When does a doctrine become a tool for dehumanization?

Previously I've commented in posts on various aspects of our new grant research process. The main elements include strategic storytelling for social change within evangelicalism on multi-faith engagement, as well as social psychology and conceptual metaphor. In this post I'll share some thoughts related to an idea that came to me recently in my work on conceptual metaphor in evangelicalism, the metaphors that we use to understand those in other religious traditions.

For the conceptual metaphor part of my research I've been looking at statements by evangelicals on different religions. The hope is to find the metaphors used that enable evangelicals to understand those who are part of other religions. Thus far in the early research stage the DISEASE and WARFARE metaphors are common, much more so the former. That is understandable given the emphasis of evangelicals on the moral foundation of purity, and our tendency to draw upon the metaphor of the SOCIAL GROUP IS A CONTAINER. Containers, like our body, are designed to keep what's inside separate from the outside, as well as safe and healthy. By drawing upon these metaphors, other religions are seen as a threat to the health and purity of the body, literally a source for contamination with the potential for compromising spiritual health.

Thus far in my research there hasn't been much by way of metaphors. The evangelical preference is to engage in theological analysis, and this has tended to follow pathways. In years past my colleague, Philip Johnson, insightfully developed a typology of the ways evangelicals approach "cults" or new religious movements. In addition to the dominant "heresy-rationalist" model where the beliefs of other religions are understood as heresy that must be refuted with theological and rational apologetic arguments, other approaches are common too, particularly where Islam is concerned in our post-9/11 environment. Johnson also identified the "spiritual warfare" and "end-times prophecy and conspiracy" models. These two are found quite a bit in evangelical treatments of Islam, and often blended. A good example of this is in the work of Walid Shoebat, the fraudulent former-PLO-terrorist-turned-evangelical mentioned in my previous post. Shoebat has appeared at prophecy conferences, on programs like the 700 Club, and has written bookssetting forth the idea that Islam sets the stage for the end-times, and he even goes so far as to say that the Anti-Christ will come from within Islam. Aside from the fact that these predictions will no doubt turn out to be as accurate as previous decades of playing "Pin the Tail on the Anti-Christ," there is something troubling in the way evangelicals sometimes use spiritual warfare approaches to other religions.

While I recognize the biblical tradition does include a spiritual warfare element (although there is healthy debate on exactly what this means and how it should be applied in our contemporary setting), I wonder if the labels we use in our doctrinal analysis at times cross a line and become tools for dehumanizing others. More specifically, is it possible that at times when referring to Islam as "satanic" or "demonic," for example, that this is not just a theological belief that is being articulated, but instead, in the use of such labels and terms we are creating an "evil other" that is part of a dehumanization process.

The reader may not think this is a credible idea, but give me a few more moments of your attention. Consider how this process is used against us by others. In the past the leaders of Iran have referred to America as "The Great Satan." This is a metaphor. They don't literally believe that the country geographically, or its citizens collectively, should be understood as Satan. Instead, it's a metaphor used to dehumanize an enemy. Do evangelicals at times do the same thing in regards to Muslims, and members of other religious groups? It's not difficult to find written and video statements labeling Islam as "satanic" or "demonic," and not even really a religion. Some have even gone so far as to call Islam's Prophet Muhammed a "demon-possessed pedophile." I submit that there may be more at work here than a doctrine from a theology of religions that overlaps with spiritual warfare. Instead, I suggest that the idea of the satanic and demonic can function as a dehumanizing metaphor.

I've run this idea by several scholarly colleagues to see if it has any merit. Each specializes in a different discipline. Without exception, each one thought there was something important and complex going on here. It brings several research disciplines together, from theology, social psychology, conceptual metaphor, monstrosity studies, and scholarship on genocide. On these latter two I have found the work of David Livingstone Smith helpful. He has done some interesting research on the dehumanization process that allows for genocidal actions. Recently he revamped his own thinking on this and expanded it to include the concept of the monstrous. One of his varieties of this he has discovered he labels the "demonizing dehumanization."

This idea needs a lot more research, and as a complex phenomenon it has multiple layers. But I think there's something important, and troubling here. We evangelicals need to be more attentive to the possibility of crossing the line from stating theological beliefs to uttering concepts that enable dehumanization and viewing others as subhuman that, in turn, can lead to bigotry and violence. 

John Morehead