Religion and Violence
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Religion and Violence

A Religious Studies Approach

Paul Powers

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eBook - ePub

Religion and Violence

A Religious Studies Approach

Paul Powers

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About This Book

Does religion cause much of the world's violence? Is religion inherently violent? Would violence disappear if religion did? Is true religion a force for peace? Is religion a mask for power and self-interest? What aspects of religion make violence more—or less—likely?

Religion and Violence: A Religious Studies Approach explores the potential of classic social theories to shed light on the relationships between religion and violence. This accessible and engaging book starts from the premise that both religion and violence are ordinary elements of social life and that rather than causing violence religion plays a crucial role in the management of violence.

Ideal for any student approaching the topic of religion and violence for the first time, this core textbook includes chapter overviews and summaries, guides for applying theory to real-world events, discussion questions, and case studies. Further teaching and learning resources are available on the accompanying companion website.

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introduction: religion and the management of violence

FIGURE 1.1Bas relief depicting a battle, on the Bayon Khmer Buddhist Temple in Angkor, Cambodia (12th–13th centuries CE)
Source: KHellon/Getty Images
Religious violence and violent religion are found in virtually all places, times, and religious traditions. Both religion and violence are complex, compound categories with a wide variety of relationships to one another, so that no single theory or explanation of religious violence is forthcoming.


Throughout this book, I will frequently use the shorthand term “RV.” RV here basically stands in for the verbose phrase “religious violence and/or violent religion,” and is meant to refer broadly to the range of possible and actual relationships between religion and violence. The term RV is deliberately general; specifying the types of possible relationships it encompasses is the work of this book. Using this deliberately general term not only cuts down on verbiage, but also allows us to defer identifying the exact nature of the connections of religion to violence so that we can be careful and clear-eyed as we explore these connections. RV is a minimally specified variable; “what RV means” is an open question, the central question of the book, and using this place-holder is meant to keep the question as open as possible for as long as possible.


Simply put, the primary goal of this book is to bring greater precision to our considerations of the relationships between religion and violence. That may not sound as exciting as it should, given that religious violence and violent religion (RV) are such pressing concerns in the lives of so many people. Along the same lines, the title of this book may sound a bit dull. It was partly chosen in deliberate contrast with a trend apparent in the titles of many of the books available on RV, titles that tend to ring with melodramatic alarm and dismay. Such titles as Fields of Blood; Blood that Cries Out from the Earth; Belief and Bloodshed; Sacred Fury; Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence; Terror in the Name of God; and Terror in the Mind of God, suggest that we ought to be shocked and disappointed to find religion contributing to violence and violence cropping up in the context of religion.1 In contrast, a foundational premise of this book is that people almost everywhere and always have engaged in something we might call religion, and people almost everywhere and always have engaged in various forms of violence. Thus, we should not be at all surprised to find that religion and violence are intimately intertwined. Rather than dismay, these facts call for clear-eyed care in sorting out the complex relationships possible between religion and violence, and that is what this book seeks to provide.
Of course, virtually everyone wishes for a world with less violence in it. But we need to be critically aware of the pervasive tendency many of us have to abhor violence, or at least to claim to abhor violence, an attitude that can easily become self-serving and blind us to the pervasiveness of violence, our own complicity in it, and the ways we may benefit from it. Moreover, as Neil L. Whitehead observes,
Our own rejection of violence is a cultural attitude that is not universally shared … This cultural attitude on our part suggests that the rhetorics of antiviolence practiced in Western discourses are, whatever the sincerity of the advocates, often linked to the need to disarm and disable the militancy and intractability of others by reference to the overwhelming and “protective” violence of “law,” “civilization,” and “Western democracy.”2
That is, our claims to abhor violence tend to amount to abhorring other people’s violence. Indeed, as we will discuss below, perceived legitimacy is a key element in even labeling something as violent in the first place, and people tend to call their own forceful or destructive behaviors legitimate, those of others illegitimate. Abhorring other people’s violence can at times license all sorts of harm in the name of one’s own preferences (a topic to which we will return in the next chapter). In any case, the cause of peace is hardly to be helped by overheated alarm and muddled dismay at something so pervasive and enduring as the intimate connections between religion and violence.
In pursuit of a clear-eyed understanding of its topic, this book will frame the many and various relations between religion and violence under the general term “management.” This is a deliberate step away from the implicit and explicit claims frequently made that religion “causes” much of the world’s violence. Our choice and usage of the term management is influenced by a classic essay on the nature of violence by anthropologist David Riches. A key observation that Riches makes about violence is that “human control over the practice of violence is strikingly fragile.”3 As pervasive as violence is among humans, its effects can be profoundly unpredictable. Violence can readily sweep beyond its intended target and overspill its intended message, leading to any number of unintended consequences, including harm to the performers of the violence themselves. This unpredictability may be why violence is so often hedged about with complex cultural and religious frameworks—formal rules, doctrines, values, representations in story, song, and art, the setting aside of times and spaces for (or against) violence, establishing individuals and classes of people as specialists in violence, and so forth—that amount to efforts to control this potentially most uncontrollable thing. Religion does not bluntly “cause violence”; religion helps people manage violence. This managing can include, on one end of a spectrum, averting and restraining violence and, on the other end of the spectrum, sparking violence where it otherwise might not have occurred (that is, “causing violence”). Mostly, though, this managing goes on in between these extremes: religion shapes violence by helping to determine the performers, targets, timing, location, specific forms, degree, goals, and, crucially, the meaning of violence.
Again, most (though certainly not all) people tend to want to reduce the amount of violence in the world, or at least in their corner of it. Ultimately, this book, it may be hoped, could help toward that end. But to get there, we need to hold off on offering prescriptions for how best to reduce violence and focus first on the task at hand, understanding how violence can be related to religion. Rather than jumping to putative solutions, then, we must start with description and analysis (diagnosis before prescription, we might say). A key premise of this book is that, properly described and analyzed, human nature does not seem to be essentially peaceful. As Alan Jacobs puts it, “the whole notion of religion as a cause of violence is … a function of the desire to believe that violence is eliminable.”4 We will not here take up the task of proving definitively that violence cannot be eliminated from human social interaction, or that human nature is not essentially peaceful. Definitive proof about something as grand as the essence of human nature is not easy to come by, and claims about human nature are more often ideological than objective. Suffice it to say that I consider the record of human history to speak for itself in regard to the widespread and enduring capacity of humans to engage in violence of every imaginable kind, to every imaginable degree, and then some. At the very least, I hold that the burden of proof rests with those who claim that peace is the natural state of humanity. This book is not built on the belief that violence can be eliminated. This may sound simple enough, but it is crucial. I do not hold that we can hope for a meaningful answer to the general question of what causes humans to be violent, and that religion is one candidate for providing that answer. Given the proper recognition that humans are very widely and deeply capable of violence, the question becomes, under what specific circumstances are people likely to engage in various forms of violence, and how might religion contribute to those circumstances?
Accepting that violence is not eliminable brings us to another related concern. When I first encountered Jacobs’ remark on the non-eliminability of violence, it was being mis-quoted by Hector Avalos (whose work on RV will be discussed below). Avalos got the remark wrong in a highly instructive way, saying “the whole notion of religion as a cause of violence is … a function of the desire to believe that religion is eliminable.”5 Substituting “religion” for “violence” in this phrase is a misquote, but it is not a mistake about how RV is often approached. Much thinking about RV seems to assume that humans would not be violent if they were not religious. In this book I side with the combination of Jacobs and Avalos that neither violence nor religion are eliminable. It is of course possible to conceive of, even point to, people without either or both, at least for limited periods of time. And even if one agrees that human nature harbors an enduring propensity for violence, the elimination of religion may sound entirely plausible; irreligious people and secular societies, after all, are plentiful if not commonplace today. But seeking to understand RV while believing (and perhaps hoping) that religion will disappear seems deeply misguided for two different reasons. The first is that the irreligion of irreligious people and societies is easily overstated. A useful shorthand definition of a secular person, I would suggest, is someone whose life is impacted in almost every conceivable way by religion but who pretends this is not true. Sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, calls the view that strongly held religious commitments are rare and abnormal, and that irreligion is pervasive and normal, an “upside-down perception of the world,” a mirror-image mistake about the prevalence and influence of religion.6 This does not mean that religion is not, at least in theory, potentially eliminable, but that dealing with the real world as if religion is about to go away is not likely to be very effective.
The second problem with the belief in the eliminability of religion as a “cure” for RV is that, to circle back a bit, it ignores the overwhelming likelihood that even if religion could be eliminated, humans would still be violent. But it isn’t just that the desire to eliminate religion in order to eliminate violence is pointless. Such a desire reflects a deeper misunderstanding of what religion is and how it functions. To claim that “religion causes violence, and if we get rid of the former we’ll be free of the latter” treats religion as something that comes from outside of the human sphere and makes people do things they otherwise would not do. Such a view of religion is essentially theological; religious people often claim that their religion is given to them by outside forces, by spirits or gods or God, and that they believe and act as they do because they are so directed by these outside forces. (The fact that a similar view of religion is often held by secular people, especially when considering RV, only makes it more ironic.) This is not how religious studies, the social-scientific and humanistic study of religion, ought to conceive of religion. Rather, religious studies approaches religion as a human phenomenon, an array of modes of thinking and acting in the world that can be accounted for in entirely naturalistic (as opposed to supernatural) terms. Put differently, religion does not make people do things they otherwise would not, but allows and helps them to do what they wish to do. That is too simple, to be sure, since religions can and do take on a life of their own, as it were, and human phenomena can certainly make people do things they don’t want to do. But if putting it that way overstates the case, it may also help us see the case in the first place. In Chapter 3 below, we will explore the thought of Karl Marx on religion, including his bracing assertion that “man makes religion, religion does not make man.”7 Corrected of its archaic sexist wording, this view is utterly foundational to the academic study of religion. Religion is something people do, not something done to them by extra-human agents. (Despite appearances, taking this position is not the same as disproving religious claims; that would be a different kind of task.) Religion shapes the ways people behave, including when and how and against whom they enact violence, and how they justify and give meaning to their violence. But it is fundamentally mistaken to say that people behave violently because religion makes them do so. It is mistaken about both the eliminability of violence and the role of human agency in religious contexts.
Even when religion does cause violence, inducing violence that might otherwise not have occurred, this can happen for a range of reasons. Both the religion and the violence are necessarily embedded in wider contexts, and the cause of the violence can seldom be reduced to purely religious motives free of material, political, economic, social, or other elements. As will be discussed further in the next chapter, the very idea of such “purely religious motives” is largely a mirage. Religion does not generate violence out of thin air, coming into the human realm from outside to make people enact violence they otherwise would not. Again, religion helps people manage violence, violence which, as we will see, takes many forms and serves many functions, not all of which are so readily abhorred. This book is about the many and various ways religion contributes to the management of violence.
If the first premise of this book is that religion and violence are both normal, effectively non-eliminable parts of human societies and are inescapably intertwined in a relationship we are calling “management,” the second is that “religion” and “violence” are both exceedingly complex, compound categories and that sorting out their relationship requires careful, systematic consideration of the various types, component parts, and patterns of each. Understanding any specific instance of RV requires not a one-size-fits-all theory, based on singular definitions of religion or violence, but rather requires determining which elements of religion are operative and what kinds of violence they correlate with. Not all religion and not all violence are alike. To get at the complexity of religion so as to better understand its role in managing violence, this book is structured as a tour through some of the great ideas in the history of Western thought on the natures and functions of religion as these bear on the question of the relationships between religion and violence. The goal is not to answer the...

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