Religious Violence: The Question that Will not go Away

Every time there is yet another terrorist attack by jihadists, you can count on some immediate responses: The media will devote obsessive attention, national leaders will condemn and decry, bigots will blame the innocent, and presidential candidates (some of whom are bigots) will issue calls to “get tough.” And scores of liberal pundits and academics will ascend soapboxes to reassure us that Islam is not the cause of these horrific events. Any suggestion that those who kill while shouting “Allahu akbar!” might, to some extent, have been motivated by religion will be met with outrage, scorn, and cries of “Islamophobe!” (Actually, some years ago John Leo noted that shouting things like “racist!”, “sexist!”, and “Islamophobe!” is just how some people say “Gee, I have to disagree with you on that.”)

The standard narrative is that “Islamic” terrorism has nothing to do with Islam, but is rather caused by politics and socioeconomic conditions. I heard a commentator on NPR earlier today saying that Muslim youth in cities like Brussels are ghettoized and face high unemployment and feel a strong sense of marginalization and powerlessness. These conditions make them ripe for recruitment by jihadists, who, as one commentator put it, promise them instant transformation from “zero” to “hero.” Also, the West, and the U.S. in particular, are blamed for provoking terrorism. That is, terrorism is seen as a twisted but understandable response to the West’s wars in Islamic countries, its steadfast and apparently unconditional support of Israel, its support for authoritarian regimes (Saudi Arabia and Bahrain), and its cruelty against Muslims (Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the killing of innocent civilians in bombings and drone strikes).

There is no doubt considerable truth in these claims and accusations. It has often struck me, from the Bay of Pigs, to the Tonkin Gulf, to the War of Cheney’s Choice (Gulf War II), how often the U.S. has displayed almost a talent for stupidity in its foreign interventions. Nevertheless, the claim that “religious” violence has nothing to do with religion is simply wrong. The claim that religion is not the cause has been defended at length by scholars of impeccable reputation. For instance, Karen Armstrong, of whose A History of God I am a great admirer, has argued this thesis in her new book Fields of Blood (Anchor, 2015). When so noted a scholar claims something that is so obviously wrong, it is hard to know whether to accuse her of ignorance or disingenuousness since neither would seem to be an appropriate charge.

When explaining human behavior it must be taken as axiomatic that humans are complex and that what they do is complexly caused. If human behavior had simple causes then many persistent social problems could have been eliminated long ago. Another complicating factor is that it is impossible, even conceptually, to define just where religion leaves off and other factors, such as political or economic ones begin. For many Muslims, for instance, the secular West’s idea of a separation of religion from politics would seem wrongheaded if not incoherent (To be fair, many American evangelicals see church/state separation as a dangerous myth.). All we can really say is that the witch’s brew of resentments, obsessions, rationalizations, hatreds, fears, and hopes that motivate the terrorist contain elements or aspects that we can, for practical purposes, designate as “religious,” “political,” “economic,” or “cultural.”

Though causes are complex, simple questions can sometimes promote clarity. The simple question I would ask Armstrong or other defenders of the thesis that “religious” violence is not religious is this: “Can religion do good?” If the answer is “no,” we must conclude that the respondent holds that religion has no influence, for good or ill, upon human life. This seems absurd, and it is hard to see what could motivate such an answer except maybe an old fashioned Marxist insistence on economic causes as the only real ones. If the answer is “yes,” then we have to ask whether religion always does good or only some of the time. The answer that religion always does good and never fails to do good also seems to be absurd and dogmatic. So, we seem to be left with the conclusion that religion sometimes does good and sometimes does not.

When religion fails to do good, does it, in fact, sometimes do positive harm? What kind of harm could religion do? Armstrong and others point to human nature, and it is true that religion did not invent hatred and cruelty; these have mysterious origins in the human heart. However, though religion did not invent hatred and cruelty, it can do a great deal to promote them. Religion, by definition, deals with ultimate things, matters of “ultimate concern” as theologian Paul Tillich put it. Religion therefore uniquely has the power to elevate a concern to the highest level, to make an issue more than mundane and affix a transcendent significance to it. Religion can take an ordinary, everyday hatred and make it a holy cause. Your hatred of “those people” is no longer idiosyncratic or local; God hates them too. With God on your side you can hate with a clear conscience. In fact, hating those whom God hates is a sacred duty, a supreme virtue; indeed, you come to see your acts of hate as acts of love. Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal observed that “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it with religious conviction.”  To this there is nothing to add but “amen.”