when the majority of the committed in your own religion insist on literalism and refuse to reinterpret or use the very means the religion itself allows for rethinking the meaning of it, or modifying it to meet different circumstances, can we not say that something has gone wrong? Particularly if once in its history it was not so. If the majority refuses to listen to moderate leadership and prefers the extremes, does not this then define the way the religion functions, not the few whistling into the wind?

“We must raise a generation of young Jews, Christians, Muslims and others to know that it is not piety but sacrilege to kill in the name of the God of life.”

Yes, we must, but we aren’t! Either we are producing fanatics, many of whom are violent, or religions are being abandoned by a sizable and growing section who think they have nothing significant to offer.

The nonreligious like to blame God. But I prefer to blame human beings. The fact is that humans have this capacity to corrupt almost everything they get involved with, from religion to politics to sports.

I have worked in apologetics all my life, trying to emphasize what is good, beautiful and inspirational in Orthodox Judaism. But in the end I have to admit that the greatest challenge I have had to face has been the behavior and attitude of other Orthodox Jews and their capacity to justify their shortcomings. Whenever I read attacks on religion from well-known atheists, so long as they confine themselves to the negative impact of religions, frankly, I agree with them. I part company only on the sad fact that they have no existential knowledge of the beauty and the value of religious experience and life.

The fact is that open-minded, liberal, tolerant religious leaders of most religions have more in common with each other than they do with the the extremists within their own religions. Yet they have been notably incapable of spreading their message across and down in their own constituencies. And what is more they are usually laughed at and dismissed as fly weights by their own religious right wing.

I can make a very strong case for Judaism as an enlightened, caring, just system (as well as a magnificent and intense spiritual system, with its focus on practice rather than abstract theology). I can select my biblical and Midrashic sources. I can interpret them in ways that reframe the gender narrative. I can emphasize the moral, caring, humanitarian and universal aspects of Judaism. But I also know that there is a lot wrong with the way it is practiced, the poor ethical standards of too many of its faithful, and the limitations of much of its leadership. Too often the letter of the law is given priority over human sensitivity and suffering, when one can indeed offer sufficient source material to show how it ought to be the other way round. And the same applies to swathes of Christianity, Islam and the rest.

I am mightily fed up with those apologists who insist that all is fair in their gardens, that it’s only a small minority that gives religion a bad name. It’s not religion’s fault. But surely it is, at least to a very significant degree. At some stage it is right to ask whether a religion is failing if the majority, or a large minority, ise acting in such a way that belies both the religion’s stated mission and ethical values.

Paul Nitze said, “Moral claims are otiose if the antagonist does not share them.” Sadly, most religious people do not act as if they share my morals. Religions have a value to remind us of our morality and humanity, that we are supposed to be in the image of God. But it’s a poor one, a weak one when both leaders and followers constantly show they are simply not up to the task beyond spouting banalities.

So when I hear yet another articulate religious leader telling us how positive religion is, if only we can get everyone to adhere to its peaceful ideals (when we can’t even get our own to behave), I wonder what the real point of grandstanding is other than pompous self-promotion. All the more so when I know that they themselves have often been responsible for a lot of divisiveness and cowardice.

Meanwhile, too many religious people are behaving badly, carelessly and cruelly, claiming to act if not in my name then in the name of my religion. Enough hot air. I want to see action or some effective alternative. Otherwise “silence protects wisdom” and to quote another Mishna: “Words are not essential, actions are.”

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  • Julian Clovelley

    I do not always agree with what the writer says but there are parts of this article that are particularly fine statements of clear thinking – And we certainly need that at the moment

    One such sentence here is “The truth is that extremists of all religions are the ones who carry the weight, determine the agenda and cow the rest into acquiescence or silence.”

    I would go a little further however. I am unconvinced that we are dealing with three separate religions in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Historically they certainly grew out of each other, and were regarded by each other as “heresies” initially – rather than separate religions

    The underlying, linking religion is “Monotheism” – They are not separate religions that are monotheistic in concept – they are descendants of currents of ancient Middle Eastern Monotheism – a religious form linked by trade routes and surfacing most plainly in the religious reforms of Akhenaton around 1350 BCE but already present, further East, even earlier in Ancient India

    The problem with Monotheism is that because it relies on a single deity, considered to be unique – the differing versions of monotheism with their own conceptualisations of that deity cannot avoid being regarded as a battle between orthodoxy and heresy. It is a tiny step there to the conflict becoming violent. Monotheism and persecution of heresy or the concept of persecuting other “religions” are inseparable fellow travellers

    Polytheism had a safety valve that allowed a high degree of tolerance in that a new deity could be incorporated into an existing Pantheon ,and interlinked with the others via connecting mythologies

    I am unconvinced Monotheism can progress any further – and it seems to have ben a source of conflict for centuries upon centuries. I think the only way out of this is to progress theologically beyond Theism – abandoning as anything other than the fiction they are, the whole body of mythology in each of the various “heresies”.

    But the interim period – the transitional religious reform era is dangerous. Unless the religions massively reform and liberate themselves the only path left for the individual is escape. As more and more do precisely that, the looney Fundamentalists are the ones left in control – and these, feeling threatened by the abandoning of their religion, resort to even more neurotic and psychotic(sic) paranoid behaviour – including a persecution for apostates that can resort to murder.

    I think I just described the Middle East…

    I’ll leave it with a re-iteration of a key sentence in the article “But if time and again Abrahamic faiths have failed and are failing to do this, should we not ask why, and wonder what has gone wrong or whether it is an inevitable feature of religion and its preoccupation with power and control?”

    It is nice sometimes to agree…. Worth noting retired Bishop John Shelby Spong, the Christian scholar, also questions the validity and effect of Theism

  • Steve Wenick

    Have you ever heard someone call an atheist a hypocrite for committing an immoral, unethical or illegal act? Probably not. But if a religious person commits the slightest transgression, impropriety, or unethical action, he or she is immediately labeled a hypocrite. My question is this: Why is a religious sinner labeled a hypocrite while an atheist, engaging in the same illicit behavior, is not?

    Does being godless absolve one of moral responsibility? Of course not. Most atheists would assert that they have high standards of ethical behavior, and if that is so, why are they not dubbed hypocritical when they violate their own designed code of ethics? The reason could be that there are those who regard themselves as “enlightened” and that belief in a religion is a crutch for the dependent, superstitious misguided and insecure. The fact that some of the greatest minds of history were men of faith, such as Moses, Jesus, Maimonides, Einstein, Newton, Galileo, Faraday, Boyle, and Descartes is disregarded by those who are hostile to religion. For them religion is nothing more than a compendium of fairy tales, archaic rules, and absurd rituals devoid of any relevance to the lives of today’s sophisticated intelligentsia.

    History is replete with godless men like Stalin, Lenin, Marx, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Chavez, some of which were brilliant and at the same time monsters and among history’s most brutal butchers. Their G-d was one of their own making; be he a king, emperor, premier or the State. Since the atheist’s sense of morality is by definition subjective, because only G-d can set up an objective standard of good and evil for all of mankind, those with the power set up the rules. If right and wrong, good and evil are determined by man and his conscience is the brainchild of his subjective views; only G-d’s definition of good and evil can be objective. If one does not recognize the existence of G-d then of course His objectivity does not exist but that does not negate that fact that the non-believer’s sense of right and wrong is totally subjective.

    I do not know or understand G-d, but I do believe in Him in much the same way I believe in love, hate, empathy, cruelty, or any other emotion. In a dream all things are possible even imagining what G-d looks like and understanding His ways. But when awake we cannot see or know G-d any more than a microscope can see or examine itself. I have been told that we are hard-wired and that our emotions are nothing more than the result of the work of some celestial electrician. Perhaps, but who hardwired that electrician. In the end it really all comes down to belief and faith. Even the most devout atheist has only his belief that there is no G-d, for there is no empirical proof of it. The universal equation of G-d is that proof of the existence of G-d is no more provable than proof of His non-existence and believing or not believing in G-d is in of itself the product of subjectivity and opinion.

    Getting back to the original question of why lying, cheating and stealing religionists are labeled hypocrites while atheists doing the same things are not…We’ve all heard the cynical remark, “Oh look at him and he’s supposed to be religious” but never have we heard, “Oh look at him and he’s supposed to be an ethical atheist.” The answer lies in the fact that ethical atheism carries only the imprimatur of its human author and not that of G-d. For the ethical atheist there is no absolute authority save one’s own sense of right and wrong therefore society has no expectations of his adherence to his creed, which can shift at a moment’s notice. In some respects that position reveals hubris of the highest order, for one is answerable only to one’s idea of ethical behavior, which is born upon the wings of one’s whim.

    On the other hand, if one does not believe in G-d, is it not hypocritical to act as if one does? Not necessarily, because for some the path leading to the belief in G-d is paved with the practice his mitzvot. The Torah teaches, “We will do first and afterwards understand” (Shemot 24:7). In other words only by doing mitzvot will we come to an understanding of their value. Some would call that position foolish – while others would simply call it faith.

  • Yale

    There are two fundamental errors here:

    1) All religions are NOT pursuing the same ends, so a fundamentalist in one religion may NOT be the equivalent of a fundamentalist in another.

    Judaism’s purpose is to structure a moral and just community, and we should be grateful to those who are willing to make this happen.

    Christianity seeks to enable its adherents to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. There’s no problem here until Christians insist that it is their duty to get non-Christians into Heaven by the same route.

    Islam’s purpose is to conquer the world for Allah, so how one understands the word “conquer” is critical. If it means by the sword, then we get ISIS. If it means by setting an inspiring example, we get something else.

    A “fundamentalist” in each religion could be doing either great good or great evil both as understood by members of his faith and as understood by outsiders. An issue here is that “great good” for an insider might be the same as the “great evil” for an outsider.

    2) The role of religious leaders is to inspire their followers to act to promote the attainment of the religion’s purpose. The problem this poses is that it puts power into the hands of very mortal men and women, and once that power is there, it is hard for outsiders to limit it.

    Since there doesn’t appear to be a morality criterion for seeking a position as a religious leader, the people of the world are basically left to hope that these leaders are both moral and sane. As we have seen these least few years, there is no necessary connection between what one has to do to acquire power and what one does once (s)he has it. This is true in religion just as it is in politics.

  • Fundamentalism certainly has a grip upon sections of Christianity. aptissts do not sway from the Word. Their adherence is fundamental to their belief! Whether that can be construed in the same manner as Islamic fundamentalism, ‘terrorism’, I should doubt it!

  • Susana Epstein-Andersson

    It’s not fair to compare Judaism with its derivatives, both Christianity and Islam. Judaism did not (and obviously does not and will not) try to expand itself by conquest, war and imposition. Being just a tiny fraction of planet’s population, subject to persecution and hate, it has just tried to survive and to make efforts, when possible, to improve the world. Of course, nobody is perfect and maybe Orthodox Jews even less than other Jews. And obviously there are and always have been wonderful Non-Jewish people. But as a historical phenomenon, Judaism is something different.

  • >>I have worked in apologetics all my life, trying to emphasize what is good, beautiful and inspirational in Orthodox Judaism. But in the end I have to admit that the greatest challenge I have had to face has been the behavior and attitude of other Orthodox Jews and their capacity to justify their shortcomings.<<

    I faced this dilemma over forty years ago while debating with myself whether to convert to Judaism or not. My decision was partly based on the ancient midrashic story of the argument between Moses and the Angels guarding the Torah.

    The Angels felt the Torah was too holy and spiritually removed to be "defiled" by giving to the vile creatures called "men". Moses won the debate by simply asking "What is written in the Torah?" The answers were obvious – don't steal, don't covet, don't murder etc etc. Angels are incapable of any of these behaviors (supposedly being totally dependent upon G-d as their source of will). "Men" on the other hand . . .

    So who needs to be reminded what not to do? Angels or Men? The answer is Torah was ultimately given to Moses who brought it down to earth and presented it as a book of "instructions" on how to live to the Jewish People and through them, humanity.

    Whenever I see a (supposedly) observant Jew committing what is a crime in both the eyes of society and ultimately Torah, I can't help but remember the punchline of that midrashic story: "Torah was not given to Angels".

  • Ilbert Phillips

    The assertion that an evil act of a “religious” person somehow reflects on the religion that person claims to follow is actually a very irrational position. Mao’s “Red Book” was widely distributed among my leftist friends in the 60’s, does this mean that when Mao killed millions and placed millions in reeducation camps all leftists were responsible? Stalin’s communist party was supported by many leftist in the United States and Western Europe. Does this mean all leftists were responsible for the millions of Russians and others behind the “Iron Curtin” killed by Stalin? The author’s arguments are getting old. We need, as humanity, to identify evil acts committed by evil individuals or groups and prosecute those responsible. If it takes war, such as that with ISIS, Hamas, PLO, Iran, or criminal prosecution, we need to get to work and stop blaming religion for those who do evil.

  • This article expressed my sentiments exactly. We are all created equal: no one is better than anyone else. Most times I believe. animals have more racial than.we. Hoknow what acceptance and know unconditional love,. Extremists of any religion are inherently bar as their members are expected to follow their rules and doctrines blindly. What happened to a man or a woman”s duty to think for ones self? How different are these extremists than members of a cult?

  • schm0e

    No. There is one, and only one, religion whose Founder said, “LOVE your enemy. PRAY for those who despitefully use you. If someone strikes you on the left cheek, give to him your right.”

    He not only taught it, He demonstrated it when He presented Himself to His lying accusers, knowing fully that they would convict Him falsely and execute Him alongside common criminals. That’s not the end of the Story.

    There is one, and only one, religion where it was taught and lived by its teacher. Word ARE essential, and are made complete in actions.

  • Fred

    Fundamentalist Religion is “Promises on false premises “lies upon lies” no proof of anything but empty suppositions. The satelites have reached the outer systems of the earth, has there been a stop to Paradise ??? but on earth you have the requisites of heaven & hell produced by the fundamentalist believer. Ask for proof , a postcard, a video the answer is you must believe me I know for sure. There have more wars and viciousness because of fundamentalism , it takes one fanatic only to slaughter a world. Humans are intrinsically good until the bug of fundamentalism bites. Note: most isms are not necessarily good.

  • Gene Lowinger

    Unfortunately there is little direct historic evidence of how brutal society was before the rise of the Abrahamic codes of morality and ethics. I’d bet those times were considerably more draconian. As bad as it may seem, I’ll take what we have now and hope for better yet to come.