An excerpt from Rachel Mikva
Dangerous Religious Ideas:
The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
All Religious Ideas are Dangerous
All religious ideas are dangerous, including those embraced by moderates and progressives. Take God, for instance. Faith in a divine being has at times inspired murderous intolerance for those who do not share it. This is undoubtedly an extreme example, but even today atheists find it difficult to get elected to public office in the United States. Indeed, over 40 percent of Americans assert that one must believe in God in order to be an ethical person. Theists in opposing camps on reproductive justice, gun safety, tax policy, and a host of other divisive issues frequently presume that God is on their side, while heaping moral condemnation on their adversaries. God becomes an idol carved in our own image, a “yes-man” who endorses our politics and prejudices.
Scripture has been used to uphold slavery and condemn LGBTQ+ individuals, to inflict harsh punishment and legislate discrimination. Presumptions of its divine source and perfect quality have led to heresy trials, burning of books, resistance to scientific learning, and aggressive suppression of countervailing ideas. Even those who try to read scripture critically sometimes find themselves internalizing negative impressions about religious others or defending rotten ideas. M y students, for example, are surprised when they realize how much of the New Testament’s anti-Pharisaic polemic they have absorbed and how it has shaped their understanding of Judaism. Even though they know better, they catch themselves denigrating “the law” as contrary to the spirit and suggesting that ancient Judaism was too parochial—prompting Paul to invent universalism (like Al Gore invented the internet).
Some people claim that destructive and hateful expressions are not real religion: the great religions of the world are, in essence, religions of peace, love, and goodness. Such essentialism identifies manifestations of religion that stray from these values as deviant or heretical. Ironically, this attitude is not all that different from that of fundamentalists who believe their interpretation of religious tradition to be the only authentic one. It also fails to recognize that even this idealized vision carries dangerous power. “Peace” can be (and has been) the value that perpetuates injustice, “love” the emotional catalyst for oppressive interference, and “goodness” a culturally constructed perspective imposed on others. We may believe that certain embodiments of religion are not what God wants or that they are not worthy expressions of our tradition. We can definitely argue that oppressive teachings claiming to rely on literal interpretation of scripture are still filtered by human hands, but we cannot declare that such things are not religious. Given the textual and historical record, it is fair to conclude that religion can be expressed violently and nonviolently, with grace or cruelty, as Swami Vivekananda said. After all, religion consists of humanly constructed responses to what a community understands as divine revelation or sacred path. The range of responses reflects the full spectrum of human personality, culture, and imagination.
We also hear the excuse that “dangerous” religion is merely the prop of those who wish to gain political or economic advantage, to defend or advance their power. Violent struggle, enduring discrimination, and brutal judgment may be justified in sacred texts and tradition, but according to this line of reasoning they derive primarily from the political, social, and psychological needs of the central group. People distort religion, taking advantage of its ability to motivate and mobilize. These claims have merit, but religion is not an innocent bystander. It is an integral part of human nature and a powerful influence in society, playing important roles in the unfolding of history. Even as a force used by others in harmful ways, the power of religion requires critical attention. This is not to claim that religion is more prone to violence than secular ideologies, a myth that William Cavanaugh rightly challenged for the ways it ignores or justifies the violence of the nation-state. This book is simply trying to grapple with religion’s role.
I am not persuaded by scholars, like those in the new atheist camp, whose overreaching accusations identify religion as the cause of all destructive human behavior. Pointing to sacred text and history, they associate all forms of religion with obscurantism, superstition, violence, and oppression. Nor do I embrace the conclusions of social scientists who, in trying to understand the religious impulse, explain it away entirely. Marx reduced it to the temporarily necessary illusion resulting from an oppressive class structure, and Freud to a “universal obsessional neurosis” that humanity should outgrow. Religious belief is surely affected by class and power structures, and it meets certain psychological needs, but such catalysts can tell only part of the story. These dismissive analyses share the assumptions that religion is somehow detachable from human experience and that the world would be better off if we simply eliminated it completely. Even if one embraced the goal, religion is deeply inscribed within human experience, making its erasure highly unlikely.
By insisting that dangerous religious ideas are not limited to extremists, I attempt to reckon with the harm committed in God’s name and to refine religion in a crucible of critical inquiry. There have been many efforts to shed the dangerous dross while preserving the transformative power of religious concepts; this book explores, celebrates, and expands upon them. Yet in some elemental way, the productive and destructive materials of religious thought are bound together. To take the analogy one step further, the purest states of metals and ideas are not found in nature; they are always blended with other substances that are integral parts of how they come to be. What makes religion a powerful force for good is toa large extent the same as what makes it potentially dangerous.
Keith Ward offers a comparison with liberal democracy. Most people in the West see democracy as a virtuous system for communal governance. But at the same time, some of democracy’s core values can easily inflict suffering: majority rule has oppressed minorities, empowered electorates have opted for racist leaders and policies, democratic governments have waged unnecessary wars to “protect their freedoms,” and wickedness has more than once won out in the marketplace of ideas. Ward’s primary inference is that all powers can be corrupted, including religion. Mine is different; I believe the flaws are built in. All religious ideas are dangerous, and self-critical faith is essential. It is my contention that most religions of the world have known it all along. This book is not simply a reading of scripture and tradition that tries to call out the threats and resist them. It is a reading of scripture and tradition that sees the seeds for this work planted deep in the soil of religious thought, designed for us to cultivate.
Aware of religion’s tremendous power both to harm and to heal, with no way to permanently separate these potentialities, the traditions transmit their sacred stories alongside tools for penetrating self-examination and ongoing self-improvement. This does not mean that all adherents embrace self-critical faith or that religious institutions readily undertake reform. Nor does it suggest that all changes are for the better. But a careful tilling of the soil with these seeds serves as the natural defense against religion’s most perilous inclinations and yields a bountiful crop of understandings that might not otherwise grow.
Self-critical faith does not require that we discard tradition as hopelessly misogynistic, homophobic, authoritarian, and parochial (even though it can be all those things). Instead, it recovers the diversity of voices that inculcate, substantiate and perpetuate problematic elements—as well as those that stand in counterpoint. It reveals how religions remain developing, dynamic organisms so that we may wield our truths more gently. It insists on continuous reflection and repair in religious thought. It also illuminates fresh teachings for our time, providing the social critique that has always been a vital part of religion’s role in human history.
Dangerous religious ideas do not remain contained within theological writings and houses of worship; they continually travel into the public square. Focusing primarily on the United States, this book addresses their ongoing impact on society and culture, interrogating the role of religion in the public sphere and seeking to shape the voice of public theology—how we talk about and embody religious values in our collective public life.
Copyright © 2020 by Rachel S. Mikva. Excerpted with permission from Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts
Dr. Rachel Mikva, is the the Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman Chair & Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and senior faculty fellow at the InterReligious Institute of Chicago Theological Seminary. She served as a rabbi, studied and published on the Hebrew Bible, the history and its interpretation and retains a commitment to social justice issues. Apart from Dangerous Religious Ideas, her books include Interreligious Studies An Introduction, and the edited the collection Broken Tablets, Restoring the Ten Commandments and Ourselves.