Is Religion Inherently Violent?

“What I find most mystifying in the arguments of the authors I have mentioned, and of others like them, is the strange presupposition that a truly secular society would of its nature be more tolerant and less prone to violence than any society shaped by any form of faith. Given that the modern age of secular governance has been the most savagely and sublimely violent period in human history, by a factor (or body count) of incalculable magnitude, it is hard to identify the grounds for their confidence.” 

― David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution And Its Fashionable Enemies, 14

The claim that religion is the cause of most of the violence and woes in this world is fictitious. A brief survey of violence in this century alone that cannot be laid conveniently at the feet of religion gives us the following figures:

  • First World War - 15-20 million
  • Hitler's genocide - 11 million
  • Stalin’s communism - 10 million
  • Mao’s Communism - 35-45 million
  • Pol Pot’s genocide - 1.5-2 million
  • Vietnam War - 2.5-3.5 million
  • Rwandan genocide .5-1 million
  • Iraq War - 1 million

If those attacking religion — such as the New Atheists — had actually studied religion in an academic setting, they would not be peddling widely discredited theories that Islam or any other religion is inherently violent. The very idea of religion as a separate, privatized sector of beliefs and practices that has causal agency upon the rest of human life is a recent secular construction. That religion can be the primary cause of violence is a dubious thesis that has been critiqued by many scholars in the field of the study of religion. 

Wilfred Cantwell Smith, one of the premier scholars of religious studies, in his  The Meaning and End of Religion has severely critiqued and refuted the idea of religion as a distinctive thing or essence consisting of a definitive and unchanging core of beliefs, laws and rituals. On the contrary, from both an academic and lived perspective, religion is an orientation or a way of perceiving reality and living in the world. In this way, a person experiences a relationship between the mundane world of everyday experience and a transcendent or spiritual order. This relationship and experience is expressed through various culturally embedded activities, symbols, doctrines, rites, codes of conduct, myths, social institutions, and ways of living etc. Religion, then, is not some compartmentalized affair possessing its own exclusive domain in human life, as Karen Armstrong stressed in a Guardian article about her book Fields of Blood:

“The words in other languages that we translate as ‘religion’ invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive. The Arabic word din signifies an entire way of life, and the Sanskrit dharma covers law, politics, and social institutions as well as piety... The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: ‘No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English ‘religion’ or ‘religious’.’ In fact, the only tradition that satisfies the modern western criterion of religion as a purely private pursuit is Protestant Christianity, which, like our western view of ‘religion’, was also a creation of the early modern period…. Before the modern period, religion was not a separate activity, hermetically sealed off from all others; rather, it permeated all human undertakings, including economics, state-building, politics and warfare.” 

Armstrong, Karen. "The myth of religious violence." The Guardian 25 Sep. 2014: The Guardian. Web. 19 Mar. 2017

Historically, religion has been embedded in all human activity, and far from being a static and defined essence, religion is always in flux, evolving and changing. Religions continuously reshape themselves, borrowing, re-orientating, reforming and discarding existing rituals for new ideas inherited from cultures they find themselves in. No activity, ritual, law – whether violent or peaceful – can be given “essential” religious status, as if it is part of some unchanging core. It is just as absurd to say that such and such religion is violent or causes violence as it is to say that economics, commerce, politics, or education are violent. It is unfortunate that the likes of Maher, Rizvi, Harris, and Hirsi Ali – all of whom demonstrate a lack of knowledge of religion that any commentator on Islam would be expected to possess – continue to perpetuate the myth that religion in general, and Islam in particular, causes violence. What readers must notice is that the Islamophobic rants of the militant atheists draw upon their own narrative or myth to justify themselves. The scholar William Cavanaugh, in his masterful work The Myth of Religious Violence, exposes the real intentions and consequence of their claim that religion causes violence:

“The argument that religion causes violence sanctions a dichotomy between, on the one hand, non-Western, especially Muslim, forms of culture, which – having not yet learned to privatize matters of faith – are absolutist, divisive, and irrational, and Western culture, on the other, which is modest in its claims to truth, unitive and rational.  This dichotomy, this clash-of-civilisations worldview, in turn can be used to legitimate the use of violence against those with whom it is impossible to reason on our own terms. In short, their violence is fanatical and uncontrolled; our violence is controlled, reasonable, and often regrettably necessary to contain their violence.

– William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence, 17

"The myth of religious violence should finally be seen for what it is: an important part of the folklore of Western societies. It does not identify any facts about the world, but rather authorizes certain arrangements of power in the modern West. It is a story of salvation from mortal peril by the creation of the secular nation-state. 

– William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence, 226

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