Does Religion Cause Violence?

For many this question hardly needs asking. Of course it does – it is obvious isn’t it? All those different religions fuel beliefs that they are right and the others are all wrong. This topples over into violence when the ‘stupid’ non-believers just don’t get it. William Cavanaugh, Associate Professor of philosophy at the University of St Thomas, suggests that there is some sloppy thinking going on here.

First he sets aside a couple of common criticisms of the view. There are those that suggest behind religion are political or economic factors that get dressed in religion. Also there are those who suggest the people being violent are not properly religious – they are being un-Islamic or un-Christian. This is not the argument he is going to make.

Conventional wisdom suggests that religion  is prone to violence, rather more than ideologies that are non-religious or secular. In fact these sorts of distinctions are much more difficult to make. He suggests that in the West progress is thought of in more secular terms and that we have a blind spot when it comes to seeing secular states as the cause of violence. So Western liberal countries are peace bringers while cruel Muslim countries are violent war makers. Of course, arguably the reality is often the opposite. It was the liberal secular democracies who launched the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the vast majority of people killed were Muslim. He writes,

“Their violence is religious, and therefore irrational and divisive. Our violence, on the other hand, is rational, peacemaking, and necessary.”

Since 11 September 2001 there have been a flotilla of English language books about the violence and evil of religions by many different writers. These books link religion with a sort of primitive way of thinking, an irrational, an illogical approach to life.

However, Cavanaugh wants to make a more subtle point. He suggests that what people think about as being religious and secular is much more blurred. For example, how could ‘religion’ be removed from Roman or Aztec culture and society? All the different subtle elements of ritual and life would need unpicking in a very difficult way. How would one decide when a cultural and religious practice was interwoven, which side it should go? This blurring is more apparent on issues of patriarchy and feminism where there are bitter disputes between theologians, bishops and scholars about which element is religious, and which is cultural.

Cavanaugh acknowledges that some will say that there is enough about what we could see as a religion to be able to say, well the corners are fuzzy but there is an essential core which means you can spot Islam, Christianity and so on. Those who hold this view will point to examples of divisiveness caused by religion. In a book by Martin Marty, Politics, Religion, and the Common Good, Marty cites cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses who were attacked, beaten, tarred, castrated, and imprisoned in the USA in the 1940s because of their belief that followers of Jesus Christ should not salute a flag. Cavanaugh criticizes Marty for not drawing the obvious conclusion that zealous nationalism can cause violence. Instead of this Marty concludes: “it became obvious that religion, which can pose ‘us’ versus ‘them’… carries risks and can be perceived by others as dangerous. Religion can cause all kinds of trouble in the public arena.” In short religion here means Jehovah’s Witnesses refusal to the ritual vowing of allegiance to a flag. Cavanaugh sees the danger in the secular ideology and its rituals, rather than the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Some have tried to get round this argument by expanding their definition to include secular ideologies and practices. Here the problem is a kind of religiousness which tends towards absolutism. But perhaps one could dispense with any reference to religion altogether – maybe it’s just absolutists who are the problem.

Cavanaugh thinks that these double standards are at play throughout.

“Sam Harris’ 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.”

Cavanaugh concludes:

“[T]here is no coherent way to isolate ‘religious’ ideologies with a peculiar tendency toward violence from their tamer ‘secular’ counterparts. So-called secular ideologies and institutions like nationalism and liberalism can be just as absolutist, divisive, and irrational as so-called religion. People kill for all sorts of things. An adequate approach to the problem would be resolutely empirical: under what conditions do certain beliefs and practices — jihad, the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, the sacrificial atonement of Christ, the role of the United States as worldwide liberator — turn violent? The point is not simply that ‘secular’ violence should be given equal attention to ‘religious’ violence. The point is that the distinction between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and should be avoided altogether.”

To read the whole argument go here:

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