Religion and violence

  (24 November 09)
  by Greg Spearritt

Is religious violence inherently to do with the nature of religion?


Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and confreres would have us believe so. Barney Zwartz, columnist with the Melbourne Age, disagrees:


My argument amounts to this: religion is practised by people. It is therefore as ambiguous, messy, prone to both moral heights and depths, as people themselves are. It has been used for good and for harm.  My own view is that the scales are weighted firmly on the side of good by making people morally aware of the “other”, but I know many disagree. I think Richard Neibuhr put it particularly well: “Religion makes good people better and bad people worse.”


(Zwartz gives the topic a longer treatment here.)


I have some sympathy with Zwartz’s view. However, on balance I’d want to disagree.


Historically, religion has been primarily tribal, and that remains largely true today. It’s about identity, about distinguishing one ethnic or belief group from others, and usually about privileging that group.


It’s an obvious point, surely. If you are Shiite you are emphatically not Sunni; Mahayana Buddhism has traditionally called Theravada the “lesser vehicle” and itself the “greater”; Protestant and Catholic were hard at the exclusion game as little as a few decades ago in Australia.


Even today the Christian denominations represent varying degrees of exclusivity, from Exclusive Brethren through Catholic to the tolerant old non-Sydney Anglicans. (But even the Anglicans are proud of their identity; their tolerance sets them apart.)


The earthly Jesus attempted to turn the urge to tribalism and exclusivity on its head, supping with sinners and smiling on Samaritans. But the Church wasted little time in righting the ship again.


In this light, it’s not surprising to see so much violence in the name of religion: religion has always been a powerful tool for asserting identity. It may not meet with approval from enlightened religious folk in these enlightened times, but us-them religion remains a prominent feature of twenty-first century life. Ask the Taliban. Or the folk from St Mary’s-in-Exile.




Or you could look at it the other way and see that religion is just human and some people want to dominate and control others. Religion is always prone to shifting responsibilty so are you religious if you want to blame religion for human violence? Stalin wasn't a christian or a muslim. It's a moot point what belief degrades people more and maybe we should just be promoting some way of living that is better, rather than still harping on about beliefs.

Posted by Owen

I think you're right, Owen: it's a human proclivity to exercise and even abuse power using any means that are to hand. I'm just saying that religion is historically one tried-and-true way to practice a tribal assertion of identity. Not all religion as it is actually practiced is of this kind, of course. Atheistic communism is another way of doing the same thing, though again not all communism falls under this banner.

Posted by Greg Spearritt

Supernatural Religion and Secular Religion

The notorious examples of ‘secular religion’ are Nationalism, Fascism and Communism. All of these give an imagined assurance of superiority to the in-group, be it based on nationality, race or class. And they often express intense blind hatred towards the out-groups.
Racism, for example, is a secular religion. The fervour with which racism is believed in by some of its adherents can only be described as ‘fundamentalist’. It totally distorts the believer’s assessment of any relevant evidence.
I have come to the conclusion that if humans are not adherents of a supernatural religion, then they are quite likely to be adherents of a secular religion.
I find that many of my fellow Atheists do not like this concept of ‘secular religion’. They claim that secular religion is a contradiction in terms. They want to reserve the use of the word ‘religion’ for supernatural belief systems only.

Posted by David Miller

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