Thursday, January 15, 2015

Religion and Violence: On the Power of Self-Idolatry

Religion and power make awkward bed-fellows. Speaking in January 2015 on religious fundamentalism, Pope Francis suggested that violence belies claims of religious validity. That is to say, actions speak louder than words, and harming other people effectively renders a person’s claims of religious motivation null and void. Unfortunately, the typical assumption that people have that they cannot be wrong when it comes to their own religious beliefs also operates when political ideology is the actual motivation. Such pride, which I suspect is rooted in self-idolatry, stands as a wall preventing such remarks from influencing potential culprits.

In his annual speech to diplomats accredited with the Holy See, the pope remarked that religious fundamentalism, “even before it eliminates human beings by perpetrating horrendous killings, eliminates God himself, turning him into a mere ideological pretext.”[1] Leaving aside the necessary question of just what is fundamentalism and whether violence is a necessary part of it, a byproduct, or unrelated, the notion of God as a “mere ideological pretext” is intriguing. The concept “God” doubtlessly contains what Wittgenstein refers to as family resemblances rather than a definitive idea. What you mean by the word probably is not exactly what I mean by it. Yet we bandy the term about as if we are in fact referring to the same object, whose nature we would agree on. Our assumption of agreement is rarely made explicit and called into question, yet I submit we regularly assume an extent of agreement that overstates any actual convergence. Adding “ideological pretext” to the word’s functions and the presumed inter-subjective agreement is likely even further from what we normally suppose.

In short, what someone means by “God” may differ considerably from what someone else means by the term. In assuming agreement as to the nature of the referent, we miss the possibility that someone’s concept may be so different that it supports the use of violence. We might not see it coming.

Of course, once the violence has occurred, observers can reason backward to conclude that what the culprit means by “God” is very different. Accordingly, the pope spoke on the importance of visible indications. “This is an important sign that sincere faith in God makes one open to others, generates dialogue and works for the good, whereas violence is always the product of a falsification of religion . . . whose only goal is power over others.”[2] Religion is falsified into an ideological pretext, with power over others being the means by which to realize a vision in line with a certain concept of “God,” which in turn is rooted in self-idolatry—the culprit’s virtual worship of himself.

Religion as subterfuge has not only been evinced by rogue elements. Historically, the establishment has partaken, giving the phenomenon the veneer of legitimacy. Four popes, for instance, promised salvation to Roman Catholics willing to join the Crusades. Under Pope Francis’s reckoning, the violence committed against the Muslims in Jerusalem and the eastern Christians in Constantinople points to a falsification of religion rather uncomfortably near the pope. That this obvious implication was missing from the pope’s remarks may point to the wall of “religious” self-protection wherein a religionist presumes that he or she cannot be wrong regarding the veracity and validity of his or her own religious beliefs and assumptions. This assumption can open the door to unchecked lapses close to home, even as lapses elsewhere are obvious.

Religion itself may provoke or trigger a basic sort of cognitive lapse that involves assumptions that are premised on a god-concept that has been infected by self-idolatry. In other words, religious fundamentalism may not be the whole story. The ability of the human mind to self-regulate itself as concern religious matters may be faulty, such that we observe people who consider themselves to be religionists committing acts of violence.

[1] Liam Moloney, “Pope Links Fundamentalism to Atrocities,” The Wall Street Journal, January 13, 2015.
[2] Ibid.