The Uses of God
Demonization, a key tactic in religion, is precisely the reductionism and making wicked of any political enemy.
Of all the burning issues confronting the world today, nothing causes greater concern — and greater perplexity — than the force of religion in pursuing political aims. I make this statement precisely: It is not the force of religion pursuing religious aims in themselves; religion is unable to pursue global political aims without first becoming ideologized. Religious ideology draws from philosophical and theological traditions in specialized manners.
Finally, the pursuit of political aims is impossible without the popularization of religion in its ideologized form. Religion’s impact upon the world thus comes with a genealogy of considerable intellectual work. This genealogy begins with a cultural foundation but rapidly becomes transcultural and recruits to religion’s banner — in today’s headlines, for instance, a literal black banner — adherents from many backgrounds, origins and upbringings.
Neither international relations as an academic discipline nor theology nor cultural anthropology has sufficient tools to describe this genealogy and its processes. These disciplines do not speak to one another as theoretical and methodological foundations do not overlap. Nor does policy formulation diagnose fully what governments face. Insofar as partial insights have hitherto been possible, none has successfully directed a political campaign against forceful and seemingly destructive religion.
Here, I speak certainly of radical Islam, but Moslems will themselves feel imperiled by Hindus in India, by Buddhists in Burma, and, indeed, Hindus and Buddhists feel imperiled by each other in Sri Lanka. Jewish people, deeply orthodox and radically Zionist simultaneously, offer a lens toward seeing how religion in today’s global politics is an amalgam of deep complexity, capable of great aggressiveness, and unable to accept significant compromise.
But we have become so used to seeing things in grand archetypes that it has been a shock to see Buddhists cast aside their compassionate clothing and drive the Rohingya out of Myanmar; a shock to see the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka, with a deliberate governmental policy to harness the Buddhist monasteries to the Sinhalese nationalist cause, allow the slaughter without mercy of the Tamil army in the last great firefight of the civil war.
The ideologization of religion, including Christianity, with God on the side of US foreign policy and popular preachers blessing President Donald Trump, is a feature of the age, where the old tropes of democracy vs. communism have been supplanted by god vs. darkness, and god is seconded to the power politics of both national causes and versions of internationalism. Social media allows sound bites to popularize “just” causes without fact-checking or deep argument. A single image of something seemingly despicable carries the argument forward.
For the Myanmar public, that is an image of the supposed lack of hygiene of the Rohingya Muslims; for the Israeli settlers, an image of a Palestinian teenager slapping a soldier — enough to spark the incipient image of the same girl armed and bent on terror. The image, and the ideology, is, finally, about conquest, exclusion, with the added ingredient of the fear of resistance and revenge. But religion dresses it all up with righteousness, and it is codified by ideology that draws selectively from complex history and philosophy, which is all simplified again by a narrow depiction in a brief social media posting, or a brief and selective news reportage, or a clip of a national leader consumed by apparent gravitas speaking of destiny and past persecution.
It is not an era of density in how we approach the world. But that is precisely the danger that faces the world today. Demonization, a key tactic in religion, is precisely the reductionism and making wicked of any political enemy. Threats of terror, threats of nuclear war matter not at all since the people about to be destroyed are demonic.
But I am personally very wary of this. Once, the fallen angels were regarded as very beautiful. They had been creatures of heaven. Demons did not exist in the days of the Old Testament. The closest the Hebrews came was a species of spirit goblins who lived in trees and who were unrelated to the fallen angels. By the medieval era, the fallen angels had been transformed into lizards. By the time of the 18th and 19th century, they were Chinese. If you go into Aux Deux Magots on the Boulevard St. Germaine in Paris, where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir used to drink, you can still see the figurines of the deux magots (in the English translation of the Bible, Gog and Magog), and they are very much Chinese.
At least there is a fashion in demonization. Hitler made it the Jews. The Jews make it the Palestinians. Once we made it the Soviets, but now we admire Vladimir Putin’s strength. We see a brawny man who doesn’t wear a shirt in the wild and who rides three-wheel motorbikes, and conclude this is a good leader.
This is the trivialization of both good and bad. Perhaps in Myanmar all the Rohingya need to do, perhaps all the Tamils needed to do, was to start wearing Prada and Dior and take many selfies for the world’s social media. Pinterest would have rescued them from terrible fates. The only light on this horizon is that religion itself will become so trivialized it will soon mean nothing in itself, and the very old man with the white heard who sits on the cloud will be rescued from having to oversee the death and destruction of his own creation in his own name.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.