(Editor's note: This post was written by Alon Levy.)
Although I am an atheist, I am a God-fearing person. More precisely, I fear the people who speak for this entity and derive their ethics and general worldview from it. By subordinating the needs of human beings to the needs of a God, religion is clearly authoritarian. God’s will is not subject to dispute, except for a court-like debate on what scripture or oral tradition means. Even the US constitution, which Americans revere religiously, can be changed with a sufficient majority; God’s word cannot be. God can be benevolent at times, but so can a totalitarian dictator—in the Soviet Union, nobody starved after the collectivization programs of the 1930s unless the state wanted him dead, in direct contrast to many third-world countries plagued by famine.
The point that religion has done a great deal of good is irrelevant. It is true that Martin Luther King was deeply religious, and had religious motives. But his rhetoric was as humanist as it was religious, and the movement he led contained religious and secular people alike. Furthermore, Martin Luther King is an odd if saintly case; more common among leaders of progressive movements are religious people who are very oppressive on other issues, such as William Jennings Bryan, who crusaded for creationism in the Scopes trial. In general, religious groups often mobilize against communist oppression, but not against fascist oppression, which usually goes hand in hand with fusion of church and state. While the exceptions, that is religious groups that oppose all tyranny, including their own, are laudable, they are in the minority everywhere in the world.
Religion is totalitarian because of its near-complete destruction of the private sphere. The social structure of theocracy permeates all aspects of life, including not just the public space, but also private space issues such as clothing, food, sex, what books one is allowed to read, and what people one is allowed to associate with. In these spheres there is strict control; the Taliban’s beard patrols are the most egregious example of this, but it differs from John Ashcroft’s covering of a nude statue only by quantity, not by quality.
Further, variation on the approved line of thought is not tolerated. Academics base their research on reality rather than scripture, and are hence vilified and, when religion gains enough power, persecuted. Disagreement with scripture is heresy, punishable by death in theocracies. Books are banned; heretics are murdered; science is suppressed; freedom of thought is nonexistent. Some religions are milder about this than others, but this is always because somebody is forcing them to; in India, for example, Hindu mobs rather than the state burn Muslims because the constitution is forcing the state to be secular.
Many religious people claim that their religion is actually tolerant and peaceful, and the extremists are hijacking the religion. The claim about peace is sometimes true, since many Christian and Muslim sects oppose both American imperialism and Al Qaida. As far as scriptures go, both the Koran and the New Testament contain passages promoting the holy war to spread the word and passages exalting peace, so this is not a good test. However, these devout Christians or Muslims seldom oppose other oppressive aspects of their respective religions. When the time came to take a stance on the religious statement in the USA’s pledge of allegiance—itself a fascist concept—hardly anyone opposed it, not even the churches that support gay marriage and abortions. Liberal Muslims who oppose anti-Semitism, veiling, and homophobia exist, but are insignificant in power and numbers compared to conservative, mainstream Islam.
Further, opposing the bad apples in your group is not enough; you have to also show that following your ideology does not lead to totalitarianism. Liberalism has its shady past too, in particular the corporate supremacy of the late 19th century in the West, but modern liberalism has absorbed enough socialist ideas for this to never happen again in a liberal state. The left-wing radicals of the 1960s were generally against authoritarianism as well as against capitalism, so if the student protests of May 1968 had toppled the French government, there would have been no risk of communist tyranny ensuing. However, this break with the shady past hardly exists in religions. Nowadays the Catholic Church is recurrently apologizing for past atrocities while still committing some, with strict opposition to abortion being the greatest. Protestants no longer murder Jews, but demonize Muslims instead; there are still no massacres only because the basically secular governments will not allow it.
Therefore, we have several world religions, which oppress women, invade people’s privacy, make shambles of free speech, and murder heathens. Further, although only the extremists actively pursue totalitarianism, the moderates are by and large very shrill and afraid to take a stand. Only when there is violence do moderate factions voice their dissent, and even then, they fail to answer the question, “How do you know you are immune to this?” What do Muslim pacifists do to quell the beheadings in Iraq? The religious liberals’ actions are commendable, but the religious conservatives do little more than wash their hands off this barbarism. The same applies to Christianity and Christian atrocities, although these are more confined to the past.
Now, I should get back to my original point about fearing religion. In the past twenty-five years, religion has been on the rise in several key areas of the world: the United States, the Islamic world, and India. Europe is not exactly undergoing religious revivalism, but runs the risk of one if Christianity is seen as the only counter to Islam. China was never religious, but it has always been authoritarian, and is now only taking baby steps toward liberal democracy. Latin America’s religious revival is very recent and not encompassing all countries, but still exists.
This revivalism is problematic, to say the least, for it goes hand in hand with decrease in individual liberty. If we should have learned anything from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, it is that authoritarianism and modern technology mix to form a catastrophic result. American liberals are decrying the lack of social justice in the Religious Right, but not the fact that the rise of religion is necessarily oppressive. Saddam Hussein and the Shah were brutal tyrants, but offered women many more rights than do the fundamentalists who took control of Iran and are nigh taking control of Iraq.
If indeed large swaths of the world slip to religious totalitarianism, this will be worse than when communism seemed invulnerable in two ways: one, theocracy plays on people’s tradition and culture, to which communism has never really connected, and two, religious revival is in progress in several areas of the world, so there will not be a great power opposing fundamentalism the way the USA opposed communism. The faint light at the end of the tunnel is that communist states did not fight one another too much, whereas fundamentalist states of different religions are very likely to, given the rhetoric of Pat Robertson on the one hand and Osama bin Laden on the other. Still, it’s likely that a properly configured global system of theocracies will result in a second Dark Age similar in length to the first.
While Hindu fundamentalism suffered a setback in the 2004 election, this does not reflect any permanent improvement, and meanwhile, Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are only on the rise. In the United States, organizations such as Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition are getting stronger by the day, a trend that outweighs the increasingly liberal attitude of Americans toward gay rights. In the Islamic world, there simply isn’t any strong liberal organization; there are writers and activists who try to revive the rationalistic tradition of ijtihad, but they are weaker than the religious fanatics by several orders of magnitude.
The power of religion is increasing, and with it, so do the prospects of totalitarianism in the 21st century. Along with China, nonreligious but authoritarian, we have the Islamic bloc, India, and the United States, plus possibly Latin America. The religions these last four regions sport are all anti-humanistic, anti-individualistic, and anti-liberty. All the good causes they support pale in comparison to the suffering they cause. Their rise terrifies me, for it has the potential to cast a long shadow on the future of humanity.