The Case Against the Case Against “Religious Violence”

Exclusive Preview from the October 2010 release of

Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence Across Culture and History

Publisher: Prometheus Books

ISBN-10: 1616142189 ISBN-13: 9781616142186

If there is one thing that the “new atheism” (and much of the old atheism) is sure of, it is that religion is unrepentantly violent, even the root of all violence. James Haught wrote two books in the 1990s — Holy Hatred: Religious Conflicts of the ’90s and Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness — chronicling the “phenomenon of hatred, murder, and mayhem repeated over and over again in the name of one religion or another.” Sam Harris formally launched the new atheism with his book The End of Faith, subtitled Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, which opens with a vignette about a suicide bomber, warning that religious beliefs “are leading us, inexorably, to kill each other.” A few pages later, he asserts that the “result” of religion “is an unending cycle of murder and cease-fire.” Dawkins and Dennett in their contributions make religious violence less central to their argument, but Hitchens moves it front and center again in his God is Not Great. Plenty of other authors, without an atheist agenda, have concurred, like Mark Juergensmeyer in Terror in the Mind of God and Robin Wright in Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam, to name only two.

If one looks around in the early 21st century, it’s easy to see that religions of all sorts are implicated in much of the violence around the world. So what am I complaining about? The problem with the focus of the new atheism on religious violence is two-fold, one aspect of which we can dispatch immediately. The argument that religion is inherently violent and deadly is not an argument against religion’s truth, only against its goodness. That is to say, a religion could be absolutely true and still be responsible for violence. To put it plainly, the new atheism’s case against religious violence is nothing more than the familiar “argument from benefit” that theists have used and that atheists have criticized for centuries, except now in reverse. The most famous theistic version is Pascal’s “wager,” in which he urged people to “bet on God” because the advantages of winning such a bet would be enormous; Soren Kierkegaard and William James offered modified versions of the same notion. But we know that this argument is fallacious: Whether something is beneficial or not has nothing to do with its truth or falseness. Nietzsche taught more than a century ago that a fiction or lie might be better for us than the truth.

So, in the end, it does not matter, from an atheistic point of view, whether religion is inherently violent or not. It might be a useful rhetorical device, effective to get religious people to examine themselves more closely and to get atheists motivated. However, as an argument against religion, it is utterly useless. Even worse, I can imagine a variety of ways in which the argument could backfire. First, since it exclusively targets violent religion, it lets nonviolent religion off the hook: if the problem with religion is not religion but violence, then much religion — and all religion much of the time (since even the most violent religions are not violent every moment of every day) — seems to escape our condemnation. Second, many religious people might look at their own religion, or at themselves as religious people, and see that it or they are not violent and conclude therefore that it and they are alright. Many religious people join us in condemning religious violence, which may someday end religious violence but will not and cannot end religion. Third, many religious people might look at their own religion, or at themselves as religious people, and at the violence that it and they do, and endorse it; that is, perpetrators of religious violence may, and routinely do, accept their own violence as tolerable, necessary, even virtuous. In fact, they may not even see their own violence as violence at all but as something else, like “justice” or “righteousness” or “self-defense.”

Which takes us to the second and more complicated objection to the new atheism’s persistent hammering on religious violence. It, and much of the popular and scholarly discussion of religious violence, understands neither religion nor violence, so all of these discussions have virtually zero chance of getting to the root of the relation between the two. Our task here, then, is to discover what it is about religion and about violence that makes them a recurring pair, even if there is no necessary or exclusive connection between them. Thus, rather than flailing away at “religious violence,” atheists and other concerned citizens can perhaps do something constructive about breaking the bond between religion and violence, and atheists can redirect their efforts to refuting religion, not merely bemoaning one — albeit common but often coincidental — aspect of it.


The Religion and the Violence in “Religious Violence”

One cannot understand a whole without understanding its parts. In the case of “religious violence,” if either religion or violence is misunderstood, then any real insight into their connection is doomed. Most atheists, like most theists, operate with an inadequate or false definition of religion. For most of them, and us, “religion” means “theism,” and “theism” means “Christianity.” This oversight may be excusable since Christianity (and Islam to a lesser extent) is the only religion that we and they know about and encounter with any regularity; certainly, Christians would like us to believe — as they themselves believe, whether they will admit it or not — that Christianity is the only religion, or the only legitimate religion, or the only true religion. But, as atheists and as rationalists, we cannot “speak Christian” when that might mean seriously misinterpreting the facts, especially misinterpreting them to Christianity’s advantage.

Theism is one kind — or actually one component — of religion, but it is not the only or even the most common kind or component. Some religions have gods, some religions don’t, and the religions that have gods usually have multiple gods (i.e. polytheism). So, Christianity or Islam is not even typical theism, let alone typical religion. Most religions are in fact a-theisms, because they do not contain gods; they do not “disbelieve” in gods or argue against gods, they simply lack the concept in favor of human “spirits” of various types (souls, dead ancestors, witches, sorcerers, etc.), nature “spirits” (in animals or plants or objects or phenomena, like wind or rain), and/or non-personal supernatural forces like mana or chi. Interestingly, religions that include these kinds of entities can also include gods, so theism and other forms of religion are not mutually exclusive but can be entangled or combined. But gods are not a universal or required element of religion, contrary to Dennett’s claim in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon that “a religion without God or gods is like a vertebrate without a backbone.” Rather a religion without god(s) is like a vertebrate without a cell phone: she might have one, and she might not have one, and she might have one alongside her land line.

Just as religions vary in the entities they include, so they vary in every other regard. Concepts like “heaven” or “hell” or “sin” or “redemption” are not universal religious concepts, any more than karma or nirvana or tao are. Most religions lack any such notion as “holy war,” partly because many religions and cultures have lacked any such notions as “holy” and “war.” Precious few religions possess anything like jihad and crusade (which are essentially identical ideas). Certainly most religions have never practiced anything like suicide bombing, although most have practiced their own forms of violence.

So, to the consternation of Harris and his like, we cannot use the violence of Christianity or Islam to discuss and criticize the violence of “religion.” At the same time, we cannot use suicide bombing, holy war, and religious terrorism to discuss and criticize “violence,” since these are not the essence or prototype of violence but a few rather rare, if highly conspicuous and worrisome, manifestations. In fact, violence may be more difficult to understand than religion. People do not even agree on what precisely counts as violence, nor do we universally denounce it. Does violence require injury, or just pain or discomfort, and if so, how much? Does violence require a human victim and/or a human perpetrator? That is, if a human cuts down a tree, or a tree falls on a human, or a tree falls on another tree, are these all “violence”? Does violence require intention: Is an accidental shooting “violence” in the same way that an intentional shooting is? It is certainly not “criminal” in the same way. Does violence require physical harm at all, or can it also include mental, emotional, and other kinds of harm? Considering all of these variables, it is no wonder that Dr. David Riches, author of “Aggression, War, Violence: Space/Time and Paradigm” inMAN, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society, concluded that “The question, ‘what qualifies as “violence”?’ in fact has no absolute answer.”

An even bigger problem than the definition of violence is the evaluation of violence. In other words, if you asked almost anyone if they were in favor of violence, they would say categorically not. But things are not so simple. Every one of us, atheist and theist alike, not only tolerates but honors certain expressions of violence; there is, after all, a concept of “justifiable homicide” in our society. Most of us would hurt or even kill another person in self-defense, in defense of our family, and in defense of our country; we generally approve of a “good” and “necessary” war, which is why Western civilization has worked out a concept of “the just war.” The point is that every individual, group, and society has his/her/its notion of legitimate violence, violence which is acceptable, desirable, even laudable. More than that, for every individual, group, and society, certain forms of conflict or aggression or harm do not qualify as “violence” at all. I would assume that most readers do not consider swatting a fly or killing bacteria with mouthwash or antibiotics to be violence, even though death occurs. Most do not consider carnivorism to be violence, although an animal dies (or vegetarianism, although a plant dies). Most do not consider “contact sports” like football, or even sports designed to hurt someone like boxing, to be violence. However, some people are troubled by some and all of these behaviors, and some societies that are truly nonviolent, like the Semai of Malaysia or the Utku of northern Canada, would find them all offensive and disturbing.

The fact is that “violence” is not a descriptive term at all but rather an evaluative term: Calling something “violence” is not so much naming it as judging it — and judging it negatively. Violence is bad; a really quality knockout is merely good boxing. We might say that violence is only violence when it is seen as a problem, and it is only seen as a problem when it crosses a certain line, when it violates a certain “norm,” when it goes beyond the bounds of “acceptable violence,” that is when it becomes illegitimate. It is critically important to appreciate that there are indeed norms or thresholds or legitimacies of violence and, therefore, that some violence (more for particular individuals, groups, and societies and less for others) is completely “normal.” This is not to take a stand in favor of violence but simply to note the indisputable fact that almost every individual, group, and society is in favor of some violence, just as he/she/it is opposed to others. It makes no sense, then, to rail against all forms of “violence,” any more than to lump together all forms of “religion.”


Understanding the Conditions that Breed Violence

In search of the relation between religion and violence, it’s more profitable to try to recognize what conditions produce violence and how religions can and do provide those conditions. What, in short, makes violence more likely and more deadly?

Let us first rule out what psychologist Roy Baumeister calls “the myth of pure evil.” In his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty he rejects the view that violence is always and only committed by “violent personalities” who are inherently different from good and orderly and nonviolent people. In his famous experiment, Stanley Miller showed that perfectly normal people could hurt other perfectly normal people; the key factor for Miller was not personality but authority. Taking this research further, social psychologist Philip Zimbardo has determined that there are several key factors for generating violence, namely:


  • Dehumanization of the victims, that is, viewing them as “animals” or “insects” or “dirt”
  • Diffusion of responsibility, such that the actual perpetrator is not directly or ultimately responsible for the actions or the consequences of the actions
  • Gradual escalation of the violence
  • Gradual shift from “just” to “unjust” behavior
  • Verbal distortions that obscure the real nature of the behavior, for example, calling harm “discipline” or “purification”
  • Providing no means of escape from the situation — what we might call a “totalized” or “absolute” situation
  • An ideology or set of justifying beliefs for the actions
  • And above all else, blind obedience to authority.


What is interesting and significant is that religion can, not exclusively but particularly effectively, provide these conditions. Religion is, for instance, perhaps not congenitally violent, but it is congenitally prone to authority and obedience.

Analysis shows that there are six levels or dimensions of factors that contribute to the creation and promotion of violence, which are more or less independent. The more of these dimensions that are realized, the more likely and the more intense is the violence that will result. The levels/dimensions include:


1. Instincts, or the individual. A species or being that lacked the capacity for violence would be, by definition, nonviolent. There is a lively debate over the question of whether humans are violent “by nature” — especially whether we have a violent “drive” or “instinct” like the one proposed by Sigmund Freud (a “death instinct”) — but it seems safe to say that humans at least have an ability or tendency to be violent in ways that some other species do not. In fact, anthropologists have found some frightening similarities between humans and chimpanzees in terms of their violence, in such forms as rape, infanticide, and organized “war.”


2. Integration into Groups. Whatever violent capacities or tendencies humans have individually, those capacities and tendencies seem to be exacerbated in groups. Some observers have suggested that groups bring out some latent pathology in individuals; others have opined that groups have their own unique processes. Virtually all agree that “group psychology” is negative in a variety of ways — more suggestible, more emotional and irrational, more volatile, and more prone to intolerance, fanaticism, hatred, and of course violence. (See Chapter 7 of my book Atheism Advanced or my new book Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence for more discussion of groups and their challenge to rationality.)


3. Identity. Beyond mere membership in a group is identification with the group. When people begin to regard themselves primarily in terms of group identity, they inevitably set up an exclusivistic, us-versus-them dynamic. They also tend to exaggerate the virtues of their own group and the vices of other and often “opposing” groups. This can lead to prejudices and hostilities against nonmembers; also, it’s unfortunately true that it’s easier to do harm to an “other” than to one’s own kind.


4. Institutions. One of the essential tendencies of groups is to institutionalize — to establish some enduring roles and relationships that govern group behavior. Some familiar institutions are marriage, family, workplace, government, and, of course, church. Each has its rules and norms, and each is passed along to the next generation. Some institutions are inherently violent or abusive, such as slavery, class inequality, or sexism; specific institutions like dowry or polygamy can expose women to harm. Groups may have “institutions of legitimate violence” such as armies, police forces, and organized sports. Values like competitiveness or “honor,” linked cross-culturally to violence, may permeate a society’s institutions. And one of the most important institutions in long-lasting groups is hierarchy and leadership, which provides the basis for obedience and even for punishment for disobedience — including disobedience to the violent institutions and values of the group.


5. Interests. Human groups do not only share interaction, identity, and institutions but also interests — things that they value, desire, and pursue. Among the common interests of human groups are land, wealth, power, jobs, housing, access to education, and so on. In addition to such practical or material interests, groups also have “symbolic” interests including respect, rights, cultural freedom, and self-determination. More significantly for our purposes, groups may also have imaginary interests, such as a good rebirth, cleansing of sin, reaching heaven, defending their god(s), or spreading their beliefs and values — interests that only exist because of their ideology. Then it is often true, or at least perceived as true, that another group is a competitor or obstacle to the group’s interests. When that is the case — whether the interests are material, symbolic, ideological, or just plain false — the other group transforms into a rival or an enemy.


6. Ideology. Groups tend to form their own belief-systems or cultures; in fact, groups of any significance probably always if not necessarily have ideologies. Groups with different ideologies see the world differently, so the very existence of an ideology is a major factor, but the specific terms of the ideology are crucial as well. Three dangerous qualities of an ideology are idealism, moral superiority, and certainty. Idealism demands and expects perfection and refuses to compromise; it is innately intolerant. Moral superiority makes the members regard themselves as better than everyone else, in possession of some higher value or truth which is worth more than their own lives or the lives of opponents. Certainty assures the members that they are right and everyone else is wrong and that no further investigation is needed or welcomed. In addition to ideological qualities, there are specific notions that are prone to violence; these include dualism, war, and the purifying quality of violence. Dualism sets up those perilous us-versus-them situations, in which one is all-with-us or all-against-us. Even worse, dualism can become a cosmological principle, in which the very universe itself is divided into two hostile camps (good versus evil, god versus satan, etc.). Dualism can obviously contribute and may be essential to a war ideology, in which the enemy is totally “other” and must be fought and destroyed; the universe again may be a cosmic battleground between opposing forces, of which humans are the armies. Humans thus can and must choose sides, since there is no neutral ground and no possibility of truce. Finally, many ideologies teach that violence is effective, even purifying — that giving one’s life, shedding one’s blood, or shedding the enemy’s blood or taking their life is an honorable and practical act.


Religion is not the only social force that meets these six conditions. Other groups, identities, and ideologies have been successful at supplying some or all of them, from politics (party or nation) to economics (class) to race to gender to the environment (e.g. eco-terrorism). However, religion can meet them exquisitely, maybe more exquisitely than any other social force. So, while it is not accurate to say that all religion necessarily breeds violence, there is much in the nature of religion that fulfills the requirements for violence particularly well.


The Vicissitudes of Religious Violence

The other problem with the new atheism and most everyone else on the subject of religious violence is that they focus on far too few forms of violence. Granted, in our modern world the most prominent and pernicious examples of religious violence are “holy war” and terrorism. However, these are not the only kinds, not the prototypical kinds, and certainly not the original kinds; in fact, both religious war and religious terrorism are fairly recent developments.

There are several manifestations of religious violence that must be addressed before a comprehensive understanding of, and response to, this violence can be made. These manifestations include:


1. Sacrifice. While some thinkers have devoted attention to sacrifice (like Rene Girard in Violence and the Sacred), it has not received its due, given its widespread and ancient practice. Sacrifice can be defined as surrendering, often by destroying (which for living things means killing) some object or property, in attempts to communicate with and gain some benefits from supernatural beings. The number of animals that have been tortured over the eons for religious purposes is imponderable; animals, of course, have not been the only victims. Many societies, including the Aztec and other ancient kingdoms (like the Dahomey in Africa or the Hawaiian), sacrificed humans and other living beings to their spiritual and human superiors; there is also evidence that the ancient Hebrews may have practiced child sacrifice for a time, which resonates with the single greatest Torah/Old Testament sacrificial act, the offering of Isaac by Abraham. Certainly, in the Harvard Theological Review Christian Eberhart bluntly states, “Sacrifice is the basic category of Israelite religion” with elaborate instructions for the types and practices of animal sacrifice. Christianity, of course, is an extension and completion of the sacrificial model, with the god sacrificed to “cleanse” humanity — an example of the “purifying quality of violence” mentioned above.


2. Self-mortification. As overlooked as sacrifice has been, self-directed violence is even more neglected — which is especially disappointing seeing that self-mortification is probably the oldest and most universal expression of religious violence. From the first societies, humans have been piercing skin, drawing blood, knocking out teeth, cutting scars, and hacking off body parts for religion; the Judeo-Christian practice of circumcision is a remnant of this mentality. Cultures and religions have believed, rightly, that blood is life and power, but they have mistakenly believed that they could transfer some of their power to other people, objects, and even supernatural beings by shedding their own blood. And while almost all religions have demanded some act of self-destructiveness from their members, some religions have developed “specialists” who sought pain and injury and even death for religious purposes. Two categories of self-destructive specialists are the ascetic and the martyr. Both seek pain for religious gain. The ascetic deprives him/herself of comforts or basic needs (like food or sleep) and actually abuses him/herself, for instance through self-whipping or self-cutting. The martyr seeks more than pain but actual death; often emulating a religious model (like the tortured Jesus), the martyr may want to die or at least be willing to die rather than abandon or betray his or her religious “truth” — and to “witness” (the original meaning of “martyr” in Greek) that truth to others through his/her voluntary suffering.


3. Persecution. Sacrifice and self-mortification can leave people (and other beings) dead, but death is often not the point: Power or truth is the point. There is often little or no animosity toward the victim. In Aztec and other sacrifices, the victim might be treated very well, even like a king or god, until the moment of death. In a word, the victim is not an enemy. In other religious cases, though, the sufferer is the enemy, one who is being made to suffer because he/she has the wrong religious beliefs or practices (nobody tortures a cow because the cow is “wrong”). In some religions, nonbelievers or false-believers (heretics and schismatics) have been rooted out and injured or killed; the Catholic Inquisition is the classic example. But this example raises the point that religious persecutors don’t always or necessarily seek to harm the victim simply for the purpose of harm. Rather, such persecution is often if not regularly seen by the perpetrators as a form of “justice,” of “correction,” of “punishment” and a deserved one at that. In the most extreme cases, like Augustine’s view on persecuting heretics, persecution is actually doing the victim a favor: It’s teaching him/her a lesson and ultimately saving his/her soul from a much worse fate (namely, eternal damnation). So, well-meaning persecutors, torturers, and executioners could feel quite seriously that they were not doing “violence” at all but literally being kind and loving.


4. Ethnoreligious conflict. Increasingly in the modern world, social and political identities and competitions have gotten mixed up with religion in conflicts between groups. In recent history, the “ethnic” conflicts between Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka; between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland; between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians in Yugoslavia; and between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq have had a religious component. Of course, not all ethnic conflicts have religion as a central or even significant aspect; the genocide in Rwanda had no real religious quality. At the same time, ethnoreligious conflicts are not necessarily “about” religion. The conflict may be “between” religious groups but “about” other issues, especially interests, such as land or money or power. The struggle between Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics was at least as much about jobs and housing and, ultimately, the political fate of Northern Ireland as part of England or part of Ireland, as about religion. Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ites do not fight so much over doctrinal disputes as for political power, oil revenues, and simple vengeance for past affronts. Nevertheless, ethnoreligious conflict illustrates two important features of religious violence: The capacity for religion to attach itself to other more mundane interests and identities, and the ability of religious groups to arm themselves and to comport like armies.


Of course, religious war and religious terrorism (the latter basically nothing more than one tactic in a religious war or ethnoreligious conflict) can and must be noted along with these more overlooked examples. We might mention too the crime and abuse that religions tolerate or promote, such as sexual abuse by priests, parents killing their children, and cults poisoning the public (see Chapter 8 of Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence for more discussion of these). It goes without saying that, in most of these cases, the perpetrators don’t see themselves as committing “violence” and certainly not as being bad people; rather, they often think they are doing exactly the right thing, destroying children who are demon-possessed or doomed to hell, or eliminating the enemies that threaten the group.

However, more important for us is that, for virtually all if not all types of religious violence, there is a nonreligious or secular counterpart (the exception, I think, may be sacrifice: While we use the term “sacrifice” metaphorically, I don’t think that any secular person believes that killing an animal or human really has material effects). There is religious self-mortification and there is secular self-mortification (which we usually consider mentally ill). There is religious persecution and there is secular persecution (over race, etc.). There is ethnoreligious conflict and there is ethnic conflict without religion. There is religious war and there is secular war. In other words, even these manifestations of religious violence are not inherently or essentially religious. Instead, they are particular recurring types of human violence, which can get attached to and motivated by religion.



In most cases, then, to see religious violence as exclusively religious is to misunderstand it. Humans are violent, individually and (even more so) collectively. Give them an identity, some institutions, some interests, and an ideology, and they will be more violent. Worse, they will not see themselves as being violent at all or at least not as being unjustifiably, illegitimately violent.

Religion definitely can and frequently does provide the bases for intergroup violence. However, vociferous critics of religion (among whom I count myself) cannot forget that (1) many other causes besides religion can be and have been responsible for heinous acts of intergroup violence, and (2) some, although admittedly a minority, of religions have not only preached but practiced nonviolence. The Amish and the Quakers, the Buddhists (for the most part), and the Jains are among the most nonviolent groups in the modern world — and the Amish and Quakers are Christians. So, it cannot be said with any accuracy that “religion” is always violent. It cannot even be said that Christianity is always violent. Religions very often are violent, but then they are made of and by humans, who are potentially and persistently violent beings. Religions can and often do meet all of the qualifications of a violent system, with oppositional identities, organized institutions, competitive interests, and combative ideologies. But that is not the “essence” of religion. It is a quality that many other social forces share with religion.

Therefore, atheists cannot make the argument that “religion is violent,” since the argument will not stand up to the evidence. We certainly can make the argument that some types or components of religion, and some particular religions, are more prone to violence than others. And we cannot stand on the platform that the violent capacity of religion is the best and most important argument against religion. If we do, we must be prepared to tolerate and praise nonviolent religions, which are still just as false as the violent religions.


Tags: #SecularWorld, #Case


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