Monday, May 31, 2004

Never Were Truer Words Written

The following words from a post by Jason Soon are the gospel truth, as far as I'm concerned:

And for all those people who claim that Christianity is so much nicer than Islam, Id' say, along with Bertrand Russell that that's thanks solely to the contributions of various rationalists and sceptics through the ages who have basically had more of a chance of diluting the faith of believers in Western society rather than because of something intrinsic to Islam or Christianity. And their ability and potential to do so was mostly thanks to political organisations that evolved in the West after feudalism. Yes folks, the horrible truth is that Christianity seems so much nicer than Islam because folks professing to be Christians don't take it as seriously anymore as folks who profess to be Muslim take their religion. (emphasis added)
I know that this is likely to strike a lot of people as offensive, but it is no more than the unvarnished truth. No religion that makes exclusive* claims of the sort advanced by the three monotheistic faiths best known in the West could possibly be reconciled to peace and progress in the long run. To be sure, there are individuals who've been able to draw from their religious beliefs a deep respect for the autonomy and well-being of others, but such people have always been very much in the minority in every age. For the most part, religious zeal has translated into hatred and bloodshed, and the West is a much better place for its decline in belief. If only all the world's believers were like the typical wishy-washy Church of England adherent!

*All three of Christianity, Islam and Judaism subscribe to the "Jealous God" axiom; furthermore, while the blood-soaked history of Christianity and Islam are known well enough, the books of the Torah suggest that Judaism had its fair share of bloody excesses when its adherents were in the position to enforce their will. The entire Tanakh is replete with smitings and slayings of men, women, children and even beasts, merely for the "crime" of believing in gods other than the one of Israel, while Exodus, Numbers and Judges make for some very ugly reading if one goes beyond a merely tribal mindset; by what right can a people entirely annihilate another, just because their deity has supposedly promised the others' land to them?

Defendants of Judaism will step in here and say that the historical evidence doesn't support the genocidal claims laid out in the books of the Torah, and indeed, this is true; all the archaeologial evidence we have indicates that the manifold tales of religious bloodshed detailed in it are more likely latter-day fictions invented to bestow a glorious past on a people whose emergence occurred in a rather more organic and mundane fashion.

That said, the mere fact that such brutal actions are listed in the Torah as having occurred with the full blessing of a supposedly all-knowing and all-powerful God (who freely chose to create the idol-worshippers He later would order to be murdered by His Hebrew followers, with full knowledge beforehand of the terrible fate he had in store for them) shows that the same genocidal impulses later displayed by Christians and Muslims towards those who refused to acknowledge their "obvious" claims to exclusive religious wisdom were by no means foreign to Judaism, at least as the religion was reformulated after the return of Ezra and Nehemiah from the Babylonian exile. To the contrary, Christianity and Islam are intolerant because they are the offspring of an intolerant religion, and the great tragedy of the modern world is that they both happened to combine that intolerance with a belief in a universalist** mission.

**In fact, it isn't even true that Judaism has entirely renounced the universalist outlook that was increasingly apparent in the Greco-Roman era, at least until the success of Christianity put an end to Jewish proselytization. It is one of the traditional articles of faith of Judaism that the moshiach ("messiah") must someday return, and one of his accomplishments will be to turn all of humanity to the truth of Judaism. The main point of difference here between Judaism and the other two monotheistic religions is that it does not encourage proselytization to bring about this enlightenment of the rest of mankind, a difference which, as I've already indicated, was born of Christian and Islamic supremacy and exclusivity, rather than being innate to Judaism from the start; at one point, perhaps 1 in 10 of all Roman subjects were Jewish, and the majority of these individuals were either converts or descendants of recent converts.