By Mario Bunge*
The history and sociology of religion have been strong branches of social science since about 1900. In particular, Max Weber founded the sociology of religion, but confined himself to antiquity. For example, he praised Hinduism for complementing the caste system, which he attributed to a smart Brahmin – as if a whole new social system could be begotten all at once and by a single mind. Weber also showed that Mithraism had been popular among the ancient Roman soldiery because it supported meritocracy and obedience – just as Confucianism did in China.
By contrast, the politology of religion is still very young, to the point that the cynical recommendation of Aristotle and Machiavelli to the Prince, to appear as pious even if he does not believe, is still being followed. For example, President Eisenhower got himself baptized twelve days after his inauguration in 1956. President Nixon, remembered for his trickery and warmongering, professed Quakerism all his life. And President George W. Bush, who invented Saddam Hussein’s weapon of mass destruction, told his subjects that God told him personally what to do. Who can beat people with such a powerful connection?
Religion as a political fig leaf
The present article deals with the use of religion as a political fig leaf. The following list of well-known cases corroborates the thesis that religion has often been used as a political tool:
- The authors of the Bible claimed that the executions and genocides it tells about were commanded by God;
- Paul the Apostle enjoined slaves to tremble in the presence of their owners;
- The Crusaders, encouraged by the battle cries Deus vult (or Dieu le veut, “God wills it”) and Nobiscum deus (“God is with us”), were actually treasure looters and land robbers;
- The European colonization enterprises were about mines, land and slaves rather than the attempt to shower heathens with the gifts of the true religion
- The Thirty Years War was over land, not religion, as suggested by the fact that most of those who fought in the Catholic armies and looted the Vatican were Lutheran mercenaries;
- The Eighty Years War between Spain and the Netherlands were over Flemish riches, not over biblical hermeneutics
- Islamic Turkey fought along Christian armies in the Crimean war as well as in both World Wars
- The Mexican Catholic Church waged two wars against the Mexican government over the latter’s land reform, that distributed the Church’s vast landholdings among the peasantry, and murdered many of the teachers sent by the government to the countryside
- The Catholic church was a mainstay of the Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Croatian, and Argentinian fascist governments
- General Franco, whom pope Pius XI called a Crusader, ordered the Moorish troops stationed in Morocco to move to Spain and fight the elected Republican government
- The Nazi banner is headed by the Gott mit uns (“God with us”) lemma;
- The Cold War was over world domination, not godless communism;
- The Jewish fanatics who occupied Palestinian land claimed that Abraham had given them that land two millennia earlier;
- The Saudi fanatics, shouting Allah maana, are conniving with Israeli Jews and American evangelists against Iran, accusing it of striving to build nuclear bombs, which of course the USA and Israel have been accumulating for decades.
To his credit, pope John Paul II apologized for some of the crimes listed above. In contrast, no U.S. president has apologized to the Japanese people for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nor to the Vietnamese for killing 3,2 million non-combatants, nor for spraying civilians with napalm and Agent Orange.
True, the American Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara admitted that the American war on Vietnam was a big mistake – but not a war crime.
Let us not forget that nearly all American presidents ask God to bless America, and that the official motto of the country since 1956 has been In God we trust. As the popular joke has it, Christians will trust God, but all others must pay cash.
Those afraid of the consequences of their sins run after hitting. For example, General Franco’s homage to the Moroccan Muslims who helped him beat the “Reds” is a monolith capped by a shiny crescent and planted on a solitary pasture on a remote Asturian hill. Incidentally, who is to check whether the Supreme Being is with us, and whether He was consulted before being conscripted to lead the faithful of whichever god has been invoked?
The take-away-lessons of the preceding are the following:
- Religiosity looks good on most politicians and salesmen. (The man who sold me a defective car started his sales pitch by assuring me that he was a born-again Christian.) So, appear to be religious if you want to fool voters or customers.
- Religion has often been used as a fig leaf to hide political crimes. (The medieval Spanish warriors used to say A Dios rogando y con el mazo dando – “Praying to God while hitting with the mace.”)
- Look underneath the religious justification of any crime, for it may be just a hypocritical excuse. But it should be noticed, however, that today’s anti-terrorism is an even better fig leaf than religion, so we should be ready for the emergence of anti-terrorist shrines defended by brave volunteers brandishing mail-order high-powered guns to kill schoolchildren by the hundreds.
- While some of the so-called sacred writings exhort their faithful to commit certain crimes and even genocides, the main tenets of all religions are politically neutral and, in particular, they do not call for anyone’s murder. In particular, most of us avoid islamophobia and christophobia just as strongly as anti-semitism and mavrophobia (irrational fear or aversion towards colored people.) However, we have recently been told to practice russophobia. One could not lead the Free World without fanning some hatred.
- Religious differences are nothing by comparison with the common interests of mankind: survival, coexistence, and access to natural and social bounties.
- Let us check in our politics when entering a temple, and our religion when entering a political venue, for the mixture of politics with religion corrupts both, except when enlightened religious leaders take initiatives to protect us from the wiles plotted by the so-called Great Leaders.
- Let us be at least as open-minded and openhanded as Francesco of Assisi, who in 1216, while the Fifth Crusade was in full swing, made a dangerous trip to Cairo to discuss with the Sultan of Egypt ways of decreasing the miseries of the war. Exactly eight centuries later his brother, Francisco of Buenos Aires, made the same trip to distance his church from the lethal islamophobic trap. Populus vult!
Mario Bunge is an internationally renowned philosopher of science from Argentina who lives in Montréal, Canada. A prolific intellectual, he is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Royal Society of Canada.
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