One of the themes that Tom Robbins develops in Skinny Legs and All is the general condemnation of religion. Any book that examines the Middle East (or any religious conflict) is almost bound to walk away seeing religion as the root of all evil, or at least the root of all organized atrocity. It's such an easy, natural argument to make: "So much killing and oppression, all in the name of God. Religion sucks!" Recent outspoken atheists like Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) and Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) are pretty blunt about it: religion is an evil that needs to be eliminated. They seem to believe that if we removed religion, all this violence would be avoided.
Tom Robbins position is somewhat more nuanced. A belief in the divine is not the problem – it's the patriarchal, literate, overly-intellectual religion that's the problem. Religion that attempts to constrain the divine, shrink it down to a manageable size, codify it in a set of rules. Religion that suppresses the feminine, that cuts us off from the earth, that denies everything natural in an attempt to glorify the super-natural – that's the Big Bad. According to this narrative, religion is the vehicle used by men to repress women, to repress people different from themselves, and in fact attempt to control everything. Religion equals totalitarianism. Oh, if only we could return to the earth, and get in touch with the natural, we would once again discover magic and vitality and love and sing kum-bay-yah.
Such an argument has gained a lot of ground in the 18 years since Skinny Legs and All was first published. With environmentalism on the rise, loving Mother Earth has a new chic. Materialism, consumerism, capitalism – these are the threats to our world and our harmony. If only we could cast off global capitalism and the rampant consumption of natural resources, there would be plenty for everyone and no more war!
Ok. Fine. Some good points here. Definitely worthy of consideration. But before the super-green-anti-religion-For-the-People brigades mobilize, just consider this: almost exactly the same rhetoric was used by the Khymer Rouge, the Communist regime in Cambodia that directly killed half a million people, and killed as many more though starvation and disease. What were the central ideas of their rule?
Total suppression of religion
Complete rejection of the free market, banking, finance, and currency
Embracing a lifestyle of agricultural subsistence
It is not my intention to imply that all liberal-leaning, religion-despising people are equivalent to a brutal dictatorship. I just want to make it clear that religion has not cornered on the market on war, oppression, and brutality. You can have a perfectly good genocide without religion being involved (like, say, in Rwanda, or Darfur). You can embrace all the popular non-religious themes of our time – nature, simplicity, anti-consumerism – and still wind up with a totalitarian hell. The point is that war, oppression, and brutality are not about religion. It's about power. Religion makes a great pretext for seizing and abusing power; but if we took it away, people would find some other equally erroneous pretext for seizing and subsequently power. They already have. Anything sufficient broad and poorly defined will do. "It's the will of God" worked well for centuries; "for the good of the People" worked equally well in the last 100 hundred years. What comes next? "For the good of the environment"?
I think the argument against religion, in this context, hinges on precisely what you and I find so valuable in religion: it gives people something higher and more important to believe in than being nice to your neighbor. People do kill each other over soccer games, but not often, because most people agree that a soccer game is less important than human life. But if you really believe in your religion, you tend to value it above human life. This makes you much more likely to be a dangerous fanatic. It also makes your followers much more likely to be willing to kill in your name.
If we could all agree that the Golden Rule is the highest, best, and most universal law, there would be a lot less fighting and violence and disagreement and war. Also less hunger and poverty. Unfortunately, as much as I love the Golden Rule (which I really do), I don't consider it the highest and best...