Perfect Sinless Life = Genocidal Maniac

I have blogged previously on the idea that the concept of sin causes religious folks to behave in various evil and irrational ways. Thus, I identify the concept of sin as the “enemy” in terms of religion. That is, sin is the part of religion that does the most damage to human society and increases suffering, war, and the like.

In the post, I will examine an interesting discovery that I made recently: Especially when we are talking about a major Western religion (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), a person who lives a perfect, sinless life (from the perspective of that religion) is frequently also found to be a genocidal maniac who commits numerous war crimes.

This seems counter-intuitive because these folks look so good, at least from outward appearances. And there is absolutely no doubt (at least not within their own circle) concerning their sincerity.

A few examples would suffice. I have previously called out good old King Josiah, arguably the first truly monotheistic Jewish king. (I believe that Solomon, for example, was a standard, run-of-the-mill pagan who simply worshiped Yahweh as a pagan god.) Josiah is held up by many Christians as the ideal godly person within the Old Testament canon. He truly worshipped God!

And, again, looking at it from the perspective of either Rabbinic Judaism or Christianity, Josiah looks really good: He did embrace utterly the way of the law of Elohim. And he was revered for this reason during his own time, at least from what we can tell from the biblical record.

That record, as well as extra-biblical sources, also tell a darker story: Josiah was one of the most maniacal mass murderers in ancient times. He was responsible for eradicating massive numbers of his own subjects for the simple (and in our minds unacceptable) reason that they practiced a different religion from his. And he is actually praised in the bible for doing this! (See: 2 Kings 23:4-10).

And, of course, all of this genocidal activity is fully justified, because it was blessed by God. In this respect, Josiah is depressingly similar to other figures of the OT who get treated with great deference by Christians. These include Elijah, who massacred the worshippers of Baal (a very common practice at the time, apparently), and of course Joshua, who wiped out entire tribes of Canaanites, Hittites, etc., during the invasion of the Land of Canaan as described in the Book of Joshua. Typically, the tribe of Israel was instructed by Joshua to “kill everything that breaths”, and, again, this was all justified by divine blessing. See for example, this ridiculous excuse for a website in which the slaughter of innocent children is condoned because of the “wicked idolatry” of the people of Canaan. (Isn’t it interesting that in every religious text, pretty much without exception, the practitioners of another faith are referred to as “wicked idolaters” or some other similar fluff, right before we decide that it would be a great idea to kill them?)

Moving into the Christian era, the New Testament is devoid of any genocidal maniacs, which is pleasant to be honest. However, we don’t get too far into the Christian era before we have the rise of despicable creatures like Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria. Cyril was actually declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, despite his genocidal persecution of Jews and pagans, as well as the murder of Hypatia, an innocent prominent woman for the sole reason that she was an agnostic, and led a school of Neo-Platonic philosophy. His shock troops, the notorious Parabalani, were probably the first true terrorists in the world. Certainly, the murder of Hypatia, an innocent civilian by any measure, is the textbook definition of terrorism. The sainthood of Cyril undoubtedly states where the Roman Catholic Church stood on these actions.

Later Christians were no better. Another example from the 15th century would be Tomas de Torquemada, who I have blogged on previously. Torquemada was the original Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition. Far from the deranged monster that is frequently depicted in film and print, Torquemada was a very charming and admirable person who convinced almost everyone he knew of his utter and complete devotion to God. Why? He truly was sincere! Torquemada simply took literally and idea that many Christians pay lip service to, but do not behave as if they believe: Hell is real and far worse than anything we experience in this life. Thus, to Torquemada, torturing someone to death in an attempt to get them to repent and accept the true religion was not only justifiable: He was actually doing that person a favor!

Yet another would include Sir Thomas More. While More certainly lived an exemplary life, at least within the context of his Roman Catholic religion, he personally imprisoned Protestants for heresy and ordered the execution by burning of six Protestants. Their crime: Heresy due to their being Protestant. In More’s mind, nothing else was required in order to justify their agonizing death. More even regarded their death as being a requirement of God.

Protestants do not fare well either. As this site points out, many Protestants have committed terrible atrocities against Catholics, on the sole cause that they were Catholic. Again, no crime other than practicing a religion other than my own is needed to justify the death sentence for these people.

It boggles the mind. I think I am making an important point here though: Frequently I hear Christians argue in favor of Christianity by stating that the behavior of prominent Christians throughout history is so refined, so representative of the nature and purpose of God. Not. It turns out that Christians are just like everybody else: Christians have behaved in a manner equally as despicable and reprehensible as any other group in human history. Certainly, there are very admirable Christians who are not genocidal maniacs. Mother Teresa comes to mind. Also St. Francis of Asisi. But do not be fooled by these positive examples. A perfect, sinless life within a religious context is sometimes the gateway into something far darker.

Bad Sin

Sin is bad. I know what you are thinking: No kidding. Like I didn’t know that!

But that’s not what I mean. I need to be a bit more clear here.

What I am saying is that the concept of sin, i.e. the idea of a vengeful, legalistic God, who puts concrete requirements on human behavior, and punishes disobedience, is a pernicious, evil concept which leads to terrible consequences. Thus, it is the idea of sin that is bad, not any specific sin itself.

I have been living in the “no sin” state for a while. Bear in mind, I am not saying that I live a life of sinless perfection. (That would be delusional!) No, I am merely saying that I have abandoned the sin-based way of thinking. I no longer believe that there is a divine law which I am required to obey, or face divine justice.

In the process of abandoning the concept of sin, I have become aware of the effect that consciousness of sin had on me. If you believe in sin, you believe in a divine law. Thus, there is an objective, non-cultural standard for right and wrong, good and evil, etc. Here’s the rub: How do you decide what is the content of the law of God? In other words, who decides what is and is not legal?

Typically, in our history, that has been left to religious leaders to decide. And I was no exception. I bought what religious leaders taught me was right and wrong. I attempted to live a relatively sinless life, as that term was defined by my cultural context, in that case Evangelical Christianity. Other religions which assume the existence of a legalistic God are no different, though. Islam, from what I can tell, leads to a very similar place.

Giving someone else the power to decide what is and is not in compliance with the divine law is a very dangerous thing indeed. Especially if the law you are attempting to follow is from a completely different culture, geographic region, historical era, etc. Inevitably, you end up attempting to adapt the putative divine law from those conditions onto your current conditions, with often disastrous results.

Take slavery. Slavery is a well-understood anthropological phenomenon. Once neolithic cultures arose from pre-historical, paleolithic environments, then there was a huge increase in the number of available calories. That meant that part of the human society no longer needed to work on gathering food. This led to the development of government, religion, and the military. Early neolithic empires used soldiers armed with metal weapons to conquer and enslave the surrounding paleolithic humans (whom they regarded as “barbarians”). In the process, neolithic empires obtained access to a large number of captive humans.

What can you do with a captive human? You can kill him/her. But that has limited utility. How much better to force them to hang around and do stuff! Thus, slavery arose almost immediately in human history, following the neolithic revolution.

Once slavery took hold, it became a required part of life. The Roman Empire famously ran on slaves. Once all of the available surrounding cultures were conquered, and the supply of excess slaves dried up, Rome began to collapse. With slavery being the dominant way of organizing human activity in the ancient world, making it illegal under the “divine law” would be unthinkable.

Sure enough, various religious cultures have used their version of the divine law to justify the conquest and enslavement of surrounding primitive cultures. The Western European colonial expansion into the New World was depressingly typical. The annihilation of numerous primitive cultures was justified with the idea of winning new converts to Christ. Columbus’s voyage, for example, was underwritten by Queen Isabella of Spain, a devout Catholic. The explicit goal of the voyage was to find new converts to Christ, thereby increasing the glory of God, and of His faithful servant, i.e. Queen Isabella herself.

Further, the enslavement of Africans during the colonial period was justified using a silly and ridiculous reading of the book of Genesis. In Genesis 9:20-27 Noah prophesies a curse against his grandson Canaan, which includes these statements:

25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
26 And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

The Christian European invaders regarded the Africans as the descendants of Canaan, and thus naturally slaves to the other sons of Noah (notably themselves).

So there you have it: Giving the power to a religious leader to decide what is and is not in the law of God directly led to the institution of slavery, and the resulting enslavement of millions of primitive humans.

If that ain’t bad, I don’t know what is.

Naughty God

I have continued to devour Karen Armstrong’s stuff. On my iPad I am reading “A History of God“, and on my phone I am reading “The Great Transformation“. I actually can’t put either one down. The thing that went off today (very powerfully, actually; I had goosebumps when this one hit) is that the Christianity that I know is not necessarily the real Christianity (if that even exists).

Armstrong is discussing the division between Eastern Christianity (out of which comes Greek Orthodox, for example) vs. Western or “Latin” Christianity (initially Roman Catholicism, but all forms of Protestantism also fall into this category).

The issue of Sin is critical to this division. In the case of the Western tradition, the idea that physical matter is evil and corrupt crept in (borrowed from various forms of Greek philosophy). As Armstrong discusses in detail, during the early years of Roman Christianity, the leaders were so obsessed with sin (especially sex), that they seemed positively deranged. This slight dysfunction affected the theology profoundly. God became what I call a “Naughty God”, very demanding, cruel, judgmental, and so forth.

Eastern Christianity was not like this. First of all, the Father was regarded as so elevated as to be similar to Aristotle’s unmoved mover: Utterly unchanging and remote. Certainly completely incapable of relating to mere creatures like us. The idea of praying to the Father was anathema to these Christians. In this respect, Eastern Christianity actually resembles Buddhism more closely than Roman Christianity.

Since Eastern Christians never absorbed the idea that the physical universe is evil and fallen, the concept of sin was much less central to them. I find this intriguing because I have been steeped in Western Christianity for so long. It is simply amazing to me that other people who claim to be Christians believe so profoundly differently from what I was taught.

According to Armstrong, these Christians would have regarded many of the practices of modern Protestantism as idolatry. Like the idea that the Father is involved in human affairs, speaks to people, causes miracles and so forth. Although they had very spiritual lives, with many amazing experiences, that would simply not sit with the basic idea of the Father for them

More later.