Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Opium Wars

It’s not surprising to discover that Iran has been building a weapons-grade nuclear reactor near the holy city of Qum. War and religion have gone hand in hand since ancient times, the conjunction of the two seemingly opposing phenomena reaching its apotheosis with the Crusades in the Middle Ages. Furthermore, the most fought-over piece of real estate in the world is Palestine, the cradle of the three Adamic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The expression “no good deed goes unpunished” comes to mind in response to this contrariety of human nature. What is religion but an organized aspiration for the greater good? But curiously, the desire to disseminate good works and helpful information has historically ended in violence.

Family life is a microcosm of religious wars, and what greater description of domestic conflict than the stories of the Old Testament patriarchs and their rivalrous broods? Parents pass on experience to their children, who find the phenomenology tainted by an outlook they consider foreign to their own. Baby boomers who became the flower children of the ‘60s were perennially at odds with their Depression-era parents, who unwittingly educated their children into an opposing worldview. Few graduates of elite colleges would cotton to Polonius’s famous advice to Laertes, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

The other thing that religion and war have in common is the notion of an army. An army of believers is hardly distinguishable from a military army, and members of both subsume the self to a higher authority. As Shinto kamikazes and Islamic suicide bombers illustrate, belief is a powerful weapon that can produce destructive, not to mention self-destructive, results. Very few modern religions have been founded on principles of skepticism, and few would subscribe to Wittgenstein’s famous last proposition from his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, “What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence,” which limits the possibility of grandiose proclamations.

Many of the most violent battles of the past decades have been in places where there is religious conflict, whether Serbia and Croatia, Afghanistan, Israel, or Sudan. (Curiously, the First and Second World Wars were secular conflicts motivated by desires for political and economic hegemony). Marx said, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” The French philosopher Raymond Aron went on to say, “Marxism is the opiate of the intellectuals.” In the l9th century, the British fought the Opium Wars with China. But aren’t all wars opium wars? Religion just happens to be the most powerful opiate that fuels the delirium.

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