The whole religion causes violence (and specifically large-scale violence between social groups, or war) argument has always irritated me because it implies that it is somehow possible to separate the religious aspect of one’s identity from the rest of that identity. I don’t deny that the way in which people represent their place in the world and their relationships to the rest of humanity can lead to violence and conflict, but I don’t think there is anything special about religion in this context. Granted that religion is often a massive part of identities which become part of the justification for war, for instance in the Balkans, but the few hundred years of secular society we have to draw examples from don’t exactly indicate that non-religious identities are less prone to violence. People of the same religion also often fight each other, and these conflicts can also shape the identities of the groups involved. For example, just look at the way in which the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 – a war between two nominally secular and predominantly Protestant nations – was recently celebrated (yeah, celebrating war is fine apparently).
Like democratic peace theory (which I wrote about here) the religion causes war argument often relies on defining terms so that they suit the proponent’s position. For example, Stalin is often presented as someone who have killed in the name of atheism as a counterexample to people killing in the name of religion. Atheists dispute this by either arguing that he wasn’t actually atheist, or that he killed in the name of communism not atheism. However Marxist-Leninism as an ideology is explicitly atheist – so killing priests and bishops is not just a political action against the power of the church but an action to free the people from the shackles of religious thought. A more nuanced argument is that in this context Stalin’s ideology is effectively a religion, but this smacks of a circular argument – religious ideology causes violence so if your ideology is violent it must be religious, even if you explicitly say it is anti-religious. Another sort of argument which is like those used to defend democratic peace theory is to list all the horrific acts in history which could be called “religious” and say “look, there’s way more of these than secular or atheist ones” while not acknowledging that from a historical perspective the extent of secular/atheist thought is miniscule so of course there are less examples to draw on.
Another point which I don’t see raised often in these arguments is the place of those cases where religion causes peace.When I was researching my Masters thesis in Bougainville for instance I often heard from people there about the vital role church groups played in bringing warring factions together to negotiate peace terms. This was in a conflict which was sparked by resources and ethno-nationalism and later became a complex mix of inter-tribal violence, but where all concerned parties were Christian, and even where they were different sects of Christianity that meant nothing in the context of the war there. Other examples are the Latin American Council of Churches being actively involved in peace programmes in Colombia and Guatemala, Desmond Tutu in Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa, Muslim peace activists in America, and the work of conflict negotiator, academic, and Christian, John Paul Lederach. I could go on, but I’m guessing you’ve got the point now. Religious doctrine can just as easily lead to peace as war, so why focus on the negative side of it?
I recently perused some parts of a book called “The Myth of Religious Violence” by a Christian theologian called William T Cavanaugh. I enjoyed what I read because it articulated a lot of ideas I personally had about this subject. For a start he talks about how hard it is to define religion anyway, and that before the enlightenment the dichotomy between religious and secular did not exist and thus all arguments must be made in the context of Western thought from the enlightenment onwards, and then he goes on to argue that the debate about religion causing violence serves to legitimate the violence used by secular Western governments while deligitimating the violence used by other, non-secular groups (specifically Muslims). An article by him here summarises the book quite nicely. Here’s quote from it:
The myth of religious violence helps create a blind spot about the violence of the putatively secular nation-state. We like to believe that the liberal state arose to make peace between warring religious factions. Today, the Western liberal state is charged with the burden of creating peace in the face of the cruel religious fanaticism of the Muslim world. The myth of religious violence promotes a dichotomy between us in the secular West who are rational and peacemaking, and them, the hordes of violent religious fanatics in the Muslim world. Their violence is religious, and therefore irrational and divisive. Our violence, on the other hand, is rational, peacemaking, and necessary. Regrettably, we find ourselves forced to bomb them into the higher rationality.
I don’t deny that people who are explicitly religious sometimes commit violence for explicitly religious reasons, but to say that religious thought leads to violence, or even that religious worldviews have a tendency to be more violent than secular ones, is to take very complex sets of data and find the conclusion that you wanted. This is especially true when talking about large-scale violence or war – such events are the outcome of many different factors which include the geographical, the historical, and the socio-cultural. Identity undeniably plays a huge part in this and for much of the world religion is a crucial part of identity, so of course we would expect it to be called upon as a reason for violence. However to focus only upon the religious aspects of identity is to obscure the deeper questions about how and why certain groups feel the need to commit violence against others.
By constantly rehashing the debate about the link between religion and war we risk discounting other factors from our explanations of violence at large scales. At a practical level too, the constant promotion of the idea that religion leads to war may risk excluding religious groups from negotiating peace terms and working towards reconciliation between conflicting factions. Finally, it risks creating a new framework where secularism, and to a lesser extent atheism, becomes something which because it is considered more peaceful can be violently promoted around the globe. Please, can we just drop this debate? There is no obvious clear link and the search for one is dangerously distorting of the way in which we view humanity, by splitting it into the enlightened, peaceful atheists and the deluded violent theists.Even if this is not what atheists are seeking to do such oppositional thinking will only serve to fuel fundamentalism as it aims to defend itself against the perceived attack of secularism.
If people really want to help create a more peaceful world they should seek to develop a social space where all beliefs and identities are respected and included, and where violence is condemned no matter what the cause. To say that any belief system is better than any other not only smacks of cultural imperialism but also just serves to deepen divisions and create more conflict.
Note: In case you’re wondering I don’t identify as either atheist or religious.