How Religions Flunk The ‘Test Of Power’

Lincoln and emancipation

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you really want to test a man’s character give him power!”

Lincoln’s litmus test: Abraham Lincoln is said to have devised this litmus test of human character:

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Let us try applying Lincoln’s test, not to any particular man or woman in isolation, but by examining a collective human construct that throughout history has served to supply us with vivid demonstrations of human folly: organized religion. Almost all religions are able to stand the adversity they face in the form of a rationalist onslaught on their indefensible claims, and freethinking onslaught on their oppressive practices, by adopting the conciliatory line that religion is only a benign and remedial force in a troubled world. At least, this is the line that their accommodationist spin-doctors spout untiringly,in callous disregard of the bloodthirsty pasts of the religions they are so keen to defend. History and Geography will supply us the specimens we need to administer Lincoln’s ‘Test of Power’ to Religions, using episodes of undeniable excesses when Religion reigned supreme, and reports from those pockets which even today continue to be the redoubts of the corrupting power of religion.


Drona and Ekalavya

The tyranny of a ‘non-proselytizing faith’:

Self-proclaimed defenders of ‘Sanatana Dharma‘ manage to appear so wronged when confronted with the accusation that the social organization prescribed by the scriptures they hold as sacrosanct, namely Varnashrama Dharma, seems designed to perpetuate a power structure of hereditary privilege. To sweep this scriptural endorsement, nay injunction, of hereditary privilege under the carpet, they will never be at loss for a verse on which they can superimpose their suitably bowdlerized definitions of ‘guna‘ and ‘karma‘ as something to do with ‘intrinsic aptitude’ and ‘track record’. Finally, they will smugly declare that what the critics oversimplify as the ‘caste system’ was actually an exquisitely designed meritocratic dispensation representing the combined wisdom of our ancestors. Even a cursory examination of the scripture that they so zealously rely on and the lived reality which these scriptures have a part in shaping and misshaping, is sufficient to expose the hollowness of their claims. Far from repudiating hereditary privilege, the scriptures of this faith hold that the circumstances of one’s birth are not accidental but indicative of acquired merit; and far from treating all humans as deserving of dignity, holds the view that belonging to a certain occupation (or gender!) is itself an indignity ! One way to examine the conduct of this religion in scenarios where it has the power to enforce the letter of its scriptures, is to simply watch the documentary: India Untouched, which itself is a damning report card to ‘Sanatana Dharma’ of its performance in Lincoln’s Test of Power.

Destruction wrought by a ‘religion of peace’ : According to accommodationist interpreters of Islamic scripture, this religion gloriously acquits itself of fundamentalism thanks to the Quranic verse 2:256 which they are so fond of quoting: “Let there be no compulsion in religion!” To expose this as yet another self-serving oversimplification of an apologist, let us engage in an exercise in Counterfactual History, popularized by the historian Niall Ferguson. Counterfactual history examines a ‘what if’ scenario like the following one, in order to put the actual event in perspective. Let us begin with a ‘what if’ scenario about the conquest of Mecca in 630 AD, the very moment when Islam acquired political power and became subject to Lincoln’s test.

” The victorious army of 10,000 marched into Mecca straight towards the Kaaba. However the pious believers refrained from entering the pagan shrine, neither did they evict or bar the entry of the worshippers therein. All they did was pitch a humble tent in the Kaaba courtyard and from outside it, issued the adhaan, the call to prayer. Within weeks there was a steady trickle of former pagan worshippers to the prayer tent and within months the old Kaaba had fallen into disuse as a shrine, and continued to remain just the venue of the annual inter-tribe conclave which it had been before.”

If only! If only the first believers had made the above narrative true by actually adhering to their lip-serviced principle: “Let there be no compulsion in religion!”

The actual history of the conquest of Mecca played out with much more sound and fury and what might have, even in those benighted ages, been considered a kind of philistinism, and what certainly today would unmistakably be considered vandalism. Before the apologists manage to do their favorite act of appearing wronged at this taking-to-task of a faith based on a distant historical wrong, they would do well to also view this very contemporary televangelist of the same faith making utterances amounting to the assertion that there should indeed be compulsion in religion, which would of course be a compulsion of the sort he subscribes to. Can we afford to forget the atrocities of fundamentalist iconoclasts when they gain power? Have we forgotten the Bamiyan Buddhas? Don’t we shudder for the sphinx?

Bamiyan Buddha

Destruction wrought by a ‘religion of peace’

Final word: I will conclude by giving the last word to the incomparable Christopher Hitchens, quoting him about Religion’s response to adversity and power, from his recent debate at the American Jewish University:

“Let me tell you something. For hundreds and thousands of years, this kind of discussion would have been impossible to have, or Sam (Harris) and I would have been having it at the risk of our lives. Religion now comes to us in this ‘smiley-face’ ingratiating way….because it has had to give so much ground and because we know so much more. But you have no right to forget the way it behaved when it was strong and when it really did believe that it had God on its side!”