Religion-Throwing out the Baby with the Bathwater

Is Gorbachev the Antichrist? Uh, no.
Is Gorbachev the Antichrist? Uh, no.

Throwing out the baby with the bathwater has a fancy name: Manichaeism. It refers to an ancient religious doctrine of absolute good and absolute evil locked in mortal combat. Judging by our movies, books and video games, we rather like that archetype.

It also refers to a characteristic of human nature that is on display in our daily headlines: When people become disgusted, they just want to destroy the whole dang thing and start over; i.e. hack at the government until it can be crammed down the bathtub drain as a certain NeoCon suggests.

The big three monotheisitic religions hold this doctrine in varying degrees. The devil is familiar to Christians, though the silly caricature of the red dude with hooves and pitchfork is a middle ages popular literary invention.

Judaism insists it has a different slant; it has no devil, it has Satan and this is his official description: “The word satan means “challenger”, “difficulty”, or “distraction” (note that it is not a proper name).

In Islam he is Iblis, or Shaytan a spirit who refused to honor the first man and is characterized as possessing soaring pride and the power to make evil suggestions to bring about his agenda through humans. This is pretty close to what Jesus said, “The devil is a liar.”

When the devil is taken as a metaphor for evil suggestions that could come to anyone, Manicheaism falls flat. Your opponent is not the embodiment of evil (Obama! JFK! Gorbachev!) at worst he is just a human being who has fallen for some lie. This is just not simplistic enough for simpletons who want to ID the enemy and then…kill him. After you kill him, everything will be hunky-dory. As Stalin said, “No man, no problem.” This absolute good vs. absolute evil ideology leads to instability (government shutdowns), revolutions and killing on an industrial scale; no compromise with the devil!

It has these bad results because it is-ITSELF-a lie.

The French Revolution was a bloody mess, resulting in the deaths of over 40,000 French citizens. Revolutionaries rejected religion because they saw it as an oppressive force and the Catholic clergy as part of the privileged elite intent on retaining power. The revolutionaries were not wrong in declaring that the established church was part of the privileged elite oppressing them, they were wrong in rejecting all religion based on these oppressors (they also killed Catholics reformers.) In other words, they threw out the baby when they could have just thrown out the dirty bathwater.

They, like other revolutionaries, substituted their own ideology as a secular religion. Yet they quickly discovered that this did not satisfy people. So they tried to invent a new religion, a sort of worship of Reason or Nature (this religion persists) and tried to institute new rituals such as Robspierre’s  Festival of the Supreme Being.  In his speech that day, he continued the Manichean good vs. evil harangue “Monarchy has returned to nothingness, this monster which the spirit of kings has spewed forth over France. Let all the crimes and ills of the world disappear with him.”  Robspierre himself was beheaded shortly after this.

Manicheasim, or throwing the baby out with the bathwater, should be exposed as a dangerous lie.

Between 1830 and 1848 many countries experienced revolutions, but the only successful one was in Switzerland. The others resulted in widespread death and repression. It is quite likely that if the revolutionaries had taken power, they would have dealt death to their opponents, thereby ‘purging the country of evil.’ There were no purges in Switzerland, nor was there an attempt to impose a rigid utopian ideology on everyone in the country.

Resist black and white thinking. Throw out the bathwater; it is indeed dirty. But cherish the baby.

James H. Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men: The Origins of Revolutionary Faith

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