Missing the forest: religious violence

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?

5 comments to Missing the forest: religious violence

  • the various highly competitive sects of christianity – baptists, catholics, mormons, jehovah’s witnesses, and so on – effectively trash that idea.

    Shouldn’t Jehovah’s Witnesses escape your scrutiny as to religion and war. Their abstinance from war is well known, even when such has caused them great personal hardship. Does it not even exceed that of skeptics, who will go to war given the right circumstances. Trouble is, what is “right” is always subjective. Just once I’d like to see a war where one side or the other says “we are the bad guys.” No, they’re always fighting for right, both sides, so that the only practical way to pursue peace is to follow the JW course, if not also their beliefs which give rise to it.

  • Al Denelsbeck

    Damn, this one got tagged as spam and slipped by until now. Sorry about that! Don’t ever hesitate to contact me if a comment doesn’t show within a day.

    My comment about jehovah’s witnesses wasn’t addressing their violence, merely the competition under the broad banner of “christianity” – I intended only to illustrate that “christianity” couldn’t be firmly defined as any particular set of practices.

    I’m not quite so certain jw should be let off the hook, for a couple of reasons. The first is, the difference between professed doctrine and practices, forwarded by countless former jws, shows that like many sects, jehovah’s witnesses have an image they wish to maintain that does not necessarily dictate their actions. We can look at the historical record, but the jw church is a relatively new sect (141 years at best) with limited consolidation of power – it can easily be argued that the opportunity for violence on a significant scale has never been there. And the combination of strict hierarchy (some people consider it totalitarianism) and belief in physical devils and satan doesn’t exactly bode well – such potential has led to significant abuse in the past, though it’s unfair to condemn anyone on such previous occurrences, I readily admit. I have plenty of reasons for finding fault with jehovah’s witnesses, but the religious violence questions are only weakly applicable.

  • Jim

    Religion does not cause violence. What religion does cause are individuals that are blindly willing to accept the doctrines, dictates, and instructions of other individuals. We have another term that we commonly call people like that, military. I am not trying to condemn the military; I am expressing the fact that the military trains individuals to obey orders. Moreover, I think the two groups of people have some very heavy similarities in motivators and hierarchical command structures. Personally, I find the lines between the truly religious and hard-core military very blurry and can readily see how one could become the other and vice versa. Salvation Army anyone?

    I would also encourage you to look at the religious statistics of the military (at least in the US) broken down by rank. Are religions training the militaries? If you are extraordinarily bored Google “For god and country.” It bothers me greatly how intertwined those have become.

  • benpurzycki

    Perhaps I can try to clarify some points which were in the article,
    but perhaps not as clear as they could have been given the nature of
    your comments. Our motivation was to raise the level of popular
    discourse (e.g., popular books, blogs, journalism) to a level worthy
    of scientific attention. That said, I personally would like to see it
    empirically demonstrated that religion (whatever that may be) DOES
    cause violence (whatever that may be as well) as it would be just
    another reason to actively resist it (as I do). If you read the end
    of the article, we make it perfectly clear where we stand on the value
    of religion (arguably an appeal to our nonreligious brethren to
    communicate solidarity in order to minimize name-calling and
    suspicions of crypto-religiousness). The thesis of the article was
    that the common claim that religion causes violence is problematic.
    However, you summed up our article with the claim that all we

    “had done was to produce evidence that violence often had
    non-religious causes”.

    This is a very curious statement given our attention to not only the
    difficulties involved in empirically demonstrating that religion
    causes violence, but also to the closest thing to a study using a
    control sample to date. We tried–in the context of a popular
    magazine article–to shed light on the idea that violence
    systematically has better and more probable explanations than religion
    in cases typically claimed that religion is the primary cause. We
    focused on a number of examples and emphasized that IF religion causes
    violence, it surely can’t do it alone and we try to explain why. All
    “religious” conflicts are really about other things. But…

    “This is kind of a “Well, no shit,” finding – no one has ever proposed
    that violence was only caused by religion.”

    This would be a “well, no shit” finding/argument, but again, this
    wasn’t anything we claimed to address (there’s a crucial difference
    between the argument that violence is only caused by religion and the
    claim that religion causes violence) nor did we make the claim that
    someone has other than where we point to an example made by Dawkins
    about the London bombers. He states that “only” religion could have
    caused such “utter madness”. One of the major points in Harris’ End
    of Faith is that all of his listed wars were *explicitly* caused by
    religion and claimed it’s so obvious. We question its obviousness
    entirely and demonstrate that the world is far more complex than
    suggesting religion causes violence at all. We state that if religion
    plays a role, it can’t possibly be at the heart of it. In Scott
    Atran’s recent book, he addresses this point as well.

    We figured people might get hung up on the definition of religion, but
    didn’t quite think readers’ definitions would be so limited as to use
    Abrahamic and/or fundamentalists religions as their model,
    particularly as we didn’t limit our discussion to Western religions or
    fundamentalism. But…

    “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.”

    and

    “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.”

    and

    “religion is supposed to be a force for peace, understanding,
    compassion, and love”

    all suggest no consideration of religions around the world,
    particularly if Buddhism is where you “might let us slide”. Tibetans
    Buddhist Lamas were notably awful to peasants. This, we would argue,
    was not because of any inherent nastiness in Buddhism or religion, but
    rather the lama class’ need to demonstrate their own power and
    influence to the rest of the population. Anthropologists regularly
    find non-state, non-ethnic (i.e., non universalizable) religious
    traditions that aren’t concerned with belief/faith at all and aren’t
    concerned about salvation. Rather, they’re concerned with practice
    (and not necessarily in any actively coercive fashion). The very idea
    that Judaism, for instance, doesn’t encourage reflection is incorrect.
    A working definition of religion has to include these other
    traditions. Ethnographers regularly report that religion is regularly
    a fairly banal feature of many societies; it’s ritual and pageantry
    that means a lot. So, if your definition of religion comes down to
    what effectively amounts to any form of fundamentalism, then sure, the
    argument sounds ridiculous. But we don’t define it that way, nor
    should anyone seriously concerned about what religion actually does.

    If we were to find that in non-state, non-ethnic religious traditions
    did not cause violence, but those in states did, then we’d have to ask
    the question of *what it is about state religions that cause
    violence*, which already slides into other factors having an effect.
    Either way, the definition of religion you propose accounts for a
    handful of religions.

    Moreover, if you notice that our article had an evolutionary thread
    woven throughout, this should also have tipped off the idea that
    individual motivation and people who regularly explain wars as
    religious are ultimately irrelevant when it comes to causation here.
    We can easily rationalize why we do something because we have a sense
    of how others want us to explain it. This doesn’t necessarily mean we
    do things because of our stated motivations. People engage in
    religious behavior for a wide range of personal reasons not just
    “because their priest/pastor/shaman told them not to”. This is
    exactly the type of argument we are trying to address–poor, overly
    simplistic, palatable (for a specific audience), convenient, and
    unfounded. So, someone might publicly rationalize their participation
    in the Sun Dance to “make a sacrifice for his Nation” but might
    actually do it to impress women. It happens and the motivation has
    been documented. To suggest that there’s any coercion involved or
    that one’s publicly stated rationalizations meant anything in this
    process is overlooking one simple thing: we’re more complex than
    this.

    You ask: “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?”

    What we were doing here was saying that it’s *JUST AS EASY* to make
    similar arguments (i.e., poor, overly simplistic, etc.) in order to
    make one’s case and to point to other factors as a red herring. We
    pointed to the best evidence available and the difficulty in actually
    verifying whether or not the thesis is worthy of our attention.

    It’s odd that you found that “The article held far too many non
    sequiturs, as well as statements that were either internally
    contradictory or simply incoherent.” Perhaps there were too many of
    examples to bother citing one. Yet, “Where the topic suggested areas
    that bore further examination, the authors simply walked away
    whistling”. Keep in mind that we pointed authors to someone else who
    made the case of the witch hunts which is the example you wished we’d
    followed up on. We “walked away whistling” because we hoped others
    would follow up; we said “Steadman and Palmer make a compelling
    case…” This implies that readers are encouraged to follow up on
    this.

    “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.”

    Extreme measures have been employed to counter all sorts of forces,
    religious and secular alike. This sends a message to everyone else
    too. The Red Scare is a case in point (also discussed by Steadman and
    Palmer)–people might participate in such ridiculousness for a host of
    reasons: to save their own skins, to demonstrate their allegiance
    with authority, to demonstrate their allegiance with those who are
    participating, because everyone else is and they just follow trends,
    etc. Most people might not do anything at all, which allows it to
    happen. The claim that “only if the populace believes…” is
    interesting, instructive, and exactly what we were addressing in the
    article. It’s akin to saying “only if the populace believes in the
    threat of terrorism in the first place, and only if they support the
    idea of using extreme measure to counter it”. Of course, this isn’t
    true since plenty of people opposed, say, the invasions of Iraq and
    Afghanistan. They still happened. There are a host of factors
    involved and to add a certain weight on one or other has to be
    warranted. In the case of the cause of violence, we don’t see
    religion being worthy of the emphasis. That said, even if the above
    statement were entirely true, this doesn’t address the fact that the
    benefits of witchhunts are systematically political.

    In religiously pluralistic societies, we often see economic
    interdependence. The Silk Road is just one example of a remarkably
    vast network of religiously pluralistic traders getting along just
    fine. The US is a pluralistic society more or less. These contexts
    aren’t harmonious utopias of course, but we do find plenty of examples
    of multiple religions co-existing in relative peace because everyone
    is benefiting from others’ presence. If religion plays any role in
    peace, it’s minimal. But again, we doubt that it plays a role—in
    these cases, religions are almost akin to taste in music.
    Religionists would like to see that it does and will likely emphasize
    this. Atheists probably don’t want to see religion having a role in
    peaceful behavior. While we both associate with the latter group, we
    also appreciate the distinction between wanting something to be true
    and something being true.

    We also suggested a very, very crucial point that people will engage
    in violence in particular contexts and if religion can play a role to
    mobilize people it will. But the contextual factors are the same
    *across conditions* (i.e., contexts–religion, gaybashing,
    skinheadism, sexism, racism, etc.). The *content* of the alleged
    reason for engaging in violence varies, but the contexts are similar.
    This suggests something else is at work.

    Benjamin Purzycki

    • Al Denelsbeck

      [A quick aside: If anyone has noticed some weirdness regarding these comments, it was my fault – I’ve been helping Mr. Purzycki around a unintentional blacklist and misposted his comment, corrected now.]

      Benjamin, thanks for your clear, and painstaking, response. I think you just beat out all other commenters combined ;-)

      Let me put this in front, first of all: if these points had been made a bit clearer in the article, I wouldn’t have even bothered to post about it. But I read the article several times, and was struck by how vague it was in terms of making a point, as well as the factors used simply sounded like trying to establish excuses. I’ll provide some examples further on.

      Yes, I saw the list of references, but in terms of writing articles for popular consumption, the footnote numbers offer nothing in terms of supporting your statements. Either provide a distinct quote or decent paraphrasing. I understand this was based almost entirely on a paper, which has different rules, but the readers of Skeptic magazine don’t have access to most journal publications and are unlikely to pursue the thread through even one scientific publication, much less at least 25 of them. In your comment, you came up a little clearer in that you’re responding to some of the points made by Dawkins and Harris et al in their books – but I haven’t read their books (Harris is the only one on my list right now – the others are “preaching to the choir” as far as I’m concerned,) and my standpoint isn’t in consideration of their views in any way. I would suggest, if you’re replying to them, then reply to them – not inferentially, but directly, even within your own paper.

      We tried–in the context of a popular
      magazine article–to shed light on the idea that violence
      systematically has better and more probable explanations than religion
      in cases typically claimed that religion is the primary cause. We
      focused on a number of examples and emphasized that IF religion causes
      violence, it surely can’t do it alone and we try to explain why.

      I think a large part of the problem was that you didn’t pursue any one example or subject in detail, but relied on brief treatments. Again, I can’t speak for how the Horsemen (Dawkins, Dennett, etc.) treat it within their books, but I personally don’t think religion is a sole or overriding cause, and I doubt most serious people do either. The factor of, if you’ll pardon this phrase from the uneducated, “human nature” provokes most if not all of our actions – we only think that we’re operating strictly on rational grounds, but this is a conceit. Religion itself, as far as I’m concerned, has its basis in subconscious drives and motivations.

      My questions remains, “Does it provide a supposedly rational excuse for items of antisocial and violent behavior?” This is, as I said, where I feel the causative factor lies.

      We figured people might get hung up on the definition of religion, but didn’t quite think readers’ definitions would be so limited as to use Abrahamic and/or fundamentalists religions as their model,
      particularly as we didn’t limit our discussion to Western religions or
      fundamentalism.

      In any kind of discussion where the blanket term “religion” is used, the definition can be brought into question, as well as its inclusiveness. It’s really beside the point – the abrahamic religions bear the weight of the evidence. It is, quite possibly, a red herring – I spoke about ideologies myself, and concentrating on a particular definition of religion might simply limit the scope of investigation. If you find that violence is often caused by “motivations of a non-material, absolute nature,” then you haven’t found religion at fault – not entirely. But religion fits that shoe precisely. Scientifically, I understand the need to make the distinction, but how should this apply to correcting such behavior?

      The very idea that Judaism, for instance, doesn’t encourage reflection is incorrect.

      Not entirely. Like many philosophical pursuits, judaism encourages reflection within the realm of the posit, in this case, that god/yahweh exists. Reflection outside of that realm is actively discouraged, as is examination of the posit itself (unlike philosophy, in most cases.)

      Ethnographers regularly report that religion is regularly a fairly banal feature of many societies; it’s ritual and pageantry that means a lot. So, if your definition of religion comes down to what effectively amounts to any form of fundamentalism, then sure, the argument sounds ridiculous. But we don’t define it that way, nor should anyone seriously concerned about what religion actually does.

      This is, I’m quite sure, one of the major stumbling blocks in examining behavior. Again, it may be beside the point. Can you tell me why I should be concerned by shintoism fitting, or not, within the definition of “religion”? What I see is violent behavior, linked in many, many cases to religious observation, practices, or motivations. If it is strictly abrahamic, so be it – I stand corrected. I also misspell words occasionally. My question remains, why is violence linked to even abrahamic religions?

      I know you didn’t say as much – I’m simply making a point about distinctions on definition versus the goal of such a study.

      Moreover, if you notice that our article had an evolutionary thread woven throughout,…

      I didn’t, honestly, and in comparison, it appears to be just one of numerous factors you bring up. This is exactly why I said that you seemed to be more intent on raising the question rather than answering it.

      We can easily rationalize why we do something because we have a sense of how others want us to explain it. This doesn’t necessarily mean we do things because of our stated motivations. People engage in
      religious behavior for a wide range of personal reasons not just
      “because their priest/pastor/shaman told them not to”. This is
      exactly the type of argument we are trying to address–poor, overly
      simplistic, palatable (for a specific audience), convenient, and
      unfounded. So, someone might publicly rationalize their participation
      in the Sun Dance to “make a sacrifice for his Nation” but might
      actually do it to impress women.

      Okay, now apply this to antisocial, reprehensible, and brutal behavior. What level of social construct is needed to override the inner distaste we have over such things? The practices, for instance, of headhunting and cannibalism are both ritualistic, bearing the belief that either provides power to the practitioner, beyond simply killing their opponent (or even obtaining food, which I think has been ruled out as typical motivations for cannibalism.) What raises such actions to the level of ritual in the first place? Is it even possible it is a coping mechanism for the conflict between protective/reactive violence, and empathy?

      It’s speculation, sure – but it’s that common denominator that concerns me. If it’s something masquerading under religion, that’s fine, and a great point to make. But that “sense of how others want us to explain it” part above is very important, and I devoted a paragraph to it. The social structure of religion is clearly an influence on behavior, and how far this actually goes is part one, part two being how far it differs from other social structures (even laws) that make it distinctive, or not.

      It’s odd that you found that “The article held far too many non sequiturs, as well as statements that were either internally
      contradictory or simply incoherent.” Perhaps there were too many of
      examples to bother citing one.

      Yeah, well, you get to copy and past – I have to retype it all from a magazine balanced in my lap, something I’m not accomplished at ;-)

      On Harris: “But he fails to consider that there may have been plenty of people who believe that blaspheming the Koran is worthy of death but who are unwilling to engage in such mortal judgment because of differential emphasis and experience.” This is exactly the passage that led to the “no shit” statement. The emphasis is on the conflict that many might have with the violence, not on the violence itself, which is what bears the brunt of examination. The inner conflict, which I agree is likely evolutionary in nature, lost to the desire to burn a man alive over insult to a book. It is exactly the context that remains paramount – this does not happen over romance novels.

      On Scarver’s claimed religious motivations for murder of Anderson and Dahmer: “Did it even increase the likelihood of his violence? Or did he simply invoke the name of a god to justify what he did?” While I understand the point you make here, it misses the idea that invoking the name of a god is only useful if such god has a social emphasis in the first place – in other words, is likely to be considered a valid excuse. Direct vs Indirect – is the distinction useful?

      “Religion played a role in the horrendous acts at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Prison, but the causal pathway was potentially reversed; American soldiers tortured Muslims in a way that was very obviously inspired by their beliefs about Islam.” I’m not really sure why you would consider this reversed. The best I can say is that misconception probably played a larger part than religion, but this is hardly a pertinent example of religious violence in the first place. Neither is the sentence immediately following: “State-sanctioned eugenics programs such as the forced sterilization of American Indian women were also effectively secular in their rationale.” Yes, so was the Oklahoma City bombing. What of it?

      On the differences in Bosnian and Palestinian violence: “This evidence suggests that if anything, violence causes religion to become part of one’s perceived identity and this leads to more violence, arguably the reverse of what’s being claimed.” Here, there’s a distinct, direct motivation for violence: retaliation. This is usually sufficient to justify it. Yet religion becomes involved, even in a situation that needs no escalation. Why?

      “When President McKinley claimed that God told him that ‘there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and to uplift and civilize and Christianize them,’ this was an appeal to other Christians inasmuch as it was a way to rationalize his participation in the slaughtering of Filipinos.” Well, yes, exactly. The only way this works, the only reason he would make such a statement to the public, is because he felt that it had explanatory power within the religious population. It’s not a “cause,” I agree, but it is a justification that relies on the structure found in religion. Again, other ideologies are available (commies commies commies!) but few, if any, that bear no relationship to someone’s well-being, and invoke only authority. Is this beside the point, or an important distinction?

      “Beyond supernatural claims, there is not anything about religion that is not found elsewhere.” This ended both the paragraph and the subtopic of in-groups, and the part that prompted my “walked away whistling” comment. The preceding section fluctuates back and forth between comparing and contrasting religious and other in-group behaviors such as sports and politics, but this factor alone isn’t a minor distinction. The very nature of ultimate authority is almost certainly what promoted religion into its prominence within society in the first place, and why McKinley invoked it, as indeed does every current politician. And the ineffable nature of supernatural existence leaves the door open for whatever interpretations someone can convincingly propose – evidence and support are automatically excluded. It is superhuman authority, beyond mere mortals. It is ripe for abuse – so can the case be made that it does, definitely, or does not result in such?

      I understand what you’re saying (now, at least): you’re trying to be scrupulously fair, and support for the concept of religiously caused or inspired violence should be demonstrable and inarguable. In many cases, it has been simplified beyond what is reasonable and supportable. I agreed with you in my opening, and closing, really. What you provided was lots of counter examples, but little to explain the commonalities. When religion keeps appearing at the scene of the crime, rational people ask why. I just think the tone of the article could have been more directed towards not just the possible alternate motivations, but the distinctions between those and religion, or the lack thereof.

      One final example (I really could quote more): “Religious belief undoubtedly has a high correlation with violence. Yet, we are also likely to find correlations just as high if not higher with bipedality, music, parents who love their children, etc.” Let’s be serious, you’re not making a scientific or eye-opening point by referring to factors common not just throughout the species, but even across species boundaries. This isn’t something that can be interpreted as a rational attempt to be scrupulous, but only as a method of throwing correlation away entirely.