Purification as Violence
There is a paradox at the center of religion. While it functions as a source of meaningfulness and spiritual inspiration, while it represents an institution that bases salvation on the doing of good, it can also be a notorious breeding ground for fundamentalist intransigence and may further deteriorate into coercive militant homicidal and suicidal violence. How are we to understand this paradoxical inclusion of goodness and murderousness? Why is religion so often associated with violence? Furthermore, why is sacrifice, a form of sacralized violence, accorded such a central role in religious traditions? After all, sacrifice, considered by many scholars as the foundational religious gesture, is killing that is surrounded by an aura of the holy. It is a destruction of life, whether of a human or an animal, that is meant to please God, to bring peace, or, in the case of Christ, to redeem humankind.
Most religions are permeated with images of cosmic war as the ongoing and perennial situation of the world, a war that is often believed to endure as long as the world does. The theme of a cosmic mythical war waged between two forces, good and evil, light and darkness, points to an irreconciliable conflict that has to be battled to the end. Battle, or conflict, is a crucial part of the human condition, whether the conflict obtains between groups of people, within a person's inner world, or between the joys and sorrow of life, its pleasures and its finitude. Since religion deals with the meaning of human existence, the conflicting aspects of life and the need to protect it, religion provides a powerful means of visually dramatizing these conflicts and of indicating courses of action to resolve them in a manner that seems clear and promises simplicity.