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Why Biblical Religions Are an Obstacle to Freedom

Shadia B. Drury


The following Op-Ed is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 25, Number 3.

When I speak about biblical religions, I mean the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths. It is fashionable in the West to speak about the "Judeo-Christian" tradition, as if Christian civilization has not been killing and persecuting Jews for two thousand years. The term Judeo-Christian gives the impression that Christianity and Judaism are somewhat allied and compatible. In contrast, Islam is regarded as the enemy-the incomprehensible and irrational other. But this is not the case; the difference between the "Judeo-Christian" civilization and the Muslim one is not as significant as we are inclined to believe. It is my contention that there are at least three aspects of biblical religion that present obstacles to freedom: (1) the depravity of human nature; (2) the singular conception of virtue; and (3) the collective conception of guilt.

First, biblical religions are suspicious of freedom, because they assume that human beings are severely flawed and, therefore, unlikely to use their freedom well. They assume that freedom can only lead to licentiousness, decadence, and disorder. When Joseph de Maistre, the reactionary critic of the French Revolution, said that "man is too wicked to be free," he was speaking candidly on behalf of the whole biblical tradition. A liberal society, a society that regards freedom as its supreme value, is therefore antithetical to the biblical understanding of humanity as radically flawed.

There is no doubt some truth in this biblical understanding of the human condition. In a society that places freedom above virtue in its hierarchy of ends, there will always be some individuals who will abuse their freedom. But if a society is to be free, it must have some tolerance for private vice-vice that does not involve harming others. Religious fundamentalists -- Jewish, Christian, and Islamic -- have zero tolerance for private vice. They prefer a society in which virtue, not freedom, is the supreme value.

Virtue is no doubt a wonderful thing. But it cannot be the supreme goal of social and political organization. The reason is that there is more than one conception of virtue and more than one way to live a righteous life. Politics is about how different people with different conceptions of virtue and different beliefs about ultimate truth can live together peacefully. But biblical religions are singular and autocratic when it comes to virtue, and this is the second reason that they present an obstacle to freedom.

The Christian tradition is a particularly good illustration of intolerance. In the Christian tradition, sin is defined as unbelief. Jesus set the stage. He identified righteousness with believing in him and considered wickedness to be the reverse: "for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins" (John 8:24). The assumption is that there is only one way to be righteous and only one route to salvation: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh to the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). Not surprisingly, Christians followed Jesus in defining wickedness as not believing what Christians believed.

Aquinas was true to Jesus when he said that "unbelief is the greatest of sins." This assumption has been the source of untold wickedness in the history of the Church. It explains the profound intolerance that has led Christians to persecute others, not for doing harm, but simply for being unbelievers or for harboring what Christian authorities thought were false beliefs. The Inquisition and the burning of witches, heretics, and Jews are some examples of what happened when the Church had political power. It is not a question of bad people perverting a good religion. Far from being an aberration that is not representative of Christianity, the persecution of heretics follows logically from the connection of faith and salvation as presented by Jesus in the Gospels.

When virtue becomes the supreme value in a society, the result is the criminalization of "sin" as defined by the sacred texts-and as these texts are interpreted by the powerful. You end up with a society that resembles the reign of the English Puritans in seventeenth-century England-they abolished Christmas because it was too much fun and there was too much pleasure and indulgence associated with it. Or you end up with a society that resembles the reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan of recent memory: no music; no dancing; no kite flying; no films; no female voices singing on the radio; no female voices broadcasting the news; and no female arms, ankles, or faces seen in public. All these harmless freedoms and pleasures are supposedly too obscene-unlike public executions, stoning, burning witches, or tormenting Jews.
The third reason that biblical religions are an obstacle to free societies is their attachment to the concept of collective guilt. The biblical God tends to punish the whole community for the sins of the few. In fact, the biblical God brags about his penchant for that kind of justice: ". . . I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me . . ." (Exodus 20:5). Time and again, the anger falls on the whole community for the transgressions of some. Some of the Hebrew prophets, such as Jeremiah, rightly objected to this divine justice and looked forward to a new covenant in which "everyone shall die for his own iniquity" (Jeremiah 31:30). Ezekiel echoed the same principle (Ezekiel 18:20), but to no avail. When Jesus came, things got even worse. Jesus took it for granted that all men and women are justly condemned for the sins of their ancestors-Adam and Eve. Jesus supposedly came to bear the punishment that we justly deserve for original or inherited sin.

The story of Samson's attack on the temple of the Philistines is another example of the collective nature of biblical justice (Judges 16:26-31). Samson's terrorist act on the Philistines is presented by the biblical authors as an act of God, who wished to punish the Philistines for their iniquity. The biblical God punished the Philistines as a people. He was indifferent to the innocence of individuals. Supposedly, there are no innocent Philistines.

After the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, some Muslim clerics denounced the terrorists as people who are using religion for their own political purposes. But saying that the terrorist attacks had nothing to do with Islam is like saying that the Inquisition and the Crusades had nothing to do with Christianity. It is certainly true that the Qur'an bids every believer to embark on a jihad against evil in his heart. But it also bids believers to fight against the evil of the infidels. More honest Islamic clerics and commentators declared that Muhammad Atta and the other terrorists were instruments of God punishing the Americans for their iniquity and that there are no innocent Americans. Christian fundamentalists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson agreed that the terrorist attack was a deserved punishment from God for America's sins. They singled out the sins of feminists, gays, and lesbians as the reason that God decided to punish America. This is a candid expression of the classic biblical view of collective guilt. The Bible is tribal in its perspective; its authors think in terms of peoples and not individuals.

There is no doubt that the biblical concept of collective guilt encourages extremism in dealing with the "enemy." It certainly makes it easier to target unarmed and unsuspecting civilians. No declarations of war are necessary; no rules of war need to be observed; no distinctions need to be made between soldiers and civilians. But what interests me is the obstacle that the concept of collective guilt poses to domestic freedom.

If you believe that God will punish you collectively for the private vices of some of the members of the community-by using hurricanes, floods, famines, earthquakes, or terrorists-you will naturally take a lively interest in the private affairs of others. The notion of collective guilt promotes a meddlesome style of politics that is an obstacle to a free society. Freedom requires a private domain of conduct that is of no concern to others-a domain that does not threaten the interests of others or their equal freedom. But fundamentalists-Jewish, Christian, and Islamic alike-deny the existence of this domain of freedom, and that explains their aversion to secular liberal society. If they had their druthers, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell would create a ministry for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice akin to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In my view, the hard-won freedom of the West is precarious-it has biblical enemies inside and outside. If the majority of Americans begin to agree with their Islamic enemies that freedom is nothing more than a decadent surrender to pleasure, they will launch a jihad against freedom in the name of biblical religion. In the end, America will become more like her enemies-a society where a particular conception of virtue has primacy over liberty. This will not necessarily happen quickly in an apocalyptic manner; but quietly, gradually, and subtly, liberty will be eroded. 



Shadia Drury is Canada Research Chair in Social Justice and Professor of Philosophy and Political Science at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is Terror and Civilization: Christianity, Politics, and the Western Psyche (New York: Palgrave Macmillan at St. Martin's Press, 2004).


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