Hearts of Darkness 2 - Comparative Religion

Not all religions are created equal.

The introduction to this series pointed out that although religion appears to have more or less disappeared from European life and is on its way to vanishing from the lives of Western elites, religion has not disappeared from the Middle East.  Whatever we may think of religion, terrorists all over the world are motivated by their perception of what Allah requires of a good Muslim.  While many middle-class Americans are quite religious, our elite leaders are not only ignorant of religion, they are manifestly not interested in religion at all except for whatever political value can be gained by seeming to be religious during the run-up to an election.

In the developing world, and particularly the Muslim world, however, religion is perhaps the single most important element in the lives, hearts, and minds of the majority of citizens, up to and including the rulers.  The contrast is startling.

Down through the years, religion has motivated a great deal of human behavior.  On the macro level of history, this has often been a force for evil; one thinks of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and innumerable pogroms.  On the individual level, religion has also been a force for good; not only do most religions encourage people to behave morally in their daily lives, but religion has been a driving force for needed social change.

For example, the antislavery movement, both in the United States and England, was entirely motivated by the religious beliefs of its proponents.  Their determination to do what was right led to the criminalization, if not the abolition, of an evil institution that held sway through all of recorded human history.

For whatever reason, the human psyche reaches its greatest peaks of determination and fortitude when motivated by religious faith; this can lead to great good or great evil alike, but it's a reality that cannot be denied.

Our irreligious elites are singularly ill-equipped to deal with religiously-motivated terrorists.  We've previously compared the Bible and the Koran as if they were products being marketed.  That article explained that violence sponsored by secular governments has killed far more people in the 20th century than religious violence but merely scratched the surface of the differences in world view taught by the Bible and the world view taught by the Koran.

You need not be particularly religious or even interested in religion to recognize that for right now, religion motivates a great deal of destructive activity.  Despite our pointing out what's wrong with his arguments, you could even agree with Christopher Hitchens' book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything which contends that organized religion is "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children."

Even if you believe that religion poisons everything it touches, you'll have to admit that the degree of poison differs enormously: a significant fraction of the world's billion or so Muslims not only believe that their religion requires that they die in order to kill non-Muslims, they believe it strongly enough to actually commit suicide, a practice not found among adherents of other religions.  It's impossible for anyone, even the most determined atheist, to expect to be able to deal with Muslim terror without understanding the terrorist's religious beliefs and motivations to some degree.

In order to understand what motivates people who believe in a wildly different religion, it's essential to understand some of the basic concepts of comparative religion.  By comparing Islam with what we know of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and other faiths, we may gain a better understanding of those who believe that Allah requires that they murder us all.

Comparative religion is a vast field; entire university departments are dedicated to the topic.  To understand Islamic terrorism, we first must lay out some general characteristics of religions so that we have a logical basis on which to compare them.

People operate according to their beliefs on a daily basis.  Acting on a belief doesn't necessarily mean that the belief is true, of course.  Even though more than 40,000 Americans are killed in traffic accidents every year, we continue to believe that it's safe to drive.  It's a reasonable assumption that most of the 40,000 who died would not have driven that last mile if they'd believed they were about to die.  Acting on false beliefs concerning the safety of continuing to do what you've been doing ends a great many lives, but we have to operate on our beliefs since we have no other basis for our actions.

Theism vs Atheism

The first question in comparing religions is to decide whether you believe in God at all.  By definition, believing in God answers all questions about origins.  When someone asks, "How did the universe come to be?" or "Why am I here?" the believer's answer is, "God(s) created the universe and everything in it including you for purposes of His own."  The precise details may differ, but the principle is the same regardless of the specific religion involved.

Someone who chooses not to believe in God, on the other hand, has to explain the origin of everything by reasoning from what we think we know about the laws of physics, chemistry, and probability, while bearing in mind that scientists all over the world are beavering away raising grant money by finding out new and startling facts.

Explaining origins in terms of random chance is rather difficult and could be said to require about as much faith as belief in God.  Scientists are as belief-bound as anyone else; we've commented on the reluctance of scientists to accept new concepts which clash with long-held beliefs about how the universe operates.

People who do not believe in God may or may not be violent.  The history of the 20th century clearly shows the extreme depths of evil to which atheism leads; both Communism and Nazism placed the authority of the State above any external agency and executed people who refused to follow government orders for whatever reason.  If the State decided that an individual or a whole class of people was the Enemy... well, they were, that's all there was to it, and any sort of depravity against them was automatically justified.

Nazi Germany famously defined any number of groups as, if not completely "non-persons", at least as something a little less than fully human: Jews, gypsies, Slavs, and so on.  Stalinist Russia was not so prone to defining people by their heritage, with the partial exception of Jews, but defined people by their social class.  The Ukrainian kulaks, or middle-class landowners, were exterminated based on their arbitrary definition as enemies of the state.

The common feature of atheistic regimes is a lack of external moral force.  There is no doubt that holy books can be misused to promote any monstrosity.  Most holy books, though, include passages which can be used to argue the other way: the Bible, for example, famously records Jesus as commanding "Love your enemies."

This puts a natural limit on how bad a theocratic justification can get, or at least on its duration; the more devout and enthusiastic a "holy soldier" is, the more discomfited he will be by injunctions to kindness found in his very own sacred writings.

Atheism has no such limit.  As a result, by far the largest victim scores of history have been rung up by atheistic Communism and Fuhrer-worshiping Nazism.

On the other hand, as the history of Russia illustrates, most people have a desire to believe in something beyond themselves and their earthly existence.  Atheism cannot meet this need.  It turns out that quite a few of the supposedly atheistic Communists, at least at the bottom levels, had some residual beliefs in God - since the fall of the USSR, religion as a whole and the Russian Orthodox Church in particular have come roaring back.

What's more, no atheistic government has yet lasted beyond a century, whereas theocratic regimes can and have operated more or less stably for a millennium or longer.

By definition, all religions believe in a force greater than, external to, and more powerful than, any one individual.  This implies the existence of rules, preferences, and constraints that are independent from, and often contrary to, whatever you personally might wish them to be at any given time.

A Christian may fervently lust after his well-endowed secretary but restrain himself because of the Biblical injunction against adultery; a Hindu may be entranced by the scent of a sizzling steak or a Muslim by a roasting pork chop but out of deference for the opinion of their god(s) they refrain from tucking in.  A religion that is never in conflict with the wishes of its devotees is no religion at all.

Islam, Judaism, and the various branches of Christianity are in agreement regarding the existence of God: they have no doubt that there is one and only one.  (We'll set aside the somewhat esoteric question of the Trinity.)  The underlying motivational forces of these three monotheistic religions are similar.  This is the unbridgeable distinction from an atheist: a person who truly believes in the existence of God can reach heights of determination and motivation that are not possible for a truly devout atheist.

Think about it.  If you are truly an atheist, what's the worst possible thing that can happen to you?  Death - or, perhaps, very unpleasant experiences leading to death, but there is a definite end to your suffering: the sleep of the grave.  When it's over, it's over.  This means that the consequences of a mistake in judgment are "only so bad."

It may seem strange to think of death by torture as "not that bad," but for a religious believer, that's exactly what it is.  No matter how severe the agony, it has an ending because the human body can only put up with so much abuse.

Most religions, however, have a mechanism for additional punishment after death.  Christian belief includes an eternal fiery hell in which sinners are consciously burned but never consumed for an infinite period of time; Islam provides similar perpetual penalties for misbehavior.  Hinduism describes an endless series of reincarnations which can be quite unpleasant: you could come back as anything from a bug to a starving impoverished peasant to a diseased lame beggar, or anything else you could imagine.

Any of these endings really are "fates worse than death" and provide a powerful incentive to do as your god commands.  An atheist doesn't believe any of these things exist, so that degree of motivation simply isn't there.

Perhaps this is why the psyches of most human beings call out for a belief in the supernatural; perhaps this is also why, throughout history, devoutly religious people have regularly reached both the heights of human culture and grandeur and the depths of evil, given a driving force so powerful.

It's hard for our elites, who mostly don't believe even in the existence of God, to comprehend the motivations of someone who not only believes in God but acts on his beliefs with respect to what he believes God commands him to do.

The most fundamental difference between belief structures is the bald question: is there a God?  Most of the people on earth answer this question "Yes"; all Muslims and most Americans do.  Where we start seeing serious differences is when you consider the nature - the personality, the practices, the preferences, the plan - of God, and that's the topic of the next article in this series.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

Thank you, Will, for your article. It is timely and well thought out. My only exception is that there are atheistic belief systems that do have humanistic gods (Stalin, Mao) venerated writings (Red Book, Lenin's writings and Marx's writings) and have brought incredible horrors to humans (hundreds of millions murdered in the last 100 years). So as Christians before we yield authority to the naysayers of religion, how do their atheistic systems line up?

February 24, 2015 1:45 PM

Atheistic systems do not line up. They can't even provide a logical explanation why murder is wrong.

February 24, 2015 7:19 PM

I'm not an atheist, but that's a pretty absurd assertion. There are a bunch of simple reasons one can use to logically show murder is wrong (or disadvantageous) from a purely secular standpoint.

February 24, 2015 8:21 PM

If you sincerely believe that morality cannot be had without the direction of a divinity, ask someone who is atheist why they act "good" and listen to what they say.

The internet is bursting with thoughtful articles and blogs on the subject from atheists and agnostics alike. Here is one such thread:


If morality is only created by divinity, the implication is that without divinity one would be immediately and thoroughly immoral. If you believe that about yourself, that is sad and troubling.

February 24, 2015 8:29 PM
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