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Religion and Violence
By David Newell August 15, 2006

International terrorism, the current wars in the Middle East, as well as many other innumerable conflicts around the globe have all added fuel to the fire of this argument: that religion is dangerous because it somehow is the cause of this violence. Close examination of this potentially appealing argument reveals that it lacks sufficient logical foundation. The temptation to create an easy scapegoat for the world's most violent problems has lead everyone from politicians to ordinary citizens to simplistically say that religion is at fault. This is not only ignorant, but it dangerously points the finger away from the real causes of these problems, and without recognizing these, we can never get started on fixing them.

First and foremost, the claim that religion is the cause of much of the violence in the world is subject to the basic, problematic assumption that causation and correlation are the same thing. Those familiar with inferential statistics will recognize this problem immediately. A classic example of this is what happened during and prior to the bubonic plague. People of the time feared the evil powers of witches. "Witches," really mostly eccentric single women, were closely associated with cats, perhaps because many of these women owned cats. Thus, the people of the time thought it logical to kill cats and be rid of their evil influence. This in turn led to a spike in rat populations, which lead to many of the unsanitary conditions that fueled the plague.

In other words, just because many of the people who engage in violent acts of warfare and terrorism in the world happen to be religious, or even happen to claim religion and religious doctrines as their reasons for action, does not necessarily mean that religion causes them to act as they do. After all, for every violent religious fanatic, there are many more people living peacefully beside them who espouse their same beliefs but simply choose to act differently. As an example, for every violent Hezbollah terrorist in Lebanon, there are many more innocent, Muslim Lebanese simply trying to live their lives, and even if they sympathize with Hezbollah, they are not taking that sympathy to violent extremes, which makes all the difference in the world.

But what about the claims of the likes of Osama Bin Laden who say that they are waging holy warfare against infidels? Is this not a sure sign that religion is the cause of violence; after all, this claim is coming from the horse's mouth? Well, even if Bin Laden genuinely believes that he is acting according to religious doctrine, it is not the doctrine itself, but the person who decides to act. Terrorists, not Islam, are the ones who run planes into buildings, who detonate IEDs, and who explode themselves in crowds of innocents. In reality, many leaders of violence use religion as a tool simply to unite others to their cause.

So, this is my fundamental counter-argument. If you accept any notion of self-determination or free will, or any concept of human agency, then you must accept that it is the use of this agency, in other words, the choices of individuals, not merely influences and correlative factors, that are ultimately responsible for human actions. So I guess you could say, "It's the people, stupid!" Not religion, not dogmas, not dialogue or rhetoric or crowds and mass opinion. These can influence decisions to be sure, but we are not automatons, and if you believe we have individuality and the right to choose and think for ourselves, then you must recognize that we, and ultimately we, as individuals, are responsible for our own decisions.

Incidentally, those who make assaults on religion often ignore similar, merely correlative evidence that other types of belief systems have "caused" violence. Take Saddam Hussein, for example. Hardly religious or even principled, Saddam was one of the worst perpetrators of horrific violence in modern memory. Yet, I will not say that Saddam did what he did because he was secular and not religious. The Cold War was hardly a war over religion, and yet I will not make the claim that it was political ideologies that caused it. The same goes for both World Wars, neither of which was religious in context.

On the other hand, if perhaps people actually lived the good principles and not the interpretations of the principles of religion, the world might, just might, be a better place. I am talking about things like charity, forgiveness, personal accountability, etc.

In net, I would rather that our political leaders not use their personal principles, be they religious or otherwise, to justify violence or the lack thereof. The decision to use force should be based on an open public dialogue that weighs the consequences of violence.

By the same token none of us, and especially none of our leaders, should condemn religion as an inherently violence-causing or destabilizing force. It was this justification that led Hitler to slaughter Jews and Romans to slaughter Christians, among many other examples--in other words, fear of religion led to suppression and tyranny andůviolence. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of the world is religious. Those people, and especially those leaders, who claim religion is dangerous should scare us just as much as those who claim religion is their divine mandate for violence. In other words, in all our fear of terrorism, war, and violence in general, let's be careful not go on any witch hunts.

Copyright © 2006 by David Newell

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