The Great Religions Have All Been Betrayed ... Welcome To 'The Time Of Ignorance'
By Chris Floyd on 7/28/2006, 8:00am PT  

Guest blogged by Chris Floyd

A slightly expanded version of the column appearing in the July 28th edition of The Moscow Times, as posted at Empire Burlesque.

The history of almost every religion is a tragedy of betrayal: the betrayal of the radical, egalitarian vision of its founders by generations of powerful elites, who twist and pervert the original principles in order to augment their own status, wealth and dominion. It has always been thus, but is nowhere more marked than among the "People of the Book" – Christians, Muslims and Jews – whose elites have for centuries steadily led their followers away from the sparks of light that shone in their beginnings, dragging them deeper into darkness, into error, until today the world finds itself mired in a new Jahiliyyah: "the time of ignorance."

We are not suggesting a precise equivalence here, of course. The blood-curdling depredations of those who claim to be Christians have, in sheer numbers over the course of history, far outweighed the atrocities committed by those who claim to be Muslims. And the number of crimes committed in the names of both of these sects dwarf by several magnitudes the outrages perpetrated by those who claim to follow the paths of Rabbinic Judaism – although the latter are certainly making a game bid to catch up.

The accelerating degeneration of these faiths into aggressive obscurantism should of course be a matter solely for their adherents; why should anyone else be concerned with the feverish hair-splitting, manic control-freakery and sexual obsessions of rabid fundamentalists? Unfortunately, these now-degraded sects dominate the lives of billions of people. Professed believers – or even worse, sincere believers – from the three "Abrahamic faiths" control the governments of many nations, with bristling nuclear arsenals under Christian, Jewish and Muslim command. The fundamentalists' stunted, ignorant and at times outright demented interpretations of ancient texts, dubious traditions – and their own bloodsoaked histories – cannot be ignored. They are the driving force behind every conflict today that threatens to wrap the earth in flames of literal hellfire.

But what these modern-day "believers" believe – and do – has almost no connection to the religions they profess. Karen Armstrong provides clear evidence of this in The Great Transformation, her sweeping new scholarly study of the "Axial Age," the tremendous, centuries-long, worldwide eruption of human consciousness (roughly 900-200 BCE) that gave rise to the major traditions still existing today: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Greek rationalist thought, and the monotheism of Israel, from which later sprang the three sibling faiths whose family quarrels have so poisoned the last two millennia.

(Gore Vidal also deals with a key juncture in this period in his masterful but much-neglected novel, Creation, although his take is somewhat more, shall we say, gritty than Armstrong's respectful tone. Still, together the two books give a rich and rounded portrait of this remarkable era in our common history.)

As Armstrong notes, the "Axial sages" – prophets, mystics, philosophers, poets – achieved a remarkable consensus across centuries and cultures in the essence of their teachings. "All the sages preached a spirituality of empathy and compassion; they insisted that people abandon their egotism and greed, their violence and unkindness," and that this radical compassion "must somehow extend to the entire world." Indeed, "as far as the Axial sages were concerned, respect for the sacred rights of all beings – not orthodox belief – was religion."

The contrast with the hidebound religious ignorance of our day could hardly be greater. Or as Bob Dylan once put it: "Easy to see without looking too far/Not much is really sacred." Certainly not the rights, or lives, of individual human beings, now being shredded everywhere you look by self-declared lovers of God. The fundamentalists have been steeped in murk for so long that they mistake their darkness for the light.

No doubt every well-wadded, White House-connected televangelist justifying aggressive war, pimping for tax cuts and frothing with preternatural anxiety about homosexuals thinks he's walking in the footsteps of the backwoods preacher from Galilee, who spent his entire ministry serving the poor and the despised, the powerless and the discarded, the sexual outcasts and the victims of wealth, and was then killed by the satraps of "the world's only hyperpower."

No doubt every Kalashnikov-toting enforcer of Islamic "virtue" – schooled in a hatemongering madrass funded by cynical Saudi potentates glutted with American oil money – who beats "unruly" women and slaughters ice cream vendors and CD hawkers because "they didn't have such things in the Prophet's time" thinks he's following the example of Muhammad, who forbade the imposition of Islam on others, continually refined his thought in creative adaptations to new conditions, and married an independent female merchant who hired him as an agent for her caravan business then proposed to him, in bold defiance of ancient custom.

No doubt every "settler Rabbi" issuing edicts approving the killing of Arab civilians or blessing a cruise missile bound for an apartment complex in Beirut believes he is a worthy heir of Rabbi Hillel, the great Pharisee who, when challenged to reduce God's law to a single statement, replied: "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to others. That is the whole law; the rest is commentary. Go and study." This "Golden Rule" formulation, later adapted by Jesus, was in fact a powerful distillation – and revival – of the Axial sages' core teaching.

But this core has been lost once again, washed away in the blood shed by the tragically diminished "People of the Book" in their global war of terror: state terror, sectarian terror, death squads, black ops, "asymmetrical attacks," "disproportionate force" – at every turn, in the name of God, an orgy of "egotism and greed, violence and unkindness."

What the sages knew thousands of years ago – in the mud of the Ganges, in the cattle yards of Qufu, by the waters of Babylon – we no longer know. We only know the grunt of ignorant bluster and the frenzied call to war: holy war, culture war, "long war." We are strangling on the blood clot of betrayal.