Friday, May 3, 2013

Religion and Violence

We often hear the claim that religion is responsible fro promoting violence. This is one of the favored talking points among some of the “new atheists” who like to enumerate the ills that religion has brought upon society. Whenever there is a new terrorism threat, similar arguments will break out about the wars throughout history that have been fought in the name of religion.

Just this past week, I read an essay by Juan Cole of Informed Comment.  Cole opens his essay, “Terrorism and the Other Religions,” with the statement, “Contrary to what is alleged by bigots like Bill Maher, Muslims are not more violent than people of other religions. Murder rates in most of the Muslim world are very low compared to the United States.” He makes the point that though we think of Muslims as being responsible for most of the violence in the world, in actual fact, far more deaths and political violence during the 20th century occurred at the hands of those of European Christian heritage than from Muslims. He even has a handy pie chart to visually illustrate the fact.

Cole makes a good point. He seems to be emphasizing that Christianity is by the numbers more violent than Islam, but then he talks about religious terrorism being universal. "Terrorism,” he states, “is a tactic of extremists within each religion, and within secular religions of Marxism or nationalism. No religion, including Islam, preaches indiscriminate violence against innocents." 

Bill Maher’s Two Cents

I was surprised to see Bill Maher cast as a bigot when I thought he disdained all religions equally. I found online a report of the incident to which Cole refers (you can read it here). Maher was holding up a controversial Newsweek cover with the headline, “Muslim Rage” and did say that “most Muslims” think it is acceptable to kill someone they think has offended the prophet Muhammad.  Later in the discussion, the article states, “Maher joked that atheist beliefs would solve a lot of the problems.”

Recognizing Human Traits

When Bill Maher joked (was he joking?) that “atheist beliefs would solve a lot of the problems,” he was voicing what many critics of religion seem to believe. I think the actual truth is that violence is a human trait. Religion is a human trait. Those who imagine that they can eliminate violence and atrocity by doing away with religion are just as blind to human nature as are those who think that only Muslims foment terrorism. As Cole indirectly alludes to, religious teachings attempt to steer adherents away from violence, but there are all those other factors in human nature that bring about violence and destruction. Furthermore, those in power will co-opt religion or any other social institution to stay in power and often violence is the tool for holding onto power. 

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing
Birmingham News photo
The Birmingham News has been running a series, “50 Years of Progress: 1963 to 2013” highlighting the city’s history in civil rights and looking at where we are today. In last Sunday’s article, “The New Hate: Does religion cause hatred, heal it, or both?” Greg Garrison looked specifically at the role religion has played in the civil rights struggle.  He states that many extremist groups twist theology to reinforce their beliefs and to fan the fires of ethnic hatred. Mark Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center is quoted as saying, “People of all faiths use religion to focus their violence when they feel their worldview is threatened.”  Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham observed that “Religion can be used to bring out the very best in us, as it often does, and it can often be used as a tool to bring out the very worst in us.”  Certainly during the civil rights struggle in the south, religious faith seemed to be a motivating factor for both sides of the struggle.

There are many factors to attribute to causes for conflict. Religion is just one of the sociological traits of humanity. If by some bizarre construct we could actually eliminate religion altogether, human beings would find other means to rally the masses into war and conflict. My opinion as to what contributes to the world's problems? I would choose "D - All of the above" rather than singling out religion.

Put more succintly, as I heard a Pentecostal preacher friend of mine say many years ago: "You hear people talk about this evil world, but there ain't nothin' wrong with this world – not a thing wrong with the world. It's the crowd that's in it that's givin' us problems."

Moving Toward Justice for All 

The solution? Don't try to eliminate one particular scapegoat thinking that will remove the problem.  Instead, careful attention to ethics and listening to the marginalized of society would be a good place to start. We must come to terms with the fact that we are stuck with our human traits. That doesn’t mean we cannot do better, it just means we need to get beyond the blame game. We must recognize our strengths as well as our weaknesses.  Let faith be a strengthening factor for people of faith, but let us always be subject to ethical standards to move us toward a greater realization of justice and integrity. 


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