The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
J. Harold Ellens (ed), 4 volumes (Praeger Publishers 2004).

No, this is not a vitriolic tract issued by some fiery atheist. On the contrary, it is a collection of 50 learned essays (a whopping total of 1210 pages, divided into 4 volumes), written by some 30 academic theologians, historians, and psychologists of religion. All of the authors have an active background in some of the monotheistic religions that they scrutinise. To top it off, bishop Desmond Tutu has provided the work with a highly commending foreword (even if he prefers to call his foreword an “Ad Testimonium”).

The gruesome facts brought forward by the learned authors won’t come as much of a surprise to critics of organised monotheism. But it’s always nice to have them spelled out in print, with plenty of reliable references to back them up.

We learn, among other things, that already the early Christians adopted a sinister hierarchical priesthood and a dogmatic, intolerant theology. To combat pagans and heretics a brutal Orwellian-type thought control machine was devised, on a scale hitherto unheard of. As soon as Christianity was officially established in the Roman Empire, the persecution of all dissenters –- Christians and nonbelievers alike -– became a vicious orgy of murder and bestiality. In 414, bishop Cyril of Alexandria had the famed Neo-Platonist philosopher Hypatia “dragged into the sanctuary of the church, where the monks sliced her flesh from her bones while life was still quivering in it and set fire to the remains” (Vol 3, p. 33). Before that, bishop Ambrose of Milan had violently exterminated all sites of non-Christian worship in northern Italy.

As J. Harold Ellens writes in his essay “The Violent Jesus” (in volume 3): “At first there was enormous violence to cleanse the world of pagans, then it was to cleanse the world of Christians who had a different idea than those in power, then it was cleansing the world of Jews. In every case the cleansing tended to be on a scale that approached genocide.” In fact, the life of some Christian dissenters was actually saved by Moslems. In the 7th century the Christian Emperor Heraclius was busy trying to exterminate the entire Coptic Christian Church in Egypt, when Mohammed’s forces arrived at the last minute and saved the Copts from annihilation.

The Christian murdering machine rolled mercilessly on throughout the centuries, as we all know. But what about the two other monotheist organisations, the Jews and the Moslems? If we by the Jews mean ordinary people of Jewish faith, then we have to admit that they have a watertight non-violent alibi for most of the last two thousand years. From 70 AD and up to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, Jews had no opportunity to be violent –- they were cowering at the receiving end of monotheist violence. However, if we by “Jews” mean the creed of Judaism, then it’s a different story.

The Old Testament contains monotonously repeated prescriptions for merciless violence –- those who do not believe in One God, or who somehow interfere with God’s Chosen People, those people should be annihilated, men, women, and children alike, this is the wish of God. The full story is of course a bit more complicated than that -– the Old Testament also contains the very same “love thy neighbour”-message that Jesus is made to expound in the New Testament. But for the purposes of explaining what I perceive as the main message of the 4-volume work “The Destructive Power of Religion”, I think I might be excused for making this simplification.

What Ellens tries to point out in his essays (he has written 11 of the 50 essays in “The Destructive Power of Religion”) is that the Scriptures contain a bewildering number of stories that can be taken as metaphors, benign as well as malignant. For example, the story of Jesus throwing the peddlers out of the Temple can be used as a metaphor for “cleansing the faith of heretics” and thus as a divine excuse for merciless persecution of dissidents. The Old Testament is full of extremely violent metaphors. They have carried over into Christianity as well as into Islam. The most vicious metaphor of them all, according to Ellens, is the one of the battle between the Powers of absolute Evil and absolute Good, which Judaism apparently borrowed from Persian Zoroastrianism:

"That metaphor has become the Master Story of Western culture. It has settled into the centre of the psyche of the communities of faith we know as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. … The Western world will need to decide whether it wishes to change this destructive story and its vicious metaphors, or continue to wreak increasing psychospiritual havoc upon itself until the metaphor becomes so pervasive that we all feel relieved with the impending prospect of a final cataclysmic Armageddon, closing out history."

On a personal note, I must say that I was a bit disappointed by the book at first, but perhaps I got a little wiser later on. Only two libraries in Sweden had bought the book, Uppsala and Göteborg. So I drove from Stockholm to Uppsala, with a vicious gleam in my eyes, hoping to get some new juicy anti-religious material. Did I get it? Yes, it was juicy all right, but except for the learned footnotes, it was hardly news to me. And the main point of the 4 volumes of “The Destructive Power of Religion” –- that it is disastrous to make metaphorical interpretations of the Scriptures and then see them as divine commands –- sounded ridiculously commonplace to an old atheist like me.

But when browsing through the presentations of the authors -– “Doctor of Divinity”, “Pastor”, “Professor of Theology”, etc. -– then it dawned on me that all these 30-odd people, in spite of writing all these “terrible things” about religion, were actually active religious believers nevertheless! So there seems to be a possibility that people –- well, at least these 30-odd people –- can be highly critical of religion, be most reasonable, and still be believers. This was a most unexpected educational result of my trip to Uppsala.

    Of course, it remains a mystery to me what exactly they believe in. And when they are so reasonable, why should they go to all the trouble of believing in the first place?

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