Religion and Violence: An Anthropological Study on Religious Belief and Violent Behavior

By Purzycki, Benjamin Grant; Gibson, Kyle | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Religion and Violence: An Anthropological Study on Religious Belief and Violent Behavior


Purzycki, Benjamin Grant, Gibson, Kyle, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


"Tradition is a precious thing, a kind of distillation of tens or hundreds of thousands of generations of humans. It is a gift from our ancestors. But it is essential to remember that tradition is invented by human beings and for perfectly pragmatic purposes."

--Carl Sagan in The Varieties of Scientific Experience (1)

ON NOVEMBER 28, 1994, CHRISTOPHER SCARVER beat Jesse Anderson and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer to death with a bar from a weight-lifting machine. Scarver claimed that God had told him to do it. Here was an act of murder by an evidently religious man. Did Scarver's belief in a deity cause him to murder these men? Did it even increase the likelihood of his violence? Or, did he simply invoke the name of a god to justify what he did? In this hemisphere alone, Christian concepts were used and invoked to rationalize the religious brainwashing of and the physical and psychological torture of American Indian children in off-reservation boarding schools, (2) the outright genocide of North and South American Indians, the killing of men and women alleged to be witches, the shooting of abortion doctors, etc. Were these atrocities caused by Christianity? Does religion cause violence? Here we survey the evidence and demonstrate that at this point there is little scientific evidence to subscribe to or continue to make the claim that it does.

Does Religion Really Cause Violence?

Perhaps the most common problem with making the claim that religion causes violence is one of logic; are we finding causal relations where there may be only correlations? Worse, are we fairly weighing a sufficient number of examples to make safe generalizations? In his 2007 bestseller God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens, for example, focuses on "religiously inspired cruelty," and in each of his examples he uses correlations but never once establishes a causal relationship between religion and violence. (3) Should he instead have said "religiously rationalized cruelty"? These are not mere word games or chicken-egg stories. Correlation is not causation. One of the primary jobs of any scientist is to establish and explain causality in correlated phenomena. The claim that religion causes violence is as deserving of such a causal explanation as any other empirical observation.

In his 2005 book The End of Faith, Sam Harris lists a number of global conflicts, concluding: "In these places religion has been the explicit cause of literally millions of deaths in the last ten years." (Italics in original.) Harris takes it as "self-evident that ordinary people cannot be moved to burn genial old scholars alive for blaspheming the Koran, or celebrate the violent deaths of their children, unless they believe some improbable things about the nature of the universe." (4) But he fails to consider that there may have been plenty of people who believe that blaspheming the Koran is worthy of death but who are unwilling to engage in such mortal judgment because of differential emphasis and experience. When someone presents a causal thesis as "self-evident," we should proceed with caution. After all, isn't it abundantly clear that heavy metal and gangsta rap cause violent tendencies in their listeners? No, actually, these self-evident causal connections are far from clear. In fact, it has been systematically difficult for social scientists to understand what causes violence, and evolutionary theorists are only beginning to uncover it. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker's advice is instructive: "The first step in understanding violence is to set aside our abhorrence of it long enough to examine why it can sometimes pay off in personal or evolutionary terms." (5) Likewise, anyone wishing to understand religion has to set aside how utterly improbable religious claims are in order to see how it operates.

So in taking Pinker's advice, what can we say about the roots of violence? It appears that interpersonal and collective violence are both historically and even evolutionary old. …

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