A Handbook of the Sociology of Religion

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Religion and Violence
Social Processes in Comparative Perspective
John R. Hall


Religion is often held up as a vessel of peace, both inner and social. How, then, to understand its violent currents? Given an uneven trend over the centuries toward cultural pluralism and freedom, modern theorists optimistically concluded that religion would either decline in significance or become a pillar of universalistic culture promoting a veritable community of mankind. Thus, as a flash point for violence, religion scarcely warranted attention in the metanarratives of modernity. Yet such a reading of historical development is far too optimistic, as the events of September 11, 2001, all too vividly demonstrate.

A moment's reflection attests that religion and violence are often woven together in history's tapestries. Any number of religions have justified violence under certain circumstances, and others have become caught up in its processes. In the ancient world, Zoroastrianism transformed earlier combat myths into a theology of eternal apocalyptic struggle between good and evil (Cohn 1993: 114), and ancient Judaism forged a confederacy under conditions of war (Schluchter 1989: 185, 200). Early Christianity had its martyrs, and the medieval Roman church, its crusades and Inquisition. As for Islam, the close association between rulership and religion together with the principle of jihad (or holy war) as a vessel of reformation infuse politics with enduring potential for violence.

To be sure, no modern religion promotes violence in its central tenets, and certain religions Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism leave little room for violence in either theology or practice. Moreover, modern social institutions diminish the power of religion by developing legal-rational frameworks legitimated only remotely by religion, if at all (Schluchter 1989: 235). But these developments cannot undermine the now incontrovertibly real connection between religion and violence.

Even the violence of modern movements toward the nation-state was interwoven with religious thread, whether in struggles of reformation and counterreformation (England), or secularization that would eliminate religion (France, the Soviet Union). Religion also could facilitate colonizing expansion, frequently with violent consequences for the colonized. True, in core regions of the world economy, religiously


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A Handbook of the Sociology of Religion
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