(A)theist Killers and the Picture of a Happy Man

card 039 Brian DunningSkepticist Brian Dunning sharply observes the following:

“Who has been the worst throughout history: atheist regimes or religious regimes? Obviously the big numbers come from the 20th century superpowers (China, Russia, Germany) so the answer depends on how you classify those. And this is where the meat of these debates is usually found, splitting hairs on which regime is atheist, which is merely secular, which is non-Christian and thus fair game to be called atheist. […] In summary, the winner of these debates is the one who can convince the other that the big 20th century genocidal maniacs were motivated either by religion or by a desire to destroy religion. The entire debate is the logical fallacy of the excluded middle.

[…]

I’m convinced that arguing either side is merely an opportunistic way to tingle sensitive nerves and sell a lot of books. And, I’m convinced that any discussion of the religious causes of genocide is a divisive distraction from the more worthwhile investigation into the true cultural and psychological causes. We are human beings, and we need to understand our human motivations.

So I am no longer going to participate in the childish debate of what religion has killed more people in history, because it doesn’t matter. The way I see it, you might as well debate what color underpants are worn by the largest number of killers, and try to draw a causal relationship there as well. Religion does not cause you to kill people, and it certainly doesn’t prevent you from killing people. Let’s stop pretending that it does either.”

Dunning, B. “Who Kills More, Religion or Atheism?” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 27 Nov 2007. Web. 7 Nov 2017. http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4076

See also: http://worldwithoutgenocide.org/

It is strange, indeed, how some people express their outrage about “violent Islam” or “violent religion” on Facebook after an ISIS terror attack in New York that killed eight people (November 3, 2017), while those very same people remain silent about the mass killer in Las Vegas who slaughtered 58 people (October 1, 2017). Makes you wonder if the victims are a primary concern. Maybe victims are primarily used to make political statements?

The problem of violence lies within man himself and in his tendency to deify human preoccupations. Man’s addictive attachment to wealth, pleasure, power and/or honor often creates a deadly cocktail of (self-)destructive behavior. The deification of wealth, pleasure, power and/or honor means that they are considered as ends in themselves (as goals of mimetically driven desires; as goals of love for a mimetically constructed psychosocial (self-)image), and not as means to or consequences of love (for oneself and one’s neighbor).

The deification of wealth, pleasure, power and/or honor prevents the (truly divine) reality of neighborly love. For instance, a capitalist who accepts cheap child labor in his factories is not concerned with his neighbors (in casu the children), but only in the fulfilment of his (mimetically driven) desire for, and love of wealth. Equally, a child molester is not interested in loving children, but in the fulfilment of his love for pleasure and power. Or another example: a student who is only interested in courses when they are “not boring” is primarily interested in the fulfilment of the desire for pleasure. True love is a learning process, though, which is not always and automatically accompanied by “good feelings”. If, for instance, you want to develop the freedom to play whatever piano piece, you will at first have to develop the discipline to obey certain rules about music theory and piano playing techniques. Which might be boring at times, but you will never learn to enjoy the reality of certain music as a player if you are simply driven by a desire for pleasure. The fact that love is more than “feeling good” also appears when you are sad because of the death of a dearly beloved – and yet you are willing to bear sadness because of love (and not, in a masochistic way, because of sadness itself).

Throughout history, there have been numerous attempts to create a utopian peace that could fully satisfy any one of those aforementioned addictions, or a combination of them. The attempts have always led to large numbers of despair, oppression and bloodshed. Utopias turn to dystopias. It’s a law of human history. Those utopias have been religious as well as secular. Indeed, the addiction to wealth, pleasure, power and/or honor is a universal human temptation, which has nothing to do with defining yourself as a theist or an atheist. Theists as well as atheists sometimes deify wealth, pleasure, power and/or honor.

So, it is no coincidence that:

  • Human history has witnessed the temptation to deify the pursuit of wealth and pleasure. Remember, for instance, the war between Mexican drug cartels?
  • Human history has witnessed the temptation to deify a cultural religious and ethnic identity in order to defend or expand one’s honor and power over against others. Remember, for instance, the Yugoslav wars (1991-2001)? It’s religion and nationalism gone mad.
  • Human history has witnessed the temptation to deify the pursuit of wealth and capital through power. Remember, for instance, colonialism (15th – 20th century)? Or remember, for instance, the so-called “Great Leap Forward” in China (1958-1962)? It’s socioeconomic relations gone mad.
  • Human history has witnessed the temptation to deify an ethnic identity and a so-called “natural order of racial competition” in order to defend or expand one’s honor and power over against others. Remember, for instance, the Holocaust (1933-1945)? It’s nationalism and pseudo-Darwinian ideology gone mad.

It’s in light of these facts that we can reconsider the beginning of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20, 3-5a):

2commandment“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…”

In other words, nothing should be deified. Deification (whether of a material object, an ideological system or a combination of both) leads to slavery and all kinds of mental and physical violence. Expressed paradoxically: in a Jewish sense, to love God means refusing to consider anything as divine (in order to become “children of God”, which is “deification” in a totally different sense!). It is the paradoxically absolute refusal of absolutism, totalitarianism and idolatry, in order to make way for the reality of love. There is no middle ground here. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth embodied the absolute refusal of absolutism. That’s why, for instance, Matthew the Evangelist let’s Jesus proclaim (Matthew 12:30a): “Whoever is not with me, is against me…”

[Note: I could have made the following considerations perhaps from a different spiritual tradition, or at least I could have made similar ones. To me, Judeo-Christian tradition is not an end in itself. It is a starting point. So I don’t want to absolutize this religion. On the other hand, I accept that I am a historical creature and I also don’t want to absolutize a so-called self-sufficient a-historical identity. The Judeo-Christian tradition is the woman I coincidentally met and have a relationship with. I don’t need to see all other women first to have an inspiring relationship with this one, enabling me to creatively meet other people as well, men and women.]

Love ultimately is a concern for the reality of the (human and non-human) other because of the other, which is only possible if people are concerned with… their own freedom! Only if you are not fully defined by and attached to your biological need for survival, or your psychosocial mimetically driven desire for safety from potential rivals (power), entertainment (pleasure), or approval (honor), can you become free to experience reality more fully (no longer approaching it from any particular need). Moreover, the refusal to deify yourself (which is, in other words, to love God) means that you might lessen the temptation to sacrifice others to or use them for your mimetically driven desire for approval, as you learn to love the reality of who you are. This is “the logic of Jesus” in his conversation with a lawyer (Matthew 22:35-40):

A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

A Depiction of Jesus and the Woman taken in Adultery (Vasily Polenov)Jesus often confronts people with their narcissistic tendencies, or, in other words, with their tendency to deify themselves. For instance, when he is surrounded by people who are about to stone a woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11), Jesus awakens a sense of reality in each individual. He asks people to consider whether they themselves are “without sin”. After which he decides that “whoever is without sin may cast the first stone”. At first sight this is merely a clever trick that allows Jesus to take control of the situation. Indeed, no Jew would claim to be perfect. That would mean that he claims to be like God, and then he would trespass the first of the ten commandments. So no one can cast the first stone, because that would be one of the greatest sins in the light of Jesus’ saying. At a deeper level, it is precisely Jesus’ constant “iconoclasm” of false self-concepts that, apart from the social position Jesus himself receives for doing so, opens up possibilities for new relationships between people.

Jesus is convinced that the source from which he lives “desires mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). The consequences of this conviction are paradoxical. It implies that Jesus refuses to merely sacrifice the existing worldly structures to establish his own rule. Jesus acts non-dualistically. Hence he says (Matthew 5:17):

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

The priority of love implies that existing laws, structures and rituals should be tested against the extent to which they help to avoid making victims and to which they allow for authentic human lives. Man should not live according to rules, as if preserving a social system and its rules would be an end in itself, but rules should be means at the service of individual human beings and society as a whole. When Jesus and his disciples are criticized for doing things that are, strictly speaking, forbidden on the rest day – the Sabbath – Jesus answers (Mark 2:27):

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Again, this is a refusal to deify any worldly or human reality. It is a refusal to deify religion, in this case the Jewish one.

BeatitudesOne of the most impressive summaries of the teachings of Jesus is, without a doubt, the Sermon on the Mount. Father Robert Barron makes some very inspiring observations about the eight beatitudes, especially about the four seemingly more “negative” prescriptions (all the following fragments from Robert Barron are taken from Barron, Robert. Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith. New York: Image Books, 2011, pp.43-47):

“Thomas Aquinas said that the four typical substitutes for God are wealth, pleasure, power, and honor. Sensing the void within, we attempt to fill it up with some combination of these four things, but only by emptying out the self in love can we make the space for God to fill us. The classical tradition referred to this errant desire as ‘concupiscence,’ but I believe that we could neatly express the same idea with the more contemporary term ‘addiction.’ When we try to satisfy the hunger for God with something less than God, we will naturally be frustrated, and then in our frustration, we will convince ourselves that we need more of that finite good, so we will struggle to achieve it, only to find ourselves again, necessarily, dissatisfied. At this point, a sort of spiritual panic sets in, and we can find ourselves turning obsessively around this creaturely good that can never in principle make us happy.

And so Jesus says: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 5:3). This is neither a romanticizing of economic poverty nor a demonization of wealth, but rather a formula for detachment. Might I suggest a somewhat variant rendition: how blessed are you if you are not attached to material things, if you have not placed the goods that wealth can buy at the center of your concern? When the Kingdom of God [love, mercy, grace] is your ultimate concern, not only will you not become addicted to material things; you will, in fact, be able to use them with great effectiveness for God’s purposes [love]. Under this same rubric of detachment consider the beatitude ‘Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted’ (Mt 5:4). Again, this can sound like the worst sort of masochism, but we have to dig deeper. We could render this adage as how blessed, how ‘lucky’… you are if you are not addicted to good feelings. Pleasant sensations – physical, emotional, psychological – are wonderful, but since they are only a finite good, they can easily drive an addiction, as can clearly be seen in the prevalence of psychotropic drugs, gluttonous habits of consumption, and pornography in our culture. Again, Jesus’s saying hasn’t a thing to do with puritanism; it has to do with detachment and hence with spiritual freedom. Unaddicted to sensual pleasure, one can unreservedly follow the will of God, even when such a path involves psychological or physical suffering.”

I wrote an earlier post on this blog about the religious vows (click here for more). It joins these considerations by Father Barron:

Saint Francis of AssisiBefore I got to know the Christian faith I always thought the three religious vows were an abomination. Why would anyone deliberately choose a seemingly masochistic way of a life in “poverty, chastity and obedience”? Only after I saw a documentary on the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in New York and only after I delved into the Gospels more carefully I discovered that these vows were not ends in themselves, but should actually be understood as means to seeming antitheses of those very vows. It turns out that the three religious vows are anything but masochistic. They should be based on the paradox of the Gospel:

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it… What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:24a-25).

Concerning the vow of poverty: For whoever wants to save their life will lose it… translates to For whoever wants to become rich will become poor… Indeed. Ever met those people who “wanted it all” – perhaps in the mirror? Those who want to enjoy as much parties as possible? If you want all the clothes in the world and go out shopping all the time you won’t ever fully enjoy any of your clothes. If you want to attend ten parties in just one night you will not have enjoyed any of them, because you will constantly worry about the next party you might be missing. If you want to love all the women in the world, you won’t have loved any of them in the end.

The challenge is to choose life where it’s present. As a present. To quote John Lennon: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” The challenge is to live in the here and the now. To choose quality instead of worrying about quantity. Intensity. NON MULTA SED MULTUM. Epicurus (BC 341-270) already warns against discomposing desires: “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” If you stop trying to possess what others have (which is the same as no longer surrendering to mimetic desire), you will become aware of the things you do have and discover that there’s a world of plenty in one single moment, at one place.

Saint Francis of Assisi (Regina Ammerman)Imagine what this attitude of “having enough” could mean for the natural environment! It’s no surprise Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) deeply respected and enjoyed the riches of nature… If only we could follow his example a little better.

Concerning the vow of chastity: For whoever wants to save their life will lose it… translates to For whoever wants to love everyone will not be able to love anyone… If you are a heterosexual bachelor who tries to develop a friendly relationship with a woman, you might soon find out that the woman herself or others fear you’re friendly because you want “something more”. This fear might prevent the possibility of more intimate relationships. On the other hand, when people know you’re married or that you took another voSaint Francis and the Sultanw of chastity, they will not have to fear you’re “after something more than friendship”. This opens up the possibility of more authentic and intimate relationships. It opens up the possibility of meeting the other as “other”, of true personal care – CURA PERSONALIS. Of course, we all know that in human relationships there is no black and white. There’s lots of colors in between the limits of a “grey zone”.

In yet other words, using another formula from the Gospels (the aforementioned “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”):

Wealth is there for man (in service of neighborly love – considering wealth as a means to help our neighbor), not man for wealth (we shouldn’t exploit our neighbor to become wealthy – considering wealth as our goal, and not our neighbor). That’s why Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven [the reality of love]” (Mt 5:3).

The development of a sexual relationship is a consequence of our love for the other, it is not the end of our relationship. The other should not be a means to satisfy our sexual desires, but our sexual desires are, in ideal circumstances, consequences of a very intimate friendship. True love accepts to bear sadness when beloved others are unhappy, it does not seek pleasure at the expense of others (a child molester, for instance, doesn’t care about the brokenness of his victim as he is addicted to pleasure). That’s why Jesus says: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mt 5:4).

Father Barron again:

“Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land’ (Mt 5:5). I don’t know of any culture at any time that would be tempted to embrace this beatitude as a practical program of world conquest! Meek people don’t come to positions of political or institutional influence. But once more, Jesus is not so much passing judgment on institutions of power as he is showing a path of detachment. How lucky you are if you are not attached to the finite good of worldly power. Many people up and down the centuries have felt that the acquisition of power is the key to beatitude. In the temptation scene in the Gospel of Matthew, the devil, after luring Christ with the relatively low-level temptations toward sensual pleasure and pride, brings Jesus to the top of a tall mountain and reveals to him all of the kingdoms of the world in their glory and offers them to Jesus. Matthew’s implication is that the drive to power is perhaps the strongest, most irresistible temptation of all. In the twentieth century, J.R.R. Tolkien, who had tasted at first hand the horrors of the First World War and had witnessed those of the Second, conceived a ring of power as the most tempting talisman in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. But if you are detached from worldly power, you can follow the will of God, even when that path involves extreme powerlessness. Meek – free from the addiction to ordinary power – you can become a conduit of true divine power to the world.

The last of the ‘negative’ beatitudes is ‘Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt 5:10). We must read this, once again, in light of Thomas Aquinas’s analysis. If the call to poverty holds off the addiction to material things, and the summons to mourn counters the addiction to good feelings, and the valorization of meekness blocks the addiction to power, this last beatitude gets in the way of the addictive attachment to honor. Honor is a good thing in the measure that it is a “flag of virtue,” signaling to others the presence of some excellence, but when love of honor becomes the center of one’s concern, it, like any other finite good, becomes a source of suffering. Many people who are not terribly attracted to wealth, pleasure, or power are held captive by their desire for the approval of others, and they will accordingly, order their lives, arrange their work, and plot their careers with the single value in mind of being noticed, honored and endowed with titles. But this again involves the attempt to fill up the infinite longing with a finite good, and it produces, by the laws of spiritual physics, addiction. Therefore, how lucky are you if you are not attached to honor and hence are able to follow the will of God even when that path involves being ignored, dishonored, and, at the limit, persecuted.”

agape loveTo gain social recognition often means that you’re accepted not for who you are, but for the image you’re presenting of yourself. Indeed, you’re losing your life while trying to “gain the whole world”. This process might also imply that you’re sacrificing others to protect that socially acceptable image. The apostle Peter denies knowing Jesus when the latter is arrested. Fearing that his association with Jesus will make him socially unacceptable as well, Peter presents an untruthful image of himself. From this angle Jesus rightfully says: “But whoever loses their life for me will save it…” (Luke 9:24b). If you lose your socially acceptable image to defend the one who is socially deprived, you will gain a truer identity as an unexpected and surprising consequence. To (re)establish relationships with the excluded is to take part in the dynamic of agape (love for one’s neighbor). It is making the “Body of Christ” – which is a body of Love – transparent. In short, if you lose the love for your image, then you gain love for yourself and others.

Faces of Christ (Body of Christ)

Concerning the vow of obedience: For whoever wants to save their life will lose it… translates to For whoever wants to be free will be imprisoned… Oh yes, we tend to listen to the ones who are promising us a great future, a beautiful career, happiness etc. – in one word: “paradise”. But if a workaholic keeps on listening to his boss, he will remain a puppet of a degrading work ethic. If a drug addict keeps on believing the drug dealer who tells him that he doesn’t really have any problem, he will remain an enslaved human being for the rest of his life… In contrast, the vow of obedience means that you will try to obey to the Voice of a Love that wants what’s best for you. It means listening to a Voice that liberates you and enables you to be who you are… Only if you’re capable of accepting and loving yourself, you will be capable of loving others as well. The drug addict is so in need of drugs that he will approach others because of this need. He will use others to satisfy his needs and he won’t be able to approach them as ends in themselves. But if he frees himself from these needs and takes responsibility for himself he will be able to take responsibility for others as well. FREEDOM AND RESPONSIBILITY are twin brothers, or sisters…

Father Barron has the last word:

Thomas Aquinas (Gentile da Fabriano)“Thomas Aquinas said that if you want to see the perfect exemplification of the beatitudes, you should look to Christ crucified. The saint specified this observation as follows: if you want beatitude (happiness), despise what Jesus despised on the cross and love what he loved on the cross. What did he despise on the cross but the four classical addictions? The crucified Jesus was utterly detached from wealth and worldly goods. He was stripped naked, and his hands, fixed to the wood of the cross, could grasp at nothing. More to it, he was detached from pleasure. On the cross, Jesus underwent the most agonizing kind of physical torment, a pain that was literally excruciating (ex cruce, from the cross), but he also experienced the extreme of psychological and even spiritual suffering (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’). And he was bereft of power, even to the point of being unable to move or defend himself in any way. Finally on that terrible cross he was completely detached from the esteem of others. In a public place not far from the gate of Jerusalem, he hung from an instrument of torture, exposed to the mockery of the crowd, displayed as a common criminal. In this, he endured the ultimate of dishonor. In the most dramatic way possible, therefore, the crucified Jesus demonstrates a liberation from the four principal temptations that lead us away from God. […]

But what did Jesus love on the cross? He loved the will of his Father [Love]. […] What he loved and what he despised were in a strange balance on the cross. Poor in spirit, meek, mourning, and persecuted, he was able to be pure of heart, to seek righteousness utterly, to become the ultimate peacemaker, and to be the perfect conduit of the divine mercy to the world. Though it is supremely paradoxical to say so, the crucified Jesus is the man of beatitude, a truly happy man. And if we recall our discussion of freedom, we can say that Jesus nailed to the cross is the very icon of liberty, for he is free from those attachments that would prevent him from attaining the true good, which is doing the will of his Father [Love].

One of the most brutally realistic and spiritually powerful depictions of the crucifixion is the central panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece painted in the late fifteenth century by the German artist Matthias Grünewald. Jesus’s body is covered with sores and wounds, his head is surrounded by a particularly brutal crown of thorns, his hands and feet are pierced, not with tiny nails, but with enormous spikes, and, perhaps most terribly, his mouth is agape in worldless agony. The viewer is spared none of the horror of this most horrible of deaths. To the right of the figure of Jesus, Grünewald has painted, in an eloquent anachronism, John the Baptist, the herald and forerunner of the Messiah. John is indicating Jesus as the Lamb of God, but he does so in the most peculiar way. Instead of pointing directly at the Lord, John’s arm and hand are oddly twisted, as though he had to contort himself in order to perform his task. One wonders whether Grünewald was suggesting that our distorted expectations of what constitutes a joyful and free life have to be twisted out of shape (and hence back into proper shape) in order for us to grasp the strange truth revealed in the crucified Christ.”

Isenheim Altarpiece (Matthias Grünewald)

4 comments

  1. Hanna Mäkelä · 15 Days Ago

    I am reminded of the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s aphorism: “If you kill in the name of God, you kill God” (might not be a literal version, since I haven’t heard the original, but this is the idea). For “God” one could substitute Enlightenment or Science or Humanism or Art. The logic remains the same. Think of the Nazi doctors who betrayed science in the name of science, or the extreme leftist brigades who committed political assassinations in the name of a better life.

    Like

    • erik buys · 15 Days Ago

      A very sharp and succinct comment, Hanna, thank you! We could have inspiring conversations if we were living closer to each other.

      I’ll check out Wole Soyinka some more. I already found this:

      “The zealot is one that creates a Supreme Being, or Supreme Purpose, in his or her own image, then carries out the orders of that solipsistic device that commands from within, in lofty alienation from, and utter contempt of, society and community.”

      (From: Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World).

      “In one form or the other, the quest for human dignity has proved to be one of the most propulsive elements for wars, civil strife and willing sacrifice. Yet the entitlement to dignity, enshrined among the ‘human rights’, does not aspire to being the most self-evident, essential need for human survival, such as food, or physical health. Compared to that other candidate for the basic impulse of human existence – self-preservation – it may even be deemed self-indulgent.”

      (From: Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World).

      Like

  2. dasrettende · 15 Days Ago

    Thanks for these inspirational thoughts, Erik. It is so easy to forget that the essence of Christianity is or rather should be the “priority of love” as you put it in a nutshell. I have nothing much to add to this except perhaps another beautiful example of Jesus’ teachings from the Gospel of John:
    “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
    Looking forward to your next posts…
    Torsten

    Like

    • erik buys · 15 Days Ago

      The mimesis of Christ, indeed… Thank you, Torsten.

      Like

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