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Pole on Religion and Violence

Objective observers frequently marvel at that fact that an institution and practice whose adherents frequently, at least in very recent history, profess themselves committed unreservedly to peaceful behavior and indeed wish to be seen as the supreme if not sole advocates of non violence and the pacific resolution of conflict, that these same adherents throughout history and even now are in fact the principal practitioners and motivators of that very violence they so profess to abhor. The recent commotions in the Mohammedan world, reaffirm the unfortunate truth that, where there is religion, we are sure to find violence and mayhem, and that even among Christian and Hindu nations the presence of religion is more likely than not a cause rather than a brake on state-sponsored and individual atrocities, a fact perhaps not surprising in the matter of Christianity whose theologians have only in very recent times and in ultimate conformity with the admonitions of their founder, donned the mantel of non-violence as a makeshift to cover what otherwise was quickly beginning to be perceived as an embarrassing nudity. One wonders what percentage of personal violence in the advanced nations may arise from religious motives of the sort practiced against Lewis’ unfortunate Frank Shallard, versus domestic disagreement or the allure of personal gain. If we concentrate on certain celebrated types of violence, such as bombings, the percentage promises to be high enough to nearly exclude the latter motives altogether.

A step along the path to my personal enlightenment on this subject was provided by the adventitious discovery of a rather remarkable presentation by Cardinal Pole in defense of religious toleration. The interest in his words comes not from his then novel advocacy of religious toleration, whose anticipation of John Locke’s sober defense by more than one hundred years possesses now more of an antiquarian interest given that toleration of faiths among Christian and post-Christian nations has lately become the object of universal admiration. The true interest lies in the insight Pole provides into the religious mind and the psychology that so tightly binds together faith and violent behavior. By way of introduction Cardinal Pole was an Englishman who came to prominence during the reign of Henry VIII. In response to the religious reforms imposed by the king and in order to satisfy his own conscience, Pole escaped to the continent where, despite the fact that he was not a priest, the pope elevated him to the rank of cardinal. Through all the tumult that characterized the reigns of Henry and Mary Tudor, Pole was ever the voice of moderation and forgiveness to such an extent that the Court of Rome began to suspect him of Lutheranism. Nevertheless he was one of the few of Mary’s councilors whom the English people regarded with affection and gratitude after that monarch’s death. Indeed he compares most favorably with Thomas More, that prolific though sanguinary advocate, whose position as a moral exemplar is more than a little overrated by the few Anglo Saxons who persist in their adherence to the popish supremacy.

Pole’s thoughts were expressed during a consultation ordered by Queen Mary about the best way to re-establish the popish religion in England and what if any role the persecution and execution of dissenters should play in this project. Pole expressed the opinion that persecution was not a wise policy. To support his position he made the following points about the psychology of the believer as recounted in David Hume’s History of England (pp. 431 seq.):

  1. The fiercest of all controversies are religious controversies. In comparison disputes about matter of fact or policy, even at their most contentious do not display the ferocity and barbarity of language employed by the divines. Hume: "Even those, who are the most patient of contradiction in other controversies, are mild and moderate in comparison of polemical divines; and wherever a man’s knowledge and experience give him a perfect assurance in his own opinion, he regards with contempt, rather than anger, the opposition and mistakes of others." (p. 431)

  2. The source of the violent attitude is the believer’s very lack of "assurance in his own opinion" in matters religious. He finds he cannot formulate good reasons for his theological opinions. He has not the intellectual means to sustain those opinions against contrary views. Two mental affects attend this situation, Frustration at the inability to articulate adequate defense and responses, and Impatience and Hostility towards those who are viewed as the sources of this frustration. The believer realizes but will not admit that the tenets he adheres to may not only not be true but absolutely meaningless. "But while men zealously maintain what they neither clearly comprehend, nor entirely believe, they are shaken in their imagined faith, by the opposite persuasion, or even doubts of other men; and vent on their antagonists that impatience, which is the natural result of so disagreeable a state of the understanding." (pp. 431-432)

  3. When men discover that they have no resources in reason to defend their religious beliefs or support their advocacy they resort to that other most useful alternative, force and violence, to drown the voices of the opposition. This remarkable psychological insight also helps explain why violence is most often the tool of the so-called proselytizing religions, namely Christianity and Mohammedanism, for by the nature of their mission those religions are the most often entrapped in controversy and the need for justification. If one adds to Pole’s observations the thought that believers maintain their religious dogmas primarily because of a Fear of Death, a most powerful human emotion, an illuminating explanatory framework begins to emerge of the otherwise inexplicable savagery of the religions of peace. "…no human depravity can equal revenge and cruelty, covered with the mantle of religion." (p. 435)

Where argument and reasons fail force and violence are the resort of fearful men, and in matters religious, dealing as they do with things about which knowledge and even meaningful discourse are at the very least gravely doubtful, revenge on the perpetrators of any doubt serves to comfort the anguished tormentor in his new found bad faith.

Gardiner, as we know, won the day in this particular controversy particularly since Queen Mary was probably engaging in her favorite pregnancy fantasies while Pole was talking. Nevertheless Pole articulated one of the strongest arguments against religion and an extraordinary caution against the belief that, despite the failure of so many theological proofs of the existence of God, that existence and the religious gyrations thereby incumbent on men would nevertheless be desirable. It is so far from true that belief in the existence of a God would be desirable because it would foster peaceable behavior, that the contrary has shown itself time and again to be the real consequence.