Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. (Pascal, 1660, # 895)
Here is a problem: On the one hand, human society cannot survive without an injunction against the wanton killing of fellow human beings. The three Abrahamic religions (and not only they) recognized this and legislated accordingly. On the other hand, man is an aggressive animal. Take the two world wars of the previous century. According to some estimates, they resulted in the death of 160 million human beings, each reducing the world’s population by 3 to 5 percent.
A simple solution that can reconcile these two opposing notions lies in the definition of both elements of the said injunction: “wanton killing” and “fellow human beings.” Capital punishment, euthanasia, “honor” killings, defensive wars (including preemptive strikes) are, in the eyes of their executors, far from being wanton, They are all justified according to some deeply rooted moral code, and moral codes are notoriously versatile. While one code says “an eye for an eye,” another commands you to “love your enemies.” Here you read “Thou shall not kill!”; there you find “Slay the idolaters wherever you find them.”
A different solution is chosen by those who redefine their victims’ status as being nonhuman. Confronted with political events of great portent, two important thinkers of the previous century described this practice:
The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that the other set is human. By robbing them of their personality, he puts them outside the pale of moral obligation. (Aldous Huxley 1937, p. 101)
How can an elite of usurpers, conscious of their mediocrity, justify their privileges? Only one way: diminish the colonized to exult themselves, deny the status of human beings to the natives, and deprive them of basic rights. (Jean-Paul Sartre, 1964/2001, p. 22).
Such dehumanization was infamously practiced by the Nazis toward Jews (Bauer, 2002), Gypsies (Alt & Folts, 1996), and Slavs (Moczarski, 1981), all of whom were referred to as Untermenschen. But the Nazis were not alone in dehumanizing their enemies–this method has often been practiced by a wide range of religious authorities to inveigh against sinners:
The prophet Jeremiah (12:3), about the wicked and the faithless: “Drag them off like sheep to be butchered! Set them apart for the day of slaughter.”
The apostle Peter, about the unrighteous: “…those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority … They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish.” (Peter II 2:10-12).
The Prophet in the Koran ( 7:179): “And surely, We have created many of the jinn and mankind for hell. They have hearts wherewith they understand not, and they have eyes wherewith they see not, and they have ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle, nay even more astray; those! They are the heedless ones.”
The Hindu scripture Bhagavata Purana (2.3.19): “Men who are like dogs, hogs, camels and asses praise those men who never listen to the transcendental pastimes of Lord Sri Krsna, the deliverer from evils.”
K Sri Dhammananda (undated), an influential Buddhist monk and scholar, has voiced a similar opinion: “Without Shame and Fear, human beings are no better than animals.”
Given such scriptural authority, it is no wonder that we can find the following outburst:
Well it seems the chickens have come home to roost. Those egghead joo [sic] scientists have gone so far astray of God’s Divine Plan that they have actually proved the point that hundreds of True Christianâ„¢ Pastors such as myself have been making for years; That sodomites are no different than the lowly animals God gave us to shoot and eat. THIS kind of secular nonsense just cracks me up. (Pastor Ezekiel, 2008
While the above examples concerned the likening of sinners against religions to animals, the following deal with interreligious (I am tempted to say “multifaith”) enmity. I do not intend to catalogue here the endless instances of violent intolerance against adherents to a different faith; this is a well-documented phenomenon (see, for instance, “Human Rights First,” 2008, as well as Wikipedia, 2013a), which has recently been the subject of a play by Sani (2013). I shall limit my inquiry to cases in which true believers (see Hoffer, 1951/2002) of one faith have justified their persecution of other religiosi by dehumanizing them.
The Mahavamsa (a Pali language history of the kings of Sri Lanka) described the battle Buddhist King Dutugamanu fought in the 2nd Century BCE against a non-Buddhist king. After the bloodshed, some enlightened ones consoled him: “The slain were like animals; you will make the Buddha’s faith shine.” (Strathern, 2013)
In 1543 Luther wrote an essay “Concerning the Jews and Their Lies,” where he called them disgusting vermin, compared them to pigs, asses, and animal excrement, and likened them to the devil (Singer, 2009).
This is how Johns (2012) portrayed the treatment of Jews in medieval Europe: “Herded together like animals, Europe’s Jews bred like animals and died like animals. Europe’s Catholics put this down to God’s will while defending their activities with the pretext ‘Error is not entitled to the same right as truth'” (p. 387).
Enmity between the two major sects of Islam (Sunni and Shia) dates back to 680 CE, when Ali’s son Hussein was killed by the ruling Sunni caliph’s troops. Yousef Saanei, a Shia Grand Ayatollah, called the suicide bombers of Shia targets in Iraq “wolves without pity” and added that “sooner rather than later, Iran will have to put them down” (Baer, 2005). Sunnis’ view of Shia is similarly dehumanizing: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qa’eda in Iraq called on Sunnis to rise up against Shia “snakes” across the Middle East (La Guardia, 2006).
When Cromwell arrived in Ireland in 1649 “… the Irish people were portrayed as a kind of sub-species of humanity, no better than animals, in order to justify the horrific cruelty inflicted upon them. Once again defenceless women and children were put to the sword in an orgy of torture and mass murder. The inhabitants of Drogheda and Wexford were murdered. Cromwell boasted that of the 3,000 citizens of Drogheda not 30 of them escaped with their lives, declaring that ‘… I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgement of God upon those barbarous wretches …'” (Whittaker, 2012).
The more it changes, the more it remains the same … Nearly four centuries after Cromwell, Father Alec Reid, an Irish priest, commented on Protestant-Catholic relations in Northern Ireland: “You don’t want to hear the truth. The reality is that the nationalist community in Northern Ireland were treated almost like animals by the unionist community. They were not treated like human beings. They were treated like the Nazis treated the Jews.” (Wikipedia, 2013b)
Egyptian Salafi Islamic scholar Muhammad Hussein Yacoub in a speech televised in 2009: “… Oh Jews, may the curse of Allah be upon you. Oh Jews … Oh Allah, bring Your wrath, punishment, and torment down upon them. Allah, we pray that you transform them again, and make the Muslims rejoice again in seeing them as apes and pigs. You pigs of the earth! You pigs of the earth! You kill the Muslims with that cold pig [blood] of yours.” (Wikipedia, 2013c).
Sheikh Ibrahim Madhi in Gaza, 2001: “Oh beloved of Allah … One of the Jews’ evil deeds is what has come to be called ‘the Holocaust,’ that is, the slaughter of the Jews by Nazism. However, revisionist [historians] have proven that this crime, carried out against some of the Jews, was planned by the Jews’ leaders, and was part of their policy … These are the Jews against whom we fight, oh beloved of Allah. On the other hand, [what is our belief] about the Jews? Allah has described them as donkeys” … “All spears should be directed at the Jews, at the enemies of Allah, the nation that was cursed in Allah’s book. Allah has described them as apes and pigs, the calf-worshipers, idol-worshipers …” (Stalinsky, 2003).
Having demonstrated the ubiquity of dehumanization by religions of both their less-devoted adherents and followers of other faiths, I will close here this appalling list by quoting Nobel laureate in physics Steven Weinberg (1999):
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”
Alt, B. & Folts, S. (1966). Weeping violins: The Gypsy tragedy in Europe. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press.
Baer, B. (2005). “The devil you think you know.” Newsweek International, August 15.
Bauer, Y. (2002). Rethinking the Holocaust. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Dhammananda, K Sri (undated). Human Dignity in Buddhism.
Available at www.dhammatalks.net/Books6/Bhante_Dhammananda_Human_Dignity_in_Buddhism.pdf
Hoffer, E. (2002). The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. New York: Harper (First published 1951).
Human Rights First (2008). “2008 Hate crime survey: Religious intolerance.”
Available at www.humanrightsfirst.org/our-work/fighting-discrimination/2008-hate-crime-survey/religious-intolerance/
Huxley, A. (1937). The Olive Tree. New York: Harper.
Johns, R. (2012). The Visions of Daniel the Hebrew Prophet. Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press.
La Guardia, A. (2006). “Zarqawi rails against Shia ‘snakes.'” The Telegraph, June 3.
Available at www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iraq/1520211/Zarqawi-rails-against-Shia-snakes.html
Moczarski, K. (1981). Conversations With an Executioner. New York: Prentice-Hall.
Pascal, B. (1958). Pensees, translated by W. F. Trotter. New York: E. P. Dutton. (Originally published 1660).
Pastor Ezekiel (2008). “Atheistic Scientists Claim Queers Are No Better Than Animals.”
Available at www.landoverbaptist.net/showthread.php?t=11790
Sani, S. (2013). When Clerics Kill: A Play. Ibadan, Nigeria: Kraft Books Limited.
Sartre, J. P. (2001). Colonialism and Neocolonialism. New York: Routledge. (French original published 1964).
Singer, D. G. (2009). “Baptism or expulsion: Martin Luther and the Jews of Germany.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 44, 401-409.
Stalinsky, S. (2003). “Palestinian Authority Sermons 2000-2003.”
Available at www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/arabs/sermons.html#_edn22
Strathern, A. (2013). “Why are Buddhist monks attacking Muslims?”
Available at: www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22356306
Weinberg, S. (1999). “A Designer Universe?” Conference on Cosmic Design, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C.
Available at www.physlink.com/Education/essay_weinberg.cfm
Whittaker, H. (2012). “Ireland and the Politics of Bigotry — Part One.” Fightback, 20.
Available at ireland.marxist.com/history/8388-ireland-and-the-politics-of-bigotry-part-one
Wikipedia (2013a). “Sectarian Violence.”
Available at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sectarian_violence
Wikipedia (2013b). “Alec Reid.”
Available at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alec_Reid
Wikipedia (2013c). “Islam and antisemitism.”
Available at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_and_antisemitism#cite_ref-127