Religion as practical scapegoat and a response from relational theology

Prof. Dr. Marcia Pally

New York University

Guest Professor, Humboldt University, Berlin

Religion as practical scapegoat and a response from relational theology

[a German language version of this article appeared as “Der pracktische Suendenbok,” in in the Spring/Summer volume of Religion, 24.  Kulturstiftung des Bundes/Federal Cultural Foundation, Halle an der Saale, Germany,]

Looking at European debates about religion, one would have to conclude that it is mighty indeed. What ills befall us, religion is their source. It inflicts upon us the abuses of modernity, especially hyper-rationalized capitalism, and the abuses of pre-modern irrationality. It makes people heartless, calculating profit-mongers and irrationally impassioned crusaders for pre-modern beliefs—so impassioned that they care about “values” more than profits. How irrational!

Caring for values other than profits is what critics of capitalism want, but they don’t like these religious other values—though the key Abrahamic mandates are peace, help to the poor (Deuteronomy 15:7-10 and roughly two thousand other provisions), generosity to the stranger (Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19:34, Leviticus 23:35-39, Deut. 27:19, 10:18, 24:17, 16:11, Luke 10: 27-35, etc.) and to the enemy (Deuteronomy 23:7-8, among others).

Never mind that. Religion has fallen victim to tautological scapegoating: call what goes wrong religion and then blame religion when wrong it goes. This unhelpfully obscures that religions are human institutions, capable of the good and evil that other institutions are, and so must be looked at as other human endeavors are. When populations are brutalized by political systems–Nazism, Stalinism, apartheid, Maoism, etc.–we don’t insist that we be rid of politics. Terrible political ideas do not erase good ones. When economic systems yield horrors in greed and labor abuses, we don’t imagine ridding ourselves of economics. It makes no more sense to speak of ridding ourselves of religion should it become involved with policies that hobble well-being. And it won’t do to call Nazism, Stalinism etc. “religions”—that’s tautological scapegoating: label them religions and blame religions–Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Baha’i–for the world’s sorrows.

Three of the most frequent complaints against religion are that it promotes violence more than other institutions do, that it is a-rational and thus evil, and that it abets the worst of capitalism. I shall look at each and then suggest religious tenets that—contra scapegoating–indeed address the self-absorbed, violent acts humanity is capable of.

The charge of exceptional violence should have been laid to rest by the secular horrors of the twentieth century, but those of the nineteenth and eighteenth will do (colonialism, slavery, political oppression, torture) or those of the ninth and eighth for that matter and back into antiquity. Crucifixion, after all, was a club of Roman politics not religion. Even a short review of the wars, subjugation, tribal and ethnic persecutions, and methods of torture invented for political and economic benefit by polytheists, absent the Abrahamic faiths–in East Asia, Africa, the pre-Columbian Americas—should also jettison the canard of a special religious predisposition to violence. Peace is a biblical priority: Deuteronomy (20:10) mandates suing for peace before commencing war; codifiers of the law (rabbinic commentators and Maimonides) required such peace suits. One might modestly say that Jesus, the prince of peace who turned the other cheek continued this tradition.[1]

In the modern era, arguments against church persecutions came not from the Enlightenment but, two centuries earlier, from such religious thinkers as Sebastian Castellio (Swiss Reformed), Baruch Spinoza (Jewish), and John Locke (Puritan, Socinian, and possibly Arian), who were drenched in Judeo-Christian teachings. Kant’s categorical imperative reprises the biblical Golden Rule. It is also banal to recall the movements for peace and justice spearheaded by faith leaders; Dorothy Day and Latin American liberation theologians (Catholic), Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the Civil Rights movement (Protestant), Desmond Tutu (Anglican Protestant), and Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and Abraham Joshua Heschel (Jewish). We might also number the hospitals, schools, prison programs, etc. run by people of faith.

The charge that religions are irrational and thus evil I find odd on two counts: irrationality is not per se evil and religious tenets are not irrational. They are called so when misread absent the exegetical tools that enable one to understand them. Not to be picky but we in the modern West educate ourselves about politics and economics to read about them discerningly, but we come to theology with Santa Claus hermeneutics and wonder why we come up with children’s stories.

The point of theological tenets based in biblical narrative and imagery is neither historical facticity nor science. Alfred North Whitehead called that “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”[2] Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, suggests that efforts to square facticity with the Bible may be rather the “wrong end of the stick” [3] as the purpose is not accuracy but exploration of the human condition, our making and responding to good and evil. The Bible is a problem set to develop ethics, not Ikea instructions to be mimicked. Neither is this a modern idea: the Talmud prohibits reading the Bible as science; Ibn Rushd (Averroes, twelfth century) taught the critical interpretation of religious texts. The Noah story, for instance, is not to inform us of an ancient flood but of the consequences to nature of human excesses that violate it (sin). While some teach literalism, most do not, and thus the claim that it is endemic to religion per se doesn’t stand—unless one tautologically calls only literalists religious (booting the Archbishop of Canterbury out of the church) and then blames them for literalism.

The idea that irrationality is evil is not only odd but alarming, as love, art, and generosity with little payback to oneself are all “irrational” yet of great good. Here is where capitalism’s critics may miss the mark: might be not irrational religious values but their lack which allows capitalism’s abuses. As the eighteenth century economist Antonio Genovesi noted, capitalist markets do not themselves do ill but rather give commoners opportunities to get out of inherited, unappealable poverty. But, he held, they flourish only under the “irrational” values of trust and reciprocal care[4]–irrational because one should pursue them even when one can get away with not doing so, to one’s profit. Adam Smith, the supposed guru of greed, concurred, holding that capitalism works only where persons possess the virtues of responsibility for the common good, including honesty, promise-keeping, and cooperation. Each should, Smith wrote, “endeavor, as much as he can, to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance of distress which can possibly occur to the sufferer.”[5]

This is again the Golden Rule, based on the “irrational” idea that all persons are made in God’s image and thus must be treated as we would treat ourselves. Perhaps we should take the guru of greed’s position seriously.

The argument that one can come to this secularly—if I am honest with you, you will be honest with me—is merely strategic. People will behave well only until they can get away with behaving badly, only until the advantages of abusing others outweigh the downsides. But this is precisely the “rational” calculation that brings exploitation and the financial crises of 2008 (1929, 1893, 1878…1637, 1619). Those who declare that concern for others is not strategy but secular humanist principle must then account for their principles. This may be where their ethics is, but how did “where they are” get where it is? Humanism did not birth itself but emerged from the ontology of the Abrahamic faiths, and even if there now is a secular discourse about human rights, the underlying premises are not.

To be sure, certain aspects of Protestantism abetted capitalism. Weber emphasized the rationalization of life, but the idea of individual striving too is key: as each strives to near God and act morally, striving per se became a well-exercised muscle soon flexed in many arenas, including the economic. Once in the groove of striving, one strives for more of everything (stuff, market share) with few queries about what the gain is for or the societally best ways to earn it.

Yet Protestantism was as much influenced by economics as influenced it. With the scientific revolution came substantial gain in control of nature, with the intended consequences of greater health and prosperity. Unintended consequences included a worldview shift from being in nature to being in control of it and able to ever get more out it. This was accompanied by nominalism, a fascination with the mind and its ability to determine what things mean—to change unpredictable nature into a controllable tool. As the determiner of meaning shifted to mind and as the benefits of marshalling nature increased, so increased the importance of each person’s (rational, scientific) calculations to get ever more out of world, by mining, inventing, and manufacturing. In short, the thrill of not dying so young and of linens and tea cups yielded the thrill of unlimited betterment, “more” as an ethos, prodded synergistically by science, economics, and Protestant striving.

Importantly, striving and betterment are not themselves evil. Abuse emerges when they are uncoupled from an ontology of what striving is for and from an ethics of how to get it—as Genovesi and Smith said. And as the Abrahamic religions hold. On their account, the individual is not on her own to control and gain; she is in a foundational system that functions only when we care for each other and the natural infrastructure.

As religion sets ambition amid these commitments, blaming religion for their trouncing is rather like blaming marriage vows for adultery. We may betray our religious principles as we betray political ones and New Year’s resolutions, but this is not special to faith.

Here I would like to sketch out a bit of how one gets from theology to ethics in economics.[6] Theology begins with the idea of foundational being, the reason there is something rather than nothing and for the specific principles that make things go—a cause of causes. Particular beings emerge from foundational being (as Heidegger put it) not as identical copies or in the details of appearance but analogously, sharing with foundational being something of underlying structure—what Aquinas called analogia entis (analogy of being): causes yield resembling results, and thus humanity, caused by foundational being God, is of some undergirding resemblance to him. More poetically, we are made in God’s image. “In all things,” Aquinas wrote, “God himself is properly the cause of universal being which is innermost in all things …in all things God works intimately.”[7]

As foundational being is distinct from particular beings but also “innermost” in us, distinction-amid-relation is a condition of being, part of what it means to “be” at all. Each person is distinct but we are set up by relation and for it. Even identical twins are distinct in aims and character–what Alain Badiou calls “universal singularity”[8]—yet all persons develop into unique selves through relation, beginning with our earliest caretakers. We are creatures of relation and reciprocal impact and so must see to our relational networks–to the educational, community, economic, and political institutions that enable persons to become who they distinctly are. While this might begin with nearby others, given the mobility of persons, goods, microbes, and ideas, areas of inter-dependent impact reach across the globe.

Policies that take our distinction-amid-relation into account—that go with the ontological grain–yield better outcomes than those that don’t. Such policies hold to each person’s concerns (distinction) and take those concerns to be worthy of consideration (relation). Considering the concerns of others–reciprocal consideration-worthiness–does not mean that one cedes one’s views or that everything asked for is given. It means reciprocally getting at the other’s underlying needs, fears, and plans so that these may be addressed with contributions from all involved. In short, the theology of the way things are yields an ethics of how not to mess things up.

In a practical example, the question is not whether a timber firm and its employees (who want to retain jobs) may legally continue logging trees against the protest of the community and environmental groups. It is to ask what the negotiations would look like if all involved (owners, shareholders, employees, town residents, environmental groups) believed—in the way we believe we breathe— that discussion begins, as Joel Hunter writes, with finding out “why the other side is for the other side”[9] and continues by taking that as consideration-worthy.[10] No one leaves the discussion until all have contributed substantially to the solution and an idea is developed where no one’s concerns are abandoned.

In short, what would economics look like if we worked through such theology, fairly common in the Abrahamic faiths.

I suspect religion-blaming is like any other sort of scape-goating: it soothingly shifts the blame for life’s ills away from us. We aren’t the cause of our greed and aggression; religion is. Absent this invader, we would be generous innocents. We call religion the devil and say the devil made me do it.

Religion, having pondered the fallennes of humanity for millennia, offers a few ideas about scape-goating as well. Judaism prohibits it, and if one must act out, do it on a goat. Christianity too is familiar with getting crucified by the people one is trying to help. Indeed, returning to our discussion of how to read the Bible, exploring this human habit is a prime purpose of that tale.


[1] The wars of conquest that follow in the Deuteronimic texts are fictions, written five to six hundred years after the ostensible wars, which never took place, as the Hebrews annihilated no one but lived in Canaan among various other tribes until their exile by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. The Hebrews are mandated not only to sue for peace before committing war but also to forgive enemies, even the enslaving Egyptians (Deuteronomy 23:7-8). Mythic exhortations to wipe out the enemy, like those in Deuteronomy, were a common rhetorical form; the Moabitic literature has them as well, and the Moabites too never carried them out. The purpose of the Deuteronimic war stories has to do, as for most stories, with the issues of the authors’ day. As compensatory myths and obvious fictions to their readers, they were not meant to be executed or as politico-military models in that or any other era; see, Pally, M. (2014). The Hebrew Bible is a problem set. In Die Gewalt des einen Gottes: Die Monotheismus Debatte. R. Schieder (Ed.). Berlin, Germany: Berlin University Press.

[2] Whitehead, A. N. (1967). Science and modern world. New York, NY: Macmillan/Free Press, p. 51.

[3] Williams, R. (2014). Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, p. 31.

[4] see, Genovesi, A. (1765-1767/2005). Lezioni di commercio o sia di economia civile. M.L. Perna (Ed.). Naples, Italy: Instituti italiano per gli studi, II. Ch. 10, par. VI.

[5] Smith, A. (1976). The theory of moral sentiments. D. Raphael and A. Macfie (Eds.). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. (Original work published 1759/ 1790), p. 21.

[6] These are taken from a forthcoming book of mine on theologies of relationality, Eerdmans Publishing early 2016.

[7] Aquinas, Summa Theologica Ia, q. 105, art. 5.

[8] Badiou, A., & and Žižek, S. (2010). Philosophy in the present. P. Engelman (Ed.). (P. Thomas, & A. Toscano, Trans.) Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, pp. 26-48.

[9] Hunter is a pastor and in 2009-2010 was a member of President Barack Obama’s President’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships; see, Hunter, J. (2008). A New Kind of Conservative. Ventura, CA: Gospel Light Publishing, pp. 84-85.

[10] Policy changes in this case might include bringing workers into the design and decision-making processes (and perhaps profit-sharing); education and re-tooling for sustainable forestry amid sustainable profits; education and re-tooling for product diversification; and regional, national (perhaps international), and industry-specific lending institutions for such adjustments,  for dissemination of best practices, dispute mediation, and cooperative projects.

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Marcia Pally

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