Thoughts on Religion and Violence

The Naive Position

We should begin with the naive position that religion is the major cause of violence in human history. I call this position 'naive' not as an ad hominem, but because I don't want to be accused of creating a straw man argument. I don't know if anyone seriously and thoughtfully holds this view as I will articulate it. I do know that it's a notion that is often implicitly expressed or skirted around in lectures and debates involving Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. It's also a position I have seen non-celebrities espouse in online discussions. I never participate in online discussions of religion and skepticism. It's a mug's game. This article reflects only a thought that occurred to me while observing these discussions. It's a thought I've never seen raised and one that should be raised for the consideration of both sides of the issue. I am an atheist. I am a subscriber to the JREF newsletter. I am most of all concerned with what's true and not with what supports anyone's socio-political goals. That's why I must write, perhaps naively stepping into a trap, about this particular naive position.

The naive position is roughly this:

1. Human civilization consists in the exercise of reason.
2. Reasonable people live in peace and mutual respect.
3. Throughout history religion has been involved in just about every major breach of peace and mutual respect.
4. Religion is therefore unreasonable.
5. Religion has therefore been the major impediment to civilization.
6. In conclusion, were there no religion, we would be much more civilized.

So the naive position is that religion has to go because it has been the at the root of civilization's retardation throughout history. This position is naive for several philosophical reasons. It's not clear how 'reason' and 'civilization' are even being defined in such a view. But for our purposes this will do. Moreover, it is doubtful anyone has ever set it out to his or herself in quite these terms. The essence of the position is in the third premise. The others are mutable. But the third will always roughly remain: throughout history, religion has been a force for evil.

Being Scientific

I'm sure there are many ways of tackling the 'naive position.' But it is particularly that third premise with which my thought is concerned, because it's the one that will be found even in not-naive formulations of the same basic position. My problem with the premise is a scientific one. My problem with those who express (implicitly or explicitly) the naive position is that they are usually championing rationality and science. If they do care about rationality and science, they should certainly take my little thought to heart. No matter how much their theory may please them, when the facts get in the way, good scientists revise the theory. This is not unique to scientists. Indeed, it is a feature of all rational people. When we noticed whales giving birth, we had to admit they're not fish. So what we have to question is whether we have sound data for that third premise.

"No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition."
"No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition."

The Data

The data is evident, they would urge me. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch-burning trials are the tip of the proverbial iceberg in the violent history of humanity. Millennia of sexual repression, exploitation, penances, wars, and terrible medicine are all the cause of religion. Some of these points are unarguably true. Between Augustine and Rene Descartes, very little science, philosophy, or art flourished. It's called the Dark Ages for a reason. It's not a legacy of which Christianity is to be proud, for sure. But the data does not give any indication of necessity, only of sufficiency. Religion did just happen to be the cause of civilization's impediment. Can it be shown that Christianity had to impede civilization? Can it be shown that the absence of Christianity would have necessarily been better? These may seem like over-demanding questions. However, they're important. It doesn't matter how annoying the facts are, they must be taken into consideration.

The data we have is simply not good enough to address these questions. From our first glimpses into civilization we find ceremonial burial at the least. From recorded history onward to the present date religion has always been an integral part of human existence. There is no period in history to which we can turn to seriously study a state of no-religion. Even in the most amateurish experiments, we know we need control groups. If you give one set of fruitflies a gene and a banana, you need a set of fruitflies either with that gene and no banana or without the gene and with the banana. This is necessary for comparison of data. If we can't compare a history of humanity with religion with a history of humanity with no-religion, whence comes the data to corroborate the naive position's hypothesis?

Religion and Values

The fact that religion has always been around is far more important than it even appears. Religions are instances of what John Rawls calls comprehensive doctrines. A comprehensive doctrine is a belief system or ideology that affects the whole of a people's way of living. It is a value, or contains values, that are too important to be set aside. It is inseparable from all they do. Religion is a particularly powerful comprehensive doctrine just because it concerns one's ultimate destiny. In most religions, life is temporary but a soul goes on permanently. So for the religious religion is a value that has significance for all they do. There is no activity in which religion won't play a part. This includes wars and various political machinations.

So, even the data we have about the history of the world with religion is faulty. Religion is such a pervasive comprehensive doctrine that it will of course be found in all human activity in religious societies and will often be used as a justification. We are in no position, in regards to the data, to say whether religion was a cause of the atrocities or merely present as a comprehensive doctrine must be. We can't say whether religion is a cause or merely accidentally present. The cause may be any number of things, from political scheming to mere irrational passions. (The war on Troy was, after all, caused by lusting for Helen.)

Commies, Etc.

Often in discussions of religion as a force for violence the issue of Communist societies gets raised. Every instance of Communist/Socialist revolution has resulted in atrocities: Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. This point is often brushed aside as irrelevant. I think we see now that it is extremely relevant. These societies really do offer the only data we have of truly non-religious societies. I think this data too is faulty simply because: (a) These societies still inhabit a world and history replete with religion; (b) Communism is a comprehensive doctrine that has been present in all of these instances. But it is nevertheless true that religion isn't present in these societies. So not only does violence continue in non-religious societies, but in the only instances we have, the atrocities are worse! This doesn't prove anything about religion. It does however corroborate the hypothesis that is not religion that is responsible for atrocities throughout history. We await more data.

Summing Up

To summarize, my little thought has been to question whether we have the data to corroborate the position that "Religion has been a major impediment to civlization." The third premise of the naive position is true: religion has been involved in nearly all pre-twentieth century atrocities. But then, so has politics, sex, technology, and cookery. You can find a toothbrush in the home of just about any school shooter, but it doesn't mean brushing his teeth is responsible for his violence. The paucity of data we have leaves us in the position of being unable to make any claims, affirmative or negative, about religion as a force for violence or moral evil. We simply have to await the data. As atheism grows, we may have that data some day. My intention has not been to redeem religion or even to defend it, but to defend reason. And I am only defending it against one particular claim, that "Religion has been a major impediment to civilzation." I merely wanted to point out that in fact we don't know. We don't know if it was religion or more generally human unreasonableness and irrationality, which can express itself in religion as well as in politics or the home, that is the cause of history's barbaric atrocities. Any claim to know is a claim of faith and not a claim of reason.

Comments

I am aware that this is a contentious article. This may lead to combative comments. I am pleased to see constructive debate, whether in agreement or disagreement with the position I put forward. However, rude comments, hate speech, and Bible preaching will not be approved. I moderate the comments; none will appear until I approve them. I also want to note that I'm too busy to engage in debates. But I will read everything that's written. Thanks for reading.

Cheers!

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21 comments

tfhodge profile image

tfhodge 6 years ago from California - U.S.A.

Consider that the institution of 'religion' is not a real thing, but a concept of human imagination. Thus, how can it be responsible for anything; in this case - violence? Human's, however, are more likely those who have, throughout history, performed acts of violence - in the name of religious beliefs.

I enjoyed reading your hub.

Thank you,

T.F. Hodge

Writer/Author/Blogger

Spiritually Expanding to Oneness!

http://www.fromwithinirise.com


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

Well Arthur, I for one, am not under any illusions that the end of religion would signify the end of violent conflict ..and I 'd guess there'd be few people who would think that. You got me thinking though, which is unfortunate because I'm spending WAY too much time at this place.

You haven't drawn any comparisons between secular countries who are committed to scientific and humanistic values and those that are theocratic [Iran, Saudi Arabia] and committed to religious values.. While secular countries have religious freedoms and thus open religious influences[some places more than others] there is still a separation between church and state and these countries are, in governance at least, non-religious.

Do religious societies tend to be less tolerant and thus more inherently violent than secular societies? Well, on the face of it, it might seem they are. But your example of Stalinist Communism suggests otherwise. Hodge makes the point that religion isn't a real thing..it's just another concept or ideology imagined by man. Okay then, so perhaps the question isn't one of religious/versus non-religious but tolerant, humanistic values versus rigid oppressive doctrinal ideologies, whatever form or shape they might be in. Religion, being necessarily dogmatic and uncompromising lends itself to violence and intolerance...as do the more brutal forms of communism, nazism, totalitarianism and probably some others I haven't thought of. However, there is also a special element added to religion that makes it unique among "general human unreasonableness and irrationality" ....and that is, moral certainty in the form of an endorsement by God, which is a heavily loaded gun in the pocket of an ideology.

Even worse than an intolerant ideology is an intolerant ideology plus God, because moral certainty cannot be easily assaulted by reason or even a big stick. Moral certainty is remarkably tenacious, as anyone who is 'mug' enough to venture into a religious forum will be aware.

In observing the major hotspots of world violence it's not hard to see a pernicious connection between religion/political unrest/violent conflict. It is not the sole culprit in these violent struggles ....but it is suspiciously implicated as a serious contributing factor to conflict. At the very least, it muddies the political well.

I don't know Arthur...throughout history religion has been both an inspiration AND an impediment to civilization, though to my eye at least, it is looking more like the latter than the former just BECAUSE of that moral certainty that differentiates it from the rest of the bunch. It may never be possible to extract religion from the human equation so perhaps we will never know what a Godless world would be like....somehow I don't think universal peace and harmony is for this world, whichever way you slice it.


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

I was expecting to have to moderate a lot more comments. I guess my warning worked.

@tfhodge Thanks for your comment, Mr. Hodge. We're in agreement on that. Humans are the cause. It just happens that religion has been a big part of human life throughout recorded history.

@Jane Good to hear from you, Jane. You can never spend too much time at HubPages. They don't even pay me to say that. haha

You make a lot of good points. Certainty has always been a problem. But I'm not sure if that certainty is peculiar to religion. Aren't Marxists and Feminists all certain of their ideological positions? And isn't PETA willing to do violence for what they believe? And when we think of 'intolerance,' isn't it only the Christian and Islamic religions we have in mind? Jews, Pagans, Hindus and Buddhists haven't traditionally been intolerant. Just some additional fuel for your thoughts.

Cheers!


tfhodge profile image

tfhodge 6 years ago from California - U.S.A.

I really enjoyed reading your post, Arthur. And Jane, your response was entertaining. I try to go beyond the surface of 'things' and get down to the essence of matters; which is why I focused on human conduct, regardless of the various groups, organizations, or ideologies that usually shield, in this case, violence. I submit that there are two selves: the [true] internal and eternal self (or soul), and the [false] external, 'egoic' self. The latter is the one which humanity creates conceptualized labels to hide behind acts that are destructive to our [original] divinity.

Keep up the good work!

T.F. Hodge

Writer/Author/Blogger

Spiritually Expanding to Oneness!

http://www.fromwithinirise.com


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

Hi Guys,

Arthur, There you go, making me think again!

None of these organizations claim a moral certainty that is endorsed by God.This is an important distinction. Secular moralities are required to have a rational basis to justify their existence, and if it's faulty it can be shown to be faulty. Religious morality needs no such basis to justify it's existence. Only faith is required- some believers may seek a rational basis, but it's not necessary.

Now you may ask, why is this distinction important?

Well..around the world there are barbaric practices occurring today with no other justification than they are 'holy and sanctified'. They would not be tolerated if their only claim was a reasoned basis, because the reasoning could easily be shown to be faulty.

Christopher Hitchens gives a striking example of this in God is not Great. There is an ancient practice, supported by scripture, that calls for the sucking off the foreskin of a baby boy [after incision]and spitting it on the ground along with blood and saliva. Most Jews have abandoned the practice but it still occurs among certain extreme groups of Hasidic fundamentalists. To them this primitive rite is sacred and part of a covenant with God. In 2005 a 57 year old mohel was found to have given genital herpes to several small boys, killing two of them in the process. Now the point of this is...in Hiotchens words "in ordinary circumstances the public health department, having been made aware of the situation, would have outlawed the practice and it would have been denounced by the mayor. Instead Mayor Bloomberg, overode the reports of several distinguished Jewish physicians who had warned of the danger of the custom, and told his healthcare bureaucracy to postpone any verdict. The crucial thing he said, was to be sure the free exercise of religion was not being infringed." Religious moral certainties tend to get a free pass from reason, an *exceptional circumstance* and this is an impediment to civilization.

Not all religions are the same in their philosophical perspectives, sure...and a lot depends on context. Many people erroneously assume the Qur'an is less tolerant than the Bible.In the West, we only get a watered down version of christianity. This is because we went through an Enlightenment period and many irrational Biblical tenets were decimated by the secular intellectuals...it was *put through the wringer* so to speak. Islam hasn't been..not within its own cultural context anyway. In God is not Great Hitchens also mentions Brian Victoria and his book, Zen Wars: "Victoria[himself a buddhist] shows how Japanese buddhism became a loyal servant -even an advocate- of Imperialism and mass murder and that it did so not so much because it was Japanese, but because it was Buddhist".

Religion is not always an impediment to covilization, but it has a special potential to be.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

Just wanted to add you can argue "religion is not the cause of violence, humans are" in the same way the gun lobby argues "guns don't kill, humans do". Well okay but guns make it a whole lot easier to kill... and so does religion. We should keep a check on both.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

Sorry to totally flood your comment box but I thought of something else.The problem with the "it's humans" argument is that it it's designed[like the gun lobby's argument] to stop discussion in it's tracks. Yet, in using this argument you might just as as well say "it's not fascism it's humans", or it's "lt's not nazism, it's humans" so let's leave it at that. Yes, humans invented Nazism but the problem IS Nazism itself because the basic underlying justification for it is flawed:

ie; a belief in racial superiority without evidence

Similarly it can be argued the justification for religion is also flawed

ie; a belief in the supernatural without evidence

Few would claim Nazism was not an impediment to civilization. So why wouldn't religion be if it is based on a flawed premise, just as Nazism was?

Some might come back at me and say "but religion can't be compared to Nazism because it can have good effects" to which I would say it has the potential to do as much harm as good....and the real point is it is still a flawed premise.

Once upon a time religion WAS civilization or a substitute for it, as it held the social fabric together. We have though, now moved out of the dark ages;

~In a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind, old men as guides.~

?Heinrich Heine


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Very interesting thoughts. Thanks for that. No need to apologize; I'm glad for the comments.

In regards to this claim that "it's humans and not religion" I would like to recall attention to the argument out of which it came. As a stand-alone statement, it's not very useful and rather glib. But it's in a context here. That context is religion's pervasiveness, not just socially and historically, but in the individual lives of believers. Religion concerns one's ultimate and eternal destiny. That's a value that tends to encompass all other values, including morality, family, and community. My claim is that religion has been this pervasive part of human life since before recorded history and that we consequently have no experience of humanity without religion. These are not claims that can be made about guns or fascism or bouncy castles or poodle-trimming. I'm not sure if this changes how you want to address the point, but I thought it was worth pointing out.

Incidentally, I don't claim to know whether it's humans or religion that's to blame for history's barbaric atrocities. My claim, as you'll recall, just is that I don't know. And neither does Hitchens. I don't have confidence in the data.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

I blame poodle trimming . Clearly it's been holdling civilization back.


tfhodge profile image

tfhodge 6 years ago from California - U.S.A.

Is it man (which includes woman) who 'chooses' religion, or does religion force itself upon the conscious of man? Does man 'decide' to pick up the gun, though it exists, or does the gun force itself into the hands of men? No matter how well crafted, marketed, or widely accepted any 'campaign' is (which is also freely exercised by man), the choice and responsibility rests with the individual(s) who ultimately make the decision(s) to accept or deny ideals and 'things' - never the manifestations of what man has created (inappropriate or not). Both religion and weapons have their pros and cons, but it is man who conceives a justification for their employment.


CMHypno profile image

CMHypno 6 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

You have chosen a big topic here Arthur? I think like all things human, organised religion has contributed to both violence and advancement of culture. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was quite happily waging war against infidels and heretics, while at the same time producing some sublime art and encouraging learning. I think that unfortunately violence is a human trait and it gets dragged into most human situations and organisations. If there had not been religion in the world, whatever the substitute was would probably have created sporadic violence and hatred.


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

Holy smokes what a dialogue here, that Jane Bovary sure has an amazing head on her shoulders huh? If her brain were a gland and not an organ I'll bet it would need something with huge lacy support to keep it in place. I say that in the most respectful (if maybe just a little Chauvinistic way), she's got to be living proof that intelligence is sexy. Well her and Patty Inglish too.

Also AW, thanks for sending me on a definition ride to explore the meanings of ad hominem and paucity, now I can ride my bombastic mustang into a more magnanimous sunset.

As for your well written argument/observation (where are the Venn diagrams?) I appreciate your, in my view, forgiving look at the age old complaint about religion and violence in the world. I suspect you may need to go to an AA meeting (Agnostics Anonymous) I only say that because, oh no, I've got another Atheist friend from Canada! Truth be told you're the first, but my heart tells me you have an Agnostic side.

What I can add to your observations, and I've given this a lot of my most valuable asset (thought) over the years, is that Science and consequently the Secular Humanists just plain aren't as visibly engaged in altruistic endeavors as religious folks seem to be. Point me to your nearest Fred Nietzsche Homeless Shelter or Kurt Vonnegut Hospital and correct me if I'm wrong. Science and the Humanists just don't have much heart, or if they do, it's lost in a smarmy vacuum of hubris and erudition.

Much like you however, I often feel the need to play the devil's advocate for reasons I can't understand. I like to think my Ojibwa blood has imbued my spirit with traces of the Trickster. The intolerance of religion is apparent and disheartening ironically enough, but when you meat a religious person who isn't sanctimonious and who is really out there helping the people I don't it gives me pause.

Great piece of work here, I will try to come back and read more of the comments, well done AW.

Ben


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Hi Ben!

Yeah, 'cause when I think 'chauvinist' I think appreciating women for their minds. I'll go to Agnostics Anonymous if you go to Feminists Anonymous. ;) But yeah, she's got a nice set of frontal lobes.

I'm not really an agnostic. My life experiences have left me more open to a variety of ideas, though, and a concern for looking at those ideas honestly. It's as hard to trust those who loathe religion to be honest as it is to trust those who love religion. I don't have any emotional relationship to religion. I'm betting there are quite a few people like me who are just a wee bit afraid to appear Religion-sympathizers to the demonstrative anti-religion crowd.

You're very right, Ben. As much as Christopher Hitchens tries to dismantle the reputations of Mother Teresa, Ghandi, and the Dalai Lama (not to say his research isn't solid), the fact is religions have been a much more organized and selfless force for altruism. Again, we don't really have experience of a world without religions. It may just be that altruistic people are naturally attracted to religions for the support and outlet they offer; and if there were no religions, such people would create secular organizations to do the same.

Cheers!


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa

Arthur - a very intelligent and readable Hub and I enjoyed reading it. I think you hit the nail on the head in the last paragraph of your comment above.

The comments here are quite exceptional and I will come back again to see more. I love a good discussion.

Love and peace

Tony


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore

I like the last paragraph too..

I guess we're all just brains-in-a-jar in this medium...thanks for the compliment Ben, even if I do like to think my brain would wear sensible cottontails.[by the way I think your brain looks pretty cute too]

I hate to drag Hitchens in again but I need him because, he did make the point that charity and relief work are really the inheritors of modernism and the Enlightenment. Before that holy war and Imperialism was the main game. That's not to say believers haven't done some wonderful work but it does challenge the idea that secular humanists have *no heart*.


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Hey TonyMac, nice to hear from you. And thanks for the kind words! I was fortunate to get some very stimulating comments.

Cheers!


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Hey Jane,

Well this is sweet. My two favourite HubPeople interacting. I'd love to get a drink with you and Ben.

Hitchens's point coincides with my own very well. I argued above that religion was mostly just present, as an excuse and because it had to be, during politically-motivated atrocities and not really the motivational force behind them. In a more violent and tumultuous era of human history, religion was involved in violent activities. In a more peaceful and enlightened era of human history (Enlightment to now), religion became peaceful and charitable. That makes sense, doesn't it? If I'm going to say religion may not really responsible for the violence, by the same token I should be saying religion may not really be responsible for the charity.


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 6 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

Hey AW and Jane I plan on commenting again more in depth soon but there's a lot to process here! Pretty enjoyable though, why can't dialogue like this be found outside of letters? Oh yeah, there's no time to edit spoken word....


spiderpam profile image

spiderpam 6 years ago from USA

www.youtube.com/watch?v=ay00zBbIvXY


AKA Winston 6 years ago

I agree that religion has not been the major cause of violence. That claim is confusing correlation with causation. In the natural world, competing groups of monkeys do not get along and share the foliage and fruits. They war with each other to dominate and ensure survival.

The evolved ape man follows the same instincts. Groups war against other groups to dominate and ensure survival, and whether the group is Israel destroying Gaza or the Catholic Church invading the Holy Land, what group they represent is a correlation and not the causitive agent of the violence.


Arthur Windermere profile image

Arthur Windermere 6 years ago Author

Hey Winston,

Thanks for dropping by. I think that's exactly right, yes. I'm sure there have been cases where religion is a cause of mass-violence, but no more than non-religious forces (in fact, surely less than non-religious forces).

Cheers!

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