Religion and Violence: Why Religious People are Attracted to Authoritarian Power?

by Nestor Ravilas

“Why dictatorship keeps on coming back again and again?” asked by Shalmali Guttal of the Global South during the talk on the Rise of Populist Authoritarianism that featured Walden Bello and other international political thinkers. The talk basically calls out the emergence of dictatorship, not only in the Philippines and in the US, but in the global context. What is more alarming is the deliberate effort to efface history of mass killings and genocide committed by past despotic leaders which is obviously being carried out to pave the way for the rise of this new totalitarianism. I thought at first that this phenomenon is constrained only in the “German Debate” where Jurgen Habarmas himself feisty contested this eradication of the atrocities of Shoa (Holocaust) to liberate, as its proponents aggressively argued, Germany from the horror of its past crimes against humanity. This trend, as spilled by the panelists, is actually global, and the Philippines is riding the tide in trying to eliminate or dampen the horror of the Marcos regime, obviously, to give way to Duterte’s brand of authoritarianism.

The question then raised by Guttal is distressing, and becoming more distressful when no answer is offered on why totalitarianism keeps on coming back in political scene, and why people keep on cowering under it. With so many questions raised during the three-hour talk, it was the one who keeps haunting me and brooding deeply this big “Why?” thereafter. Another significant thing in the talk is the absence of any trace of religious language. I understand that secular politics has to be free of religious language.
Democracy goes with secularism since the greatest obstacle for any pursuant for self-determination are the despotic monarchy and arbitrary religion. This repugnance, however, to religion of dogmatic liberalism is in my opinion the reason why the question remains unanswered. Contrary to what Marx prophesied, religion, up to this day, remains a power to reckon with. Churches in Europe and in other countries outside Europe might have been suffering from declining membership or attendees for years as mentioned by Ulrich Beck, but it does not mean that people stopped being religious. Religion remains a force that shapes identities and personalities of people living on this planet. To exclude religion in our social and political dialog which is supposedly geared towards anticipation of egalitarian arrangement is doomed to fail from the very start. That is the reason why even those branded as dogmatic liberals like Jurgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Richard Rorty, etc. started to engage religion in their own discourses.
Why religion matters then in the discussion of political theories? Because religion is the breeding ground for what Michel Foucault dubbed as “docile people”. It is the institution where people trained and conditioned under a despotic and authoritarian rule. I know no world religion that is not despotic and totalitarian in its imposition of its dogma and practices. Religions are efficient in what Foucault called “internalization of subjugation,” which thus producing subservient and obedient people who practice their docility even in their private lives where no authorities are present to monitor them. Hence, its members or constituents are framed and condition in this kind of relationship to power. It is not therefore surprising that the pertinent political blocks that supported and keep on supporting despotic leaders like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte are religious people, Evangelicals to be precise.
It was said that religions with male gods as their deities are more prone to the interplay of power and docility. Female gods gave birth to everything; humans included come from her and therefore part of her. I am not familiar with any society that worships a female god, hence I cannot confirm whether this kind of society is more humane on their social arrangement. A male god, on the other hand, is authoritarian from the very start; he created everything as he commanded them into being. Religions of most prominent societies we are aware of revered male gods or male prophets. They are basically religions of orders, of commands, of power, of despotic imposition. This is what we hear from President Duterte, and this is what the religious people of this country love about him. We love being dominated, being ruled, being directed, being dictated, being bullied, being abused, because that is how we are framed and produced by our religions.
How then could we expect a person who have just emerged from worshiping his god to be a different person in his political participation? It is the same person! Docile and subservient. Person whose docility was internalized; person who finds salvation in being ruled and dominated by power, whether religious or political. Because of this, we cannot simply change society by shunning out religions in our social discourse and social participation. Ignoring religions will not stop them from producing people that give us Trump and Duterte. Rather, we have to engage them and take them away from those who are maligning them by misinterpreting and misrepresenting them that only ends in this perpetuation of repulsive docility to tyrannical power.
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