Religion and Human Rights (28): Is Religion Particularly Violent?

9/11 and other terrorist attacks apparently motivated by Islamic beliefs has led to an increased hostility towards Islam, but also towards religion in general. Perhaps in an effort to avoid the charge of islamophobia, many anti-jihadists have taken a new look at the violent history of other religions, particularly Christianity, and concluded that religion per se, because of the concomitant belief in the absolute truth of God’s words and rules, automatically leads to the violent imposition of this belief on unwilling fellow human beings, or – if that doesn’t work – the murderous elimination of persistent sinners. This has given rise to a movement called the new atheists. The charge of fanatical and violent absolutism inherent in religion is of course an old one, but it has been revitalized after 9/11 and the war on terror. I think it’s no coincidence that many of the new atheists are also anti-jihadists (take Christopher Hitchens for example).

There are many things wrong with question in the title of this blogpost. (And – full disclosure – this isn’t part of a self-interested defense of religion, since I’m an agnostic). First of all, it glosses over the fact that there isn’t such a thing as “religion”. There are many religions, and perhaps it can be shown that some of them produce a disproportionate level of violence, but religion as such is a notoriously vague concept. Nobody seems to agree on what it is. Even the God-entity isn’t a required element of the definition of religion, except if you want to take the improbable position that Buddhism isn’t a religion. All sorts of things can reasonably be put in the container concept of “religion” – the Abrahamic religions as well as Wicca and Jediism. The claim that “religion is violent” implies that all or most religions are equally violent, which is demonstrably false.

That leaves the theoretical possibility that some religions are more violent than others. If that claim can be shown to be true, islamophobia may perhaps be a justified opinion, but not the outright rejection of religion inherent in new atheism (which, of course, has other arguments against religion besides religion’s supposed violent character). However, how can it be shown empirically and statistically that a certain religion – say Islam – is relatively more violent than other religions? In order to do so you would need to have data showing that Islam today (or, for that matter, Christianity in the age of the crusades and the inquisition) is the prime or sole motive behind a series of violent attacks. But how do you know that the violent actor was motivated solely or primarily by his religious beliefs? Because he has a Muslim name? Speaks Arabic? Looks a certain way? Professes his religious motivation? All that is not enough to claim that he wasn’t motivated by a combination of religious beliefs and political or economic grievances for instance, or by something completely unconnected to religion, despite his statements to the contrary.

Now let’s assume, arguendo, that this isn’t a problem, and that it is relatively easy and feasible to identify a series of violent attacks that are indisputably motivated solely or primarily by certain religious beliefs. How can you go from such a series to a quantified comparison that says “the religion behind this series of attacks – say again Islam – is particularly violent”? That seems to be an unwarranted generalization based on a sample that is by definition very small (given the long history of most religions and the lack of data on motivations, especially for times that have long since passed). Also, it supposes a comparison with other causes of violence, for example other religions, other non-religious belief systems, character traits, economic circumstances etc. After all, the point of this hypothetical study is not to show that (a) religion can lead to bad things. That’s seldom disputed. Everything can lead to bad things, including fanatical atheism (and don’t tell me communism and fascism were “really” religions; the word “religion” is vague, but probably not as vague as that – which doesn’t mean that there aren’t any religious elements in those two world-views). The claim we’re discussing here is that (a) religion – because of its fanatical absolutism and trust in God’s truth – is particularly violent, i.e. more violent than other belief systems, and hence very dangerous and to be repudiated.

I think it’s useless, from a purely mathematical and scientific point of view, to engage in such a comparative quantification, given the obvious problems of identifying true motivations, especially for long periods of time in the past. There’s just no way that you can measure religious violence, compare it to “other violence”, and claim it is more (or less) violent. So the question in the title is a nonsensical one, I think, even if you limit it to one particular religion rather than to religion in general. That doesn’t mean it can’t be helpful to know the religious motives of certain particular acts of violence. It’s always good to know the motives of violence if you want to do something about it. What it means is that such knowledge is no reason to generalize on the violent nature of a religion, let alone religion as such. That would not only obscure other motives – which is never helpful – but it would also defy our powers of quantification.


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