IEET > Rights > Vision > Affiliate Scholar > Rick Searle > FreeThought > Philosophy
Religion and Violence Revisted
Rick Searle   Jan 25, 2016   Utopia and Dystopia  

A few weeks back I did a post on religion and violence the gist of which was that it’s far too simplistic to connect religiosity to violence without paying much closer attention to the social context. Religious violence should been seen, I argued, as the response to some real or perceived mistreatment. In addition I also suggested that perhaps what appears to make believers in monotheistic faiths particularly prone to violence is their insistence that they alone possess religious truth.

That post got some push back, particularly here, and especially over the issue of whether references in the Koran especially made Muslims more prone to violence than other religious groups. As I tried to make clear in the discussion, it makes much less sense to try to understand the most relevant form of religious violence today, that is, Islamist violence, through reference to the Koran than it does to grapple with the actual historical and social context in which such violence occurs.

For the most part, I still think that. Where my views have become somewhat more nuanced is in the role of belonging, for at least if some recent work in moral psychology is correct, religious violence is just the flipside of the moral community all successful religions help create.

It seems that while I wasn’t paying attention the case being made by some of  the most vocal New Atheists was itself changing. Back in October of last year, Sam Harris, who could be accused of having made the most inflammatory statements about Islam published a dialogue with the former Islamist radical Maajid Nawaz. Having himself been jailed and tortured for his political views in Egypt, Nawaz has developed a four part model of the causes of religious extremism:

* grievance narrative (real or perceived)
* identity crisis
* a charismatic recruiter
* ideological dogma

It’s not this model, however, where Nawaz has managed to convert Harris to a less nihilistic interpretation of Islam, but through the implications of Islam’s long history of pluralism.

Sunni Islam especially, having no “pope” and no body of scholars in charge of defining what Islam is, the faith is essentially defined by what the majority of Muslims understand it to be. The task then, Nawaz argues, is to shrink the significant minority of Muslims who believe that either violence is a legitimate way to address political grievances, or that some group of believers has the right and duty to enforce their particular interpretation of Islam on not just other Muslims but non-believers as well.

Yet despite the power of Nawaz garners from his personal experience for explicating religious violence the one element he seems to miss is the one deemed most important by recent psychosocial research on the topic- namely communal participation. According to such research, religious violence, when it does indeed occur, has much less to do with the messages found in scriptures, actual belief, or even, oppression (though the last I still think the most important among the three) than the kind of hive like nature of groups that human beings, almost alone outside of the eusocial insects, are able to create.

This at least is the case in two recent works by leading philosophers in the field of moral psychology- Paul Bloom’s Just Babies: the origins of good and evil and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religionThe last decade or so has seen a flood of popular and quite good books by moral philosophers and psychologists using evolutionary theory and clever experiments to gain insight into human thinking about moral topics. Bloom and Haidt are two of the best, but there’s also Joshua Green and, although covering quite different topics Daniel Kahneman both of whom I’ve written about before.

Perhaps I’ll write proper reviews of Bloom and Haidt’s books some other time, for now I just want to focus on one question: what does the latest work in moral psychology tell us about the relationship between religion and violence?

First off- it’s complicated. Bloom, in his discussion of the issue in Just Babies, points out how difficult it is to disaggregate anything from religion, for, as he phrases it, “religion is everywhere”. In his book Bloom also points out that though research on how religiosity affects behavior isn’t as informative as we might like, it does show a strong correlation between religion and charitable giving. It seems that religious individuals donate a higher percentage of their income to charity than secular persons, and even give more than non-religious individuals to charities that are secular, which is kind of mind blowing.

One might think that all this giving by religious people was somehow the result of adherence or belief. That is, one could reasonably assume that the reason religious individuals were so damned charitable is that their scriptures command it, and/or giving is the product of belief in an afterlife of rewards and punishments for how one acted in this life. Charity would  here be seen as a kind of non-temporal investment.

According to Bloom, however, that is not what the studies show. Bloom quotes the famous sociologist Robert Putnam to make his point, that it is neither adherence or belief that makes religious people more charitable but membership in a group:

“…. the statistics suggest that even an atheist who happened to become involved in the social life of the congregation (perhaps through a spouse) is much more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than the most fervent believer who prays alone. It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.” (203)

This good side of religious belonging is mirrored by religion’s darker side where, again, it seems that it is a matter of participation in a religious community that predicts support for violence in the supposed defense of that community rather than the measure of the person’s depth of belief.

Jonathan Haidt characterizes religions as “moral exoskeletons”, or “moral matrixes”  For their members they establish communities of trust, but their very success in binding groups together means they can also lead to moralistic killings against what is believed to be betrayal of the group or result in martyrdom in the name of the community’s defense.

Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group while at the same time demonizing another group can lead to moralistic killing, and many religions are well suited to that task. Religion is therefore often an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of atrocity. (310)

The problem is that the very same features that allow religion, such as in the case of abolitionism, to work in the defense (even the violent defense) of minorities allows those same groups to act violently against minorities- whether Jews in the case of Christians up until very recently in historical times or groups like ISIS today against very vulnerable religious minorities such as the Yazidis or social minorities such as women or homosexuals.

The dilemma is that the atrophy of communal ties undeniably fosters the autonomy of individuals, yet we have not reached the point where we can be certain such a society lacking strong communal ties is sustainable over the long term. As Haidt puts it:
At one point the smart money was predicting religious belief would be largely irrelevant to humanity  by the end of the 2oth century. If religion has appeared an especially powerful force during that period and into our own such an appearance is partly an illusion caused by the incredible atrophy of former secular collective bonds that at one point appeared to have replaced religious ties- nationalism- both ethnic and civic, socialism, communism or even the hold of political parties.

Societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever know at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few). (311)

What we’ve gotten instead are a plethora of micro-affective communities competing for our attention and commitment some of whom target the very darkest aspects of human nature: our bloodlust, fear, or our anger. Sadly, the pluralism and diversity so beloved by liberals (myself included) fails to offer solutions to the problems posed by either fundamentalist inspired violence or the right’s ascending off of our fear of it; namely how to sustain a society over the longue duree absent some shared definition of the good, where the very communications architecture seems built to result in sharp divisions, and rival truths, and in an environment where the violence of extreme minorities results continually leads to calls to either suppress minorities at home, or, a much more fraught issue,  protect vulnerable minorities in regions that have yet to discover the West’s pluralism.


Rick Searle, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a writer and educator living the very non-technological Amish country of central Pennsylvania along with his two young daughters. He is an adjunct professor of political science and history for Delaware Valley College and works for the PA Distance Learning Project.


I traveled decades ago through Islamic countries and not as a tourist but traveler. Muslims are not prone to violence. But there are conditions: culture. What changed all this was Amerikan exceptionalism run amok. Prior that the French-British annexing spheres of influence in western Asia. Now under the Ottoman’s western Asia was peaceful because opium was not demonized or criminalized as it is today. So when it all changed and opium was made illegal along with hash nerves frayed and soon you had violence; most of it imported from Christian-Jewish crusaders. The worst offenders in the violence scenario are the Christians. The moment they got into power from Constantine on it never stopped. Massacres across Europe in the name of Christ and when subdued came the Crusades within Europe and without and when that was over along came the Inquisition. The evidence speaks for itself. There is something inherently unstable in Christianity.


I largely agree with you regarding Islam, but even Christianity has produced deep pacifism at times in its history- like the Quakers. No faith lacks the potential to inspire peace.

An observation by Jonathan Haidt, quoted toward the end of the post, raises a point that deserves careful attention when we think about the future prospects of various human societies and of humanity as a whole.  Some contemporary nations, Haidt says, “are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).”  Haidt understates his point.  Many nations have total fertility rates that are sub-replacement.  Most European nations fall into this category, as do some other societies outside Europe.  Complicating the global picture is the fact that fertility rates remain considerably above replacement in some other countries.  So there are two important facts.  First, people in some societies have too few children to keep those societies from declining in population over time.  Second, some societies have these low fertility rates, while other societies have higher rates.  In the tangled network of causes and effects, these two matters seem likely to be as important as religion, violence, or other prominent factors in shaping the human future.


I agree that this divergence will likely prove extremely important and is itself influenced by levels of religiosity.

It’s possible to craft quite troubling visions of the future when one combines political and social decay in advanced societies with political collapse in developing ones, especially when these already evident trends enter the vortex of climate change and technological advancement that threatens to make the majority of human labor superfluous. The next century or so seems likely to be a very close run thing.

I would like to see imaginative thought put into the development of some of these multifactor scenarios.  There are already good discussions of particular possibilities and trends.  With those discussions as a basis, we are ready to attempt speculations that are both more complex and more realistic.  Specialized focus is necessary and cannot be abandoned, but now is the time for emphasis on more comprehensive and integrated thought about the future.


What distinction do you make between what you are suggesting and what the IEET already does?

I was not thinking about the IEET in particular.  I was addressing anyone who might be interested, and I suppose that mostly I was for my own use exploring priorities.  However, to answer your question, I can connect my ideas to what I find at the IEET Web site.  Among other things, I looked at the four questions at the top of the About page.  In my view, these questions are central.  The questions are appropriate, because they ask for comprehensive comparisons.  For example, the first question asks, “Which technologies . . . are likely to have the greatest impact . . . ?”  This question invites us to compare many technologies and to estimate their comparative importance.  Similarly, the third question says, “How much can we extrapolate from the past and how much accelerating change should we anticipate?”  Here there are really two related questions.  Each of the two challenges us to evaluate many factors and to weigh the factors against each other.  If we attempt to answer the key IEET questions, we shall have to begin with a number of possibly relevant factors, and then we shall have to select and winnow.  Probably nothing will be discarded entirely, but we shall have to estimate differences in levels of significance.  However, when I look at relevant essays and research reports, I cannot easily find the reflections which the four key questions appear designed to evoke.  Instead, I find individual discussions of specific elements.  In this context, specific elements include technological innovations (often involving computer technology), particular medical or biotechnology advances, social trends, proposed political reforms, looming dangers (such as nuclear war and environmental disasters), and various philosophical concepts with associated philosophical arguments.  Most articles, including those at the Web site, have this type of subject.  There is nothing wrong with this.  The articles, including those at the Web site, are generally valuable and interesting.  Probably ninety-eight per cent of thought about the future needs to be focused on a specific topic.  Nonetheless, it might be time, in the spirit of the four key IEET questions, also to take one or two steps back so as to try to look at the field as a whole.  Enough material has been developed before now, and enough more is in the works, that it is important to collect things together, to analyze, and to synthesize.  “Which technologies . . . are likely to have the greatest impact . . . ? . . . . What sort of policy positions can be recommended to promote the best possible outcomes . . . ?”

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