In previous postings, I have stated my position regarding “astro-physics atheism” that Professor Hawking discovered recently. That issue aside, I wish to make two points in reply to David Gress’s response of 4 September. First, the idea that religions have not been co-opted and used by elites to their benefit is contrary any rudimentary study of the history of major institutionalized religions throughout history from ancient times to the present.
This is evident in theocratic societies of the Orient as well as hierocracies of the West, a point that Max Weber argued. In theocratic societies of the ancient or Medieval times, the will of the ruler and religious dogma were one. In the hierocracy model of the West there was the dialectic between church and state and the symbiotic relationship of mutual benefit for the religious and political as well as social elites.
In Asia or Europe, theocracy or hierocracy model, religion as a catalyst to co-optation was equally significant.
The second point I would like to make concerns rulers and adherence to religious dogma of pacifism. I may be wrong, but in my study of history I discovered only one major ruler–Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty who ruled India in the 3rd century BCE–in the history of the world who embraced religion and abandoned his blood-thirsty craving for war and destruction. In my teaching days, I used Ashoka as an example of “the exception to the rule” as far as major rulers are concerned. I know of no Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Confucian ruler who has based his/her reign on religious ethics rooted in pacifism and acted on such a body of ethics as Ashoka, who embraced Buddhism and dedicated his life to spreading its influence.
The Han Dynasty may be pointed to as an exceptionally enlightened, but it lived and declined by the sword as the Roman Empire. As successor to the Roman West, Charlemagne Christianized the Barbarians, but with sword in hand and he put to death tens of thousands in the name of his God! He did so much to strengthen Christendom (an extension of his rule), but with the sword, no matter his proclaimed love of St. Augustine’s writings.
The Muslims combined their remarkable conquests with the spreading of Islam East and West, but always with sword at hand. From the rise of Islam and Charlemagne to modern-day religious politicians East and West, all invariably embrace religious ethics and dogma to justify unjust and exploitative policies that have no relationship to pacifism, justice or religious egalitarianism. Would the self-appointed defenders of institutionalized religion and secular leaders who pay lip service to Christianity to win popular approval tolerate a Jesus today with the exact same messages as the young radical rabbi delivered 2000 years ago?
Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, although written more than 80 years ago, is still applicable today. In brief, he argues that religion is based on fear and “Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.” Despite Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and many others, Marxists and non-Marxists alike, who argue that human beings must be free of the imaginary support and stand on their own, the two fundamental questions remain whether the majority of people will ever be ready to stand on their own, and be free of the psychological (perhaps bio-psychological) support that religion offers. And how likely is it that rulers and elites of the modern era will embrace enlightenment like Ashoka and rule in kingdoms of virtue instead of injustice and exploitation in varying forms?