God is Dangerous

by Ulrich Beck Monday, Sep. 22, 2008 at 2:45 AM

Faith and religion could be a force for peace after militarism and intolerance are excised as false corrupted consciousness. Prejudice could be a stepping stone to the event of understanding, the fusion of horizons (H.G.Gadamer,Truth and Method).

The truth that sets us free is a process, not a cudgel.


Religion always hides a totalitarian core. Five theses of the sociologist and author Ulrich Beck

By Ulrich Beck

[This article published on: Zeit Online 52/2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.zeit.de/2007/52/Essay-Religion.]

Christmas is deceptive. The mysteriously empty churches in Western Europe are filled with three-day-Christians. They are casual or occasional believers who consume the religious re-enchantment of the daily routine as a church theater service on the high holidays of Christmas, Easter and possibly Pentecost. But is Christmas still the feast of love? This is also deceptive. Religion can be an invention of the devil. One preaches charity and the next moment hatred and deadly hostility. A totalitarian temptation inheres in all humanity. Here are five theses:

First thesis: Religion makes one characteristic absolute – believing. Measured by this, all other social distinctions and oppositions are insignificant. The New Testament says: “Everyone is equal before God.” This equality, this cancellation of boundaries separating people, groups and societies and cultures is the social foundation of (Christian) religion. As a result, a new fundamental distinction and hierarchy is set in the world with the same absoluteness annulling social and political differences – between believers and unbelievers. The status of persons is generally denied unbelievers according to the logic of this duality. Religions can build bridges between people where hierarchies and borders exist. At the same time they tear open new religion-defined abysses between people where none existed. The humanitarian universalism of believers rests on identification with God and demonization of God’s opponents who are “servants of Satan” as Paul and Luther said. The seed of religiously motivated violence lies in the universalism of the equality of believers withdrawn from unbelievers or persons believing differently: dignity of fellow-persons, equality in a world of strangers. The spreading anxiety is that a new age of darkness threatens as the other side of the failure of secularization. German health ministers warn: religion kills and may not be passed on to youths under 18.

The demonization of the religious other can be illustrated in the so-called mixed marriage war that raged (and rages) between catholic and protestant Christians in the 19th and 20th centuries. This confession fundamentalism that does not want to see and acknowledge other Christians in unbelievers is rejected more and more by active believers. A reversal of the burden of proof regarding ecumenical cooperation occurs here (cf. sociologist Hans Joes).

Second thesis: The question “What is religion?” provokes a euro-centric response. Where religion is understood as a noun, a clearly definable social system of symbols and practices is assumed that builds an either-or. One can either believe or not believe. If one is a member of one community of faith, one cannot belong to another. In this sense it is sensible and necessary to distinguish between Religion” and “religious,” between religion as a noun and religious as an adjective. The noun “religion” orders the religious field according to the logic of either-or. The adjective “religious” arranges the field according to the logic of both-and. Being religious is not based on membership to a certain group or organization. Rather being religious defines a certain attitude to existential questions on the position and self-image of the person in the world. Is there a two-sided or Janus-faced relation between charity and deadly hatred primarily for “religion” and perhaps not for “religious”? Can the violent, monotheistic either-or be relativized, avoided or de-activated through a syncretistic tolerance of both-and?

In western societies that have internalized the autonomy of the individual as a principle, the individual person in ever-greater independence creates little faith-narratives about “his own God” matching “his own” life and “his own” experiential horizon. But “his own God” is not the One God who dictates salvation by seizing history and authorizing intolerance and violence. Are we witnessing a transformation of the monotheism of religion into a polytheism of the religious under the sign of “one’s own God”?

In Japan this syncretistic tolerance is practiced in institutional forms and does not only spread hiddenly in a freewheeling religiosity. The people see no problem in visiting a Shinto-shrine at certain times of the year, arranging marriage according to a Christian ceremony and being buried by a Buddhist monk. The sociologist of religion Peter L. Berger tells of the Japanese philosopher Nakamura who summarized this: “The West is responsible for two fundamental errors. One is monotheism – there is only one God – and the other is the Aristotelian principle of contradiction – something is either A or not A. Every intelligent person in Asia knows there are many gods and that things can be both A and not-A.”

Third thesis: What is the new after religions have overcome seemingly iron territorial and national borders and torn open new abysses between believers and non-believers? The technological communication network and the resulting universal neighborhood of the world lead to the contact and penetration of the world religions and to a clash of universalisms, to an all-pervasive clash of revelation truths and tendencies of mutual demonization of foreign believers whose human dignity is at our disposal. Every believer and non-believing person, whatever their orientation in faith or unbelief, sees himself in the household of believers (or atheists) and puts himself in the state of potential outlawry of unbelievers in the eyes of the religious others. This forced shift awakens vague fears, political antagonisms and conflicts that are religiously charged and could explode in violence.

A new line of conflict between these faith orientations may be very important in the future. Doubts can be seen as a moment of the rescue of religion and the rescue of those resisting doubt and barricading themselves in the fabricated “purity” of their faith. “Hard religions offer very much to consumers,” the theologian Friedrich Wilhelm Graf laments, “a strong, stable identity, a crisis-resistant interpretation of the world and time, orderly family structures and networks of solidarity.”

Fighting the “dictatorship of relativism,” pope Benedict XVI defends the catholic hierarchy of truth that follows a game-logic: faith trumps intelligence. The Christian faith trumps all other kinds of faith (especially Islam). The Roman-catholic faith trumps all other Christian brothers of faith and the pope is the highest trump among the truth cards of catholic orthodoxy.

Fourth thesis: God’s nationalization leads to the naturalization of intolerance and violence. The emphasis on the “substitute religion” of nationalism ultimately trivializes what happened in Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries, namely the “Germanization of Christianity.” Where national stereotypes prevail, tolerance between the religions is the first to die off. The persecution of Jews up to deportation became a “new confirmation of a Jewish fate underlined in the Bible” for the Protestant church, as the church historian Arnold Angenendt summarized. The aggressive accelerating anti-Semitism of Protestant communities obeyed the state-decreed anti-Semitism. Correspondingly there was even “a prohibition on the Christian use of the Jewish star in church services” since 1941. What remained underexposed for a long time was the “methodological nationalism” of the historical disciplines and theologies. In other words, one accepted the standardized friend-enemy division for the nation and religion and excluded the alternatives of transnational and inter-religious tolerance from the horizon of the possible. In this sense, the nationalism of Protestant theologians disfigured the understanding of religion. Up to today this often led to the negative answer to the question about the potential tolerance of religion crucial for the 21st century or not even seriously raising it.

Fifth thesis: Assuming the hope of secularism, the modern age means less religion, is false, the question about a civilized coexistence of hostile world religions is posed with new urgency. How is a type of inter-religious tolerance possible where charity does not mean deadly hatred, a type of tolerance whose goal is peace and not truth?

In “Nathan the Wise,” Lessing drafts a model for this. The enlightened deeply mistrusts the dream of the one truth dreamt by philosophers for a century. Truth never only involves truth but according to Lessing much more, namely humanliness or peace as we would say today. Lessing saw the antithesis between the one truth and the cosmopolitan acknowledgment of many religious truths. However Nathan’s “wisdom” lies in the ploy of following both priorities, namely the absolutist truth of religion and peace at the same time.

The idea was taken up in the 20th century by Mahatma Gandhi and changed into a world-changing policy. Seeing the world, even the world of one’s religion, through the eyes of the other is vital.

As a young man Gandhi went to England to study law. This “round-about-way” into a heartland of the Christian West did not estrange him from Hinduism but deepened his understanding and confession of Hinduism. It was in England on the occasion of an invitation of a friend where Gandhi began his eye-opening study of the Bhagavad-Gita in an English translation. Afterwards he began an intensive study of Hindu texts in Sanskrit. Through the eyes of his western friends, he was moved to discover the spiritual riches of his own Hindu-tradition.

The seed of his cosmopolitan role in India’s liberation movement from the colonial yoke of the English was sown in England, blossomed during his intense studies in his years in South Africa and bore fruits after his return to India in 1915.

The “problem” of Islam is spiritedly argued and debated in “secular” Europe. Under the world battles of religious warriors, the trick of corporative surplus value secretly gains reality and importance. Groups can be intolerant regarding the theology of the other but can work together creatively to realize shared public interests. The theological dogma guardians could learn from this “reason of double religion.” Today the question how far truth can be replaced by peace will decide over the continued existence of humanity. But isn’t the hope for a charity without deadly hostility the most improbable, naïve, foolish and absurd thing that one can hope for?

Ulrich Beck teaches sociology at the University of Munich and at the London School of Economics. His last two books are “Die eigene Gott” (The Nationalized God) and “Weltrisikogesellschaft” (World Risk Society).