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The Cancer of Religious Narcissism

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The bloody clashes between Sikh sects reminds us once again of the intimate bond between religion and violence. It seems to take only the tiniest doctrinal differences to produce bloodshed. My favorite headline from 2008 was CHRISTIANS BRAWL AT JESUS' TOMB, citing a donnybrook between Armenian and Greek Orthodox priests.

People often marvel at the fact that, despite the nonviolent teachings of their founder, Christians never seem to tire of slaughter. Catholics all over Europe have killed Protestants by the thousands and slaughtered their children, and Protestants have done the same. The Crusaders mounted genocidal attacks on Arabs and Jews. Modern efforts to win over moderates in Afghanistan are consistently sabotaged by fundamentalist military chaplains who tell our troops they're fighting Satan and should be murdering anyone they can't convert.

Precisely what the Imams are telling the Taliban. For homicidal proclivities seem endemic to most of the world's major religions. Hindus and Muslims slaughter each other, as do Israelis and Palestinians, Sunnis and Shiites. And the Bible is filled with genocide, supposedly ordered by God. Why is this so?

The answer is that most organized religions are based on systems of belief.

Every religion is trying to create a consensual reality. That is to say, the more people you can get to believe your legend, the easier it is for you to take it as fact. If everyone around you believes something, it's actually difficult not to believe it yourself. In the famous Asch experiment, in which the deliberate lies of seven stooges convinced most experimental subjects to deny the evidence of their own senses, only one of the seven stooges needed to give the correct reading for the naïve subject to feel able to buck the tide. This is why fundamentalist cults always isolate themselves -- to eliminate the possibility of a contrary view.

Jesus said very specifically that the world would end during the lifetime of his disciples. He was wrong about that. They waited, it didn't happen. Many people expected it at the end of the first millennium. Didn't happen. Many people expected it at the end of the second millennium. Didn't happen. Various Christian cults in every century have insisted on an early demise for the planet. And that mega-cult of fundamentalists spread across our Southland is still waiting for the "Rapture" today -- the great event when they alone will be swept to Paradise, leaving all their annoyingly happy neighbors behind. Unlike the Taliban, who have to kill infidels to get into Paradise, Christian fundamentalists just have to believe a primitive folk tale. But the motivation is always the same: Get ME, not my neighbors, ME into Paradise.

Christianity, for example, became violent and corrupt the moment it went from being a movement based on love and charity to one based on faith. The emphasis on faith meant marginalizing its ethical core. Christians today feel comfortable being rich, selfish, and homicidal because they believe that believing alone will get them into heaven, and getting into heaven is, after all, a completely selfish concern. Christianity says you might not be able to take your moneybags with you when you die, but you can take your inflated ego. As long as you believe the legend.

Religious wars, religious arguments, are inherently narcissistic. The only way you can feel sure of getting your sorry butt into some sort of paradise is to get everyone else to believe your program for achieving that goal. Needless to say, spirituality has nothing whatever to do with all this.

If your religious system requires an army of salesmen, it automatically disqualifies itself from its claim to truth. Every religion that proselytizes is intrinsically corrupt. True spirituality needs no bosses, no hucksters, no bureaucracy, no creed. It's about awareness and gratitude for the wonder of existence, not a rapacious craving for ego-survival.

(In his inauguration speech, Obama talked of a whole new way of doing things. To understand the cultural paradigm shift that engendered this change -- the shift that both the neocons and the Taliban have resisted so fiercely, see my website for information on THE CHRYSALIS EFFECT: THE METAMORPHOSIS OF GLOBAL CULTURE).