Many people who want to defend religion against “strident” atheists like Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and other New Atheists make the claim that these sort of thinkers have an overly simplistic view of religion. To the contrary, I think many such defenders-of-religion have overly simplistic views of religious violence.
People often conceptualize violence and conflict in ways that serve the overly simplistic narratives that they tell themselves about the world and their place in it. As a non-religious example, sexual violence is often treated as a monolithic category; we’re told that it is a reflection of the exertion of one group’s (the patriarchy’s) power over another and that it has nothing to do with sex. While the former statement — that it reflects an exertion of power — is true more often than not, it’s not true that rape never involves an element of sexuality. Many rapists (though certainly not all) perform their act of violence in an effort to forcefully take what they want or, in some cases, because the violence and the dehumanization of their victim sexually excites them. The latter is certainly true in the case of some serial killers. That the rest of us find these acts of violence deplorable and entirely divorced from our ordinary notions of sexuality does not change the fact that it is an expression of the perpetrator’s sexuality. Some number of people really are sexual predators, for whom violent predation is sexually stimulating. Similarly, that violence is very far away from the religious sensibilities of many people does not change the fact that, for some people, violence is tied to their religious expression in one way or another. That many of us find these actions perverse does not alone mean that these actions were not tied to religion.
Two days ago (on April 26), in Santiago, Chile, a Christian group burned an infant to death because they thought that it was the anti-Christ. Reading through news reports on the incident, one finds numerous statements designed to dehumanize the members of the group and to put their actions into a framework that makes them understandable. Instead of dealing with complexity and nuance, it is claimed that this group could not have been Christian or that they were simply insane. They’re labeled “crazy”, “nuts”, and “schizophrenic”. It is said that what this group believed was not actually a religion, that their members were merely being misled by their leader, and it is said that their beliefs could not possibly be genuine. All of this ignores the grim reality of the situation.
I’ve noticed something remarkably odd about the overly simplistic way that people think about religious violence. People often claim that religion does not lead to violence or does not inspire violence. Nonetheless, religion is not some monolithic, all-encompassing entity (nor is violence for that matter). Religions are extraordinarily varied and diverse. When someone claims that religion does not bring about violence, our next question should be, “Which religion and in what context?” Often, what non-religious people mean when they say that religion does not lead to violence is that that their friendly religious neighbor is perfectly harmless. When religious people make that claim, they mean that their own religious beliefs are harmless (or even lead them to do good things in their communities). But that doesn’t mean that a different religious view wouldn’t play a different role in conflict.
I’ve heard Christians claim that Christianity does not lead to violence and I’ve heard Muslims claim that Islam does not lead to violence; what they mean is that their preferred version of Islam or Christianity does not lend itself to inspiring violence. That does not mean that a different form of Islam or Christianity couldn’t bring about violence. There are profound and very real theological differences within each of these groups, and each of them comprise remarkably different communities. Sometimes what people mean when they say that Islam or Christianity do not lead to violence is that either the Bible or the Koran do not lend themselves to provoking violence. I don’t actually think that’s true, but, whether or not it’s true, it is definitely false that there only exists a single interpretation of these texts. As a theologian recently pointed out on Hemant Mehta’s blog, “to read the Bible is to interpret it”. (This is likely to be true of whenever any one reads any text.) Interpretation of scriptures or doctrines is certainly not monolithic, and while we can strain ourselves to see religious texts as inspiring the work of humanitarians and gloss over the parts that recommend genocide, rape, or slavery (or understand those sections as human corruptions of a divine message) that doesn’t mean that those who view those same scriptures or doctrines through a non-strained lens are somehow less religious. Those who interpret their scriptures as calling for violence and then act in accordance are at least as religious as those who interpret their scriptures as not calling for violence. Therefore, the disavowal of these people as religious, upon their committing violent actions, is illegitimate.
The fact that there are political and sociological aspects of religious conflict does not deflate the role that religion plays in those conflicts either. Most sociologists and anthropologists understand religion to be a human product, a socially constructed system for answering certain kinds of existential questions and for placing arbitrary human customs into a cosmic context. As such, to say that religion plays a key role in these conflicts is just to re-iterate that human social conventions, politics, institutions, claims to authority, and so on play a key role in these conflicts. There shouldn’t be anything sui generis which excuses religion from playing a motivational role in the actions of humans, whether those actions are good or bad.
One of the key factors which, I think, underlies the way in which people fail to understand the role of religion in conflicts is a certain misunderstanding about the relationship between belief and action. There seem to be many people who are under the false impression that other people can separate their beliefs from their actions, and somehow act in a way that does not reflect their deep seated beliefs about the nature of the universe and their relationship to it.
Nonetheless, this is demonstrably false. There is a tremendous amount of sociological and anthropological data indicating that people seek conformity between all of their beliefs. In fact, it’s a basic tenet of political science that people act in this way, and that those actions determine their political actions (including the way in which they vote). In political and moral philosophy, this principle is given the name “reflective equilibrium” and people are said to try to reach reflective equilibrium between their beliefs. If a conservative Christian really, truly believes that homosexuality presents our society with a destructive malignancy capable of overthrowing the stability of Western civilisation, then we cannot reasonably expect them to respect homosexuals.
For a specific example as to how religion drives action, see the paper “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” by Lynn White, which details the way in which our poor treatment of the environment (including global warming) were caused by Christianity.
Or consider the view which Peter Berger presents in his “The Sacred Canopy”; i.e. religion is a social institution invented in order to make our arbitrary social norms into statements with cosmic significance. In other words, all of the privileges that come with the pre-existing social order are turned into statements which come from God and therefore cannot be changed. This also explains why people organize their lives around religion — it provides a narrative by which their lives are given meaning and situated in the world. But notice that the way in which their lives are situated is at the expense of either others or themselves. We can very easily see this with the treatment of women and gay people by most religious communities. Not only are harmful cultural norms being enforced but they are being legitimated by the idea that they reflect the cosmic order.
To make matters worse, most religions in the Western context come with the idea of “faith” — that certain beliefs should be accepted as true even if there is no evidence for them and even if there is evidence to the contrary. Faith is harmful because it puts a protective shield around potentially harmful beliefs. It might be that some religious beliefs are not harmful, but unless we critically examine them, we are unable to determine which ones actually are harmful. The social and political situation changes and, as it does, which beliefs are harmful (or have the propensity to cause harm) will inevitably change. Without continually re-examining which beliefs should be discarded and which should not, we run an even greater risk of having beliefs which either harm others or ourselves.