Does Religion Cause Violence? Sometimes It Does and Sometimes It Doesn't, As With Everything Else

This post was written as a response to John M. Owen's piece, "Religious Freedom and Violence: Conflicting Perspectives," which can be found here

By: Christopher Eberle

In his initial blog post, John Owen suggests that religious believers in the United States feel besieged on a number of fronts, that this feeling can be explained by a hostility to religion that pervades popular culture, and that this pervasive hostility derives from a vague and amorphous sense that “religion is associated with violence.” In the minds of many of our fellow citizens, paradigmatic historical phenomena, such as the Crusades and the Inquisition, exemplify just how dangerous religion is—and so why we need to eradicate, quarantine, domesticate, or discriminate against it, or something of the sort. Given this context, it’s important that we critically assess the claim that religion is associated with violence. So, what should we make of it?

First, and most obviously, the claim that religion is associated with violence is far too vaguely formulated to merit serious attention: without some relatively determinate understanding of what makes for religion, what makes for violence, and how the two are supposed to be associated, there is little to be said … other than, “Yes, it’s true, the two ‘things’ are associated in many ways. Who cares?”

Second, there are an indefinitely large number of ways to render determinate the “religion is associated with violence” claim, but it is very difficult to espy any determinate interpretation that is plausible enough to be worth taking seriously. So, for example, we might understand the manner in which religion and violence are associated as a claim that religion causes violence. What manner of causal relation are we talking about here? Perhaps it’s a claim about motivational causation: people who take religion seriously are motivated by their religious beliefs to attack others. But of course, so understood, this claim is silly: whatever we mean by religion, Amish people are just as religiously serious as were the 9/11 attackers, the former are led by their religious convictions to repudiate violence, and so it’s clear that religion is not associated with violence in their case. 

Third, we are of course free to cast about for some other, more plausible understanding of the claim at issue. There are many, many importantly different possibilities: that sincere, serious religious belief does not necessarily, but is likely to motivate violence, or raise the probability that violence will occur, or prolong violence that will occur anyway, and on and on. Exactly which kind of association is supposed to exist between religion and violence is absolutely essential to any sensible assessment of the claim that religion is associated with violence, but I have been unable to detect, despite years of scouring, any coherent, determinate, and plausible rendering of just in what that association is supposed to consist.

Fourth, whatever interpretation one adopts, the claim that religion is associated with violence cannot serve its dialectical purpose without at least (!) one important qualification. The dialectical point of tying religion to violence is to discredit religion: religion is bad, and so must be eradicated, or quarantined, or the like, by virtue of its putative association with violence. But I take as a given that some violence is good and some violence is bad. When the targeted victim prevents rape by pummeling her attacker, when the villagers defend themselves by shooting ISIS fanatics, then the violence employed thereby is just violence. It is just that they respond to the attempted violation of their rights with discriminate and proportionate violence. Moreover, if sincere commitment helps the potential victims to prevent their violation by unjust attackers, then … well … that’s all to the good. Contrariwise, only if religion is associated with bad violence, with violence that violates the rights of human beings, or the like, do we have any reason at all to eradicate religion, to quarantine it, or to do anything of the sort. The fact that the association of religion and violence incorporates this moral predicate makes the association of religion and violence not an ordinary empirical claim, but an empirical claim married to an inevitably contentious moral judgment. Is there any compelling reason to endorse that marriage?

Fifth, some appear to think that there is. In the literature on the morality of war, it is very common to associate religion with unjust violence. The basic idea is simple. When religion is used to justify war, when human beings are moved to wage war by religious reasons, then they wage war for what they take to be the most important ends—for “ultimate” ends. But when human beings wage war for ultimate ends, then they cannot moderate their violence; when the most important things are at stake, we must win, and so we may employ any kind of violence to achieve success, and this will often be indiscriminate or disproportionate violence. As a consequence, we should refrain from justifying war by appealing to religion.

Sixth, this very common argument should not persuade. Whether or not religiously legitimated violence leads to indiscriminate or disproportionate violence depends, not on the fact that religious considerations play some role in justifying war, but on which religious considerations play that justificatory role. Some religious legitimations are morally toxic but not by virtue of their religiosity. Rather, they are toxic by virtue of their content. So, to take one prominent example, if warriors are offered a plenary indulgence for waging war against the infidel, then they are given a kind of moral carte blanche for the manner in which they conduct themselves as they wage war, and we should therefore not be surprised when they take advantage of their moral immunity to inflict gravely unjust violence on the enemy.* But of course the offering of a plenary indulgence for waging war against the infidel is a very particular theological idea! Many very sincere religious folk will find it repulsive … not merely on moral grounds, but also on theological grounds. Indeed, it might be the case that religious considerations that lead a given party to wage war also make for greater restraint, discrimination, and proportion than would otherwise be the case. 

This abbreviated argument leaves us with a most prosaic conclusion. Sometimes religion is associated with war in the respect that religious reasons play an important motivational role in leading human beings to employ unjust violence. Sometimes religion is associated with war in the respect that religious reasons play an important motivational role in leading human beings to employ just violence (or in leading combatants to wage a just war in a just manner). In these respects, religion is pretty much like any normative confection: patriotism, utilitarianism, democracy, human rights, liberalism, even the just war tradition … each can be, and has been, employed to legitimate just and unjust violence. But this banality provides no better reason for generalized hostility to religion than it does for hostility to patriotism, utilitarianism, democracy, human rights, liberalism, or the just war tradition.

* There are many other examples of specific religious doctrines that, when employed to legitimate violence between human beings, too easily lead to grave moral mischief. So, for example, the application to warring communities of paradigmatic and ramifying religious categories, such as the application to American colonists and American Indians of the categories “Israelite’ and ‘Canaanite.’ See Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword, (New York, NY.: HarperCollins, 2011).

Christopher J. Eberle is a senior professor of Philosophy in the United States Naval Academy's Leadership Education and Development Division, where he has taught since 2001.

This piece was originally authored on November 7, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. 

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