In the latest issue of Skeptic magazine (Vol 16 No 2), there’s an article by Benjamin Grant Purzycki and Kyle Gibson regarding religious violence, which raises the question: does religion cause violence, or are we mistaking correlation for causation? This is an exceptionally intriguing question. Confusing correlation for causation is one of the fallacies with which skeptics are usually quite familiar, having to correct it all the time when discussing such subjects as alternative medicine. Skeptics are not immune to blind spots, however, and pointing out where such exists is a valuable lesson and a great example of holding honesty and fairness above agendas. Moreover, I have argued myself that religious wars can often be shown to have the same motives as any other wars, such as resource control and power structure. So I read the article eagerly to see just what kind of study had been done.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed, since no study was in evidence and all that the authors had done was to produce evidence that violence often had non-religious causes. This is kind of a “Well, no shit,” finding – no one has ever proposed that violence was only caused by religion. The authors manage to make some points about terrorism having motivations related to economic and social status, and even ritual, but never find a way (or even appear to be looking) to weigh how religion fits into the equation, even while admitting that it did. In fact, it seemed far too much like they merely wanted to raise the question rather than answer it, and flip back and forth between minimizing the undeniable presence of religion and ignoring some of the more visible cases where religion appeared to be a causative factor. The article held far too many non sequiturs, as well as statements that were either internally contradictory or simply incoherent. Where the topic suggested areas that bore further examination, the authors simply walked away whistling.
One example given was the witch trials, with motives such as intimidating those that threatened the social structure of the accusers – as well as the parts they didn’t mention, like the consolidation of power structure and the acquisition of the assets of the accused. All perfectly sound explanations – but then, why witches? What part did accusing people of witchcraft, satanism, and spellcasting play? Yes, it makes a handy excuse, but only if the populace believes in witches in the first place, and only if they support the idea of using extreme measures to counter them.
This is the subtle aspect that many people miss. They seem to think that for religion to cause violence, there would have to be scripture that says, “Go out and kill people” – and there is, actually, but overall it tends to be ignored. However, the majority within any group, such as christians or muslims, ignoring something within scripture and considering that they themselves define their group doesn’t actually change what’s in scripture, nor invalidate what some minority extremists do when they quote it as motivation. To be precise, it’s the groups who ignore the violent exhortations in scripture, even as a majority, that are the deviates from “god’s word.”
This raises the aspect of whether any form of religion that is commonly practiced is what defines religion as a whole, but let’s bury that one right now: the various highly competitive sects of christianity – baptists, catholics, mormons, jehovah’s witnesses, and so on – effectively trash that idea.
Worse, though, is the aspect of what an overriding belief in scripture, or even theism, provides for the judgment and rationality of a populace. Witness, for example, the active rhetoric against removing the words, “under god,” from the US pledge of allegiance. This has nothing to do with removing religion or anyone’s practice thereof, nothing to do with laws, rights, privileges, or freedoms, and requires no obeisance nor denies it. It is merely the recognition that the nation is not discriminatory and bigoted by nature or design. Everyone has their freedom. This is obvious, isn’t it? No, apparently it’s not, because the religious influence upon what appears to be most of the country turns the simple act of removing bias into an attack on someone’s rights.
Now, stop and think about this for a second. If that much vitriol can be fomented over such a phenomenally stupid subject as a sentence fragment, imagine what could be done if, for instance, a territorial dispute was considered somehow religious in nature. It doesn’t really matter whether some political figure actually believes it or not – it’s whether such emotions can be stirred within the populace to gain support. Or, for instance, claiming that our country received terrorist attacks because muslims “hate our freedoms.” Does this even make sense, or is it simply an appeal to religious intolerance? Purzycki and Grant actually tumble to this several times, but somehow dismiss it as not counting.
This is where the legitimate questions lie, however. One could certainly argue that the first three crusades were about controlling trading centers along that edge of the Mediterranean, or even just from spite about the loss of European influence. But if you examine the historical records, what you find is simply religious. Why? This needs explaining, if anyone wants to make the declaration that religion does not incite violence. How does it then get so intertwined in such hugely influential aspects of history, and such bloody and merciless pogroms? One might argue that the Taliban is simply another ploy for control of a country’s resources and power structure, and receive no argument from me. But how many of those participating in the violence believe that themselves? How many in this country, facing the idea of muslim control of a country (or even a mosque at “ground zero plus a few blocks”) consider this just politics?
Since religion continues to crop up in relation to violence both large and small in scope, not just throughout history but across the world today, one needs to be asking the question, “Why?” It certainly may be just a hotbutton topic to stir up a populace, but that very fact that it works so well is rather damning, isn’t it?
One can point to Stalin and Hitler as examples of extreme violence not linked to religion, and this is perfectly legitimate. Such examples do not negate the other examples that exist, however – they only raise the question of whether violence has a deeper motivation such as, for instance, ideology. This example doesn’t let religion off the hook, since it’s an ideology itself; it just casts the net a bit wider. Or it could be said that there are multiple ways of inciting violence, which is undeniably true. Religion’s frequent and unquestionable appearances deserves examination, and correlation, in such cases, may entirely be because of causation. Pointing out that this has not been proven does not establish that it is incorrect.
I wrote some time back about the question of how much people truly believe, and consider the idea that many people are just paying lip-service to their religion to be fairly likely. Ignoring that this is mere speculation for a second and assuming that it’s true, in what way might this affect religion’s influence? If someone, even though religious, considers demonic possession to be nonsense, does this actually mean that they are then going to state this publicly when their church proposes an exorcism on another parishioner? Or will (and do) they keep quiet to avoid standing apart from the other members? Recall that the flushing out of “infidels” has a long and documented history. Or, when their priest is found guilty of indiscretions regarding money, drugs, or small children, does the moral flock treat this exactly the same as they would some stranger, or are special considerations made under the guise of forgiveness, atonement, or re-salvation? Do prisoners convicted of violent crimes that later profess to have “found god” (funny how they can accomplish this when no one else has) receive judgment commensurate to this being a cheap ploy, or does this sometimes actually work towards more lenient sentencing? Within any given religious group, are rational examinations of undue religious influence and favoritism welcomed, or condemned?
Another aspect that received no attention whatsoever was the concept of divine authority, the sole and overwhelming factor behind the idea of religion being “good” in the first place. It takes no effort whatsoever to find people who, rather than living their lives according to the overall messages within religion, resort to quoting scriptural passages to justify their actions, even when these are in blatant contradiction to the religious message. This “authority” permits engaging in grossly antisocial behavior, visible everywhere today in both moderate and fundamental societies. One could make the argument that this is an example of aggressive, tribalistic behavior that seizes upon religion only as a handy excuse, and this is a viewpoint worth considering. But to make a decent argument of it, they would have to demonstrate that, without religion as that handy, pervasive, authoritative excuse, violence could be excused equally well with another explanation. Is it at all possible to explain gay beatings and stoning women with an appeal to any reasoning, other than religion, and have it viewed the same way? If the excuse was (as the authors forwarded at one point as “in-group” parallels to religion) gangs, sports, or politics, would any culture accept these as appropriate motivations for violence?
There are those that argue that we could not do away with religion, because some other ideology would spring up to take its place. This isn’t to say that religion provides the motivation for people to be good – this should be a relatively easy thing to justify, and hardly in need of ideology to support. The idea is that what religion is actually providing is the justification and reassurance that some contentious actions or standpoints are supported. Nazi Germany demonstrated this with the idea of Aryan blood, the exploitation of ego and a concept of birthright that allowed too much of the populace to feel justified in their heinous pursuits. But this doesn’t go as far towards letting religion off the hook as it seems, because it can only be differentiated from religion in the lack of supernatural support – everything else, including the rituals, appeals to tradition, and the encouragement of blind faith in the cause, remained. Additionally, the worst of the practices, the outright extermination of jews, remained hidden from the vast majority of both the populace and the military itself. Whether this was to prevent more forceful resistance to the Reich from within, or simply from the Allies, doesn’t really address the issue; the resistance would have been much more forceful.
This relates to another part that the authors simply never understood. At one point, they say:
Likewise, it’s just as easy to claim that intolerance, ignorance, and the inability to reflect also cause violence.
Um, yeah, that’s a nice working definition of religious influence, guys. Try to identify any religion that does not draw lines between the “saved” and the “damned” (intolerance,) does not encourage belief without evidence, often called “faith” (ignorance,) and encourages reflection and investigation into actions (like abortion and the old pledge above.) I might let you slide on buddhism, but that’s about it. Bear in mind that this country has one of the highest percentages of citizens that do not accept evolution, not because of the evidence (which most couldn’t even detail,) but because their priest/pastor/shaman told them not to. You can’t actually get much more ignorant than that, really.
Now, here’s the funniest part of that little passage above, which slipped past me the first couple of times, but perhaps says an awful lot in itself: they said “also cause violence.” Is it safe to take this to mean they admit that religion does indeed cause violence?
It is still possible to make a case for religion simply being a bystander in the violence that can be attributed to human nature. I myself am kind of split on the idea; I think that violence is a frequent aspect of behavior, but that religion certainly makes it a lot easier to override rational considerations in favor of a quick, easy justification of purportedly “right” actions. There’s a reason politicians wave the religious card at every opportunity, and it’s sure as shit not because they’re pious – but it’s really damn easy to get the public to believe that anyway, isn’t it?
Still, all of this misses one very important, in fact crucial, point that is rarely ever examined: that religion is supposed to be a force for peace, understanding, compassion, and love. The very fact that we can even consider religion as a source for violence tells us that it is an abysmal failure at the properties with which it is supposed to benefit mankind. Religious influence, far from being so prevalent in crusades, witch hunts, inquisitions, terrorism, stonings, pogroms, jihads, beatings, and countless other violations, should be plainly visible as a counteracting effect against violence.
Two thousands years of abject failure should be enough for anybody, shouldn’t it? Or is that the cue for more whiny excuses?