In the Name of God: Are Violence and Religion Natural Bedfellows? Vanessa Baird Weighs the Evidence

By Baird, Vanessa | New Internationalist, August 2004 | Go to article overview

In the Name of God: Are Violence and Religion Natural Bedfellows? Vanessa Baird Weighs the Evidence


Baird, Vanessa, New Internationalist


My mother had a medical attitude towards religion. If you didn't give children a good dose of it early on they might catch a more extreme case later in life.

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I'm not sure that Catholicism is quite the vaccine I would have selected, given the choice. Nor am I altogether convinced by my mother's science. But I do suspect she was right in her basic analysis religion is powerful stuff and it's best not to ignore this.

She died a few months before the 9-11 attacks - the events that more than any other have brought to the world's consciousness the devastating force that faith can have.

'Oh God, open all doors for me... God, Llay myself in your hands. I ask with the light of your faith that has lit the whole world and lightened all darkness on this earth, to guide me...' was part of the prayer Mohammed Atta packed into his luggage shortly before flying a plane into the World Trade Center.(1)

'God told me to strike at al Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did,' a confident George W Bush later shared.(2)

Osama Bin Laden was equally sure of his ground when he said: 'Here is America struck by God Almighty in one of its vital organs, so that its greatest buildings are destroyed.'(3)

And he went on to promise: 'I swear by Almighty God... that neither the United States or he who lives in the United States will enjoy security before... all the infidel armies leave the land of Muhammad.'(2)

A diplomatic Tony Blair commented that the 9-11 attacks were 'no more a reflection of true Islam than the Crusades were a reflection of true Christianity'.(4)

Blair's is a popular and convenient notion. It assumes that there is a 'true' version of the faith - and by inference a false one. The first, benevolent. The latter, a violent travesty of the basic goodness of religion.

The trouble is most religions are deeply ambivalent when it comes to god and violence. All have their compassionate and peace-loving messages, but they also possess deeply violent roots and traditions.

'Violence in language and deed is an element in every religious worldview,' says US sociologist and writer on religion Charles Selengut. He includes supposedly 'non-violent' traditions like Hinduism, Christianity and even Buddhism.(5)

Elise Boulding, who has examined peace in major religions, finds that 'sacred texts are flooded with images of a vengeful and violent god. The warrior-god has dominated the stories of our faith communities so that the other story of human caring and compassion and reconciliation is often difficult to hear.'(6)

These violence-of-god traditions have been passed down through generations, moulding our individual and collective psyches. As these narratives are told and retold they become part of our cultural and spiritual identity and ultimately condition our behaviour.

Interpretation is not the issue, says Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer: 'Religiously justified violence is first and foremost a problem of "sacred" texts and not a problem of misinterpretation of texts.'(7)

Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories, for example, can find plenty of direct and unambivalent textual authority from God to kill all non-Jewish occupants of the Holy Land. Hittites, Canaanites, Amarites, Girgashites... the list in Deuteronomy 7 is grimly comprehensive.

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Of course you can choose the compassionate wisdom of your faith system and use it to temper greed and selfishness; to love your neighbour, share resources, be charitable and forgive those who trespass against you, even if it is the last thing you feel like doing.

But does that mean that those who choose to read and use the violent teachings are being any less true to the texts or traditions of the faith?

Sometimes the traditions are even more violent than the main texts. Though Jesus was Jewish and a pacifist and had nothing at all to say about homosexuality, Christians have had no problem using their violent-god traditions to justify going to war, killing Jews and persecuting gay people. …

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