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In regard to the terrors as well as the superstitions and immoralities of religion, it will not do to urge that they are due only to the imperfections of the men who professed the various religions. If religion cannot restrain evil, it cannot claim effective power for good. In fact, however, the evidence indicates that religion has been effective for evil. It might be urged that certain terrors have likewise been aroused by popular science -- e.g., the needless terrors of germs, the absurd and devastating popular theories of diet. etc. But the latter are readily corrigible. Indeed it is the essence of science to correct the errors which it may originate. Religion cannot so readily confess error, and the terrors with which it surrounds the notion of sin are felt with a fatality and an intensity from which science and art are free. (Morris Raphael Cohen, 1946)

Atheist screeds against religion are on the rise in the early 21st century. Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation), Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great), and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell) have received both praise and opprobrium. Each does a creditable job of mapping the land­scape of religion's dark side; but each is handicapped by the besetting error of atheist polemics: the failure to rec­ognize that the religious satellite that orbits our cultural world might have a sunnier side.

Just as the most telling critiques of science come from within the domain, rather than from the skeptics and the deniers, so the most insightful critiques of religion gone wrong are offered by thinkers with penetrating insight into what religion gets right.

This reflection focuses on the dark­er side of religious identity, faith and practice. It does so, however, in full acknowledgement of religion's brighter side: the opening to encounter with the transcendent, the mystical experience, the thoughtful embrace of what eventu­ally evolved into the concept of universal human rights, the sacralization of all life and of the earth itself, the movement from (pace Walter Wink) from the myth of "redemptive violence" to the myth of "restorative justice", and so much more.


What the great 19th-century theo­logian Friedrich Schleiermacher called "religion's cultured despisers" never tire of rehearsing the prehistoric, ancient, and even modern excesses of religious establishments. To be sure, the catalogue is extensive. From human sacrifice to holy war, from the religious exclusion of women to modern gender inequity and homophobia, and from inquisition to the all-out assault on sci­ence, there have always been communal religious expressions of violence, intoler­ance, and religiously-orchestrated and compulsory ignorance.

Several categories of religious error are particularly relevant in the early 21st century. They include:

• Acquiescence in the face of state-sponsored (and, more recently, terrorist) violence

• Exclusivist opposition to religious inclusivisim and pluralism

• Gender inequity and violence (from denial of the participation of women at the higher levels of reli­gious authority to Suttee (widow burning) and honor killings)

•Obsequious submission to the far political "right" around the globe

• Anti-scientific agitation (in the form of opposition to theories of biological evolution, stem-cell research, and models of global climate change).

In sum, communal commitments to power, patriarchy, absolutism and violence – ancient taints – still shadow religion's darker side. The most egre­gious dynamic, however, is the link between absolutism and violence.


The manipulation of identity cri­sis is without doubt the ultimate expression of dark religion. It begins, of course, in the absolutist claims that characterize ancient (unchallenged) religions and modern (oblivious) reli­gious communities. The exclusivist is convinced, confirmed and committed in belief. His/her truth demands, by its very nature, the falsity of the other's claims. If it's in the "book", there can be no gainsaying. God has spoken clearly. It is for the faithful to listen and to adhere. But, of course, there is the element of "interpretation".

But the world of interpretation is extraordinarily variegated. "Don't kill" is easily transmogrified into "Don't kill unless it is demanded by the moral cir­cumstances." The prohibition against the murder of an innocent yields before the argument that in certain times there are no "innocents". The flexibility of scrip­tural exegesis has allowed the world's great religions – the classical peace tradi­tions – to provide occasional and regional platforms for "holy" violence.

The process is straightforward. (The cycle diagram at the beginning of this article maps the dynamic.)

Religious violence (the darkest side) begins with the commitment to abso­lutist exclusivism. If one knows, abso­lutely, that his/her model of the uni­verse is utterly established and beyond reproach, then it follows that all oth­ers in one's circle of acquaintance and contact are outside the pale. They are cast forth into oblivion. This is the gravitational center of the absolutist. It is an intellectual space of comfort and ease. After all, says the exclusivist, "I'm absolutely right!"

The next step in the evolution of religious violence is the simple encoun­ter with the other. The unimagined takes form in the meeting with the reli­gious and cultural outsider. The result is confusion. How can this "other" seem human, moral, and even good? For those whose purchase on reality and selfhood is precarious, identity crisis follows.

If she is intelligent, apparently moral, and charming – but Hindu – then who am I? My identity was so deeply inter-twined with my Christianity or my Judaism: how can I assess the encounter with the other? For many, the meeting is a broadening experience. My Judaism or my Christianity (or my Hinduism, etc.) is enriched by my meeting.

But for others, the encounter is a threat. And when I find myself in the throes of identity crisis, my refuge may be found in defining myself over against the other.

Thank God I'm not a Croat, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jew, a woman, a black.... Defining oneself against the other obviates the need to examine one's own positive values. Instead, we dismiss the faults of the other.

But identity crisis is the most important dynamic of religious violence. Identity "lostness" generates individual and community vulnerability. And it is at the moment of full identity crisis that the religious demagogue steps in. Here, lostness is transformed into vision and mission. Here, aimlessness becomes violent ambition. And far too often, this is the moment when outside manipula­tion – in service to wealth and power – becomes involved. Religious inten­sity recedes in the face of financial and political interests.

Finally, the cycle of violence, atrocity, retribution, and anger takes hold. Oddly, violence affirms iden­tity, revenge brings clarity, and the certainty that the "other" is hated by God provides the center from which further absolutist religious violence can proceed.


What does religion offer? The urgency of good or the expediency of evil? Well, both, of course. But the great hope of those who embrace a traditional path is that the good is the strongest critique of the evil.

When we choose a moral course, we opt for an older, embedded value system (always with political overtones) or for a constantly-renewing spiritual commit­ment. Do we choose a peaceful, just, and sustainable world or one in which our old, traditional vision remains ascendant? It's always and ever our choice.


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