08/22/2012 08:57 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

5 Lessons on Religion From the Killing Fields of Syria

Disclaimer: This post contains violent imagery.

Families huddling in their homes as the armed forces of their own country bomb and strafe them. Prisoners soaked in gasoline and set ablaze like human torches. Children tortured before their parents' eyes. Just when it seemed that the horrors unfolding in Syria could turn no worse, they have.

As The New York Times reports, kidnapping has become a tactic in this most savage and pitiless of wars. There is something especially cruel about kidnapping -- it adds a drawn-out uncertainty to the endless list of agonies.

What is the role of religion in this mess? Central. As the noted Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami observes, Syria's carnage is "a religious war in all but name." Anatol Lieven, chair of International Relations at King's College London, puts it more precisely: "Clearly, this is turning into an ethno-religious civil war." As if to underscore the point, Syria's beleaguered president, Bashar al-Assad, made his first appearance in a month at prayer in a Damascus mosque.

Like Lebanon, Syria is a snakepit of religious sects, each with its fangs bared: Alawites, Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Druze and even a tiny community of Jews. It was much the same in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, when a religious flare-up led to the slaughter of my grandfather's family and left him an orphan who, thank God, would eventually emigrate to the United States.

Now, be assured: I am not going to exploit this tragedy merely to pummel religion. But neither am I going to stand by and be silent. There are lessons here to learn and act upon.

1. Religion fuels the fire of inter-tribal hatreds.

The uprising in Syria began as a series of peaceful, civil demonstrations that the Assad regime brutally suppressed. It has become a violent revolt increasingly led by religious fanatics, including elements of al Qaeda. The video below shows just how religion can, literally in the name of God, inflame the basest human impulses. Fair warning: the video is graphic and is posted as pro-regime propaganda, yet it is reasonable to think it authentic. If you (understandably) want to pass, just know that it shows a group of armed men working themselves into a frenzy by shouting "Allah-u-akbar!" ("God is great!") before executing several half-naked, bloodied prisoners in an orgy of rifle fire. Believe me, the word "orgy" is not out of place.

If you are tempted to dismiss this as something distinctively Islamic, just think of a Ku Klux Klan rally prior to a lynching. As folks where I live say, same deal.

2. Much of religion itself remains tribal.

Syria offers us a horrifying glimpse into the days of the Old Testament. Then, above all, might made right. Unquestioning loyalty to the tribal ruler was the only way for most people to gain the slightest measure of security. You can see this quite clearly in the remarkable resemblance of the O.T. God to modern Middle Eastern tyrants when He throws a fit over disloyalty.

Here's Yahweh on one of his typical rants: "Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up" (Hosea 13:16, KJV).

Nebuchadnezzar couldn't a-said it no better. Swap in "Aleppo" for "Samaria," and you're right up to date.

Religion creates much bigger tribes than clans can, but the nature of tribal relations does little to foster peace, justice or stability. From the Vatican's crackdown on American nuns to evangelical calls for the death penalty for gays to the honor killings of Islam, tribal tyranny lives on in Old Time Religion today.

3. Yet, religion likely evolved to constrain violence and bring moral order.

For all the authoritarian fury recorded in Scripture and evident in religion today, it's clear that religion arose as a brake on violence and arbitrary power. Forget about revelation or prophets. If you take a functionalist view of religion, the most plausible explanation for its omnipresence is the idea advanced by evolutionary anthropologist David Sloan Wilson -- that religions cropped up to tamp down violence and promote in-group harmony and cooperation.

And there in Scripture, amid all the smiting and the casting into lakes of fire, is some evidence! In the Koran, for instance, comes a call to deal justly with the powerless: "To orphans restore their property (when they reach their age), nor substitute (your) worthless things for (their) good ones; and devour not their substance (by mixing it up) with your own. For this is indeed a great sin" (Book 3: sura 2). And, of course, we must not forget the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus admonishes his followers to break the cycle of revenge by turning the other cheek.

To be sure, much of scriptural morality is crude, reflecting both the historical circumstances (there were no prisons then), and the state of philosophical and scientific knowledge (Bronze Age at best). Hence, we find Deuteronomy's resolution of rape shocking: "If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days" (Deuteronomy 22:28-29, KJV).

Taken as the literal word of God, this is contemptible and as good an argument for atheism as ever I struck. But taken in historical context, well, at least it's a stab at a consistent, equitable and non-lethal resolution. Lacking the institutional authority of, say, the Supreme Court, it's understandable that the ancients would frame their oafish attempts at morality as God's Word. Hence, for most of history and for most people today, religion has been the wellspring of morality.

4. Three great flaws hobble religion as a force for good.

If it is true that religion evolved to constrain violence and promote harmony, why is it such a blood-soaked institution? One reason: although religion expands the circle of moral obligation, not even religions claiming universal reach guarantee decent treatment to all people. On the contrary, both Christianity and Islam have endorsed slavery for most of their histories. Both expanded by conquest and inflicted terrible cruelties on the conquered. To be sure, each can claim some benevolent acts. The Koran's famously bloodthirsty suras are somewhat offset by verses that call for the decent treatment of prisoners of war and the sanctity of innocents, but these have been honored more in the breach than the observance -- as have Christianity's pretensions to moral superiority when dealing with conquered peoples. Just ask the sub-Saharan Africans, Native peoples of the Americas and Australia, or the Jews!

The second great flaw grows out of religion's dependence on revelation for its stamp of authority. Commandments allegedly given by God probably sounded like a big step forward in the seventh century B.C.E., when Deuteronomy was composed, or for that matter in the seventh century C.E., when Muhammad experienced his revelations. Either way, they don't stand the test of time. Both Christianity and Islam require institutions to interpret religious commandments. (The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the Hanbali School of Islamic Jurisprudence are some prominent examples.) But interpretation has been no friend to unity or peace.

Two major splits have sundered Christianity: the Great Schism twixt Constantinople and Rome, and the Protestant Reformation. Each of these brought on massacres, inquisitions, torture and every kind of internecine horror imaginable -- not to mention the Crusades, the Expulsion of the Jews and the Witch Trials. Islam, too, has had its splits. Following the death of Muhammad, a dispute broke out over who should succeed him as the leader of the newly minted Muslims. Some backed his confidant Abu Bakr; others backed his son-in-law and cousin Ali. The fight, often bloody, continues to this day. Each of these divisions and nearly 40,000 others effectively creates a new tribe, whose members owe moral duties to one another but few if any to outsiders.

Which brings us back to Syria, where obscure religious tribes such as the Alawites duke it out with better-known Sunnis and others. Of course, this is not just the curse of Middle East: The Bosnian civil war showed that. But no one has more experience in throat-cutting, eye-gouging internecine awfulness than the godfearing peoples of the Middle East.

And that, in turn, brings us to the third big flaw in religion: It offers psychopaths a convenient means to dominate and exploit others. Other ideologies of passion, such as Marxism, can serve in a pinch, but religion beats them all. Why? Because it lets tyrants claim the imprimatur of God. The Roman Emperor Claudius went one better and proclaimed himself a god. In modern times the North Korean dictators of the Kim dynasty have done much the same. And then there's the Assad clan in Syria. Pop Hafez al-Assad responded to a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Homs by leveling the city, killing an estimated 20,000 of his own people. Before his inevitable fall, Bashar al-Assad bids fair to exceed his daddy's toll.

5. Religion can still be a force for good.

If you accept two ideas -- that religion arose as a means of nurturing stability and cooperation within human societies, and that religion fostered and spread the idea (if not the example) of universal rights -- you can readily see its potential for good. To be sure, there are countless examples of religion running amok, but the point is that as near-universal in civilization even today, religion retains potential for good.

To fulfill that potential, it must break free of the Bronze Age and enter the Information Age with minds open to the realities of the world as science illuminates them -- especially the realities of human nature.

Let's face it: We are prone to revere power more than virtue. We are apt to dismiss the sufferings of those who are remote from us. We focus on short-term costs rather than long-term consequences. And above all, we're given to magical thinking, to the unjustified belief that we can hand off responsibilities to a higher power. These make for easy dodges. But if religion is to hold a worthy place in our world going forward, it must clearly, effectively and impartially condemn the slaughter in Syria.