Does Religion Cause Violence?

By Maxwell Kennel | (The Conversation) | – –

It’s a common question that arises when discussing religion, politics and world crises, particularly apparent terrorist attacks of the type that played out in New York City on Tuesday.

Islam in particular is branded as a violent faith, but others argue Christianity deserves the same assessment.

But behind the question is a whole host of problems, and so it isn’t surprising some scholars suggest that classifying any religion as violent is problematic and unreliable.

As a scholar of religion, I also question whether calling oneself “religious” really says anything meaningful about one’s identity. Given the diversity of religious groups, the term “religion” is not only extremely general, but it has a long history.

Learning about the origins of the word can help us understand better the myriad social groups that come together around shared histories, texts, traditions and experiences.

According to the scholarly work of theologian Daniel Boyarin and historian Carlin Barton, in ancient Rome the term “religion” was not at all separate from everyday experiences such as “eating, sleeping, defecating, having sexual intercourse, making revolts and wars, cursing, blessing, exalting, degrading, judging, punishing, buying, selling, raiding, revolting, building bridges, collecting rents and taxes.”

Religion alone does not explain violence

Today, the term “religion” gets separated from political, social, economic and cultural life. And so if we’re pondering whether religion is inherently violent, then we’re probably interested in why an individual or group acts violently. So is religion really something we can compartmentalize and blame for the violent actions of individuals or groups?

Not at all, argues William Cavanaugh in his 2009 book The Myth of Religious Violence. While society often makes clear distinctions between religion and secularity, Cavanaugh argues religion is a poor category to use when trying to understand why individuals or groups act violently.

By Cavanaugh’s reasoning, a more contemporary example would be the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas. Stephen Paddock, who shot from the 32nd floor of a hotel to kill 58 people, had no apparent religious affiliation. Neither did many other perpetrators of mass shootings, among the most violent and horrifying crimes committed in the United States, including the murderer who gunned down 20 young schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.

So instead of asking “was religion the reason that a group or individual acted violently?” Cavanaugh suggests it’s impossible to separate religion from culture, politics and economics — making the question incoherent.

For those inclined to believe religious groups are more violent than their secular counterparts, Cavanaugh challenges that notion by pointing out secular institutions often commit violence, but avoid moral scrutiny because they present themselves as reasonable and not driven by religious fervour.

‘Many motivating factors’

Cavanaugh’s argument is not that religious groups aren’t violent. Instead, he argues religion is not what determines whether a group is violent. He holds that there are so many motivating factors that result in violent behaviour that it’s impossible to determine whether religion plays a primary role.

Violence is something demonstrably found in groups and individuals regardless of whether they’re religious or secular.

But the rejection of violence also cuts across religious and secular lines. Sometimes groups that reject violence are deeply religious, and other times groups that oppose violence do not present themselves as religiously motivated.

Many groups that have opposed violence seem to be both secular and religious at the same time. Consider the pacifism of Mohandas K. Gandhi and of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps non-violence also exceeds the divisions between the religious and the secular.

The ConversationInstead of talking about “religious violence,” it’s time to start talking about violence in general and determining what spurs people to violent acts. Otherwise we risk ignoring the deeper and more meaningful reasons why people commit horrifying acts of violence against others.

Maxwell Kennel, Doctoral Student in Religious Studies, McMaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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11 Responses

  1. Mass violence caused by China and Russia using non-religion creed; Bigotry by Richard Dawkins and alike under the name of “science”

    Religion is just a convenient scapegoat, a new scapegoat in this age. Continuing scapegoating it isn’t a solution.

    • Religion is not a scapegoat, it is a co-defendant on trial for murder along with wealth, patriarchy, and many forms of nationalism. Remember the Nuremberg tribunals? We get to have this out when our capability for mass murder threatens to overwhelm civilization.

      I argue that the very idea of a Master Race is a religion, under which local religions can crowd for a chance to wipe out their rivals. But a Master Race can be something other than skin color. It can even choose to disguise its threat by dividing into parallel, cross-financing movements for inequality based on different myths, just as the Evangelical Far Right has spent its modern history integrated with seemingly separate movements for “limited government”, “property rights,” “States’ Rights”, and White Supremacy. These hydra heads hypnotize us while we ignore the body, the beating heart that sends sustenance to them all and plots their ability to suddenly strike together and impose tyranny.

      But to ignore the role of “sincerely-held faith” in this monstrous system is disingenuous. Those are the very word at this very moment being used to drive legislation across the US giving some citizens the right to discriminate against LGBTQ, and potentially anyone else, and distort markets to place the latter at an ever-growing disadvantage.

      • I recommend Karen Armstrong’s book- Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

        I am afraid there isn’t any straight forward simplified answer. If you are looking forward to view in black & white spectrum, you are no better than the theists.

        We don’t know what to do with grey.

      • super – “. . . . . . the Evangelical Far Right has spent its modern history integrated with seemingly separate movements for “limited government”, “property rights,” “States’ Rights”, and White Supremacy.” yep.

        What you are describing is DOMINIONISM or the “INC Christian” cult pursuing God’s perfect society by installing “kingdom-minded people” into leadership positions at the top of all important sectors of society. Dominionist/INC Christian leaders have labeled these sectors as the “Seven Mountains of Culture.”

        link to religionnews.com

        The ‘seven mountains’ include ALL business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, family and religion. In a heavenly form of wishful “trickle-down Christianity,” they believe if Christians rise to the top of all seven “mountains,” society will be completely transformed into the white Christian equivalent of the Taliban.

        link to politicalresearch.org

  2. I would be reluctant to claim religion causes violence, but it can provide a convenient justification. Having a ‘higher authority’ makes it easier for nihilist and sociopaths to recruit others to their cults of rage. It can be religious – and no religion is immune, just look at Myanmar; it can be pseudo-religious – think of Himmler’s crazy spirituality; or it can be purely secular – ‘Manifest Destiny’ comes to mind.

    I think attempts to greatly simplify the question will greatly invalidate potential answers.

    • There’s a will, there’s a way. This applies to bad guys too.

      One of China’s infamous Culture Revolution slogan: “Break Superstition “. Million of people being persecuted, all you need is creativity and persuasiveness. Any creed, religious or not, scientifically or not doesn’t matter anymore.

  3. I think Stephen Weinberg has said all there is to say on that topic (paraphrasing from memory): Good people will do good things even without religion; bad people will do bad things even with religion; but for good people to do bad things, it requires religion.

  4. Not only are there too many motivating factors for violence to categorize “religion” as the main one, but violence is also difficult to compare across large groups. The “new atheists” blame Islam for causing violence, yet I haven’t seen any good evidence that Muslims are more violent. Should we count deaths in conflict, and if so, only those of the initiator of the conflict (both sides will always blame the other, of course)? What about crime? What about torture and threats by governments, when do they cross over into violence? I don’t think there’s a good measure for violence.

  5. For instance Christianity is usually presented as a peaceful religion and Islam as a violent religion

    What about the peaceful Buddhists and what do they do to Rohingyas in Burma or Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka?

    But nobody talked about Christianity when Christian Serbs horribly slaughtered eight thousand Muslims in Srebreneca.

    Nobody accused Christianity of being an inherently dangerous and violent faith.

    because most people knew enough about this complex religion to understand that in would be quite inappropriate to make such an accusation

    But most Western people (most non-Muslims) have such an inadequate understanding of Islam that they are not equipped to judge Islam fairly or to discuss this matter in a constructive way

    The article does not discuss anything about the military interventions, initiating regime changes by the U.S. and its allies and the devastating consequences of such a move as we witnessed in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen etc

    Quote “we can disguise the real issue under the umbrella of political correctness, or hide behind a victim ideology – but that does nothing to change the reality.”

    that statement applies to both the organised state terror and the unorganised non-state militancy and terrorism at times by the victims, more often by mercenary militias

  6. When Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik planted a bomb in an Oslo government building, killing eight people, and later killed 68 others (mostly teenagers) at a Labor Party Youth Camp in Norway’s Utoya Island, fingers immediately were pointed at a possible Al Qaeda or “jihadist” connection.

    But in the days that followed, the motivation for Breivik’s horrendous terrorist attacks became very clear through his 1,500 page manifesto: to fight the “ongoing Islamic Colonization of Europe.”

    In his manifesto, Breivik made reference to numerous American “experts” and bloggers whom he considered experts on Islam’s “war against the west,”

    including prominent anti-Muslim writers and pundits like Robert Spencer (of “Jihad Watch”) and Pamela Gellar (who writes the blog Atlas Shrugs)—both of whom are co-founders of the organization “Stop Islamization of America.”

    And thus a disturbing fact became clear: that anti-Islam rhetoric put forth by anti-Muslim activists, or Islamophobes, can have an alarming influence on extremists seeking to do violence.

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