Not in God's name examines 'altruistic evil'.

Author:Arkelian, John

"WHEN RELIGION turns men into murderers, God weeps... Too often in the history of religion, people have killed in the name of the God of life, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the God of love, and practiced cruelty in the name of the God of compassion." The poisonous persistence of man's inhumanity to man is inextricably rooted in our propensity, eagerness even, to see the world in terms of "us" and "them." In Not in God's Name, Jonathan Sacks examines altruistic evil--that is, "evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals"--which turns "ordinary people into cold-blooded murderers of schoolchildren." Hatred motivated by religion may be the most pernicious: it encourages us to demonize the other and to do monstrous things in the name of the good.

As a Jewish rabbi and scholar, Sacks focuses on three great monotheistic religions that claim common lineage to Abraham. It's an apt canvas to reflect on the psychological and sociological origins of evil--and to propose "a theology of the Other," which posits that violence done in the name of religion is sacrilege and that we are instead called upon by our creator to love not just our neighbour but also the stranger: "It is not difficult to love your neighbor as yourself because in many respects your neighbor is like yourself. He or she belongs to the same nation, the same culture, the same economy, the same political dispensation, the same fate of peace or war... What is difficult is loving the stranger."

Why are we so prone to fear and hate the stranger? Man's loyalties originally attached to his blood kin, to his tribe, then to ever-larger units, leading up to the nation state. The glue that bound such large number of peoples together was, historically, often religion. But, in the 20th century, we introduced modern substitutes: allegiance to a nation, race or political ideology--secular idols that spawned the wretched, murderous likes of Nazi Germany and Communism. Today, we try to dampen down the craving for tribalistic identity by embracing either universalism (we are all part of the family of man) or individualism (which seeks to dethrone "the group" entirely). Neither alternative provides satisfying answers to the questions "Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?" But "radical, politicized religion" offers easy answers to those questions: hence its return with a vengeance, and its appeal to those who crave "identity and community." We live in...

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