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Is Religion To Blame for the Decline of Democracy?

At the end of 1995, I had an unsettling glimpse of the future. I was living in Israel at the time and keeping up my hobby of penpaling, including writing to a man about my age in India (I was in my twenties). On Saturday night, November 4, 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a far-right, “religious” supporter of the movement to settle Israeli Jews in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The assassin was angry that Rabin was making territorial concessions to the Palestinian national movement under the Oslo Accords, whose goal was to produce an Israeli Jewish state and a Palestinian state living side by side in peace. About half of Israeli Jews, the “national camp,” considered this a terrible mistake. I was with the other half, the “peace camp,” who considered the two-state formula, a variation on the solution proposed by the UN back in 1947, to be the salvation of Israel as a country both democratic and majority Jewish, and a way to end the multi-generational conflict with the Arab and Muslim world.

It happened to be the first Saturday night of my mandatory service on the Israel Defense Force (IDF). I was finishing up my first stint of guard duty when the news broke, and I remember screaming, “No!” and sobbing, as I stood there in my olive-drab uniform with my army-issue M-16 slung over my shoulder. Most of Israeli society was as shocked and grief-stricken as I was. Rabin had been IDF Chief of Staff during the Six-Day War of 1967 (before I was born), and was widely credited with saving the country from certain destruction and leading it to a tremendous victory that resounded around the world. To me, then and now, there are few figures more noble than that of the warrior who seeks to make peace, a view I have held ever since. My reverence for Rabin is unshaken, even though I have since come to the heartbreaking conclusion that the Israeli “national camp” was right to consider the Oslo Accords a terrible mistake, because the Palestinian national movement was not ready to make peace with the Jewish state on any terms, not then and not now.

But for a significant part of the “national camp,” including the assassin, Oslo was not just a mistake, it was a crime, not just against the state of Israel and the Jewish people, but against God. The Supreme Being had granted the Jewish people eternal title to the Complete Land of Israel, which includes all of Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and so to give up any part of it was to rebel against God. (Never mind that the Torah, the foundational Five Books of Moses, couldn’t be any clearer: the Jewish people’s claim to the Land of Israel is conditional on obeying all of God’s commandments, in the terms laid out by the Torah. But nationalistic-religious movements are past masters of reading their own Holy Scriptures with extreme selectivity.)

When I wrote to my Indian penpal about my sorrow and outrage, he, who identified as a Hindu, wrote back that he sympathized with the assassin! I never wrote to him again. Little did I realize I had just been afforded a peak into the twenty-first century, and one of the many mind-bending paradoxes of our time, the International of Extreme Nationalists. (The old Communist International, which claimed to represent the transnational interests of the “proletariat,” in fact stood for the national interests of Russia alone. But I digress.) I had also been given a preview of the rise of intolerant Hindutva, now wreaking such havoc in the world’s largest democracy. Around twenty years later, I was amused to read that some Hindus were suggesting slyly that religious intolerance was a problem of the monotheistic religions and their “jealous God,” while polytheism was inherently more tolerant. I trust the deeds of Narendra Modi and his thuggish followers have laid that notion to rest. For that matter, well-meaning but ignorant Westerners who assume Buddhism to be an inherently peaceful religion can’t have been paying very close to attention to recent events in Myanmar, where the murderous military regime and civilian Buddhists alike have been driving Rohingya Muslims out of the country.

Americans tend to assume the problem of aggressive religion in politics refers to right-wing Christianity, especially of the evangelical variety and its increasingly tight embrace of the MAGA movement. But as this brief survey has already shown, the problem is far broader than that. And I haven’t even mentioned the Islamist movements and the crimes they have committed, the majority of their victims being fellow Muslims who aren’t pure enough for them. No amount of special pleading by American progressives who only want to know about Muslims victimized by intolerant American Christians can wish that reality away, either. So-called fundamentalist movements have been spreading among all the major world religions for fifty years, posing a threat to humanity as a whole, especially when they link up with aggressive nationalist movements. This is the wilderness Iran has been lost in for over forty years, Pakistan for about the same amount of time, Afghanistan again, and now India as well, while America teeters on the brink.

It’s only natural that these movements have triggered a counterreaction from aggressive atheists, including some raised deep within these fanatical worlds, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It’s not for me or anyone else to object that their rebellion to secure their own freedom and that of others goes too far. But others of us who are fortunate enough not to have had to make such agonizing breaks with our own families should be careful about tarring “religion” itself as the enemy. Religion appears to be a basic property of most societies, and attempts to actually stamp it out, as in Communist countries, are themselves outrages to human freedom and dignity. Those efforts don’t even solve the supposed problem they purport to address, as Marxist thought simply becomes a new unquestionable dogma, and the Leader of the Party, all too often, a figure worshipped as a god. A very different spirit of religion has been an engine of liberation in the struggle against Nazi and Soviet tyranny and, in America, the fight against Jim Crow, from the 1950s until today. Just as Americans dare not let MAGAs claim the flag, American Christians must not let them claim the Cross.

One thought on “Is Religion To Blame for the Decline of Democracy?

  1. Religious dogma blocks the live experience of in-moment, mirror-neuronal Empathy, causing the emotion to instead route through the logic centers (past and future), thereby cutting religious adherents off from actually BECOMING Empathic, compassionate, and understanding.

    Religion IS the enemy to anyone who places FACTS and KNOWLEDGE over BLIND “FAITH.”

    The reason they’re blind is because their heads are in the sand.

    One’s Core is either aligned with TRUTH… or with something else.

    And the vast, VAST majority of those I interact with who are religious think they have absolutely NOTHING to learn about loving another.

    Even *I* don’t think that about myself, and I’m a goddamn Bodhisattva.


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