Religion and Violence

I hope that Victor Reppert will not feel that I am baiting him. In a recent post I said some mean things about C.S. Lewis, which with Victor is generally like humming “Hail to the Victors Valiant” around an Ohio State fan. Here I begin with a paragraph he recently wrote for his Dangerous Idea blog:

“The ‘religion leads to violence’ idea is based on a profound confusion. ANYTHING can lead to violence. But the idea that non-religious people have “nothing to kill or die for” while religious people do have something to kill or die for, is absurd. Some atheists believe that the progress of civilization depends on whether we “outgrow” religion or not. Why would people who believe that eschew the use of force to accomplish so important a goal, if the opportunity presented itself? OK, it doesn’t involve anyone’s eternal destiny, but the progress or regression of civilization? Important enough, for at least some, to use ridicule and peer pressure on its behalf.”

Is it true that ANYTHING can lead to violence? Well, you do sometimes see violent confrontations arise from seemingly trivial incidents. A married couple may get into a huge fight seemingly over an offhand remark, but, of course, there will be a long history of building resentments before the particular remark. I saw a “real crime” TV program in which a young man was killed after initiating a confrontation with another young man. The confrontation was apparently provoked when one thought that the other was giving him a funny look. A perceived funny look leads to one guy dead and another going to prison. Again, though, there is more to the story. You have some young guys, fueled with beer and testosterone, maybe out looking for trouble, and coming maybe from a subculture that regards any obvious sign of disrespect as a serious matter.

If Victor means that any stimulus, however minor, may spark a potentially violent confrontation in a situation that is ripe for violence, then he is right. Surely, though, there are some things that more easily stir us to anger and possibly violence than other things. Obviously, the things that promote violence are things that provoke strong emotional responses, things that “push all our buttons.” Even a positive bond, like love, can fuel violent rage when that feeling is betrayed or abused. I would therefore modify Victor’s claim slightly and say that anything that stirs deep and powerful emotions within us has a dangerous side, even good things like love of family or allegedly good things like religious devotion.

Religion clearly has the power to stir potentially violent emotions. Of course, some people profess religion but do not take it seriously. When I used to go to church I was struck by how many seemed to be distracted, apathetic, or impatient for the service to be over. I have known many people, especially men of older generations, who would profess all the “right” things, attend church every Sunday, say grace before each meal, etc. but for whom the impact of religion on their daily lives appeared to be nil. Religion only becomes a potentially dangerous force when people take it seriously. People take religion seriously when it meets a deep and strong need. What does religion do for people?  What deep needs does it meet?  Several come to mind:

1) Religion gives a sense of communal identity.  Culture and religion are closely bound. Culture is grounded in traditional practices, and tradition is both reinforced and validated by religion. If a child asks “Why do we do this?” he or she is told a story that often involves a religious occurrence or sanction. The song “Tradition” that opens Fiddler on the Roof shows the various roles of the papa, the mama, the son, and the daughter. Each has a distinct set of expectations and duties, and these roles are backed by religion. One of the saddest scenes in the movie is when the rabbi removes the scrolls of the Torah, because you know that once the Torah is gone, the community is gone.

2) Religion gives coherence and unity to a society. This, of course, is closely related to the former. Social stratification, which exists in every society, is always a potential source of conflict. Those with less status are naturally envious of those who enjoy higher prestige, and those with higher status want to hang on to it. Religion, however, can tell us that our roles and stations are right and correct, and that any injustice or inconvenience suffered now will be put right in the future. The poor man at his gate can be less resentful of the rich man in his castle if he is assured that God has made people high or low and ordered their estate. The concept of caste in Hinduism served a similar purpose.

3) Religion gives individuals a sense of meaning or validation. Ever since humans became the least reflective, the fear of personal extinction and meaninglessness has been felt. We see that nonhuman animals come and go and that things continue on as before. The lives of individual animals do not seem to matter at all in the larger scheme of things. We naturally fear that we do not matter either—certainly not in the long run or in the big picture. As Paul Robeson magnificently sang in Showboat: “He don’t plant taters; he don’t plant cotton; them that do are soon forgotten. But Old Man River, he just keeps rollin’ along.” After seventy or eighty years we stop rollin’ along and fear that we too will be quickly forgotten. Religion can give each person a sense of cosmic significance, a sense that, even in the largest context, we matter. There is more to life than birth, copulation, and death.

4) Religion offers answers. Life is confusing. It is hard to know what to believe. Maybe 30,000 years ago this was not a problem. People lived in small, tightly knit groups of hunter/gatherers, and, presumably, everybody believed pretty much the same thing. In modern, pluralistic society, we are awash in a babble of conflicting opinions on every subject. In the midst of epistemic chaos, religion seems to offer a steady light. People crave certainty on issues large and small, and religion seems to have the answers. Further, the answers that religion gives feel right to many people; those answers are comforting and intuitive. Religion offers people the “blessed assurance” that God sees things the way they do and even shares their likes and dislikes.

5) Religion offers salvation. John Hick notes that beginning in the Axial Age (circa 6th Century BCE), all major religious traditions have had a soteriological basis. Each offers some form of salvation. The salvation can be from sin or from samsara or from bondage to illusion, suffering, or self-centeredness. Each of the major religious traditions sees the pervasive condition of human life as one in need of fundamental change, a change that can be brought about only by religious commitment. To take the one most familiar to most of us: Christianity sees the human condition as one of being fallen, whether, like fundamentalists, that fall is seen as a datable occurrence or not. This is a situation of basic alienation from God, the ground of our being. We cannot know genuine happiness or freedom until that fundamental condition of alienation is overcome by the grace of God. That grace, whether dispensed through sacraments or poured out massively in a moment of redemption, is necessary for genuine felicity, both in this life and the next.

Of course, the above list is not exhaustive. Readers can probably add quite a few more items. I think, though, that enough has been said to see how religion can matter so very, very much to people—so much that they might be willing to torture and kill for it. It is easy to show that the flip side of the above perceived goods of religion can be resentment, hatred, and maybe violence:

1) When someone challenges your religion, they appear to denigrate your customs, traditions, community, history, and your whole way of living. It feels like they are being ethnocentric and condescending. If someone insults your religion, it can feel like they are insulting your family, and, in a sense, they are. The Apostle Paul spoke of fellow believers as his brothers and sisters in Christ, and the family metaphor is apt. A perceived insult to one’s biological or religious family can provoke a violent response.

2) Challenging religion can appear subversive, an attempt to dissolve the glue of society and sow discord. The low will be incited to indulge their envy of the high, and the high will be left with no means of preserving their position except by brutal repression. If you take away their pie in the sky, the lowly will fight to get it now by any means necessary, and the high will fight to hold on by any means necessary.

3) Anyone who questions your religion seems to be attempting to relegate you to insignificance. Nobody likes to be made to feel that they do not matter. If your religion is what gives you a sense of meaning in life, then, you will surely bitterly resent anyone who seemingly wants to deny you that comfort.

4) Unfortunately, biases are all too often among the beliefs that religion reinforces. Among the comforts that religion offers is the reassurance that God hates the same people you do. Indeed, if God hates, say, liberals, feminists, evolutionists, environmentalists, gays, lesbians, atheists, Democrats, and smarty-pants college professors, then you have a duty to hate them too. I have on my office door a hilarious picture of a horrid Phyllis Schlafly-type woman saying “God told me to hate you.” Religion did not create hatred, but it can make is so much easier and more fun to hate. It makes it easier and more fun by combining the pleasure of hating with the pleasure of self-righteousness.

5) As with every topic, St. Thomas Aquinas was impeccably logical when discussing heresy. In the 13th Century murderers were always and everywhere put to death. Yet, notes Aquinas, the murderer only destroys the body. The heretic does not destroy merely the mortal body, but leads the immortal soul into perdition. The heretic is therefore far more dangerous and despicable than the murderer, and far more worthy of being punished by death. If you accept Aquinas’s premises, this conclusion is inescapable. If eternal punishment is the consequence of departing from true belief, then must we not oppose the spread of false doctrine by any and all means? If you accept this conclusion, the stake and the rack cannot be far behind.

It appears, then, that Victor has understated the potential of religion to incite violence. In fact, as we see above, what makes the problem with religion and violence so intractable is that the qualities that make religion matter so much to people are the same ones that make it so dangerous.