An Axe to Grind – Does Religion Cause Violence?

Who is to blame for all the violence in the world? Haven’t there been countless wars waged in the name of religions? Wouldn’t humanity be better off without any religion at all?

One of biggest controversies surrounding religion has been the charge that religions have been a pernicious forces in human history. They’ve caused more bad than good, secularists and atheists frequently argue. Many even believe that religions are responsible for most of mankind’s violence and atrocities. And if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be better to do away with religions altogether?

The quantity question – who is the baddest of them all?

The first issue to tackle is one of sheer numbers. Is it factually correct to claim that the overwhelming majority of human violence has been perpetrated in the name of God and not in the name of land, resources, power, social class, identity, or secular ideologies like nationalism, colonialism, communism, fascism or corporate imperialism?

The twentieth century is easily the bloodiest century in human history. World War I resulted in the deaths of approximately 15 million, and World War II approximately 70 million, and these involved ideologies of nationalism and fascism, respectively [1]. Warfare itself is far surpassed by the death tolls from the mass murders perpetrated by governments (democide). After reviewing voluminous evidence, Professor Rudolph J. Rummel notes that 62 million were killed under the Soviet regime and 35 million murdered under Mao’s Communist Party of China [2]. Writes Rummel, “The much greater slaughter of the 20th Century occurred because of two ahistorical socio-political experiments, one fascism (especially in Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe, Japan, and China), and the other, communism. These absolutist, unrestricted, uninhibited ideologies murdered people in war and democide without compunction, without the inhibition of tradition, culture, or religion.” [3]

Not only were these ideologies non-religious, but the most bloodthirsty communist regimes were explicitly atheistic and anti-religious. According to Karl Marx, religion was “the opium of the people” and to Lenin it was “unutterable vileness”. In his book, The Age of Atheists, historian Peter Watson describes in detail the Soviet regime’s campaign to eradicate religion in the name of scientific atheism.

“So began a series of crusade-like polemics to suppress religious expression and replace it with scientific atheism,” writes Watson. “So began the massive – and ultimately brutal – attempts to destroy all traditional religious institutions: churches, monasteries, sharia courts, religious schools… In 1922, Patriarch Tikhon wrote a letter of protest to Lenin, complaining that thousands of clergy were being killed and that more than a hundred thousand believers had been shot. His protest was ignored, he was himself sent into exile, and a decade later he, too, was shot. Other horrors followed. Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev was castrated and shot, Veniamin of St. Petersburg was doused with water in the freezing cold and turned into a pillar of ice, Bishop Germogen of Tobolsk was strapped to the paddle wheel of a steamboat and mangled by the rotating blades, and Archbishop Andronnik of Perm was buried alive.” [4]

Confronted with this grisly portrait of murderous militant atheists, some writers claim that their anti-theism was purely coincidental to the heinously destructive deeds of such tyrants. But this assertion is rather bizarre. We possess no instrumentation to determine which of the ideas in their minds were causally efficacious in their deeds and which were not. Certainly, there exists a path of (very strong!) reasoning by which atheism can lead to moral abolitionism, or that one’s deeds are ultimately of no consequence, or that human life is in no way inherently more “sacred” then the domestic animals we slaughter daily for our utilitarian consumption. More importantly, the eradication of religion and its adherents was an explicit aim of these regimes and a direct consequence of its perceived inherent “vileness”.

Other writers protest that these atheist dictators couldn’t be real atheists, because the definition of religion could be adjusted to include any fanatical allegiance to ideology, or state-imposed ideologies. But the fact is that denying they were atheists is a textbook case of the no-true-scotsman fallacy. Moreover, if one begins by defining religion as any fanatical adherence to ideology or totalitarian dogmatism then one commits the fallacy of assuming what one has yet to prove, i.e. begging the question. Of course fanatical adherence to ideology and brutal imposition of doctrine on others leads to violence! This renders the claim “religion causes violence” a truism, if not a tautology. Wherever violence has been justified by men, it will necessarily involve some form of ideology. This is the case whether it is genocide in the name of ethnic identity, political power, or anything else, as seen in the countless wars in human history.

Therefore, in quantifying mankind’s savagery, it is evident that a significant proportion of violence has been perpetrated on non-religious (or even anti-religious) ideological grounds, and that any ideological justification can be fabricated in the pursuit of conflict.

But even if religion is not responsible for most of the violence in the world, couldn’t it still be blamed for a significant portion? Couldn’t religious views be causally efficacious in the behaviour of violent extremists? If it could be shown that religion necessarily causes violence, then surely it is worthy of condemnation. If we’re to take a critical look at this question however, we must scrutinize what exactly we mean when we say “religion causes violence”.

The definition question – what do we mean by ‘religion’ anyway?

If we are going to claim that religion plays a role in violence, what kinds of ideologies will we count as religious? The dichotomy between religious and secular is somewhat of a convenient fiction, as many authors, like Professor William Cavanaugh, have articulated[5]. If we define religion to refer exclusively to belief in God or gods, then many traditional religions like Theravada Buddhism and Confucianism are excluded, Cavanaugh notes. If we define religion to include ‘supernatural’ beliefs, it only shifts the problem without addressing it – a person’s beliefs regarding the fundamental constituents of nature are dependent on precisely the metaphysical views we see to categorize (eg. Is belief in moral values a belief in something supernatural or not?).

On the other hand, many have argued that a diverse array of ideologies should be counted as religious including nationalism, communism, humanism, imperialism, hedonism, empiricism, materialism, naturalism, moral fictionalism, and so on. Some have even pointed to symbolic institutions, flags, memorials, ceremonies, and civic holidays, as forms of religious rituals. The bottom line is that everyone has beliefs and values by which they conduct their lives and coalesce to form unified communities in solidarity with others. Having an identity is about having a sense of belonging to a particular community.

In fact, wherever conflict breaks out, people naturally tend to rally around whatever identity labels are most meaningful to them. In some cases, it will be ethnic identity, while other cases may be national identity, or political identity, or ideological identity, or traditional religious identity, or cultural identity. But it seems that what matters most in generating violence is not the mere presence of different identities in a region. Rather, what matters is the construal of an existential conflict between those identities, devaluing those with the other identity, and seeking their elimination. The example of the Rwandan genocide, mentioned earlier, is a salient example of creating an identity conflict out of seemingly trivial and negligible differences. Journalist Bridget Johnson observes, “Many observers would be surprised to learn that the longstanding conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi has nothing to do with language or religion — they speak the same Bantu tongues as well as French, and generally practice Christianity — and many geneticists have been hard-pressed to find marked ethnic differences between the two, though the Tutsi have generally been noted to be taller. Many believe that German and Belgian colonizers tried to find differences between the Hutu and Tutsi in order to better categorize native peoples in their censuses.” [6]

Whether a person commits extremist actions out of their fanatical adherence to something as simple as environmentalism (as in ecoterrorism) versus a cultural or religious identity, it would stand to reason that their fanaticism should be blamed rather than the cultural or religious identity label itself. Perhaps the common thread that we aim to identify in speaking of “religious violence” is the invocation of an ideological rallying cry to marginalize, dehumanize and stereotype the ideological “other”. If this is the case, then it is nothing more than a distraction to blame the identity itself (in this case religion), rather than the ideological weaponization of that identity. Violent interpretations of historical figures, abstract philosophies, and theoretical texts can be used to weaponize any identity label into an existential struggle against those who possess a different identity label.

It is important to note that certain ideas, figures and scriptures can lend themselves more readily to such ideological weaponization and violent interpretation than others. It depends on the content, words, statements, and phrases found in the text. If you’re willing to ground your identity label in a particular text, how do you interpret it in a way that does not bring your identity into a perpetual violent struggle with those who differ with you? Many people are familiar with the Judaeo-Christian hermeneutical strategies applied to passages in the Old Testament that would otherwise appear to sanction widespread violence. Do such passages exist in other religious scriptures as well? Political turmoil in Muslim lands and the rise of extremist groups has led to considerable attention and finger-pointing towards Islam as a religion accused of providing scriptural support for violence.

Unfortunately, this finger-pointing occurs without the slightest academic effort to investigate the passages being misquoted (see this article on Top 5 Misquotations of the Quran). The textual context of all these verses, without exception, clearly demonstrates fighting was only prescribed to those being fought against (Qur’an 2:190, 9:13, 22:40). The Qur’an also explicitly states, “Invite unto the path of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and reason with them in the kindest manner” (Qur’an 16:125).

Interestingly enough, the Qur’an itself outlines its hermeneutical strategy stating that its clear injunctions explain its nonspecific verses, and that those in whose hearts is a disease seek justification in the nonspecific verses ignoring the clear injunctions (Qur’an 3:7). Thus, a follower of the Qur’an should be well-aware of the fact that scripture can be distorted and exploited by the wicked.  The best way to defeat misinterpretations is with education and reference to credible scholarship that demonstrates the clear Islamic teachings of peaceful coexistence (Qur’an 60:8), freedom of religion (Qur’an 2:256) and goodwill towards all (Qur’an 41:34). The best way to resolve political grievances that fuel misuse of religion is to engage in constructive diplomatic efforts to provide justice, security, transparency and the restoration of basic human rights.

  2. Death by Government. R.J. Rummel (Rutgers, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994). According to Rummel, an additional 38 million died under Mao’s deliberate imposition of starvation. 
  4. The Age of Atheists. Peter Watson. Ch 10 – The Bolshevik Crusade for Scientific Atheism. He cites as a source, The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization by Paul Froese. 
  5. Cavanaugh, W. “Does Religion Cause Violence?,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 35, no. 2/3 (Spring/Summer 2007): 22-35 
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