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The intellectual scope and courage to contend with the largest puzzles of human existence and organization distinguish great social thinkers. Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy was a foundational work of historical sociology that influenced a generation of social scientists and, decades later, continues to be widely read and taught. Here, Moore takes up the same tools of historical comparison to investigate why groups of people kill and torture each other. His answer is arrestingly simple: people persecute those whom they perceive as polluting due to their “impure” religious, political, or economic ideas.
Moore’s search begins with the Old Testament’s restrictions on sexual behavior, idolatry, diet, and handling unclean objects. He argues that religious authorities seeking to distinguish the ancient Hebrews from competing groups invented, along with monotheism, the association of impure things with moral failure and the violation of God’s will. This allowed people to view those holding competing ideas as contaminated and, more important, contaminating. Moore moves next to the French Wars of Religion, in which Protestants and Catholics massacred each other over the control of purity, and the French Revolution, which perfected terror and secularized purity. He then combs the major Asian religions and finds — to his surprise — that violent efforts to eradicate the “impure” were largely absent before substantial Western influence.
Moore’s provocative conclusion is that monotheism — with its monopoly on virtue and failure to provide supernatural scapegoats — is responsible for some of the most virulent forms of intolerance and is a major cause of human nastiness and suffering. Moore does not say that the monotheist tradition was the primary source of Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism, violent Hindu fundamentalism, or ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, but he does identify it as an indispensable cause because it justified, encouraged, and spread vindictive persecution throughout the world.
Once again, Moore has drawn on his comprehensive understanding of history and talent for speaking directly to readers to address one of the most crucial questions about human past and future. This book is for anyone who has ever heard the word genocide and asked why.