11/10/2014 03:33 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

The Perils of Messianism

As I studied religion and earned a minor in the subject in college, I learned that the wonder of faith is in trusting that there are non-material things, like values, that we cannot see that can make life worth living. Ask a scientist to describe the physicality of ideals like honesty, compassion and truth and he or she might be able to point out brain correlates when we demonstrate these values -- but the values themselves are not physical.

Trouble comes when we expect immaterial values that good faith promotes to manifest into physical embodiment. Messianism is on the rise in the world, and it bodes serious ill. Franz Kafka famously wrote, "The messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last day."

In sum, the messiah is not going to come, and believing that he has or will promotes backward thinking and cruel actions because it provides justification for any type of behavior in the service of bad faith.

Already we see what messianism can do to a population willing to embrace it. In China, a cult that claims that Jesus has returned in the form of a woman says it has one million followers. It engages in cruel practices of conversion, promising sex and delivering violence. When people refuse to convert, its members have been known to stomp them to death.

Conservative political leaders in America are pushing for the expansion of religion into public life, which is a serious mistake. Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia argued in a speech that the government can promote religion over non-religion, in direct violation of the Constitution's guarantee against this.

In 2009, The New York Times' Roger Cohen documented how Benjamin Netanyahu argued against the "messianic" Iranians' efforts to create a nuclear bomb. Yet in 2014, Cohen had to admit that "the inexorable growth of a Messianic Israeli nationalism" and its land ambitions added fuel to the fire that resulted in the tragic deaths of thousands of Palestinians this past summer.

These are the chilling perils of messianism that we know about. What is frightening, as Cohen alluded to in his 2009 article by mention of President Bush, is the messianism we can only speculate on. In 2011, America's best investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh, claimed that the reins of power under President Bush were packed with believers of a crusading sort, including members of secretive religious groups.

The biggest problem with messianism is its literalism and how that literalism can result in heinous actions. There both are and have been so many religions and so many deities that to expect one to literally come back over another is pure fantasy. While Christians may one day think they have found the second coming of Jesus, why should their claims hold any more weight than those who think that Sraosha, a Zoroastrian deity, is back?

As Walker Percy wrote in his novel The Second Coming, "If the good news is true, the God of the good news must be a very devious fellow indeed, fond of playing tricks." My own view is that it is not God who is the trickster, but human beings who would use the idea of the resurrection to amass more power, coerce more followers to their side and use the excuse of religion to get away with it all.