Is there any better proof of the danger of organized religion than the mess in the Middle East, particularly the Israel/Palestine conflict?
It’s not as if there’s no competition for the title of “bad things done for religion”. From those who wear the cross, we have the Ugandan LRA murdering people in the name of God, Nigerian Christians burning children for witchcraft, Lebanese Christians committing the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982, sectarian warfare and terrorism between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, and of course, the Nazi regime, who marched into battle with the words “God is with us” (in German) engraved on their belt buckles. It’s also noteworthy that Christians were the first to employ chemical warfare and nuclear warfare, as well as saturation bombing of cities. This doesn’t even include atrocities committed before the 20th century.
The Muslims, for their part, have been responsible for terrorism in the Middle East, the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, and countless abuses against human rights in the name of Sharia Law (which is roughly as tyrannical as ancient Jewish Mosaic Law).
The Jews have had limited global power throughout much of the 20th century, but in Israel, we are again seeing what happens when an organized religion (even a small one) gains military and political power. Orthodox Jews get special funding from the Israeli government, special exemptions from their social responsibilities to that government, and military protection for their expansionist settlement agenda. This agenda inflames hostility throughout the region, makes peace impossible, and creates endless headaches for Israeli moderates and their US allies: none of which they care about, because their faith compels them to it.
So why pick the whole Israel/Palestine situation as the best proof of the danger of organized religion? It’s a good pick because it’s current, it’s obviously not going away for a long time, both sides openly quote religion as their motivation, and you hardly ever meet anyone who’s neutral on the issue, even though both sides are clearly wrong.
Religion has a “Get out of Jail Free” card
Do you ever wonder why Muslims around the world tend to downplay Palestinian misdeeds? Perhaps it’s similar to the way Judeo-Christians around the world tend to downplay Christian or Israeli misdeeds. If you’re a Christian, did you bristle at my list of Christian atrocities earlier? If so, why? It’s factual. Did you start making up a counter-accusation list? That’s the defensive reaction kicking in, which is the same reason Muslims make excuses for Palestine.
Every religion has a “get out of jail free” card from its own followers: they take offense at criticism regardless of whether it’s true. This is precisely why every religious conflict becomes so intractable: each side always thinks its own atrocities are not important, and that the other side’s atrocities are unforgivable.
And let’s make no mistake: Israel/Palestine is a religious conflict. The heated dispute over Jerusalem is a good example: what makes the city so special, if not religion? If Judaism, Islam, and Christianity did not have holy sites there, then why would anyone fight over it? Proximity to the Dead Sea? Huge oil deposits we don’t know about? People are fighting over Jerusalem for one and only one reason: their religious beliefs.
Israel is formally defined as a “Jewish state” by its own government. This seems benign to us because it is a religion. Would it seem benign if it were an ethnicity? Suppose the state of Utah decided to declare that it is officially a “white state”. Would that seem benign to you? I suspect that such a declaration would lead to a political firestorm the likes of which we have never seen, yet it is considered perfectly reasonable for Israel to declare that it is officially “Jewish”. Why the double standard? The Holocaust? The mistreatment of a race, no matter how horrific, does not mean that they should get a free pass on anything they do in the future.
Religious alliances trump logic
Political alliances exist for mutual benefit. If one side finds that an alliance is causing it pain, it will usually do the logical thing and sever that alliance. However, religious alliances are an altogether different animal: religious alliances ignore material gain or pain. For example, the medieval Crusader states raised large armies and sent them to the middle east, to fight the Muslims. They did this because of their mutual religious alliances to the Catholic Church. From a material perspective, these enormously expensive campaigns gained them nothing, yet they undertook them anyway. This is the power of religious alliances.
Similarly, the present-day middle east furnishes us with more examples of religious alliances which trump logic. Belief in bizarre World Trade Centre conspiracy theories (in which the US secretly destroyed the towers themselves) runs high among Muslims, and it’s certainly not for logical reasons; there is no logic behind such conspiracy theories. Its true basis is more likely an emotional desire to exonerate the terrorists with whom they share a religious affiliation.
Of course, this brings us back to Israel, and its “friend”, the United States. Is this a religious alliance, or a practical one? Let’s see … the United States consistently votes against any UN resolution against any Israeli activity, regardless of the merits of the individual resolution. The United States stormed out of the 2001 Durban conference on racism when Israel’s anti-Arab policies were mentioned. The United States sends billions of dollars of military aid to Israel every year. The United States invaded Iraq in 2003, supposedly because it was threatened by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but even the imaginary WMDs they described could not possibly hit America. These imaginary WMDs could, however, hit Israel, which the US treated as a threat to itself and responded to accordingly, at enormous cost.
In return for the United States’ extraordinarily generous aid, Israel gives the United States … nothing. Despite the fact that the United States has basically been dragged into Israel’s war with its neighbours, Israel is completely unapologetic about its confrontational policies and does not even respond to US entreaties to change its inflammatory settlement policy in the Occupied Territories. And then there’s the infamous USS Liberty incident. If this is a friendship, it is an incredibly one-sided one. In fact, it is so one-sided that its persistence cannot really be explained through any other mechanism than religious affiliation. Not for nothing is the phrase “Judeo-Christian values” commonly thrown about in American political discourse: in the late 20th century, American Christians decided that the restoration of Israel should be a goal of all Christians, and thus a religious alliance was born. Therefore, as with all religious alliances, it ignores material gain or pain.
“Ah, but what about democracy?” one might ask. After all, Israel is valued by the United States because of its “democratic values”, not because of some goofy religious prophecy about the Rapture and the return of Israel and rebuilding of the Temple, right? Well, that’s where the marketing clashes with the reality: the United States has never shown any particular inclination to protect “democracy” in its foreign relations. In 1953, they engineered a coup in Iran to replace a democratically elected leader with the Shah: a dictatorial monarch who promised oil in return for their help. In the 1980s, the US gave the tyrannical dictator Saddam Hussein billions of dollars, hoping that he could contain Iran (which had since overthrown the hated Shah). In 1991, the US went to war with Saddam Hussein in order to protect Kuwait, which is ruled by a monarch. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the US has been normalizing its relations with China, which is increasingly capitalistic but has no interest in democracy. The pattern here does not seem to support the notion that the US chooses its friends and enemies based on “democracy”. Instead, it seems perfectly willing to befriend dictators or antagonize democracies, which leads us back to square one: this appears to be a religious alliance.
So which side is at fault? I’d say “both”. Sure, I suppose a longer answer would be nice, but frankly, there are much better resources out there if you want to study the history of the conflict. I’m not writing this to create an academic paper or a research source. I’m just suggesting that you stop trying to figure out which side is worse and just notice that neither side is making serious efforts to end it. Negotiations are made in extraordinarily bad faith, with neither side intending to honour any of its promises. Lately, they don’t even bother making these empty promises, and why should they? Each side knows that its respective supporters don’t really care how they behave; they won’t switch sides. Each side’s supporters trot out examples of the other side’s sins, without acknowledging their own.
And why won’t they switch sides? Religion appears to be the culprit again. Just look at the consistency with which people line up to take sides which just happen to line up with their religious affiliation. Isn’t it interesting how, after all the arguments and talking points and factoids people raise in defense of their position, it always ends up aligning with their religion? What a remarkable coincidence. Even the intensity of religious belief affects the position: moderate American Christians are more likely to take a middle-ground position, while hard-line fundamentalist American Christians are more likely to treat Israel as a shining force of light surrounded by a sea of evil.
Everyone likes the “two state solution”, and it’s certainly better than the current “one state with a couple of giant apartheid ghettoes” situation, but they would be fighting over water rights forever. Another solution comes to mind: abandon the “two state solution” and make Israel a true liberal democracy, with separation of religion and state and equal rights for all, thus ending the apartheid state which currently exists in the occupied territories. However, the likelihood of people actually adopting this solution seems remote, unless Islam and Orthodox Judaism lose their political power in the region. At the end of the day, religion may be only one of many sources of conflict in our world, but it is a source which is peculiarly immune to the practical considerations of material gain or pain. This makes it intractable, and that is why our grandchildren will still be reading about this mess.