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Johannes Röser

How Dangerous is Religion?


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 5/2008, pp 47-48
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The dispute about the violence of religion has got a new impetus by Islamism. But the view of "neutral" observers is significantly clouded by prejudices. That shows a dispute in the newspaper "Die Zeit".


"God is Dangerous" was the title of a whole-page article by Ulrich Beck in the Christmas edition of "Die Zeit" (see CIG No. 2, p. 24). In it the Munich sociologist repeats parrot-fashion the common suspicions against monotheism. The One-God-Faith - though not only it - held a totalitarian core: the distinction between those who believe and therefore belong to it - and all others. A certain humanitarian touch is granted to the religions. For they preached charity and that "before God all people are equal." The fundamental egalitarian feature leveled the opposites of master and slave at least theoretically. The boundaries between classes, races, nations, cultures, societies become blurred. "Religions can build bridges between people where hierarchies and boundaries exist."

But at the same time they open - in Beck's opinion - new abysses. "The humanitarian universalism of the believers is based on the identification with God and on the demonization of God's opponents ... who are 'servants of Satan'. The seed of religiously motivated violence has its cause in the universal equality of the believers, which takes away from unbelievers or persons of different religions what is promised the faithful: human dignity and equality in a world of strangers." The intellectual finally has the presumption to make the silly polemic: "The health ministers warn: Religion kills. Religion must not be passed on to young people under eighteen years."

Beck's hope is that people gradually say farewell to an institutionally shaped religion and instead rather turn to its adjective: to be "religious". He expects the rescue of the world from the clutches of religion from a rather vague religious, spiritual attitude that does neither differentiate nor exclude and does not go not beyond an "as well as". This means a syncretistic tolerance in the sense: 'my God is okay', 'your God is okay' - hence everything is okay. The question of truth should be excluded. Religions should be peacemakers but not dig for truth.


How Dangerous is Disbelief?

Thus Beck falls victim to the classic prejudice according to which convinced believers were intolerant and denied disbelievers or persons of a different faith the "status of human beings". Obviously Beck does not know the result of the new "Religious Monitor 2008" (see CiG No. 4). One of the most interesting results is: Just the most pious Christians are especially thoughtful and critically question their own journey through faith. These most religious people prove to be the most tolerant among all people, whereas unbelievers have the least tolerance for believers. Those without confession look at their own disbelief least of all critically. In this respect they are even the most "fundamentalist" ones. That's why we should rather say: Not God is dangerous but disbelief.

Even the historical facts show that. For the largest atheist movements, Stalinism, Maoism and Nazism caused in the 20th century the greatest crimes of all times against humanity. Beck mentions that with no word at all. Admittedly, he talks about anti-Semitism ordered by the state but nowhere about atheism ordered by the state.

Under the title "God Lets Us Choose" now also a sociologist, Tine Stein of the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin has written a reply ("Die Zeit", 3rd January). It was a myth that religion must be warlike and authoritarian. Admittedly, you cannot excuse Crusades, Inquisition and some violent missionary work. But conversions by military force remained the exception in the course of history. Just Judaism and Christianity are convinced that faith in God is based on his grace and thus on the free decision of the individual. Even the Creation story takes Adam's and Eve's free choice as its theme. As image of God they can make good decisions that please God - or sin. They are driven out from Paradise but not disowned by God who considerately dresses them with furs as protection. God lets even Cain, the murderer of his brother, carry on his life as man and provides him with a mysterious protective sign, although he betrayed God's will and abused his freedom. "It would be a very narrow approach to see only the orthodox moment in religion and not also the paradox one, according to which beside God's commandments there is also man's free decision either to accept or to ignore them," the sociologist asks us to bear in mind. It is true though that it needed an "incomprehensible long time" until this discovery became generally accepted "that for the inner freedom's sake a state of external freedom is necessary and must be guaranteed by an earthly power. With outer freedom the right is meant to have a faith, to give it up or to change it."

Tine Stein says what Beck conceals: "There is no evidence that societies in which religion is suppressed were more peaceful.



Violence is something that belongs to man. Not religion has unleashed the nation-state to the brutality that raged in the totalitarian regimes ... but the respective secular salvation expectations. With earthly promises of salvation too the fundamentalist rage can be kindled."


Who Wages War?

If you made out the account of public violence, you would probably find that 99 percent of wars were unleashed by politicians and not by priests - and that political, economic or social power ambitions are of overriding importance. If at all, religion was only used to confirm or sanction secular interests. That the egalitarian feature of religion could not prevent that e.g. Christians slaughtered Christians, we have sufficiently cruelly experienced in Europe - and we constantly experience it in Rwanda, the Congo and Kenya. You actually can draw from it only one conclusion: Not religion is dangerous but politics. Nobody would therefore get the absurd idea that politics should be abolished or - analogous to religion - be replaced by a vague feeling, so that you somehow feel in accordance with the adjective "political". It would be even a greater nonsense to demand that politics does without the question of truth and thus without the plausibility of arguments and the striving for approval.


Religion is not Religion

It is the historical truth and that's final: the greatest war-mongers were not religious leaders but political rulers. But religious people are self-critically to wonder why faith so often miserably failed, why it all too often allowed to be misused as "carrying the state" instead of immunizingly awaken potentials of resistance. At any rate, just the faith tragedies confirm that religion contrary to Beck's supposition is not strong but substantially weak. It can only act from the inside: through belief, education, forming character and conscience, through freedom. Religion has no command of warlike-materialist weapons. It does not give the order to use them. Religion can at most rely on the arms of the mind to distinguish the spirits.

Not to lump the religions together belongs to that ability to differentiate. Religion is not religion, as you already see with the founders of Islam and Christianity whose characters were diametrically opposed: There a warlord called Prophet, here a Messiah who radically behaves like a pacifist, uses no violence, but gets killed by foreign violence. The history of the respective religion's activity is simply each time specifically moulded by its origins - often over centuries, yes, thousands of years. Even from a sociologist who is not a theologian and not a scholar of comparative religion you can expect the ability to differentiate. The Christ religion substantially simply differs from other religions.

As carefully analyzing sociologist Tine Stein does therefore not shrink from referring to history of the mind and theology. "In the figure of the crucified Son of God the idea of an inalienable dignity crystallizes. In the exhibition of the agonizing death with the goal of man's absolute humiliation the Crucified preserves his inner dignity despite the external circumstances. That the dignity in this sense is inviolable, this discovery has relating to the history of the mind its origin in the centre of the Christian tradition. ... On the condition of pluralism there are of course different approaches to substantiate this dignity which can equally claim legitimacy of religious as well as of philosophical nature. But to maintain that religion was, as it were, the destroyer of the idea of equal dignity is historically and systematically absurd." In this context you could also mention that the modern idea of human rights, including democracy, first found acceptance in the Christian culture area, albeit in dispute against the anti-modernism of the Church's teaching authority, but in no way against the church folk that wanted modernization.


The Will for Truth

The sociologist contradicts the assertion that the goal of interreligious tolerance should not be truth but only peace. The search for truth, the curiosity to want to know truth was substantially put into man's cradle. This refers to all areas of life, scientific discoveries as well as intimate relationships. It is no less true for the religious sphere, for the knowledge of God through the knowledge of the world. You cannot get rid of the desire for truth "by an act of will, and just as little by the post-modern 'truth' that there was no truth."

Finally Tine Stein draws our attention to the fact that major impulses for a Global Ethos come from the religions, certainly much more than from politics or secular-humanist ideas. "It can also be seen in the transnational commitment of many women and men who are civil-socially active, feel committed to their fellow men, and are often religiously motivated." Certainly, we always see an "ambivalent picture" of the religions. They can be used for non-religious purposes, arouse conflicts. "But at the same time religion itself represents the hope that man does not succumb to his threat." Religion's resistance too has a - political effect.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'