Many of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups claim religion as their motivation. How can the word of God sanction the killing of innocent people? How can violence become a sacred duty? To begin answering these questions, it is necessary to examine the history of and tendency toward violence inherent to the structure of elective monotheist religions, specifically Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In mentioning these three religions, I will also discuss their basic belief systems in comparison to their respective fundamentalist sects.
Before I begin, I want to make it clear that I realize not all members of these religions are violent people or that they engage in violent behavior in the name of faith. According to MS Jaffe, author of “One God, One Revelation, One People: On the Symbolic Structure of Elective Monotheism”, monotheistic religions spur violence because of their structure. A religion can be categorized as elective monotheistic if the religious community believes that they alone have a vertically structured, privileged, exclusive relationship with God, and that hey are the only community that has been chosen to represent God.
This type of structure abets violence for three reasons: First, the structure of these religions demands an “other. ” This “other,” usually the non-believer, poses an obstruction between the community and the God. Second, violence against the “other” is a showing of faith, as hatred of the other is at the root of elective monotheist religions. Third, the historic mission of the community is to let the will of God prevail and to end the eternal struggle to bring about resolution.
Polytheistic religions, on the contrary, do not often result in violence because they doesn’t require an exclusive relationship with the Gods, everyone can share in their worship who so desires (Zhu, 2/26/04). In addition to the structure of monotheistic religions, there are two other significant reasons they are prone to violence. First, monotheistic religion has long been the basis for establishing theocratic states, in which members marginalize those who do not belong to the “state religion.
” As a result, the members of the state religion tend to perceive the land as their land, and outsiders as the “other,” at which point the religion becomes a catalyst for political violence (Oommen, 1). This kind of thinking and behavior may very well be at the root of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, as well as the extermination of Jews in Germany during WWII. Second, there is the notion of passion as motive for violence. Passion for a religion is very strong both for individuals and groups, but for individuals there is a certain degree of moderation.
When a group gets together and shares a similar passion, the group is able to carry a perception of power and disregard for moderation that can be dangerous (Zhu, 2/19/04). At the root of Euripides’ Bacchae, there is an obvious relationship between religion and violence. The central conflict in the play focuses around the clash between Dionysus and the followers of his new religion and Pentheus, King of Thebes. Pentheus is concerned about the new Asian religion that is corrupting Thebes and converting its women. They are engaging in orgies far off in the hills, dancing in bare feet and drunk on wine.
Pentheus thinks that if he captures the mysterious stranger (Dionysus) who has brought this religion to Thebes, he will be able to stamp it out before it gets out of hand. When he chains Dionysus and throws him in a cell, the chains simply fall off (the miracle- a phenomenon inherent to monotheistic religion), but Pentheus still refuses to believe. Dionysus resorts to trickery, and convinces Pentheus to dress as a woman and spy on the Maenads in the mountains. He ends up being torn limb to limb and eaten by his own mother, who is possessed by the religion.
Dionysus’ new “Asiatic” religion is a kind of elective monotheism. It scares Pentheus because it challenges everything that is moderate and traditionally Greek. The Maenads view themselves as the community, and Pentheus represents the “other,” or the non-believer. The Maenads are so possessed, so drunk with the power of Dionysus, that they are willing to commit atrocious acts of violence and sparagmos against non-believers, particularly Pentheus. Their violence is an example of excessive group passion for the religion.
Only after Agave comes out of the possessed state of the group religion does she realize that she has just murdered her own son. Euripides’ Bacchae represents a good example of violence in religion from a literary standpoint, but perhaps a more pressing and definitely more dangerous issue is that of violence in modern-day monotheistic religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and particularly the fundamentalist sects of each. According to Karen Armstrong in The Battle for God, fundamentalism is “an embattled form of spirituality which has emerged in response to a perceived crisis” (Armstrong, 167).
The term can also refer specifically to the belief that one’s religious texts are “infallible and historically accurate, despite contradiction of these claims by modern scholarship” (Wikipedia). Judaism consists of three main branches, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, and each have their own interpretations and beliefs. All Jews follow the Old Testament, or the Tanakh, and particularly the Torah. They believe that the Tanakh is not to be taken literally or alone, but needs to be used in conjunction with the Mishnah and the Talmud, which are core religious texts of oral law (Wikipedia).