When Religion Turns Dark

“We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.”

― Christopher Hitchens

Every religion has a dark side past that civilization must never forget.

In Poland, over Easter, throngs of Poles burn a Jewish effigy. It was like a scene from the Holocaust, yet this happened just yesterday on April, 21, 2019.

For Holocaust survivors, this is a painful image to see again. Yet, not all Poles are anti-Semites. One Polish young man took a bullet from a Nazi and saved my father’s life. There will always be good people; there will always be bad people who do evil things.

Anti-Semitism is still one of the world’s foremost enduring social diseases. But today, we are no longer alone. The Christians are now experiencing the same kind of mistreatment that Jews have known for much of our history.

In the past, Christians in France burned handwritten volumes of the Talmud in the 14th century. During the Holocaust, the French handed Jews over to the Nazis so their country would be spared the horrors of war and be left alone. Perhaps there is a karmic element to history. Today, French Christians are observing their sacred faith be desecrated by a throng of Jihadists living among them who have no respect for the “pagan” Christian religious symbols or places of sacred worship.  

The month of April, 2019 has proven to be one of the violent on record.

Since the beginning of 2019, the Catholic churches in France are being targeted with arson attacks, vandalism, desecration of holy statues, and the destruction of the Eucharist. One of the most important French churches, second in importance to the Notre Dame, is the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris, where the Da Vinci Code movie was filmed. This church as recently set on fire just after midday mass on Sunday, Le Parisien reports. Firefighters and police said the blaze was an arson attack.

For Catholics, the Virgin Mary is a very important symbol, but in February this year, they destroyed a 19th-century statue of the Virgin Mary. This was the first of three incidents that occurred at the St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Houilles.

Then you have thousands of fundamentalist Muslims cheering the destruction of the Notre Dame on Twitter.[1]

Given the recent spate of attacks in France, Nigeria, Sri Lanka where over 290 people were killed, and other places, once again people are asking the obvious question: Why is this happening in the 21st century? Did we not learn anything from the Holocaust, or from other tragic human experiences? There is not a simple answer to these questions.

Maimonides and Hegel both agreed that history sometimes occurs in cycles. Human nature seldom changes; new circumstances arise that challenge how we will react. They say “there is no fool like an old fool,” and Santayana said, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Are we condemned to relive the Crusades? Are we retrogressing to a time when religious wars nearly destroyed civilization? Haven’t we learned anything from history?

Historically, every religion gone through its dark night of the soul where it allowed its fanatics to define the course of its history. Two thousand years ago, the zealots fought against the might of Rome expecting to achieve a new Maccabean-esque victory over the “forces of darkness.” Our ancestors learned the hard way that this method cannot work.

It can only create misery.

Christianity’s history is bloody. Protestants and Catholics fought each other from the 16th  to the early 18th century. Religion has seldom been a healing force in Europe and its secular culture today is largely due to the animus one Christian faith showed toward the other. In fact, Christianity throughout most of its history has perpetuated continuous violence toward the Jew, toward the Cathars, toward the Muslims, and toward each other.

Islam’s history is even more violent than the Christian history.

Jews are not the only people to have endured a genocide. Just ask the Hindus.

Every Hindu from India refers to a great genocide as the “Hindu Kush” (the “Hindu Slaughter) that occurred over an 800-year period starting from the year 1000. Marauding Muslim armies butchered hundreds of millions of Hindus; it is amazing India ever survived.

And in the 14th century, a Muslim conqueror from Uzbekistan named Timur the will always be best remembered for his gruesome military campaigns in which they have slaughtered tens of millions of people. He created an empire that stretched from parts of central China and Delhi, India, to the Mediterranean. In some of his battles against the Hindu “pagans”, he murdered over 100,000 in one battle alone. The Indus River flowed with blood for weeks. Never has the world seen a more genocidal army of fanatics than the hoards unleashed by Timur the Lame. 

The Bahmani Sultanate was a Muslim state of the Deccan in South India and one of the major medieval Indian kingdoms. Bahmanid Sultanate (1347–1425) in Southern India had an annual agenda of killing a minimum of 100,000 Hindus every year.

Yes, no religion can claim immunity from the diabolical forces that have infested its soul.

So, as a student of comparative religion I wonder: Are we destined to repeat the worse periods of human history? Humankind must learn to evolve—if it is to survive.

From a theological perspective, I believe God is never responsible for the evil that exists in the world—but we are. We cannot evade our responsibility.

So how do we put an end to the rash of religious hatred that we are witnessing in the world perpetuated by Islamic jihadis?

For one thing, Western society needs to emancipate itself from the childish belief in multiculturalism that has become one of the cornerstones of modern education. Not all societies are considered equal. Some are barbaric and have never learned to respect human rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, or the right for the individual to choose his or her own spiritual path.

Treating every retrograde culture or religion as if it were on even footing is foolish and dangerous. In our country, enabling pro-Sharia operatives such as Ilan Omar and Linda Sarsour will only promote a dysfunctional Islam that wishes to extend it hegemony over the Western world and civilization.

Secondly, western societies need to stop importing immigrants from Jihadi movements who have no respect for our culture or our social values. If someone wishes to live in the 8th century, it is best they remain in the countries they are presently residing.

For the Muslim community in particular, we must promote an Islamic Reformation movement—one that will bring healing to their communities. Sharia must never be enabled as a political or legal system—it damages and disrespects human dignity, as we see in the retrogressive regimes of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other similar countries. Reformations are great for religions—they keep us honest and progressive.

People like M. Zuhdi Jasser, M.D., who is also the Founder and President of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) and Co-Founder of the Muslim Reform Movement must be in the forefront our media programs.  Other progressive Muslims need to be more in the forefront preaching their message of an Islamic Reformation. It is an endeavor that is well worth investing and supporting. Encouraging Muslims of the Sufis and the Ahmadiyya movements to assume a prominent role in their communities could make a big difference.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to promote healthy expressions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity that celebrate the dignity and holiness of the divine image.

For the Christian communities of Poland and elsewhere, Christian leaders need to do a better job teaching their followers that each human being is responsible for his or her own behavior. We cannot condemn an entire people because of something one’s ancestor did or might have done. And for the record, the Romans crucified Jesus—not the Jews.

And lastly, for the Jewish community, we need to promote a greater separation between the State and synagogue in Israel itself. We cannot let zealotry dictate the next chapter of Jewish history.

As we prepare ourselves to observe Yom HaShoah, it behooves us to take note that the Jews are not the only people of history who have experienced genocide. Many other peoples across the globe have experienced it. Finally, we must do a better job informing the non-Jewish community the existential threat that the mullahs of Iran pose to Jews living in Israel, lest we allow another Holocaust to (God forbid) occur.

We must not abandon Israel in her time of need.

Book Review: In Good Faith: Questioning Religion & Atheism

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In Good Faith: Questioning Religion and Atheism Hardcover
by Scott A. Shay
640 pages
Publisher: Post Hill Press (2018)
ISBN-10: 1682617920

Often the greatest critics of religion offer us a series of criticism about the depth of our faith; they confront us with our hypocrisy. They challenge us to reexamine what it means to “believe.” As a young teenager, I remember hiding Raphael Patai’s book, “Hebrew Myths” in the library because I did not want this book to poison any reader’s mind, even though I thought the author may have “poisoned” my mind by forcing me to take a new look at the Bible and its ancient sources through the prism of myth.

After I read Scott Shay’s remarkable book, “In Good Faith: Understanding Religion and Atheism,” I discovered a fellow pilgrim who has thought very deeply about the meaning and the possibilities of religion. I should point out that Shay is the son of Holocaust survivor. Shay and I have that much in common; my father was also a survivor from Auschwitz. His father had developed (like my own), his own concept of God (p. xviii). Children of survivors often become philosophically or theologically obsessed with trying to make sense of the Big Picture, pertaining to God and the Holocaust.

I get it and I have the tee shirt to prove it!

Part I of his book began with a sushi dinner he had with a friend who was a non-believer. Sushi bars (I can personally attest to this fact!) is often a wonderful place for people to have a spirited dialogue about life, God, or just about anything! In this section Shay argues that without the religious dimension that pertains to God, why should Jews bother worrying about preserving a “Jewish identity”?

Shay might have considered the famous line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth about the purposeless nature of life, “It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing”— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28).

Shay perceptively observed that many of his friends feel, “The Bible is just so primitive and obscure, it is no longer relevant to educated adults.” Shay added, “These people believe that the book Religion for Dummies should have been titled, Religion Is for Dummies.” (p. xvii)

After reading the introduction, I felt interested enough to read the rest of the book. In Good Faith: Understanding Religion and Atheism” is very well researched, and it covers a vast area of interesting interlocking topics, from the various scientific areas, quantum theory, relativity, and the new miracles of molecular genetics and so on.

To his credit, Shay shows a willingness to engage the modern atheistic writers in an honest and thoughtful manner. The list includes Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and (my personal favorite!) Christopher Hitchens. While Shay could agree with their critique of religious dysfunction, he differed with their carte blanche rejection of religion.

Shay believes it is not fair or accurate to blame monotheistic religions for the most violent crimes perpetrated in its name. According to Shay, the real enemy of society is idolatry. In the hands of an ancient shaman, the power of idolatry gave the ancients considerable power; this pattern can be seen in the long line of 20th and 21st century dictators, and Scott identifies these leaders as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Kim Jung-On.

In terms of freedom vs. determinism, Shay agrees with the writer Balshevis Singer, who said, “We have to believe in free will—we have no choice.” A world without such freedom would be undesirable. “Everyone would have to behave the same. There would be no need to teach children to be moral, no need to teach adults the path of justice” (p. 241).

Shay is correct—up to a point. I would only add that a Maimonidean approach to the problem reveals that idolatry often hides under the guise of “believing monotheists.” This point would have strengthened Shay’s overall thesis. And this point is more relevant because of the emergence of religious totalitarianism we have witnessed in many of the Muslim countries today (and in Israel today, I might add), who wish to destroy the separation of Mosque/Church/Synagogue and State. Maimonides more than anyone of his time, and probably afterward, understood the danger in monotheistic religions that promote retrograde images of God that reflect human depravity.

Shay does not deny the horrible record organized religion has in the history of human civilization in perpetuating human suffering. Yet, he counters that religion has also civilized humanity. He contends, the Torah limited the number of cases that could result in capital punishment—in fact, any court that executed a single person once in seventy years was considered a murderous court. Shay is correct. The nation’s religious leaders largely inspired the Abolition movement of the 19th century.

Yes, religion can be a healing force in the world. Shay’s book reminds me of an old Jewish story that has been told countless times over the years.

Once a rabbi had a discussion with a soap maker who did not believe in God. As they were strolling down the street, the freethinking soap maker asked the rabbi, “There is something I cannot understand. We have had religion for thousands of years. But everywhere you look there is evil, corruption, dishonesty, injustice, pain, hunger, and violence. Religion has not improved the world at all. In all earnest, please answer me: What good is it?” The rabbi listened and did not reply. They continued their walk. Eventually, they approached a playground where children, covered in dust, were playing in the dirt. The rabbi said, “There is something I don’t understand,” the rabbi said. “Look at those children. We have had soap for thousands of years, and yet those children are filthy. What good is soap?” The soap maker replied, “But rabbi, it isn’t fair to blame soap for these dirty children. Soap has to be used before it can accomplish its purpose.” The rabbi smiled and said, “Aha, aha! That’s exactly the point—you have to use religion if you want it to better the world.” 


This book is full of wonderful ideas that will make you rethink what it means to be a Jew who embraces faith in an age of unfaith such as ours.

It is a book well worth reading, discussing, and sharing with some friends.