Challenging the notion that religion fosters violence

Challenging the notion that religion fosters violence
Is religion inherently violent? Some believe so, but secular individuals and institutions have proven to be just as violent. Credit: Shutterstock

Is religion violent? 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 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 , 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 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 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.

Instead 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.


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Nov 01, 2017
In fact, if someone does not have the power over infrastructure in a number of ways to control damage and danger from those they inspire to violence, it can be said that that violence can turn against them. No matter what anyone says, times of violence often depicted as connected to religion, such as the Crusades and "terrorism" today, have tended to be cases where the religion was used as a rallying point of large groups of people in service to a political motive. Very often, it can be said that religion has served as an "opiate of the masses". But, note, the French Revolution, though often depicted as a "triumph of 'freedom' and 'human rights'" was really just a subversive act by the mercantile bourgeoisie of France to unseat the royalty and peerage and seize their power. In that case, calls for "freedom" had what can be called a religious power and led to a system of kangaroo courts, bigotry against the nobility and effective concentration and death camps.

Nov 01, 2017
Too, notice the picture at the beginning of the article. It accurately represents symbols associated with Islam and Christianity, but note that, instead of the "Star of David", an eight pointed star is used. Is this an attempt to clandestinely suggest that Jews must be considered never to have engaged in violence or even be incapable of it? Ir is that supposed to be a depiction of the "Noble Eightfold Path" of Buddhism? Since Buddhists supposedly were all non violent, it's not obvious why that point is brought up. But, again, considering the greater presence of Judaism in world politics than Buddhism, it, again, suggests an attempt to exculpate all Jews.

Nov 02, 2017
Julianpenrod: Your analysis of the political uses of religion are fine. Let us also realize that the social relationship religion provides to any particular sect provides social cohesion for the shared behaviors that that sect exhibits. The marshaling of those relationships towards a goal requiring behavior at the extreme edge of the shared social values varies by individual sect, and over time as well. Judaism was once a very self serving militaristic social group, as any reading of the old testament will show. Joshua, Moses, etc. Christianity also had a history of self service via the pulpit, e.g., Spain, et. al. in the inquisition. The Muslim faith, and its' sects, are undergoing the maturation that Christianity and Judaism have confronted, and been bent by, when developing into modern technological states based on capitalism. Let us not forget Marxism as a faith also has had this experience. The expression "Violence is the last stage of persuasion" says it all.

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