Is Religious Violence a Myth?

Karen Armstrong is a prolific author on topics in comparative religion. She is a former nun and liberal Christian who has a gift for writing that is both scholarly and readable. I admire her book A History of God, a genuine tour-de-force that traces the history of monotheism, showing how the concept of God has evolved from age to age and from culture to culture. Last September, in the wake of the horrific attacks by ISIS she published an essay in The Guardian titled “The Myth of Religious Violence”:
Last week’s terrorist outrages in Paris remind us yet again that the nature of the link between religion and violence demands our urgent attention. Such events, and the continuing atrocities of groups like Boko Haram, al-Qaida, and al-Shabaab, may give the impression that religious violence has been on the rise in the last few years, and that impression is, in fact, borne out by statistics compiled by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project. According to a report released in January of last year:
“The share of countries with a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year peak in 2012, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. A third (33%) of the 198 countries and territories included in the study had high religious hostilities in 2012, up from 29% in 2011 and 20% as of mid-2007. Religious hostilities increased in every region of the world except the Americas.”
The report further notes that certain types of religious violence appear to be driving the rise:
“One example [of increased religious hostility] is abuse of religious minorities by private individuals or groups in society for acts perceived as offensive or threatening to the majority faith of the country. Incidents of abuse targeting religious minorities were reported in 47% of countries in 2012, up from 38% in 2011 and 24% in the baseline year of the study.”
So, religious violence appears to be a significant and worsening problem worldwide, and one particularly notable trend is the increasing incidence of violence against religious minorities.
To put a human face on these statistics, let me mention the case of a young woman who was a student at my university. Before coming to the U.S. she had worked as a retail clerk in a shop in Pakistan. One day a customer noticed that she was wearing a small silver crucifix and began to berate her furiously, claiming that she was insulting Islam. She replied quietly that the crucifix was a symbol of her faith and not a comment on any other belief. The customer stormed out and returned a few minutes later with a bucket of battery acid which he dumped on the young woman’s head. This would be just one instance of what the Pew Research Center refers to as “the abuse of religious minorities by private individuals.”
Armstrong’s essay displays her talent for succinctly summarizing large events without oversimplification and for providing illuminating historical analysis. Her essay makes three main historical claims:

  1. In the pre-modern world there was no notion of “religion” as a sphere separable from politics, economics, culture, or society as a whole. Prior to the modern world, the idea of “separation of church and state” would have seemed not merely incorrect but incoherent. Religion in pre-modern cultures was not a matter of private devotion, but an integral part of a comprehensive conception of society and an indispensable aspect of cultural identity. Much of the non-Western world retains such a pre-modern view today. Thus, very many Muslims view Islam as a pattern for a whole way of life, encompassing every aspect, both private and public. Armstrong implies that the modern effort to sequester religion in a private sphere sealed off from politics is a historical aberration that is not, as we tend to assume, a historical necessity, an organic feature of progress into modernity. Rather, secularization is an artificial construct, arising from a unique set of circumstances that are not generalizable.
  2. With the rise of the secular state there has been a tendency for the nation-state to replace God as the object of ultimate devotion. If a measure of what you consider sacred is what you are willing to die for, then it is noteworthy, as Armstrong indicates, that it is now considered praiseworthy to die while fighting for one’s country but not to die while fighting for one’s religion. Further, the religion of nationalism can be quite deadly and oppressive. Armstrong notes the experience of revolutionary France:

“Ironically, no sooner had the revolutionaries rid themselves of one religion, than they invented another. Their new gods were liberty, nature, and the French nation, which they worshipped in elaborate festivals choreographed by the artist Jacque Louis David. The same year that the goddess of reason was enthroned on the high altar of Notre Dame Cathedral, the reign of terror plunged the new nation into an irrational bloodbath, in which some 17,000 men, women and children were executed by the state.”
3. The various forms of fundamentalism are a reaction—an overreaction—to aggressive secularization. Armstrong notes that secularization has often been pursued aggressively, and even violently. Therefore, in many societies secularization has been perceived as cruel and profoundly disruptive. Armstrong mentions the Young Turks who seized power in Turkey in 1909. They were militantly secular but venerated the new religion of race and nationality. In consequence, they engaged in ethnic cleansing against non-Turkic peoples, infamously massacring over a million Armenians. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the modern secular Turkish state with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, hated Islam and abolished the caliphate and otherwise oppressed Muslim institutions. He also continued the Young Turks’ policy of ethnic cleansing. Secularization in Egypt and Iran was similarly violent. The fundamentalism of al-Qaida and ISIS is an extreme reaction against coercive secularization. Armstrong concludes:
“When secularization has been applied in force, it has provoked a fundamentalist reaction—and history shows that fundamentalist movements which come under attack invariably grow even more extreme. The fruits of this error are on display across the Middle East: when we look with horror upon the travesty of Isis [sic], we would be wise to acknowledge that its barbaric violence may be, at least in part, the offspring of policies guided by our disdain.”
I would like to respond to each of these claims and the implications Armstrong draws from them.
First, Armstrong speaks of religious violence as a “myth.” Her reasoning seems to be that, pace our modern secular understanding, religion is not something that can be causally or even conceptually clearly separated from politics, economics, or culture. Therefore, to try to single out any particular incident as specifically “religious” violence overlooks the fact that it can with equal justification be regarded as politically, economically, or culturally caused. It follows that the figures cited above from the Pew Research Center must be in error or are at least misleading. To speak of “religious hostility,” as the Pew report does, obscures the fact that these deplorable occurrences also and in equal measure can be characterized as due to political, economic, or cultural factors. Even the particular incident of the young woman who was doused with acid cannot be accurately described as an incident of specifically religious hostility because causes that can be called political, economic, or cultural certainly also certainly played a role.
If this is Armstrong’s argument, then it has some odd consequences. If we cannot meaningfully speak of religion as having a bad influence, then neither can we speak of it as having a good influence. It follows that all of the activists and apologists who state a wish to improve society by inculcating religion or strengthening religious institutions are all just blathering. Sauce for the goose. If, on the other hand, it is meaningful to speak of the influence of religion on society and culture, then critiques that charge a bad influence cannot be ruled out by semantic fiat, but must be evaluated empirically. Worse, if our explanatory categories such as “religious,” “cultural,” “economic,” and “political” cannot be applied—because each such concept is so inextricably bound in meaning and reference with other related concepts as to be explanatorily vacuous—then no historical analysis is possible. The consequence of such extreme conceptual holism is comprehensive historical skepticism.
There appears, then, to be no choice but to employ the concepts we have, vague though they may be, in our analysis of history. Actually, when dealing with something as complex and multifaceted as human behavior it is probably unavoidable that our explanatory terms have semantic overlap. It appears, then, that it is meaningful to speak of religious violence, even if we admit that such incidents also have causes that we can identify as cultural, economic, or political. Consider the attacks on religious minorities by private persons or groups, like the acid attack mentioned earlier. Such attacks often are motivated by social causes such as the perception that minorities enjoy some sort of privileged status or that minorities exert an inordinate cultural influence that undermines valued traditions. However, whatever other causes were involved in the horrific acid attack is it reasonable to doubt that motivations correctly described as “religious” also played a role?
Armstrong also seems to misunderstand what is involved in the separation of church and state. To say that we should respect the ideal of separation does not mean that we must impose upon ourselves a sort of self-censorship whereby we endeavor to separate our religious and political convictions, making sure that the latter are in no sense based upon the former. Clearly, such a demand would be unreasonable and psychologically onerous if not impossible. Neither does separation entail that individuals must not organize in groups to seek political, cultural, economic, or social goals that are motivated by their religious convictions. Clearly, much of the motivation of the civil rights movement of the 1960s was religiously based. Leaders of that movement, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., freely employed religious rhetoric in their most famous orations, and there is no reason to think that they were hypocritically using that language merely for effect. Separation of church and state means that the government may not use its power, prestige, or authority to promote the advantage of any creed or sect. Advocates of separation need not harbor the naïve and unrealistic view that religion can be relegated to a purely private and subjective status. They merely demand that the state impose no automatic rights, privileges, or penalties on any species of belief (or non-belief).
With respect to Armstrong’s second point, it is indeed true that the totalizing tendency in religion has been replicated in various secular states, with a concomitant elevation of ideology, Volk, or Fatherland to a semi-divine status. In fact, we may see the paradigmatic totalitarian states of the Twentieth Century—Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany, and Mao’s People’s Republic of China—as carrying this tendency to its logical extreme. In these societies, the state and its ideology—and the leader who is their personal embodiment—are made into objects of truly religious devotion. However, this is in no way a criticism of secularism or the Enlightenment ideals on which it is based. The closest historical template for Twentieth Century totalitarianism would have to be a religious one. The defining feature of totalitarianism, that all aspects of life be subjugated to a ruling ideology, is surely closer to the theory and practice of, say, the medieval Church than anything espoused by an Enlightenment philosopher. The Church presented its authority as universal and is doctrines were to be the final word on all matters of private morality, public policy, economics, and even science. The concept of “thought crime” was not an invention of George Orwell, or even of the Stalinism Orwell lampooned; it had been anticipated by the Holy Inquisition centuries before.
Armstrong admits that the Enlightenment thinkers tried to counter bigotry and intolerance by emphasizing that all are equal and endowed with inalienable natural rights. However, Armstrong thinks that the egalitarianism and the protection of equal rights in liberal states is more a matter of practicality than conviction:
“The nation-state made these noble aspirations practical necessities. More and more people had to be drawn into the productive process and needed at least a modicum of education. Eventually they would demand the right to participate in the decisions of government. It was found by trial and error that those nations that democratized forged ahead economically, while those that confined the benefits of morality to an elite few fell behind. Innovation was essential to progress, so people had to be allowed to think freely, unconstrained by the constraints of their class, guild or church. Governments needed to exploit all of their human resources, so outsiders, such as Jews in Europe and Catholics in England and America, were brought into the mainstream.”
Yet, she says, this toleration is only “skin deep” and subject to revocation as soon as it is no longer convenient.
Armstrong’s treatment of the ideals of liberal, secular society is breathtaking in its cynicism and as reductive as any Marxist analysis. When 1.6 million people marched in Paris, carrying Je suis Charlie placards, the ideal of free speech that they were defiantly proclaiming meant more to them than a “skin deep” matter of convenience. When you look at the history of the United States, which enshrines the Enlightenment ideals in its founding documents, one of the salient themes that emerges is that the promise of equality and liberty has been more and more broadly extended as a consequence of great struggles. When those founding documents were written, de facto only well-off white males enjoyed that hallowed equality or could exercise those rights. The enormous struggles of the Civil War, the civil rights movement, the rise of labor unions, the suffragist and women’s rights movement, and the current battle for the rights of LGBT people have seen the promise of rights and equality extended more and more broadly in the face of intransigent, often violent opposition. I think that the course of American history is just not comprehensible unless we concede that the ideals of equality and liberty mattered, truly mattered to those who lived and died in their defense.
Armstrong’s critique of secular society appears to rest on a false dilemma: Either God is God or the state will become God. While totalitarian states show that this is sometimes true, the existence, and, indeed, the spread of stable, liberal, democratic, and secular states indicates that Armstrong’s conclusion is far too hasty. Perhaps we are not at the “end of history,” but I think that we can say that after the struggle of ages we have finally found something that works better than anything else: secular liberal democracy. Of course, secular liberal democracy is not without its own paradoxical features. For instance, it can encompass someone like Armstrong who has thrived due to its benefits (Imagine her trying to publish A History of God in Iran or Pakistan) but seemingly rejects its fundamental premises.
What about Armstrong’s claim that fundamentalism is a reaction to secularization? This is indeed true, but it is hard to see what to do about it other than to defeat fundamentalism. Secularization was indeed pursued in a violent and heavy-handed manner in many places. It was often despicably cruel and profoundly disruptive. So were the industrial revolution and the rise of the market economy. However, the communist response to capitalism produced a “cure” worse than the disease. The dark satanic mills of early capitalism were horrible, but not nearly as horrible as the Gulag. Likewise, as an answer to oppressive secular governments, like the current military rule in Egypt, fundamentalist theocracy is no answer.
How can fundamentalism be defeated? Certainly not by drone strikes, bombings, or any number of wars like the ones fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Fundamentalism can be defeated only when the people in the societies where it is endemic rise up in unity against it. When 1.6 million people march to demand freedom of speech—not in Paris, but in Riyadh, Tehran, and Islamabad—then we will know that the days of Islamic fundamentalism are numbered.
In conclusion, Armstrong has provided no reason for saying that we cannot speak meaningfully of religious violence and cite copious instances of it. It is certainly the case that religion is through and through a cultural, social, and political phenomenon and that every instance of religious violence is likewise explicable in other terms. Nevertheless, we can legitimately identify religion as one ingredient in the witch’s brew of factional violence. As Bertrand Russell noted, religion is most pernicious when it sanctifies cruelty:
“The harm that theology has done is not to create cruel impulses, but to give the sanction of what professes to be a lofty ethic, and to confer an apparently sacred character upon practices which have come down from more ignorant and barbarous ages (Russell, Religion and Science, p. 106; emphasis in original).”
Indeed, religion has excused every kind of atrocity, even genocide, and the darkest human passions and prejudices have been wrapped in a mantle of holiness:
“We read in the Old Testament that it was a religious duty to exterminate conquered races completely [e.g. I Samuel, 15:3], and that to spare even their cattle and sheep was an impiety.  Dark terrors and misfortunes in the life to come oppressed the Egyptians and the Etruscans, but never reached their full development until the victory of Christianity.  Gloomy saints who abstained from all the pleasures of sense, who lived in solitude in the desert, denying themselves meat and wine and the society of women, were, nevertheless, not obliged to abstain from all pleasures.  The pleasures of the mind were considered to be superior to those of the body, and a high place among the pleasures of the mind was assigned to the contemplation of the eternal tortures to which the pagans and the heretics would hereafter be subjected (In Al Seckel, Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, p. 291).”
Or, as Thomas Paine more succinctly put it, “Belief in a cruel God makes a cruel man.”