The ugly side of religion is the fanaticism that uses violence to force its faith on others. Alexander conquered the world as a missionary of Hellenism, the culture and religion of the Greeks. In the second century B.C. Antiochus tried to impose Hellenism on Jerusalem. He believed the Greek way of life was clearly superior to what he considered the crude and primitive ways of the Jews. He thought their kosher laws were primitive superstitions. He especially opposed the Jewish way of identifying their sons with their religion, the rite of circumcision.

Many devout mothers and fathers lost their lives to the persecutions of Antiochus, rather than to accept his ban on the religious identification of their children. Ultimately Jewish freedom fighters rose up against the forces of Antiochus and drove them from the land. The cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem after it’s desecration by Antiochus is still celebrated in the festival of Hanukkah.

When Christians were persecuted by the Roman empire, apologists such as Justin and Anathagorus appealed to the emperor’s sense of reason and justice. They asked to be left alone and allowed to follow their own consciences.

For the first three hundred years the followers of Christ were pacifists. When Constantine issued his “edict of toleration,” two obstacles to Christians’ serving the military were removed: the requirement of participating in idolatrous ceremonies and the persecution of fellow Christians. The only obstacle that remained was the scruple about killing.

History took a fateful turn in the fifth century when Augustine developed the “just war doctrine.” In response to barbarian invasions, he argued that love requires one to defend the innocent. When one thinks of the horrible cases of genocide the world has seen, it’s hard to resist that argument.

Augustine, however, argued further that the church has a right to defend itself against persecutions. Then he added the further right of the faith to defend itself against error, arguing that “error has no rights.” This doctrine eventually allowed the church to use the power of violence to enforce orthodoxy on dissenters.

In the UK today, there is a petition asking the state to use its power to enforce the orthodoxy of unbelief. The petition calls for a ban on “the religious identification” and “indoctrination” of children under the age of 16. Geneticist Richard Dawkins was the first to sign the petition. However, the next day he recanted, claiming he had not considered all the implications of the petition. (Dawkins’ “mea culpa” may be found at

What would the implications be? How would the petition be enforced? Would Jewish parents again be persecuted for practicing the ancient rite of circumcision–a rite that for them testifies to the faithfulness of the God who liberated slaves from Egypt over 3000 years ago and called them to become a community that practices freedom and justice?

Would teaching the Torah to children be banned? Dawkins did not remove his name from another petition that called for the prohibition of all faith-based schools in the UK, regardless of funding. Evidently Hebrew schools would have to be shut down if the ban were to be passed.

My question is–where does the need for an enforced orthodoxy come from? If biology can explain everything, what is the biological need for conformity in thought? The persecution of dissent from the dominant orthodoxy is not a specifically religious impulse. Its secular form is still going strong.

If there is a biological need to crush dissent, can faith overcome biology?

One Response

  1. Barack Obama’s Comment
    So doing the Lord’s work is a thread that’s run through our politics since the very beginning. And it puts the lie to the notion that the separation of church and state in America means faith should have no role in public life. Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural without its reference to “the judgments of the Lord.” Or King’s “I Have a Dream” speech without its reference to “all of God’s children.” Or President Kennedy’s Inaugural without the words, “here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” At each of these junctures, by summoning a higher truth and embracing a universal faith, our leaders inspired ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things.
    But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart. It got hijacked. Part of it’s because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, who’ve been all too eager to exploit what divides us. At every opportunity, they’ve told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design. There was even a time when the Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich. I don’t know what Bible they’re reading, but it doesn’t jibe with my version.

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