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Confronting violence in the name of God

Rabbi Sacks gave a talk last night at the Greenwood Theatre of the KCL Guy’s campus, for which the phrase “tour de force” could have been invented. Dealing with one of the major threats in the world today, he discussed its origins and ended with an outline of how it can be overcome. Rabbi Sacks will be posting the text of his talk on his own web site but here is a short summary of the talk.

He started by identifying the issue as requiring a multi-disciplinary approach, not just a theological one, and split his response into seven steps.

Step one, three routes to the same fundamental question:

Charles Darwin on natural selection – ruthlessness should win; altruism should have gone extinct. How do selfish genes produce selfless people?

Moral philosophy – many different philosophers have created moral systems. If it is so straight-forward to be moral, why are so many not moral?

Theology – why do people hate in the name of God of Love.

Step 2, the answer to the question:

We pass on our genes as individuals, but we only survive as groups. This explains two sets of emotional responses wired into our brains. Altruistic reactions are needed for survival of the group; fight or flight reactions apply to non-group members. This is part of our biology.

We are both angels and demons; the reason for the failure of universalism is that humanity is divided into groups and any group is defined by those whom it excludes. This is part of biology and culture. If we were all Kantians, Benthamites or Humites (for example) we would all get on. What unites us simultaneously divides us.

Step 3, where, when and why does religion enter?

Start with the smallest group (our kin); even the atheist JBS Haldane would have been prepared to sacrifice his life for two brothers or 8 cousins. Kin selection is the first reason for altruism.

Larger groups depend on reciprocal altruism; game theory shows that “tit for tat” is more effective than any pure cooperation or non-cooperation strategy. The only better strategy turns out to be generous “tit for tat” (tit for tat with forgiveness). It is notable that there is more trust in villages than in cities. Robin Dunbar thinks that we have big brains to work out who to trust. The limit for brains our size is 150 people. This is still a small group.

The problem with cities is how do you trust strangers – if you don’t meet the same people repeatedly then reciprocal altruism doesn’t work. Organised religion began at the same time as the first cities. Religions didn’t stop clashes between groups, but made the groups clashing bigger. Conflict is indivisible from humanity, but less than 10% are based on religion.

Step 4, what is the occupational hazard of monotheism?

It is not atheism, whatever, Dawkins and people like him think; it is dualism. At the birth of both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism there were dualistic variants, for example Manicheanism from Iran and Gnosticism from Greece. Dualism leads to a whole series of dichotomies ending in God/Devil and saved/damned. Dualism arises at moments of cognitive dissonance when the difference between what is and what should be becomes too great. Good people suffering while bad people thrive expresses crisis. Suffer too long without hope and monotheism breaks into dualism. Dualism turns divisions between groups into permanent divisions: children of God against enemies of God.

Step 5, why is dualism so dangerous?

Dualism gives rise to three phenomena:

1) it demonises your opponents. If you demonise your opponents, you dehumanise them;

2) it defines me and my group as victims. Defining yourself as victims removes all responsibility for your actions;

3) it creates altruistic evil. It lures decent men and women and turns them into suicide bombers and terrorists because they see themselves as ridding the world of God’s enemies. Not just in a religious context, we see the same behaviour in the Nazis, Communists and Hutus to take just three of many examples.

Step 6, where are we today?

The last time we faced this problem was in the 17th Century. At that time there had been a great increase in communications as a result of the invention of the printing press with movable type in Europe (1450). This led to bibles being published in the vernacular and hence many more people being able to read them for themselves instead of being dependent on their priests. But this did not develop without opposition; Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536 for the crime of translating the Bible into English. The century of religious wars across Europe was only ended by the Peace of Westphalia (1648) that set up the foundations of the modern nation state.

We can see some of the same features in 21st Century developments; for example the Arab Spring in which religion was a key feature in empowering people and overthrowing authoritarian regimes. The real danger is that some of this is dualistic.

Step 7, what is the solution?

We can learn from the 17th Century that what won the wars were weapons, but what won the peace were ideas from people like Milton, Locke, Spinoza and Hobbes. Ideas like: the social contract, moral limits of power, human rights, toleration, and liberty of conscience.

The same ideas that worked then will not [necessarily] work now. People had become disillusioned with organised religion, principally with the Roman Catholic church of the day, and over the next four centuries we saw a process of secularisation:

in the 17th Century, knowledge – Newton and Descartes;

in the 18th Century, power – the American and French revolutions;

in the 19th Century, culture – art galleries and museums; and

in the 20th Century, morality – the move away from the Judeo-Christian ethics beginning in the 1960’s.

The real dissatisfaction now is with nation states. These have worked in Europe [although imperfectly] but were imposed on Africa and the Middle East. There is also disillusionment with liberal market-driven cultures where maximum choice is combined with a minimum of meaning. Durkheim said that anonyme leads to an increase in suicides; people will sacrifice their lives if they have no meaning.

If religion cannot provide the solution then it will be part of the problem; we must emphasise that dualism is not monotheism. As Nietzsche said “Evil in the name of God is desecration of the name of God.” [I have not been able to source this quotation]. Religious extremism demands a religious response; we cannot rely on secular governments to keep the peace. We must be able to see a trace of God in the face of the stranger. Love God; love your neighbour else, in destroying our enemies we will also destroy ourselves.


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