Cool, huh? You blink, God blinks. Scratch your nose, so does God. Pat your head and rub your tummy, and God does too.
Because you're God. Or, more precisely, humanity is God, although we actually have plenty of people that say each of us is God. Human nature is basically kind, altruistic, non-violent, egalitarian, and benevolent. And therefore, if humanity does anything bad, it can't be because God-humanity is flawed. No, it has to be because of some external cause. People never decide on their own to commit evil, it's always because of some externality. Lack of breast feeding (although Genghis Khan, Pol Pot and Caligula were breast fed). Or poverty (although, curiously, people rarely steal food or medicine, and most of history's evil rulers grew up as privileged royalty). Or child abuse, or violent Road Runner cartoons (but don't say violent rap music or video games play a role; that's censorship). And of course, religion. Religion is just the latest rationalization to avoid facing the fact that people choose to oppress and exploit others.
The late atheist Christopher Hitchens had no love for religion, but earned my respect because he was one of the few contemporary intellectuals to confront human evil squarely. He didn't pretend that the Taliban were that way because of colonialism. Nor did he fall into the trap of assuming that because he opposed U.S. intervention in Iraq, that our opponents there must be good.
The Garden of Eden
Ever think the Garden of Eden story is so unfair? I mean, why do we get kicked out of Eden because Adam and Eve screwed up? Well, the good news is, we do get born into the Garden of Eden. And the bad news is, before we can talk, we fall for the snake's pitch and exile ourselves.
Think about it. You have no worries, no responsibilities, and everything you need is provided for you. And before you can even crawl, you flunk the first test. The world does not provide you with instant gratification. No matter how diligent your Mom is, she'll be doing something selfish like putting out a grease fire when you want to be fed now, or she'll fail to divine what's making you cry, or, cruelest perfidy of all, maybe she and Dad will be collaborating on another sibling. But the Universe will ruthlessly confront you with the reality that you are not in command. And baby knows it. Listen to a crying baby for a while. She starts off with a plaintive cry, then, after a while, kicks into a shrill scream of frustrated rage. Our prisons are full of people who never get over hating reality because it doesn't cater to their whims. But they're not alone. Lots of people hate reality for having the effrontery to impose consequences. For what may be the single most sophomoric thing ever posted on the Internet, read I don’t wanna grow up! by Franklin Schneider in the Washington City Paper, January 6, 2012. Schneider rails against the universe for making adulthood a relentless grind of marriage, children and work, whereas he's entitled to a universe that's more like Disney World, or the Garden of Eden. And the political life of the Western World for the past few years has been dominated by people who think much the same way, even if they're not quite arrogant or honest enough to say it as bluntly as Schneider: Americans who think they're entitled to pay a pittance for drugs that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, French youth who riot over the notion that employers ought to have the right to fire employees, Greek government workers who think they have the right to retire at 50. Even the briefest look at history reveals there is nothing at all natural about having adequate food and housing, advanced medical care, clean water, or personal freedom. The surprising thing is not that billions of people do not have those things, rather it is that billions of people do have them. A world like that is a massive slap in the face to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and continues to exist only through constant effort on the part of everyone who doesn't think like Franklin Schneider.
A little later on, when you develop some motor control, the snake slithers back and springs a second test on you. You want a toy. There's one across the room, and another one much closer in the hands of another toddler. What to do? The easy thing, of course, grab the toy away from the other child. Our prisons are full of people who consider this the natural way to get what they want. Many others find legal ways to do it. And our politicians get elected by convincing us that either we can take what we want from the fat cats or the welfare bums, or that they have taken what is rightfully ours.
And when we develop language skills, we do exactly what Adam and Eve did in the Genesis story. When confronted with wrongdoing, we lie, excuse ourselves, and accuse others. Game, set, match. Exit through the gate past the angel with the flaming sword, please. We don't have a lovely parting gift for you. And there's one final thing we do: we blame reality for our problems. My parents are to blame for sending me to my room. My Teacher is to blame because I failed. That stupid cop went and gave me a ticket. The System is to blame for sending me to prison. Care to bet Adam and Eve spent a lot of time complaining that God was such a tyrant? I mean, what's one lousy piece of fruit anyway?
B-b-bu-bu-but that's so unfair! We're talking about babies! That's just how they are! They have to be taught! Precisely. That's how we are. That's the whole point of the doctrine of Original Sin. Whether or not you believe in a literal Adam and Eve, or even whether or not you believe in God and sin at all, we're predisposed to exploit others and we have to be taught right and wrong because it doesn't come naturally. Some of us (I won't even say most) are taught well enough to function more or less capably in society, we've learned, as Robert Heinlein said "to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house." At best we learn imperfectly, because our teachers are imperfect, and we are constantly aware of how much easier things would be if we could get away with not respecting the rights of others. A lot of people operate pretty much on the level of this character from C.S. Lewis' novel That Hideous Strength: "He had also a perfectly clear conscience... He had never slandered another man except to get his job, never cheated except because he wanted money, never really disliked people unless they bored him." A lot of people would say this character really wasn't evil because he wasn't totally evil all the time, he presented a facade of civility. Even in the most civil society, atavistic drives, which have been repressed rather than eliminated, can be reawakened: Nazi Germany, Iran after the Shah, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, Pol Pot's Cambodia, the Tea Party.
Neil Malamuth, writing in the Journal of Social Issues, v. 37, no. 4, p. 138-157 (1981) reported that surveys of adult male college students indicated that about 35% thought they might commit rape if they could be assured of not being caught. This particular statistic is repeated widely, usually without citation and often garbled, but the paper really exists and is accessible on line. (Starting with only a vague recollection that surveys had shown many men would commit rape if they could get away with it, it took me less than ten minutes to locate the original paper. There is no excuse these days for parroting unsubstantiated facts.) We can take some comfort in the fact that many of those 35% would decide to do the right thing if the situation ever arose, but then again, many of the 65% would succumb to temptation. Given the statistics on date rape, the numbers are wholly believable. One of the clear lessons from atrocities is how easily many people can be induced to participate if they're given permission and a promise of immunity.
We hardly need to resort to exotic sociological or environmental hypotheses to explain evil. People oppress others because they perceive some advantage in it. Children don't learn violence by being spanked - any two year old throwing a tantrum has figured out, all by herself, that violence is a strategy. It may get results, and it certainly signals the child's contempt for and rejection of a universe that won't cater to it. But there's still one more reason why many people choose evil: it's gratifying. Not only do you get what you want, you get to grind other people into the ground. The rapist doesn't primarily want sex - he wants to humiliate women. Leona Helmsley, the infamous "Queen of Mean," certainly didn't abuse her employees because she was lashing out at her childhood poverty - she enjoyed hurting people. She didn't hurt people to get money, she made money to hurt people.
Some of the people who have overtly decided to prey on others are under no illusions about their motives. As Hannibal Lecter said in Silence of the Lambs:
"Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can't reduce me to a set of influences. You've given up good and evil for behaviorism... nothing is ever anybody's fault. Look at me Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I'm evil?"
Lecter revels in his evil, but many others have to justify their behavior to themselves or others: everyone else does it, why should I be poor when others are rich, nobody will give me a job, he dissed me.
Other people, more socially functional and ethically aware, are inhibited from hurting others by fear of punishment, social rejection and disapproval. These people can often be induced to cross the line if someone in authority gives them permission. Religious authorities are often the source of the permission, but not the only ones, nor even the primary ones. Since the birth of the nation-state, patriotism has been a powerful force for releasing inhibitions against harming others, yet soldiers have been raping and pillaging since long before there were nations in any modern sense. Soldiers who couldn't have told you the name of their king or maybe even the name of their empire would gleefully rape, slaughter and plunder innocent civilians, and although religion may have been part of it, the real motivator was that someone in authority said it was all right to do it. they had permission and a promise of immunity, and maybe most important of all, the approval of their comrades. Even better, if they came home with loot, they were richer and probably respected. Of course, if they were taken captive, well, sucks to be them, but they probably had confidence in their own skills and safety in numbers.
We can see why religious warfare has been so prevalent in history. Religion was the only other institution capable of mobilizing people against the State. When the two were joined, they were all powerful, but the neighboring kingdom had its own God-king ready to invade if conditions were right. Syncretistic religions could accommodate other deities as long as they recognized the legitimacy of the State religion, but religions that refused to be assimilated, like Judaism and Christianity, were a direct challenge to State authority. And when Christianity became dominant, it dared not tolerate challenges to its own authority. If a ruler were to permit religious tolerance, he was surrounded by neighbors with subjects ready to be mobilized to defend orthodoxy. When England split with Rome, Ireland became a potential staging area for any Catholic power or any Catholic insurgent wanting to settle the score. Cromwell, scumball though he was, was nevertheless dead on target when he said the Catholic Church was a political as well as a religious movement.
The Worst Oppressor
But neither religion nor the State were the worst oppressors. Tribal and clan loyalties certainly helped induce people to commit atrocities against outsiders, but far and away the leading cause of oppression and violence was, and continues to be, the family. Even today, most of the incidents ascribed to "religion" are actually family matters. (Lurid Headline of the day for June 20, 2012 is a father in India who beheaded his daughter for sleeping around) People may say that they killed a woman who was raped because she violated some religious law, but the real motivator is fear of the family being shamed. "Shame" actually means "embarrassment" and loss of status, since "shame" in any real moral sense is wholly missing. (Calling it "honor" is likewise a mistranslation: if something is translated as "honor" and doesn't conform to the English meaning of "honor," it's not honor, any more than a word means "red" if someone keeps pointing to the grass when he says it. It's not a value judgment; it's simply being true to the meaning of words.)
General James N. Mattis of the U.S. Marine Corps nailed this one perfectly:
You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway.
Until recently, rationalizations for oppression were offered by only a few socially widespread institutions: religion, the State, tribe, or clan, but above all, the family. More recently, other rationalizations have emerged. What they all, ancient and modern, have in common is they offer perpetrators some Transcendent Cause that justifies "rising above" - that is, abandoning - the normal rules of morality. They offer people the illusion of holding the moral high ground even as they persecute others. They offer the feeling of smug superiority plus the visceral thrill of sticking it to people they despise.
Foremost among the new Transcendent Causes, paradoxically, is social justice. It's okay to punish some group en masse because of all the injustice they've done. Stalin's later purges were the work of a paranoid and sadistic tyrant, but the early Bolshevik purges and the massacre of the kulaks were pure appeals to social justice. The kulaks were middle class peasants, who obviously must have obtained their affluence by robbing poorer peasants, if you believe the world is a zero-sum game. Anyway, if you go around telling people they can't get rich under The System, you can't very well have common people around who did get rich under The System. Causes bad cognitive dissonance. The purges in China, both during the civil war and the Cultural Revolution, and the Khmer Rouge insanity in Cambodia were justified by appeals to social justice. As Jared Diamond points out in his book Collapse, much of the genocide in Rwanda was driven by wealth envy. And though we now cast the Nazis as right wingers, their appeal to voters in the early days was the injustices allegedly perpetrated by Jewish bankers. They did, after all, call their movement National Socialism.
By the way, since religion has so often been the cause of injustice, it's perfectly okay to purge religions in the name of social justice. When the staunchly Catholic peasantry of the Vendee in western France opposed the Revolution, about a quarter of a million of them were killed between 1793 and 1796. Because, the Inquisition or something. The Catholic Church was the target of repression in Mexico (1915-1929) and Spain (roughly 50,000 killed in the Red Terror of 1936) because of perceived injustices by the Church. And of course organized religion was a prime target in almost every country that fell under Communism.
If the 1% who style themselves the 99% do come to power, the wealthiest will be swept away. Then the new rulers will be puzzled and frustrated by the failure of all that confiscated capital to create wealth. It will have to be due to fifth columnists, people with "false consciousness" who have been duped into sympathizing with the rich. They will have to be dealt with. So will nonconforming intellectuals, because "speaking truth to power" doesn't mean saying the emperor has no clothes. And of course religious groups who speak out will have to be silenced. We can be pretty sure it will play out this way, because it did play out pretty much this way in almost every country taken over by Communism.
Often people can be motivated by "injustices" that they regard as injustices even if most others don't. Many people view a place in the pecking order as a right. Whites in the Deep South viewed it as a positive injustice to see blacks placed on the same level as whites, and much of the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans was driven by the perception that it was wrong to expect Serbs or Croats to live in a land where they were in the minority, that there is such a thing as a right to be a majority. A lot of the anti-religious activism in America seems to be motivated by a belief that there is a right to live in a publicly financed fantasy world in which religion has no role.
An up-and-coming Transcendent Cause is the environment. So far the only people who have been impelled to overt violence by environmentalism have been lone fanatics like the Unabomber and members of eco-terrorist groups. But we can certainly envision a neo-Bolshevik scenario where people who oppose environmentalism are purged, maybe as part of a broader plan to bring enlightenment and social justice.
Religion's Sorry Record
Even if we grant that blaming religion for evil in the world is a rationalization, that still leaves us with a disturbing question. Religion is supposed to be about goodness, morality, and justice, so how come religion has such a sad record of oppression and cruelty? Why is it that history doesn't seem to show even a single case of a benign theocracy?
The answer is pretty simple: religion confers power to its authority figures, and evil people are attracted to power like flies to rotting meat. The puzzle is not why religion and powerful institutions in general commit evil, but that they do any good at all. The answer to that riddle is that the gloomy neo-Calvinist notion of "total depravity" is wrong. Some people do keep their base impulses in check, surround themselves with advisers who do the same, and remind themselves that they are bound by a higher law. But religion recognizes no higher law than itself. Then again, neither do social justice and the belief in benevolent human nature.
Real religious conversion is actually not that common. A very common example is the person who says "I used to get high on drugs, now I get high on Jesus." Yes, but he still can only relate to reality by getting high. Rigid and intolerant fundamentalists who lose their faith usually become rigid and intolerant atheists. St. Augustine had been a licentious youth, and later became a prude who considered all sex at least somewhat sinful. He didn't really convert; he simply switched from one kind of sexual excess to a different kind. Even Saint Paul, archetype of the convert, retained a lot of his judgemental Pharasaic outlook as a Christian, though in fairness he humbled down significantly. Rarely do we hear of someone converting from rabid fundamentalism or atheism to, say, mainstream Lutheranism. One of the best examples is Frank Schaeffer, one of the founders of the Religious Right, who left but, instead of militant atheism, found a home in the Greek Orthodox Church.
Glenn Beck and Bryan Fischer aren't the way they are because they're Christians; they're like that because they're evil. Good people practice good religion and evil people practice evil religion.