Monotheism, Polytheism, and Violence
By 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
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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