God's Law or Man's Law?
by Laina Farhat-Holzman
Church and State
Under an oak in stormy weather
I joined this rogue and whore together;
And none but he who rules the thunder
Can put this rogue and whore asunder.
As a professor of World History, I looked at religion in the same
way that I regarded any other historic institution--as something
linear. Looking back over the 5,000 years of recorded history, it
seemed as if human values evolved, if not in a straight line, at
least in an upward-moving spiral. And yes, it seemed upward (hence
better) to me.
Just as we have seen a political trajectory from the ancient God-Kings
to universal suffrage, we have also seen the religious transformation
from human sacrifice and fear-based superstition to a benign spirituality
as exemplified by the scientifically perceived ecology movement
and the spiritually based United Nations Universal Declaration of
I assumed that with education, everyone in the world would enter
that enlightened realm of benign religion. It was just a matter
When the gates of hell clanged shut, said one wag in the 19th century,
the gates of heaven also closed. He assumed that one could not cherry-pick
in religion without killing it. Gone were human sacrifice, divination
by "reading" the entrails of sacrificed animals, the wild-eyed
prophets leading people into death and destruction, the notion that
people could be possessed by demons, and the evil eye, I thought.
Although I had thought these things were gone, my daily ventures
into newspapers and the popular media have disabused this belief.
None of these ancient curses are gone; nor are they just living
in the still unenlightened parts of this planet. They are next door,
down the street, and on some PTAs in this country, as well as armed
and dangerous in other places around the world. We even have the
return of religiously-provoked suicide/murder, in the horrifying
terrorist attack on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.
This batch of killers had some sort of western education.
What is alarming is that western education has not accomplished
the desired end of bringing reason and enlightenment. Until now,
I have assumed that the cure for irrational religious beliefs rests
in education. Apparently it does not--or perhaps education is not
doing the job of teaching people how to think rationally. Could
it be possible for one's mind to be divided into the rational and
the irrational at the same time? The Arab hijackers
Many of us watched with disbelief as the very educated president
of South Africa, Mr. Mbeke, stubbornly dismissed modern science
in his pronouncement that AIDS does not come from the HIV virus.
Then when I saw an article about persecution of "witches"
in South Africa (December 2000), I began to suspect another dynamic
going on here.
The modern South African government has put a stop to what was
nothing less than annual pogroms against women accused of witchcraft
in rural South Africa. The locals believed that lightning strikes
that set thatched roofs afire were the work of witches. I am not
surprised at such ignorance from peasants with long, bad traditions,
but was shocked to learn that a local medical doctor who was trained
in England supported the witchcraft thesis, as did the chief of
the regional police, a university-educated and multi-lingual intellectual.
Could it be that President Mbeke, as educated as he is, also believes
in witchcraft? Perhaps witchcraft, not HIV, produces AIDS? [CSM,
At the point that I was ready to cast South Africa into the nether
lands of incurable ignorance, another article caught my eye. The
people in a county in Kentucky that one could only call backwoods
(high rate of illiteracy and its corresponding poverty) protested
the building of a new library offered by the state. The people did
not see the need for a library which would be of no use to anybody.
"We have the Bible," said their spokesman, "and that
is good enough for us."
The fanatics being trained in "Islamic Schools" in Pakistan
have no more in their education than memorizing the Koran in a language
they cannot understand. Like their counterparts in Kentucky, the
Koran is good enough for them. Yet they happily embrace the idea
of using advanced nuclear technology to blow away their enemies
(as well as themselves). The bomb is a gift of Allah and it should
be used in their jihad, the young students say. [Goldberg, 36]
The Iranian Revolution seemed an exotic issue in 1979, the first
howl of medieval religion fighting back against the modern secular
world. Since then, however, many other medieval throwbacks have
climbed out of their marginalized cupboards and have challenged
the hard-won values that we all thought were finally mainstream.
And they challenge us with the fruits of our own scientific and
The late Ayatollah Khomeini, who professed the belief that the
modern world was a satanic abomination, nonetheless sought out the
latest weapons of war when his country was threatened by Iraq. He
also employed an Austrian heart surgeon when he was ailing, rather
than depending upon prayer or talismans.
Today, the medieval Shiite clerics, who have kept Iran in thrall
since their 1979 revolution, are as two-minded as their late leader.
They still want the latest weapons of mass destruction and modern
medicine for their own power elite, yet they debate such spiritual
issues as: if the state cuts off the hand of a thief, does the hand
belong to the thief or to the state? The answer they came up with
was that the hand belongs to the state, because the thief might
run to a hospital and have it reattached. [Nafisi]
The problem is that when these religious reactionaries prevail,
as they have in Iran, Afghanistan, and increasingly Pakistan, the
fruits of the modern world die with them. Modern science depends
upon free thought and open investigation. All the answers are not
found in one book.
The following are some serious quarrels between the secular and
religious worlds and their effects can be devastating:
- o The secular world believes in freedom of thought and conscience;
ultra-orthodox (or fundamentalist) religions believe all truth
is already known and is housed in their holy texts.
- Scientific skepticism and questioning conventional truths are
key to modern life; fundamentalism attacks such processes as irreverent
and war against God.
- The rights of people to equality under secular law, regardless
of class, or ethnicity, are the hallmark of modern life and law.
To fundamentalists, separation of peoples is mandated on these
very bases. Caste is alive and well.
o Under secular law, women have achieved citizenship in all ways
equal with men. With all fundamentalists, women are either lesser
or subordinated, as in the recent ruling of the Southern Baptists,
or are totally segregated, as with Islamists and Ultra-Orthodox
Jews. To all the ultra-pious, women are only vessels of new life
and should have no say over how their bodies are used.
- Homosexuality is increasingly regarded as genetically determined
in modern society, not an issue of "lifestyle" or "choice."
To all religious fundamentalists, it is a sin and for some punishable
Around the world, formerly marginalized religions are making war
against the secular world, and it is increasingly clear that the
battles of the future will not be between nation states but rather
within them, particularly in those vulnerable states that are
in the process of modernizing. In such places, the gap between
the educated elite and the masses of ignorant or illiterate is
enormous, and that presents a great danger. Nor are the elite
necessarily secure in their belief in modern values.
Pakistan, now 50-plus years old, began as a secular state modeled
after British parliamentary governance, intended as a safe homeland
for Muslim Indians. Today it is a state falling apart, and the secular
nature of the country is shrinking daily. There are now battles
to the death between and among Muslim sects. Education for the masses
is nonexistent; freedom of thought earns death threats and assassinations,
and the population explosion threatens survival altogether.
Israel, also 50-plus years old, began as did Pakistan: as a safe
homeland for Jews, both secular and religious. Today the secular
Israelis who have been reluctant to challenge the benefits enjoyed
by the religious factions are now chafing under ultra-orthodox bullying.
Former Prime Minister Barak, in exasperation, raised the issue that
now is the time to reclaim freedom and secular governance before
it is lost altogether.
India, whose beginnings were like Pakistan's and whose founding
fathers were the secular, British-educated Nehru and the universalist,
British-educated Gandhi (who once said that he was Hindu, Muslim,
Jew, and Christian), is now having serious problems with fundamentalist
Hinduism and a revolt of the untouchables.
These fundamentalist sects all over the world are not just reactionary,
they also breed murder. Both Egypt and Israel lost leaders to fundamentalist
fanatics. Even in the west, abortion clinics have been assaulted
and doctors and nurses murdered by fanatics who think they have
a monopoly on truth.
But even among the educated and seemingly modern sector, strange
sorts of religion can take over. How has education helped to protect
young people from the irrational and positively brainless following
of gurus who lure university students into cults? For a hair-raising
tour down death-and-disaster lane, you might read Robert J. Lifton's
Destroying the World to Save It, a book about the Aum Shinrikyo
cult that used sarin nerve gas in a Tokyo subway. He charts a number
of apocalyptic cults that will comprise the new global terrorism.
These groups are mostly peopled by educated engineers, scientists,
and other university graduates who believe their duty is to destroy
the world so that our souls can be saved.
Why are so many educated people suspicious of science but not suspicious
of snake oil salesmen? Let us admit that many middle-class, educated
Americans and British are superstitious and are supporting astrology,
numerology, psychics, faith healers, herbalists, and tarot readers
with their money. Millions of dollars are being made by televangelists
and fundamentalist sects around the world. A fool and his money
are soon parted, I have heard.
Where have we in the West gone wrong?
There is a left wing of religious fundamentalism, too, that should
cause us concern. Some Animal Rights people and militant vegetarians
and ecologists are looking cult-like and are attacking enemies of
their value system. How much longer before killing will be on their
In eastern Long Island NY, an upscale subdivision being built on
old farmland was torched. Three nearly completed houses were set
on fire deliberately and messages were spray painted on another
house: "Stop Urban Sprawl," "If You Build It We Will
Burn It," and "Burn the Rich." The group doing it
is called E. L. F., well known in the Pacific northwest. Extreme
environmental activism, or eco-terrorism. ELF stands for Earth Liberation
There is a fellow organization: ALF, Animal Liberation Front. Their
actions are growing more violent all the time. So far there has
been multi-million dollar damage from arson in a new ski resort
in Vail, Colorado and $1 million damage to a lumber company's office
in Monmouth, Oregon.
Initially western, they have now moved east. The FBI cannot find
them, and does not know who they are. Their actions are growing
more violent, including razor-laced letters sent to people in the
What appears to be the next battlefield around the world is the
struggle which pits the autonomy of men and women in democratic
societies against those persons who take their orders from their
perception of God and convince the gullible to fall in line. Although
one can fall in line voluntarily, one cannot fall out of line where
the forces of divine authority prevail. In non-secular societies,
defection brings with it a death sentence. In secular societies,
cults must resort to murder to keep their members in line. Only
in the secular modern world do people have the right to choose their
own leaders, their own path, and their own kind of spirituality.
It is a modern concept that spirituality is most authentic when
it is voluntary. Reason without the spiritual dimension leads to
empty materialism, but religion without reason leads to superstition
and can turn murderous. The trick for the healthy secular society
is to have both reason and spirit working together. But reason must
Sources to study this issue are found readily in the popular media.
Daily newspapers, television and radio, and cinema trends have provided
pictures that taken daily seem to be oddities, but cumulatively
show a trend.
Several scholarly works are essential to this study. Karen Armstrong's
latest work, The Battle For God, provides historic perspective on
the resurgence of militant religion in its battle against the modern
world. She is far more sympathetic to their wounded feelings than
I am, and her conclusion that we must dialogue with these groups
poses the question: how does one argue with someone whose marching
orders come directly from God?
V. S. Naipal's two works: Among the Believers and Beyond Belief
represent his pilgrimage into the world of resurgent Islam. The
first journey was taken in 1981, immediately after the Iranian Revolution,
and the second 15 years later, revisiting some of the people he
had interviewed the first time. As always with male pilgrims to
the Islamic world, none of his informants were women. Yet this sharp-eyed
traveler does not miss much.
Robert J. Lifton's Destroying the World to Save It is a book about
the Aum Shinrikyo cult that used sarin nerve gas in a Tokyo subway.
He takes a hard look at how people educated in a thoroughly western
discipline--often science--can totally surrender all critical thought
and become slaves of a guru with death and destruction as his agenda.
He explores such cults around the developed world.
Another book that may give one pause is David Keys' Catastrophe,
which tracks a worldwide collapse of old civilizations to the years
following 535-37 CE, which launched a period of ecological and climatological
catastrophes created by some as yet unknown event--possibly an enormous
volcanic eruption or a comet crash. He leads the reader through
the records, region by region (including the New World), with the
consequences of little sunlight, droughts, floods, untimely hail
and snow, and the famines and plagues and religious hysteria and
political chaos that followed.
This issue is important. We could have had a nuclear winter had
nuclear war taken place between the US and USSR that could have
given us a similar scenario. We still could have a serious event
of this sort if India and Pakistan go at each other or if some crazy
cultist launches an attack on Israel.
Jacques Barzun's final master opus, From Dawn to Decadence, provided
a 500 year survey of western culture. One gets perspective from
such a work. Our half- millennium began in violence and ended in
even worse violence--with an end to empires and the large nation-state,
and the internal security that they provide.
Another book that has given me some unquiet is Jared Diamond's
Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which he reminds us that the evolutionary
trajectory is not always upward. Some societies have retreated from
the agricultural revolution due to environmental circumstances and
have only a hunting/gathering society. Afghanistan and central Africa
look that way.
Democratic societies could lose everything if they are not vigilant.
I, for one, have no desire to return to any period of human history
before our own. The past has been much worse for the majority of
human beings living on this planet, and if you doubt this, visit
central Africa, Afghanistan, or the rural Andes in Peru. These places
give one a good picture of the past.
And perhaps most important to those who are sincerely spiritual,
religion must be free and voluntary--both to join and to leave.
As the ancient Jewish scholar Hillel said: the Lord has Many Mansions.
No one faith fits all spirits. Indeed, there should also be freedom
to profess no faith at all, but to live decently and honorably with
all other human beings on earth.
This paper is derived from the Introduction to the author's book,
God's Law or Man's Law: Fundamentalist Challenges to Secular Governance,
currently being reviewed for publication and written before the
September 11, 2001, fundamentalist terror attack in New York and