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Religious Violence: It's Not Really About Religion


For some, the word 'religion' is synonymous with gender inequality, homophobia and superstition. These associations are not completely without substance. Many faiths and denominations oppress women, oppose same-sex relationships and pedal the unlikely as fact. Far-right extremists and 'New Atheists' extend these negative associations to blame religion for historical and present-day violence. Anyone who thinks differently is an apologist, a wishful thinker, ignorant, or all three! On the face of it, their arguments seem plausible. But there is a stack of evidence that suggests they are misguided and dangerous.

In this article I will argue why I think it is wrong to blame religion for the violence conducted in its name. I am not a religious person, nor am I ignorant - I have a Masters in history that focussed on religion through the centuries. There are times when I am a wishful thinker, but I have tried to keep that to a minimum. Your thoughts are welcome.

Judge religion in its entirety and in its context

The case for religion being inherently violent tends to be constructed through carefully selected pieces of religious text. But, as with any text, we can only understand its meaning by reviewing it in its entirety and in context.

By understanding how the origins of the world's major religions we get a strong sense of their non-violent nature. Many faiths grew as a reaction to state oppression - Judaism from the Egyptians, Christianity from the Romans and Islam from the Meccan elite. Their mass appeal was their vision of hope - for an inclusive and safe society free from fear, persecution and injustice. They were a means to reject violence, not to encourage it. It's why each has the values of charity, inclusivity and community at their core. It's why their role in society is overwhelmingly positive - be it through providing a meeting place for the community or direct charity via soup kitchens and food banks. The slaughtering of innocents, whether in Jerusalem in 1096 or Paris in 2015, abandons these core principles.

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Religion: A historical cause of violence?

Part of the problem is that ancient contexts and sources make texts very difficult to interpret. They are often collections of contradictory accounts in languages that no longer exist, expressed in contexts removed from our own. This leads to diverse - although intellectually honest - interpretations and denominations.

The belief that the major faiths justify or encourage violence is more than just a 'diverse interpretation'. It is only possible to reach this conclusion by selecting specific parts of texts and ignoring the rest. Doing this clearly highlights the existence of an external motive - either by the perpetrator or the interpreter.

History highlights a multitude of events where 'religious violence' was driven by external motives. For millennia, the external motive was the agrarian society religions existed in. The insecurity of a subsistence lifestyle and the associated greed of the ruling classes meant that violence (through raids, land grabs or defence) was central to everyday life. Religion was used as a means to justify or protect against violence, but the motives were distinctly secular.

The Middle Ages is littered with examples of externally-motivated 'religious violence'. Religious academic Karen Armstrong describes The Crusades as a "political struggle for power between popes and emperors". Although misplaced religious zeal played a role, many that took part were inspired by fame, fortune and adventure. The expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 (the subject of my dissertation) was blamed on Jewish religious practices at the time, but in reality it was a convenient way of absolving the nobility of debt obligations to Jewish money-lenders. Similarly, The Spanish Inquisition was seen as a way to seize growing Muslim and Jewish wealth. Even the so-called Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries were predominantly political; Catholics and Protestants fighting on the same side, despite the religious objectives.

Religion: A modern-day cause of violence?

External factors continue to affect recent 'religious violence'. Ex CIA Operations Officer Marc Sageman demonstrated that only 25% of those involved in 9/11 had a traditional Islamic up-bringing. Most were self-taught and had not studied the Quran thoroughly. Their problem, according to Sageman was not Islam but ignorance of Islam. Robert Pape has studied every single suicide bombing since 1980, and concludes that religion is not a motive in itself. His study incorporates many hundreds of secular suicide bombings, most notably the Marxist Tamil Tigers - the 'leading' suicide bombers until 2003. Pape states "What 95% of all suicide attacks have in common, is not religion, but a specific strategic motivation to respond to a military intervention".

The belief that ISIS' violence is built on religious ideology is also questionable. Most of their leadership are former members of Saddam Hussein's secular government, which certainly suggests external political motives. Didier Francois a former ISIS captive stated that the Quran hardly ever featured in ISIS discourse, the conversation being almost entirely political. David Kenner, who conducted interviews with 15 of their supporters, stated that they never raised the topic of religion. One Charlie Hebdo attacker was unable to separate Catholicism from Islam and some Britons departing to join ISIS in Syria were spotted with 'Islam for dummies' in their hand luggage. This letter from 120 Muslim scholars outlines how removed their practices are from the core messages of Islam. Psychologists highlight that many terrorists are opportunist criminals, and like other law-breakers are driven by desperation, disconnection or a quest for significance.

There is also the wider picture. Blaming ideology for troubles in the Middle East flatly ignores the overwhelming social, political and economic drivers - lack of democracy and (often secular) government oppression; a top-heavy economy; a century of Western interference in leadership, fixed elections, oil and boundaries.

Do we really act on ideology?

Evolutionary psychologists argue that our actions are predominantly driven by our evolutionary needs not by ideology. In their book The Rational Animal, Douglas Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius list our evolutionary needs as mate acquisition and retention, affiliation, kincare, disease avoidance, status and self-protection. How we engage with the world around us corresponds with the evolutionary drivers that are activated. This is why incidents of 'religious violence' are almost always associated with threats to our person.

Is a world without religion less violent?

If we were to believe that religious ideology causes violence, then it follows that violence should decline as religion becomes less influential. This is what many argue is needed in the Middle East, but in the West we have already conducted this experiment. The Reformation and The Enlightenment moved religion to the private sphere and championed logical, scientific enquiry. As great as these developments were, neither movements significantly reduced violence. In religion's place stepped fanaticism for capitalism and the nation state. Violence became justified for other reasons. Take the example of Thomas Hobbes explaining the slaughter of Native Americans because they were blocking 'productive' use of land.

Secular regimes have produced some of the biggest genocides of human history. Nazi concentration camps are an obvious example and add to that Russian Gulags, Bosnian war camps, or any other number of totalitarian secular regimes across the world. And on what legal grounds did we justify the death and displacement of so many innocents in the Iraq war?

Religion, concentration camps and aliens

Some argue that we infantilise terrorists by dismissing their stated motives. But it is simply not valid to act on behalf of a religion, when your actions blatantly ignore its core messages. At a stretch, they could be driven by ignorance or propaganda. In either case, the blame should lie with the individual or the brain-washer, not the religion.

Of course, many genuinely believe they are acting in the name of a religion, but this simply highlights a tendency to attach actions to a socially available narrative. Psychology text 'Mistakes were made, but not by me' highlights a range of examples where this has occurred. It cites the thousands in the US who blame their psychological problems on childhood abuse, despite evidence suggesting they never experienced any. There is the case of Binjaman Wilkomirski author of Fragments, a book describing his childhood in a Nazi-occupied Concentration Camp. It was later revealed he was brought up by loving parents elsewhere. More bizarre is the 3 million Americans who believe they have been abducted by aliens (obviously wrongly). In each example they genuinely believed their constructed reality, and became more convinced when challenged. By blaming fictitious sex-offenders, concentration camps or aliens they no longer had to blame themselves for their insecurities. Instead they became 'victims' or 'warriors' that had overcome adversity.

There is a strong parallel with terrorists and other perpetrators of religious violence. By justifying their actions by religious ideology they transform themselves from disconnected members of society to agents of God, with a purpose and feeling of belonging. The rewards are too strong for the contradictory evidence to hold much sway.

What next?

Each day the news presents us with a new violent atrocity conducted in the name of religion. As the incidents increase so does hostility to people within those faiths. If nothing else, I hope this article has raised the possibility that this violence is caused by external circumstances, not ideology. I believe that it's only by recognising this, that we stand a chance of making society the tolerant, non-violent place we long for. By incorrectly blaming religion we are in danger of doing the opposite.

For an incredibly comprehensive analysis of the subject, I strongly recommend Karen Armstrong's History of Religious Violence. Either way, I look forward to your comments.

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