Monotheism, Polytheism, and Violence -- Sightings

We are often told that monotheism, especially Western monotheism is not just prone to violence, but is inherently violent. Our conversionist temperament is central to that. We are often told as well that non-monotheistic traditions and atheism are not so prone. But is that true? Or must we all reach beyond the violent tendencies/traditions and try the non-violent ones? These are some of the questions that Martin Marty grapples with in yesterday's edition of Sightings, which I post a day late!


Sightings 10/20/08

Monotheism, Polytheism, and Violence

-- Martin E. Marty

"Hindu Threat to Christians: Convert or Flee," Somini Sengupta's front page story in the October 12th New York Times, is part of one day's additions to my bulging clippings file on religiously-inspired terror, war, and violence, in the name of…(fill in the blank). The file bulges as I prepare to speak on "The Monotheists and the Problem of the Other" in Finland. A second assigned topic has me on safer disciplinary grounds, in seminars at the universities of Helsinki and Turku, on the study of church history. The third is a hopeless assignment: Try to make sense of the use of religion in the U.S. Presidential campaign.

Back to "monotheism" and violence, as reflected, for instance, during the past seven weeks in the eastern state of Orissa, India, where Hindu militants force Christians to deny their faith, flee, or get killed. This case is especially interesting because, in the romantic concept of many Westerners, such things are not supposed to happen. It is said that the children of Abraham, being monotheists, find it easy to kill because they are acting in the name of the One God who licenses and sometimes impels adherents to engage in terrorism. It is read and said that such a God—Yahweh, Allah, or the Father of Jesus Christ—is clear and unambiguous about divine purpose, motivating some towards actions that would not be expected in the non-monotheist, and hence non-violent, faiths.

What to do? The American writers called "The New Atheists" have an easy answer: Simply kill off religion, all religions, get rid of God, and utopia can come. However, any review of the 20th century, with its records of the killing of hundreds of millions in the name of state-sponsored atheism, demonstrates that killing off religion will not kill off killing off. Anything but that. So, is the solution simply getting rid of monotheism in favor of alternatives such as polytheism? In South Africa, where decades ago I served as resource for a seminar on religion and violence, a Buddhist, advertising non-violence, was asked what the West would have to give up to promote peace among the religions. Answer: "Dogma" and "Monotheism." Dismissing "dogma" was non-threatening. Pop-religion in the West thinks it can jettison dogma and prosper with feel-good activities. But "Monotheism?" Give it up and have peace, we were told.

But what militants demonstrate—be they victims or oppressors, in Sri Lanka, Orissa, Tibet, Thailand, and elsewhere—is that neither Buddhism nor Hinduism nor Atheism nor other non-Monotheist systems are guarantees against killing in the name of God, gods, or a-god. What my longtime colleague R. Scott Appleby, fellow fundamentalist-tracker, reduced to acronyms as 'VHP-BJP-RSS," was a cluster of "Hindu nationalists" who 1992 attacked the Babri mosque and killed many, non-monotheisitically.

Scholars serve us well by studying what it has been and what it is in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, among others, that spawns extremist movements which arrogate to themselves the right to carry on missions which take lives and threaten peace. Rather than point fingers at "the other" and play games in which people compare whose god(s), texts, and policies are most murderous, those who embody "the better angels of their nature", to use Abraham Lincoln's phrase, bid them to follow the non-violent and peace-seeking elements in their traditions and then take a new look at "the Other." The sacred texts include stories and commands beyond the violent ones. They are less well known and are less well followed. It's their turn.

Reference: Read Somini Sengupta's New York Times article at

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

This month on the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, anthropologist Danilyn Rutherford writes on "The Enchantments of Secular Belief." She examines the "active belief" upon which anthropological work is predicated, drawing on her fieldwork among Biak exiles from New Guinea, her readings of Locke and Hume, and her analysis of the notion of secular belief expressed in the National Public Radio series "This I Believe." Ultimately, she argues that "like Biak appeals to belief, anthropological perspectives on the world lead us to expect the unexpected. This effect does not simply stem from anthropology's power to unsettle the everyday, but also from its method, which entails the impossible belief that one can assume another's point of view." Formal responses will be posted from W. Clark Gilpin (University of Chicago), Malika Zeghal (University of Chicago), and Charles Hirschkind (University of California at Berkeley).


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Anonymous said…
It seems to me that religiously inspired violence stems from a lack of faith; lack of faith that God, whether of the Christian, Hebrew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist variety, is strong enough to vindicate Godself without human assistance.

Alternatively, human adherents presume that if they feel insecure (physically, theologically, economically or culturally) God endorses if not invites violence in God's name to overcome such insecurity. Taking Franklin's motto ("God helps those who help themselves") to the extreme, it is believed that those who help themselves, especially in the name of God, are doing God's work!

The ends justify the means, especially if the preferred end is dominance in the name of God. Human dominance in the name of God becomes confused with the dominance of God.

If Christians draw any meaning at all from Jesus' death on the cross, it should be the message that God's preferred response to threat is non-violent - to the extreme of sacrificial death. And in defense to such violence, God offers resurrection, not vengeance.

If God will not resort to violence in self-defense, isn't it a fair assumption that God eschews interpersonal violence?

In the Noah stories the only evidence of the corruption of humanity compelling the apocalyptic flood is human violence. While there are episodes of violence and allegedly divinely inspired genocide described in the Scriptures, I believe those stories are anomalies, preserved more to remind and caution God's people about the horrors of our own past than to encourage future action in the same vein. I think even the ancient Israelites looked with horror on the stories of genocide. It is the all too human King Saul who is unable to complete the genocide allegedly decreed by God.

It is not the nature of the divine which inspires violence, it is the nature of humanity. Or, put more bluntly, God does not pull the trigger, humans do. And while God
weeps over the graves of our victims, we the perpetrators carry the guilt and the shame and the wounds and the scars. For this God weeps blood.


Popular posts from this blog

Resist and Persist (Erin Wathen) -- A Review

A Mother's Wisdom -- A Sermon for Mother's Day

Is Barton Stone a Eusebian?