Religion, Violence, and Terrorism: An Empirical Evolutionary Study

By Krause, Kenneth | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Religion, Violence, and Terrorism: An Empirical Evolutionary Study


Krause, Kenneth, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


During a 2014 episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, a brief "debate" broke out between neuroscientist and popular religion critic Sam Harris and movie actor Ben Affleck on the topic of Muslim violence. (1) Harris pronounced Islam "the motherlode of bad ideas," and Affleck scorned his opponent's attitude as "gross" and "racist." The Harris-Affleck affair exposed a gaping intellectual void in the dialogue over the relationship between religion and violence. Unfortunately, this debate has long been dominated by extreme or undisciplined claims on each side. Some suggest, for example, that all organized violence is religiously inspired at some level, while others insist that all religion is entirely benevolent when practiced "correctly." Neither of these positions is defensible. There are many forms of violence--from wars, inquisitions, and terrorism to honor killing, suicide bombing, and genital mutilation--each of which has a unique set of causes, only one of which is religion.

Some social scientists have argued that religious belligerence ensues from simple prejudice, defined as judgment in the absence of accurate information. Here, the customary prescription includes education and exposure to a broader diversity of religious tradition. But as Rodney Stark, co-director at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, recently observed, "it is mostly true beliefs about one another's religion that separates the major faiths." Muslims deny Christ's divinity, for example, and Christians reject Muhammad's claim as successor to Moses and Jesus. As such, Stark reasons, education is unnecessary and "increased contact might well result in increased hostility." (2)

As well, there are a number of perspectives that both diminish and subordinate the role of religion in violent contexts to that of mere pretense or veneer. These writers contend that religion is seldom, if ever, the original or primary cause of aggression. Rather, they suggest, the sacred serves only as an efficient means of either motivating or justifying what should otherwise be recognized as purely secular violence. Such is the latest appraisal of Karen Armstrong, ex-Catholic nun and prolific popular historian of religion. In rapid response to Harris's televised vilification of Islam, Armstrong enlisted the popular press. In an interview with Salon she echoed Affleck's hyperbole, equating Harris's criticism of Islam to Nazi anti-Semitism. (3) Such comparisons are absurd, of course, because condemnation of an idea is categorically different from denigration of an entire population, or any member thereof.

But more to the point, Armstrong argued that the very idea of "religious violence" is flawed for two reasons. First, ancient religion was inseparable from the state and, as such, no aspect of pre-modern life--including organized violence--could have been divided from either the state or religion. Second, she continued, "all our motivation is always mixed." Thus, says Armstrong, modern suicide bombing and Muslim terrorism, for example, are more personal and political than religious. In her 2014 book, Fields of Blood, Armstrong writes:

   Until the modern period, religion permeated all aspects
   of life, including politics and warfare ... because
   people wanted to endow everything with
   significance. Every state ideology was religious ... [and
   thus every] successful empire has claimed that
   it had a divine mission; that its enemies were evil....
   And because these states and empires were all created
   and maintained by force, religion has been
   [wrongly] implicated in their violence. (4)

Armstrong goes on to argue that religion has consistently stood against aggression. The Priestly authors of the Hebrew Bible, she says, believed that warriors were contaminated by violence, "even if the campaign had been endorsed by God." Similarly, the medieval Peace and Truce of God graciously "outlawed violence from Wednesday to Sunday. …

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