In response to a long, thoughtful post on religion and democracy. a commenter on the Belmont Club wrote:
A favorite criticism of Christianity is to point to the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition and claim that these events are somehow proof that Christianity is by nature “just another violent religion”. This is both an intellectually shallow and dishonest assessment, since this criticism ignores that fact that these institutionalized excesses did not occur until a full 1000 years into the history of the Christian religion.
The commenter, a Christian apologist, missed or evaded an important point that is relevant to the question of living with Islam and how we cope with the ideological problem of Islamic terrorism. It is indeed true that early Christianity committed only small-scale atrocities against its own ‘heretics’, rather than the really large-scale ones against Jews, witches, and other soi-disant unbelievers that came to characterize it later on. But in interpreting that early period, we need to bear in mind that Christianity changed in fundamental ways after the Donation of Constantine.
I think the turning point was Augustine, though you can see a prefiguration of his ideas in Paul of Tarsus. By making the theology of Fall, sin, and guilt central to Christianity, Augustine transformed it from a relatively harmless mystery cult into a successful monster. Islam underwent a very similar transformation during the early years of the Ummaiyyad caliphate, from a splinter of Monophysite Christianity no more bloody-minded than most tribal cults of the time to a new prosyletizing religion of especially virulent and violent stripe.
Both religions, in their “mature” forms, became strikingly similar to their most important ancestor, which was not Judaism but Zoroastrianism. Augustine was a former adherent of one of the Zoroastrian splinter groups, the Gnostics of Manicheus. He imported Manichean dualism into Christianity almost entire. One can read Zoroastrian descriptions of heaven, hell, angels, the devil, and the fate of sinners from 900 years before Christ and recognize them; they are like nothing else in world religion but very much like Christianity after Augustine, the Christianity that made the Book of Revelations part of its canon.
The Zoroastrian influence on Christianity had always been important. Early Christians had adopted Zoroastrian customs and terminology, especially under the influence of the cult of Mithras which was probably their most important competition in the early centuries. That’s where we got the Sunday sabbath and our words for “priest” and “pope”; even the Eucharist reflects a Mithraic initiation ceremony called the Taurobolion. After Augustine, the Manichean, quasi-Zoroastrian elements of Christianity became dominant and the massacres began, gradually increasing in tempo.
Part of the reason for the reconvergence with Zoroastrianism was doubtless functional. Zoroastrianism had been the state religion of the Persian Empire. It was designed to reinforce the authority of the Priest-Emperor over his vast multi-ethnic rabble of subjects, placing him at the apex of both secular and spiritual authority (and, indeed, making them indistinguishable). The emperors of Rome and the early Caliphs faced a similar set of problems, and enlisted the same kind of religious absolutism as a tool of totalitarian social control.
It was Augustine’s theology of sin and grace that sharpened that tool into a blade. In a nutshell, it reduces to this: (1) We are all sinners, broken and wrong. (2) To escape this condition, we must not only obey authority but internalize it. (3) Even if we succeed at (2), only the whim of divine authority can save us, and that whim is beyond human ken. The tyrant can never be called to account, and to act against him is to be damned.
Worse: in Augustinean theology, the intention to sin is as bad as the act. It is not sufficient to behave as though we believe when we really don’t. It is not even sufficient that we allow authorities to coerce us into believing absurd things or performing atrocities in God’s name. We must conform not only outwardly but inwardly, become our own oppressors, believing because it is absurd. The God-tyrant can never be rejected even in our own minds, or we are damned.
Only when we have installed the sin/guilt/thoughtcrime monitor in our own heads will we be even potentially among the saved. There is a straight line that connects Zoroastrian dualism and Augustine’s sin-centered theology with the Islamic concept of “sarfa” (turning away from God) and Communist talk of “false consciousness” — at some level, the mechanisms to run any stable totalitarianism have to look alike, because they’re all designed to control the same wetware.
The alliance now forming between the Islamo-fascists and the hard left should surprise nobody who understands the deep structure of either belief system. Both are, fundamentally, designed as legitimizing agents for tyranny — memetic machines designed to program you into licking the boot of the commissar or caliph that stomps you. But outside of a tiny minority of the brave (Robert Ingersoll) or the crazy (Nietzsche) Western intellectuals have averted their eyes from this truth, because to recognize it would almost require them to notice that the very same deep structure is wired into the Gnosticized Christianity of “Saint” Augustine — and, in fact, historically derived from it.
Hence the shared Christian/Islamic propensity for putting unbelievers to the sword for merely unbelieving. You will search in vain for such behavior among post-Exilic Jews, or Taoists, or animists, or any other world religion. Only a religion which is totalitarian at its core, fundamentally about thoughtcrime and sin and submission, can even conceive of a need to murder people wholesale for the state of their unbelief. The massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Eve and Stalin’s liquidation of the kulaks were of a piece, both jihads against thoughtcrime.
Islam conceals this less well than Christianity or Communism ever did. The very name, “Islam”, means “submission”. But when Christian evangelists called the destruction on 9/11 God’s punishment for feminism and homosexuals they were singing from the same hymnbook, channelling the same authoritarianism and “ancient religious rage” that Margalit and Buruma’s essay Occidentalism quite correctly diagnosed at the roots of fascism.
It is not difficult to recognize in that rage something deep, twisted, sick, and anti-human, and condemn it for the psychosis it is. It is more difficult, but necessary, to recognize Augustine’s theology of submission — and the concept of “islam” that Islam derived from it — as one of the most subtle and deadliest symptoms of that pychosis, one which leads to massacre as surely as a stab wound bleeds.
Totalitarian religion and democracy are not, in the end, compatible. Free people cannot — indeed, must never — submit in the way that Zoroaster, Augustine, Mohammed, and Stalin required. The Founding Fathers understood this, and when George Washington wrote “The United States is in no way founded upon the Christian religion” on a diplomatic message to the Knights of Malta they were expressing it.
Islamic terrorism is forcing us to face this fact. But we will not be able to understand and squarely confront the evil at the heart of Islam, Naziism, and Communism, until we face the fact that all three of these monsters are Augustine’s progeny, and that same evil is embedded in Christianity itself.