The Myth of Religious Violence


(Carson Weitnauer) #1

Hi friends,

One very popular idea goes as follows:

Everyone knows that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence. This story is part of the conventional wisdom of Western societies, and it underlies many of our institutions and policies, from limits on the public role of religion to efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East.

However, is this story true? Can it be sustained by scholarship?

I’ve found William Cavanaugh’s analysis of this myth to be very helpful. If this is of interest to you, his argument is available (in-part) here:


(SeanO) #2

Very poignant article - the fact that colonialism is partially responsible for the modern definition of religion as anti-science and anti-modern is very ironic given moderns’ general distaste for colonialism.

Also the fact that until recent history the state and religion were intertwined and people assume it was religions fault that atrocities were committed, when in fact atrocities are often simply the state trying behaving in greedy or fearful ways and happen even in atheist regimes.

Finally, and most ironically of all, those who most resolutely denounce religion as violent recommend violence in order to deal with the problem if absolutely necessary.

The teaching of Christ to love one’s enemy even to the point of dying for them still remains the only way to break the cycle of violence and bigotry.

Some highlights from the article:

European colonial bureaucrats invented the concept of religion in the course of categorizing non-Western colonized cultures as irrational and antimodern

one would need a concept of religion that would be at least theoretically separable from other institutional forces over the course of history. Kimball does not identify those rival institutional forces, but an obvious contender might be political institutions: tribes, empires, kingdoms, fiefs, states, and so on. The problem is that religion was not considered something separable from such political institutions until the modern era, and then primarily in the West.

Sam Harris’s book about the violence of religion, The End of Faith, dramatically illustrates this double standard. Harris condemns the irrational religious torture of witches, but provides his own argument for torturing terrorists. Harris’s book is charged with the conviction that the secular West cannot reason with Muslims, but must deal with them by force.


(Helen Tan) #3

@CarsonWeitnauer, thank you for the article which I’ve found to be very helpful in equipping me in discussions on this topic. @Sean_Oesch, some of your points are repeated here :)) Here are some interesting points relating to the incoherence of the argument that religion tends towards violence for easy reference and further discussion:

  1. Definition of ‘religion’ – To prove the argument that religion has a tendency towards violence, “one would need a concept of religion that would be at least theoretically separable from other institutional forces over the course of history”. Such other forces include political institutions eg. tribes, empires and kingdoms. However, there was no such concept in pre-modern Europe, the concept of ‘religion’ as such being “invented by European colonial bureaucrats in categorizing non-Western colonized cultures as irrational and anti-modern.”
  2. Even though we now have a separate concept of religion, is its definition coherent? There are difficulties here as well: If one tries to limit the definition to belief in God or gods, then certain belief systems such as Buddhism and Confucianism would be excluded. If the definition is expanded to include such belief systems, then many institutions and ideologies that do not explicitly refer to God or gods function in the same way as those that do. For example, the case for nationalism as a religion has been made.
  3. In looking at 5 features attributed to religion, it has been found that politics displays similar qualities: focuses our ultimate concern, builds community, appeals to myth and symbol (politics does it through the flag, war memorials, etc), uses rites and ceremonies, and requires followers to behave in certain ways.
  4. Another argument states that “religion exacerbates the tendency to divide people into friends and enemies, good and evil”, taking the conflict to a cosmic level. Such conflict differs from secular violence in that “it is symbolic, absolutist, and unrestrained by historical time.” However Juergensmeyer, a proponent of this view, admits the difficulty of separating religious violence from mere political violence: “Much of what I have said about religious terrorism in this book may be applied to other forms of political violence—especially those that are ideological and ethnic in nature.”
  5. The point about absolutism in religion and violence was also addressed. One empirically testable definition of ‘absolute’ is “that for which one is willing to kill’. This is useful as it covers both behavior and belief. 2 questions here: What percentage of Christian Americans would be willing to kill for their faith? What percentage would be willing to kill for their country? The answer given is that “at least among American Christians, the nation-state is subject to far more absolutist fervor than Christianity”.

The writer concludes that “the point is that the distinction between “secular” and “religious” violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and should be avoided altogether.”

Any thoughts on this will be appreciated.


(Carson Weitnauer) #4

Hi @Sean_Oesch, @Helen_Tan,

I’m grateful for both of you and your engagement with this resource. Helen, thank you for your careful, concise summary!

One follow-up question I’ve been considering… what about the response:

Fine, the myth of religious violence is just that, a myth. But my claim is narrower: Christianity and Islam are important sources of religious violence. A secular approach to pluralism is better than a theocratic one. This shows that these two religions lack the resources to help us get along.


(SeanO) #5

What evidence do you have that a secular approach to pluralism is better? Isn’t pluralism by definition neither secular nor theocratic, but a means of integrating secular, deistic and theistic societies together harmoniously and therefore capable on drawing on resources from multiple world views? Do you think peoples’ behavior is more strongly influenced by what they say they believe or the way the people in their inner circle behave?


(Jimmy Sellers) #6

I am not so sure that “getting along” is the objective of either religion, violence aside. I sometimes think that people see Islam and Christianity going for the same end game like two trains on parallel tracks both headed in the same direction and at the same speed. You look out the windows and can almost shake hands. The people look at each other and smile and wave but suddenly the trains start to pull apart and go in opposite directions. It’s the tracks that guides the trains. The one to the sword and the other to the cross.


(Helen Tan) #7

Hi @CarsonWeitnauer , after giving it some thought, I would start with this response:

“You have raised an interesting point, one which I would love to pursue with you. You mentioned Christianity as an important source of religious violence. Do you know that the Bible does not shy away from violence? In fact, Jesus deals directly with the very heart of violence. He says that when we are angry with someone, that is murder. Violence starts in our very own hearts, something which we would love to deny but if we were honest with ourselves, we would have to acknowledge that we are to be blamed, not some religious teachings. We could use these teachings to incite violence but it begins within us no matter whether we are inclined towards secular or theocratic teachings.

Now that we’ve identified the problem, is there a solution? You will not find the solution in any religion except Christianity. What you will find recounted in the Bible is the worst violence to be committed against a person and it’s an event which God Himself planned before the foundation of the world. Jesus was subjected to the worst horror that depraved human imagination could conjure up. Why? So that we can end the violence in our hearts. This only happens when we know that we are loved, so deeply loved that God would sacrifice His own Son so that we can be His children. The way of the world says that we end violence through greater violence. It’s an unending cycle. There’s only one way and that is through the love of Christ. What do you think?”


(Phillip Walter Coetzee) #8

This is a common sort of argument you have cited from Sam Harris’ book. It often happens that people “saw off the branch on which they sit” in order to promote a point of stability and that in contradiction to their held position and purpose of the position. Thank you for the valuable insight @Sean_Oesch


(SeanO) #9

@Phillip Yes, whenever I listen to popular atheists discuss Christianity I am constantly unimpressed. They tend to interact with the most naive and wooden methods of interpreting Scripture and refuse to acknowledge that it is perfectly valid for God to interact with mankind in different ways at different times in history. And, as you said, their philosophical statements often cut the very branch they are sitting on out from under them.


(Carson Weitnauer) #10

Hi @Helen_Tan, thank you for taking the time to so carefully reflect on this question and provide one of your insightful, kind answers. I think this will be a model answer for anyone who searches Connect on this question.

@Sean_Oesch, I love your questions! I think those show a genuine curiosity but also offer a real challenge to someone who is starting off with a committed but negative perception of Christianity.

@Jimmy_Sellers, I really like your analogy. It clarifies! There’s also something there about reducing religions to what we care about, vs. the humility to understand them as they are, and seeing how their internal priorities reshape our imagination and society. There’s a big difference between a starting point of, “Why can’t we all just get along?” and “Everyone is made in the priceless, incredibly valuable image of God.”

To take this up a notch, consider this article:
https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2018-01-23/tribal-divisions-created-by-religion-most-harmful-in-global-conflict-experts-say?src=usn_tw

In a recent Best Countries survey of more than 21,000 people from all regions of the world, the majority of respondents identified religion as the “primary source of most global conflict today.”


(Helen Tan) #11

Hi @CarsonWeitnauer

Here’s an interesting article for your consideration as a response:

Here’s a quote from the article:

"At the top of the list of the twentieth century’s deadliest regimes, you’ll find three anti-religious states: Communist China, the USSR, and Nazi Germany. These three alone were responsible for an estimated 130,000,000 victims, which dwarfs the number of people killed in the name of all religions throughout all of history. And that number doesn’t even take into account the millions killed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rogue, the Communist North Korean regime, or the Derg (the Ethiopian Communist state, headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam).
Religion isn’t the cause of most of the world’s violence: it’s not even close. In fact, in each of the deadliest states of the twentieth century, we see the same pattern: an aggressive campaign to neutralize or eliminate religious belief (and believers)".

What the people surveyed perceived/believed appears to be quite different from the actual statistics. I think the original article you shared entitled “Does religion cause violence” may provide some explanation as to why the perceptions are skewed in this manner.

Looking forward to more thoughts on this.