Religion and ethnocentrism

Benjamin Spatz (bspatz@BRONZE.LCS.MIT.EDU)
Fri, 12 Apr 1996 18:22:59 -0400

Brian Howell writes:

There is a mistaken (IMHO) connection between universalistic beliefs and
intolerance for ethnic difference. Of course, in the course of the most
obvious example, X-ianity, there are plenty of instance of ethnocentrism
and even ethnocide, but, as scholars such as Lammin Sanneh point out,
that is not a characteristic of the belief system, but the methods of
some individuals. The writings of Paul (the apostle) are, in fact,
explainations and interpretations of the life of Jesus which take ethnic
difference into account and explicity affirm such difference. The
association of X-ianity with Western/Roman culture is the imposition of
the powerful on the weak (a common theme in many cultures) not an
inherent quality of a universalistic belief system.

With all due respect to Christianity (and to most of the world's
organized religions, if not _all_) I do not agree. I will use Christianity as
an example, but it should be known that this applies to Jewish and Muslim
belief as well, and, essentially, most organized religions.

Speaking simply for the three central Bible-based monotheistic
religions, it can be said that one of the central beliefs is the idea of a
heaven and of a hell. Whether these are physical or metaphorical, and whether
or not they are referred to by that name, most large religions believe in some
sort of punishment for people who act against its principles, and some sort of
reward for people who act according to its principles. This is all well and good
when it comes to things like not killing people and "tolerance", but, when it
comes to things like prayer, ritual, belief, and various other things which are
not harmful to others, it has a serious flaw: If you believe that some people
will be punished and other rewarded, based on their beliefs and their actions,
you CANNOT help but feel at LEAST pity towards those who are not "saved." Often
what is felt is not pity at all, but anger, hate, reproach, or disdain. But the
point is that such religions, even at their best, MUST inspire a feeling of
some-of-us-are-saved-and-others-are-not. Even if this takes the form of pity,
or sympathy, or even samaritin-esque "love", it cannot help but propagate an
us-and-them mentality. Even if the mentality is us-saving-them as opposed to
more common "us versus them" mentality, it is harmful. The mentality of "us and
them" is the first step necessary before all hate-crimes of all types. I am
NOT saying that it _implies_ hate, but only that you cannot have hate without
it, and, therefore, it is a VERY dangerous mentality to propagate.

Hence, it is only a religion which makes no such "us and them" division
(and I cannot name a single one. Even Buddhists have enlightened folk and those
who are not; even Wiccan belief knows that there are those who believe and those
who don't; and even atheism divides people into believers and non) which can
claim complete innocence.

I am NOT saying that these religions are wrong. I believe that, in
theory, religion could be without these problems. I know that religion is
responsible for a huge amount of beauty and good in the world, but, looking back
on history and seeing that much of the great evil in the world has also been
tied to religion, I can only say that religion is, at least, very dangerous.

And the link between religion and intolerance, while certainly not
causal, is not zero, either.

I hope I have not offended anyone. Please check with me before assuming
that I have said (_meant_) something that you find offensive.

______________________________________________________________________________ Ben Spatz
Cambridge, MA (617) 661-2430
"Infelicity is is involved in our corporeal nature." - Samuel Johnson
"Which way I fly is hell. Myself am hell." - John Milton
"Look within. Be still." - the Buddha