Religion can be a dangerous affair. Not only has it inspired great deeds of compassion but also atrocious acts of violence. Practically all religions contain acts and words of a bellicose nature scattered throughout their history and sacred texts, whether it be the Canaanite genocides of the Hebrew Bible, the crusades and inquisitions of Christianity, the violent jihad of Islam, or the ancient tales of battles in the Buddhist Pali Chronicles and the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. More recently, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the London bombings of July 7, 2005, placed a spotlight on the connection between religion and violence in the Western world.
The tragic events of 9/11 also caused a proliferation in the literature available on religion and violence. A couple of recent examples are Andrew R. Murphy (ed), The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), and the Journal of Religion and Violence which had its inaugural issue published in 2013. For a bibliography of literature on religion and violence in the immediate years after the 9/11 attacks, see Charles K. Bellinger, “Religion and Violence: A Bibliography”, The Hedgehog Review 6.1 (2004): pp. 111-19. For a more recent survey, see the bibliography in Jeffrey Ian Ross, Religion and Violence: An Encyclopedia of Faith and Conflict from Antiquity to the Present (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2010).
The “Arab Spring” that began in 2011 inspired a time of optimism about the future of that region of the world , yet that optimism has given way over the past year to the reality of the violent movement known as the Islamic State, or ISIS/ISIL, which has expanded its territory to include large swathes of Iraq and Syria, capturing not only military bases, but entire cities. The Islamic State arose from the ashes of the Syrian civil war and a series of predominantly Sunni jihadist insurgent groups that operated in Iraq between 2003 and 2013. It has demonstrated an increasingly sophisticated social media communication and recruitment strategy, which has lead to a number of primarily young people in the USA, UK, and Europe, joining it or being caught attempting to do so. Some of the atrocities perpetrated by members of ISIS include the abduction, rape, slavery, and trafficking of women and children, the religious targeting and mass killings of Yazidis, Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, and captured Iraqi and Syrian soldiers.
It needs to be kept in mind, however, that violence should be identified not solely as inflicted physical harm, for there are also other forms of violence, such as structural and social violence (e.g. patriarchy, racism, and sexism), which may also be buttressed by religious texts (including the New Testament). Some authors on the topic of religion and violence note that due to the conventional understanding of violence as being physical in nature, the promotion of peace in New Testament studies has led to the neglect of the parts which promote a social type of violence, e.g., dehumanization produced by the insider-outsider mentality and the construction of identities that justifies the oppression of outsiders. For example, see Michel Desjardins, Peace, Violence and the New Testament (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997).
There are many writers out there who see a very strong link between religious belief and violence, not in a direct causal connection but in the sense that religion is especially inclined to produce violence or is a crucial factor in the exacerbation of violence. Some of these works—such as the works of Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007), and Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004)—are primarily polemical diatribes that demonize religious belief as a whole and do not add much to the conversation. Others, however, offer up more learned discussions. For example, there is the sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer, who argues that “[r]eligion seems to be connected with violence virtually everywhere” (Terror in the Mind of God: The Rise of Religious Violence [Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2000], p. xi). He considers religious violence to be increasing due to the threats of modernity and globalism, and that this clash of cultures and identities can be viewed as a cosmic war with religious faith providing an ideal means of stoking this conflict.
Other useful authors on the topic of religion and violence, though at the other end of the spectrum as Juergensmeyer, are William Cavanaugh and Oliver McTernan, neither of whom are convinced that religion plays the decisive role in violent acts. McTernan sees religion as having some responsibility for religious violence but that its cooperation is forced, while Cavanaugh goes so far as to contend that there really is no significant difference between religious violence and secular violence. See Oliver J. McTernan, Violence in God’s Name: Religion in an Age of Conflict (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003), esp. pp. 20-43; William T. Cavanaugh, “Killing in the Name of God,” in Carl E. Braaten and Christopher R. Seitz (eds), I Am the Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 127–47; idem, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); idem, “The Myth of Religious Violence”, in Andrew R. Murphy (ed), The Blackwell Companion to Religion and Violence (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 23-33.
Out of the authors I have read on the issue of religion and violence, Cavanaugh makes the most salient point, which is that the discussion of only religious violence is an attempt to focus attention on only this type of violence, neglecting secular or non-religious violence in the process. An example of secular violence is the willingness to kill for concepts such as freedom, democracy, patriotism, capitalism, Marxism, and so forth. These non-religious ideologies are no less prone to generating absolutist and divisive mindsets than religion.
The works mentioned above—and many others could be discussed—contain plenty of data on various religious ideologies and the manufacturing of violence. Yet despite there being ample empirical research to show that groups and individuals of various religious faiths produce violence, and that there is no good reason to automatically exempt religious faith from being an important factor in this violence, it is nonetheless erroneous to jump to the conclusion that religion is the primary factor that instigates violence to the exclusion of other factors. I think that much of the violence that occurs in the name of religion has more to do with demographic, political, economic, cultural, and social factors. Even in cases where religion does play a role in the production of violence, those carrying out the violence may have little actual knowledge of the religion in which they enter the conflict. In such cases, it is the religious identity that plays a role in the violence, which itself is borne more out of one’s socio-political context than something inherent to religion itself.