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Passages in religious texts
advocating violence & genocide

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Disclaimer:

This is a strongly worded essay that many Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. may well believe apply to other religions, but not to their own.

It deviates from most of the essays on this web site, which avoid criticizing religious beliefs. However, because violent passages in the Bible, Qur'an and other holy books continue to inspire violence, murder, mass murder, and genocide, we feel that criticism is warranted.

One cannot describe how violent passages in holy books motivate violence in today's world without criticizing the books themselves. To those who believe that God inspired the authors of their holy books, this essay may be interpreted as a criticism of their deity.

If you are easily distressed at religious criticism, please do not read this essay.

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About religious texts:

There are a number of conflicting religions in the world whose beliefs are largely closed, immutable, and frozen. Their teachings are embedded in Scriptures, which are books that religious communities accept as holy and authoritative: The Christian Bible; the Jewish Torah and the Talmud; the Book of Mormon; the Muslim Qur’an and the Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi (mysticism); the Bahá’í Kitáb-i-Aqdas; the Sikh Adi Granth; the Zoroastrian Avesta; the Hindu Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Yoga-sutras of Patanjali; the Buddhist Pali canon; the Taoist Tao-te-Ching; the Confucian I Ching and the Lun-yü (Analects of Confucius); the Shinto Kojiki or Furukotofumi; etc. Revelations from these religions disagree with each other. The truth or falsity of these religions' incompatible teachings is unverifiable.

In each case, the relevant Scripture is commonly accepted as an reliable authority committing the believers to a specific faith. It provides its own answers to the ultimate questions, recommends a way of life, and encourages allegiance to particular moral principles.

While the authority of a particular Scripture is considered total within the respective community of faith, it is largely disregarded outside that community. One exception is Islam: Muslims accept the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures as holy texts. However, they believe that those texts have been seriously altered over time so that the original message has been seriously distorted.

A text that is sacred for one religion may well be offensive to members of other religions, and even become a cause of intolerance. If somebody believes his particular religion to be the only true one, she/he blinds himself to the truth found in the others and also commits an act of spiritual chauvinism.

As long as each religion keeps insisting that only its revelation and teachings are true, we will not be able to come to any consensus in religious matters. Dogmatic rigidity also means that every discovery and every novel idea is likely to pose a threat to a religion that looks back in time to revealed truth "once delivered unto the saints". 1

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Notes on violent passages:

While religious truth must ultimately be taken on faith, this faith need not be blind. Reason may have its limits in matters of religion. However, any religious teaching that cannot stand rational scrutiny must be viewed with a healthy degree of skepticism.

While interpreting most sacred texts, we are examining words that have been arrived at over centuries of time. The final form of the Scripture is determined by a selection process in which some individuals decide which of God’s messages are to be included into the final canon, and which are to be left out. In spite of the many mistakes and contradictions in the final product, followers are asked to believe that:

bulletThe chosen original source material spoke for the divine and reproduced God’s words with utmost perfection.
bulletThe wording has not been corrupted as the message was passed on over centuries or millennia.
bulletThe selection process was flawless.

With doubts on all those points, how can one talk about inerrancy? We are knowledgeable only of the final interpreted version, not of the original one.

We have to bear in mind that nobody can be isolated from the cultural and historical setting in which he or she is or was embedded. As a result, many of the passages in the holy text bear the imprint of the time when they were conceived. Some of them were formulated in a pre-scientific age and were based on assumptions that current science cannot endorse. Others date from times when humanity followed moral codes that the conscience of our present age would not tolerate. All this, of course, contradicts the claim that the individual religious answers are never outdated – that their validity is beyond question.

It is difficult to believe that any religion is the word of God, if it could be shown that it reflects and repeats prejudices, or even false beliefs, that were active at the time and place of its revelation. 2 The validity of the answers arrived at in times long past, when the scientific background was minimal and the level of general knowledge was relatively low, are still promoted today. A particularly vigorous defense of this situation was mounted by the Catholic Church: In the Syllabus of Errors, the beatified Pope Pius IX declared that the proposition:

"The method and principles by which the old scholastic doctors cultivated theology are no longer suitable to demands of our times and to the progress of the sciences"

must be reprobated, prescribed, and condemned. 3

Believers are asked to accept on faith that revelations made within the last six thousand years apply to the full life span of the universe. Since, in the Abrahamic faiths, there will no new revelations, the original message must apply forever, regardless of the changes which will take place in the billions of years to come. This is beyond belief. On the cosmic scale the human species has reached the present level of knowledge in a very short time. Archaic forms of Homo Sapiens appeared 500,000 years ago, the Neanderthals came to Europe 100,000 years ago, and the Cromagnons painted their cave walls and performed burial rites 30,000 years ago. It was only during the last five to six thousand years that the continuous intellectual development of humanity has occurred. This time-span has to be compared with the billions of years still to elapse before the Earth will be consumed by the expanding Sun. Translated into terms of human life, the level of maturity humanity has reached so far corresponds to that of a child that has just started to consciously react to the outside world. What level of knowledge can we expect of such a child to have?

We have no hope to assess how the next millennia will shape our religions. And what do we know about the millions of years to come? To say that we have not the slightest idea would be an understatement. And yet, the Scriptures produced during the last few thousand years are considered not only inerrant, but also to remain unchanged for the billions of years to come. To believe this requires a huge portion of faith.

The role of all religions as a force for good appears to be in decline. Only some religions are inherently pacifist: Buddhism, the Bahá’í faith, Taoism, Unitarianism/Unitarian Universalism, and the Anabaptist wing of Christianity fall into this category. However, the tradition is very old. The very early Christian movement was pacifist. A second example was the Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu (c. 470-439 BCE) who argued that universal love for all was in accord with the will of heaven and was to the benefit of human beings.

In religions where images of violence, warfare, and martial exploits are prominent (such as in the Abrahamic religions), the elimination of all passages in the holy texts that incite to violence would certainly go some way towards rectifying the situation. But more should be done. Religion should be a positive force and not to stay on the sidelines in situations like that in Rwanda in 1994, where about 800,000 people were massacred even though 93% of the population are Christians. Also, regretfully, the world has no specific safeguards to prevent the misuse of religion in such tragedies as the Jonestown suicide, the Branch Davidian resistance in Waco, and the Solar Temple and the Heaven’s Gate deaths.

Unfortunately, there is little or no hope that the sacred scriptures of the world's religions will be edited to remove offensive commandments promoting violence. This concerns passages that provide a ready-made pretext for all shades of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu fundamentalists to engage not just in intolerant rhetoric but also in violent actions they consider just. The alternative to removing the respective statements from the Scriptures would be to accept the following comment by Peter B. Medawar: "The only certain way to cause a religious belief to be held by everyone is to liquidate non-believers." 4

Only religion can justify the destruction of human life sanctimoniously. It is a serious mistake to downplay the problem of religious violence in 'sacred' texts. The violence-of-God tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian New Testament, and the Qur’an must be understood and challenged if we are to have any realistic hope of building a peaceful and tolerant world. Change, of course, is profoundly difficult for those who believe in God's inspiration of the authors, and the inerrancy of the entire text. 

The willingness to trample on the rights of those who believe differently may best be understood as the consequence of two fundamental misconceptions:

bulletThat for one religion to be true all the other ones must be false, and
bulletThat all religious doctrines and practices considered false must be destroyed.

A careful consideration of both these notions is long overdue.

Unless the religious traditions leading to violence and intolerance are named, exposed, and countered, there is little hope that the opposite traditions conducive to peace, compassion, justice, understanding of others, and tolerance, will find meaningful expression.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. From Jude 1:3: Christian Scriptures, King James Version.
  2. Johannes J.G. Jansen, "The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism," Hurst, (1997).
  3. Pope Pius IX, "Syllabis Errorum (Syllabus of Errors)," Contained in the encyclical Quanta Cura, (1864-DEC-08). See: http://www.ewtn.com/ This encyclical is unrelated to an earlier encyclical in 1741 with the same title; it discussed alms giving.
  4. Peter B. Medawar, "The Limits of Science," Oxford University Press, (1986).

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Copyright © 2006 by Vladimir Tomek
Original publishing date: 2006-SEP-25
Latest update on: 2006-SEP-25
Author: Vladimir Tomek

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