Have world religions been the cause of violence throughout the ages?

Mar 23, 2015

By Jonathan Rée

In a pamphlet published in 1930 by the Rationalist Press Association (the organisation behind New Humanist), Bertrand Russell laid down what seems to be the classic humanist line on war. The title of the pamphlet took the form of a question – “Has Religion made Useful Contributions to Civilisation?” – and Russell’s answer was an almost unqualified no. He conceded that religion might have inspired our ancestors to study the stars and compile calendars, but apart from that, he said, it had served only to throw a cloak of priestly respectability over the principal sources of human misery, namely ignorance, fear, conceit, hatred and mistrust. Religion, in short, was a world conspiracy for the propagation of folly and the prevention of progress. “The knowledge exists by which universal happiness can be secured,” Russell wrote, but the churches were not interested, and preferred to perpetuate pestilence, famine, cruelty and above all war:

Religion prevents our children from having a rational education; religion prevents us from removing the fundamental causes of war; religion prevents us from teaching the ethic of scientific co-operation in place of the old fierce doctrines of sin and punishment. It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will first be necessary to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.

The argument may have sounded good in 1930, but it was always rather shaky. For one thing, it is not obvious that war is invariably evil. Apart from the fact that it can sometimes be justified, it may also serve (as William James observed) as a school for such virtues as solidarity, bravery, comradeship, stoicism and self-sacrifice. And there is a case for saying – with Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, and more recently with the historian Ian Morris – that without wars, civilisation would never have happened: without wars, there would have been perpetual insecurity, and no space for the cultivation of civility, mutuality, cultural creativity, public-spiritedness and prosperity, not to mention political deliberation, human rights and the rule of law. (See Ian Morris, War! What is it Good for? Profile, 2014.) But even if Russell is right, and war is good for nothing, his argument is spoiled by his zeal, and his summons to “slay the dragon” of religious belief sounds more like a fanatical call to arms than an overture to peace and reconciliation.

As the human cost of war soared in the following decades, Russell’s claims began to look even less plausible. Religion played hardly any role in the murderous belligerence of Nazi Germany, or in the actions of the other participants in World War Two, and, as time went by, the activities of officially atheistic régimes in the Soviet Union and Communist China turned out to fall some way short of peace-loving benignity. Of course you might argue that the inspirations of both Nazism and Communism were really religious, if only unconsciously; but this line of thought is liable to spiral into absurdity. Before long the concept of religion will burst the bounds of any usable definition, and we will find ourselves saying that everyone is really religious at heart, even those of us who shun all forms of other-worldliness and put our money on one of the secular options, such as the religion of humanity, or socialism or liberalism or nationalism, or the religion of science, materialism or enlightenment rationalism.


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31 comments on “Have world religions been the cause of violence throughout the ages?

  • IMO wars are not fought for religious reasons, not even the Crusades. Wars are fought over more tangible earthly things like land, resources, areas of influence and wealth. Yes of course religion is willingly dragged into the political arena as a motivation for war, – as a way of demonising the enemy, – as a way of giving justification for barbaric acts, and self-righteousness.

    But not the cause. The “Troubles” in Northern Ireland e.g., were always about political power, not about religion. The British ruling class were quite happy to stir up sectarianism between the largely Catholic agricultural south and the more industrial Protestant north of Ireland as a means of retaining control, prior to the days of the formation of Eire.

    There’s no doubt religion can stir powerful emotions about “us” and “them”, something useful for a ‘divide and rule’ policy. Of course the fruits of said British policy in Ireland later came back to bite the British ruling class on the bum, in the form of the “troubles”.

    What is the Israel / Palestinian conflict about if not about land and political control ?

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  • You are implying that religion is some pure higher ethereal entity that sits apart from baser instincts of political power or resources greed. Not so. In earlier times, and still to some extent today (especially in the so-called ‘islamic world’) religion is thoroughly entwined with political
    and personal identity and its teachings act as a powerful influence on individual and collective behaviour.
    For example, a dispute over land rights is normally open to negotiation, but if the deeds are held to be underwritten by the authority of ‘almighty god’, then how is reason to prevail ?

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  • Religion, in short, was a world conspiracy for the propagation of
    folly and the prevention of progress.

    I agree.

    … it is not obvious that war is invariably evil.

    WHAT??! There are some good wars? Violence is a fruit of evil not of goodness.

    Ian Morris: without wars, civilisation would never have happened:
    without wars, there would have been perpetual insecurity, and no space
    for the cultivation of civility, mutuality, cultural creativity,
    public-spiritedness and prosperity, not to mention political
    deliberation, human rights and the rule of law.

    I wonder how he came to that conclusion! Perhaps without wars (violence) we would have better world. He can not state that without wars civilization would never happened, because he is living in one – he has no notion of another world and his opinion is a product of “civilized” mind. Who knows what lives we all would live without wars. In my opinion nationalism and religion are brothers in arms, they simply love slavery, their father figures, purism, uniforms and hierarchy (all the characteristics of evil).

    Have world religions been the cause of violence throughout the ages?

    How about Malleus maleficarum?

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  • The thing that bothers me about these pieces arguing religion didn’t cause X is literally their entire argument, every time, is “look at these other X-causers”. I realise an A-level in History doesn’t make me an expert on either the details or methods of the subject, but I remember learning, years before my education in the subject ended, that many things have multiple causes. (In fact, just about everything we studied seemed to be an example of that.) Do you know what that means? It means you can’t prove religion wasn’t one of them that easily!

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  • If religion is claimed for the justification of violence, then who am I to argue. And that’s about it really. No matter what the underlying causes are, the fact that religious faith can be exploited so easily to violent ends is a problem all by itself. And that’s also ignoring the fact that religious dogma can be used to justify atrocities on it own terms, no other agenda required.

    Same as any other ideology, some being much more susceptible to impose their will through violence. If you have a problem with your fundamentalists, you have a problem with your fundamentals.

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  • No matter what the underlying causes are, the fact that religious faith can be exploited so easily to violent ends is a problem all by itself.

    Agreed. An example in the news today – a woman in Afghanistan was beaten to death after being accused of burning the Koran. She complained about women being encouraged to waste money on amulets peddled by the mullahs at a local shrine. She argued with a Mullah who it seems then falsely accused her of burning the Koran – that was enough for the mob to brutally kill her.

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  • It turns out that behind such a title you find a “freelance philosopher“, whatever it may be, plugging a book by this author about, I guess, how religion is good but, poor dear, has been used badly by baddies?

    Just one thing (among many):

    For one thing, it is not obvious that war is invariably evil.

    Okay, this is just the EOF of an argument worth reading. It just is. Killing is evil, intended as the ultimate violent imposition of one’s will over someone else(‘s). War is predicated on killing, therefore war is evil. This is elementary logic. If that’s lacking… well, you’re welcome. Let’s move on.

    ~~~

    Have world religions been the cause of violence throughout the ages?

    Institutionalized religion is the best tool ever invented -and refined!- to get people to commit violence; it works so well that it can be used as a stand-alone package: providing both the reason and the motivation. But, through ages, it’s usually found as motivation for violence.
    Big, 900s ideology had a crack at it -and the only surviving one still has a crack at it, occasionally- but their scope and efforts look amateurish if compared with the scale of violence motivated with religions.

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  • ” As far as militant atheism is concerned”

    that is all i needed to know what to make of this guy
    “will know him as simply one of the best writers around” good to know to have nothing to do with the so called new humanist.

    all the world’s great religious traditions share as one of their most essential tenets the imperative of treating others as one would wish to be treated oneself.”

    I guess she never read the more unsavory parts of the Quran that clearly to anybody who can read outlines the worthlessness of the unbeliever, the right to cheat and kill the unbeliever and the apostates.

    http://www.answering-islam.org/Silas/apostasy.htm

    as to treatment of kaffirs:

    http://islamqa.info/en/59879

    Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning):

    “O you who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians as Awliyaa’ (friends, protectors, helpers), they are but Awliyaa’ of each other. And if any amongst you takes them (as Awliyaa’), then surely, he is one of them. Verily, Allaah guides not those people who are the Zaalimoon (polytheists and wrongdoers and unjust)”

    [al-Maa’idah 5:51]

    Oh, for the religion of peace and the treatment of others. Either Armstrong is lying, or just plain stupid.

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  • I think religion evolved to stifle change.

    Imagine some young paleolithic farmer saying “I think we should plant a month earlier than usual. Then we can eat a month sooner”. The clan point out that the god mojo commands the time of planting by omens in the stars. The boy is an infidel and they roast him alive and eat him, putting to bed this reckless idea that could have killed the whole clan if acted on.

    It may turn out we kill ourselves with too rapid change, and Christian luddites were actually right, repulsive as their superstitions are.

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  • From the original article:

    … as far as [Karen Armstrong] is concerned her evidence – solid empirical evidence of a kind that a scientist like Dawkins ought to respect – proves that, as she puts it, “all the world’s great religious traditions share as one of their most essential tenets the imperative of treating others as one would wish to be treated oneself.”

    Oh really … ?

    In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker appears to come to the opposite conclusion … from a skeptical review of all the evidence he could find. I say appears because I’ve only reached the half way point.

    In addition my own – admittedly haphazard – studies confirm to me that Pinker scholarly and highly detailed work is true. Religions, particularly monotheisms, are everywhere proving the exact opposite of Armstrong’s contention. Whether it’s the emerging history of the Catholic Church in Ireland’s direct support for the IRA’s violent tactics and child abuse cover-up, religions of all stripes in Africa as the central driving forces of armed conflict, or openly formenting the fighting of wars foreign and civil in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

    The whole New Humanist review could be usefully abridged to: Karen Armstrong wastes more paper.

    Peace.

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  • Ah but how did they get the superstition that now was the time to plant. Probably not through direct revelation but by noticing that the native plants they derived their seed stock from flowered when certain stars where over head etc. The religion attaches itself to the general observation, not the other way around or it would be random. What is more as the climate in the area changes do you think the religious will be the first or last to be clued in? The problem with any form of dogma is its resistance to adaptation.

    Just look how long it has taken the Catholic Church to even make comforting wooing noises in the direction of homosexuals, not actually changing their policy mind just making gentle sounds like “love the sinner not the sin”, I predict they will come on board about 10-15 years after everywhere else in the world has come on board, and when they do I’ll bet everyone will say just how progressive they are.

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  • “Since Leaving her Convent” – ha-ha – she obviously left her brain there too!
    I haven’t read any of her work – but it is probably not worth reading as I have read enough religious-apologetics disguised in the fog of post-modernist jargon to know the signs from the paraphrasing in the article.
    Whosoever thinks that (s)he can’t eat a bacon-sarnie because the creator of the universe said (s)he can’t is a buffoon. And the non-eating of a delicious tit-bit leads one onto the slippery slope of religious lunacy! Red or Brown sauce anyone!

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  • 17
    System Marked Down says:

    So, someone decides, “hey, we need to go to war to keep our wealth/power/land”. The next question is: “how will we gain consensus”? If religion is used, then religion is the vehicle; by its very flaws, it is enabling conflict. To me, it is just as guilty.

    In my opinion, the article is suggesting that if there was an absence of religion, it would be much harder to gain consensus to go to war.

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  • @OP- Have world religions been the cause of violence

    It looks like the “mullahs for peace” have been preaching again!!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-32034036

    .Protests have been growing in the Afghan capital, Kabul, over the lynching of a woman who was falsely accused of burning the Koran.

    More than 2,000 people marched to demand justice for Farkhunda, 28, who was beaten to death by a mob last week.

    .Tuesday’s protests came as the police spokesman for Kabul was sacked for posting a Facebook message endorsing the killing.

    Police say they have arrested at least 19 people over the incident.

    Farkhunda was beaten to death last Thursday after arguing with a mullah about his practice of selling charms to women at a shrine. In the course of the argument she was accused of burning the Koran and a crowd overheard and attacked her.

    An official investigator has said there is no evidence she had burned the Koran.

    Her action in opposing the mullah has been backed by the Ulema – an influential gathering of Islamic clerics and scholars.

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  • 19
    William says:

    What is the Israel / Palestinian conflict about if not about land and political control ?

    And who says their almighty creator has granted them this land? The Jews. They say their God promised them this land. That is at the heart of this conflict. It is holy to the Arabs as well because of the Al-Aqsa Mosque where Muhammad supposedly road to heaven on a winged horse. To ignore these facts is to ignore what is at the core of the conflict, their religious Ideologies.

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  • To take your Israel /Palestine example and to use it against you, I’ll ask one question: Why is this land so important to either side? The answer is: Religion! This is the case in so many conflicts and it is hard to defend religion in this aspect.

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  • 21
    William says:

    it is not obvious that war is invariably evil

    Evil is generally defined as “profoundly immoral and malevolent.”

    Now what could be argued is when war is thrust upon you, like in the event of German invasions of the early 20th century. The defending nations had no choice but to participate. Does that make the choice the made to go to war immoral? I would say no. The nature of war is immoral, but reasons for going to war may not be immoral, especially when you have no choice, or you are going to stop a Genocide as was the case in the early 90’s in Bosnia. Sometimes a military option is the only option. Unfortunately this is the reality of the world we live in. If only we could just talk it out eh?

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  • William Mar 24, 2015 at 2:30 pm

    The defending nations had no choice but to participate. Does that make the choice the made to go to war immoral? I would say no. The nature of war is immoral, but reasons for going to war may not be immoral, especially when you have no choice,

    “Truth” and morals are usually the first casualties of wars – and are soon forgotten when the conflicts get going.

    On this day Sept 03 in 1939, in response to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Britain and France, both allies of the overrun nation declare war on Germany.

    Britain entered entered WW2 to save the Poles from Hitler, but after much bloodshed, handed them over to Stalin. (I wonder if they were grateful for being “saved”!!)

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  • What a good point. Im not sure religion is the complete conflict. Land is the issue and Religion is what what drives the mentality of the Jewish Nation who thinks they are intitle to the land because their god said so. The Palestinians are victims of the Zionists who basically went into what is now Israel as if they had eminent domain. When the Palestinians didn’t comply with offers of relocation from the Zionests they were forced from there land and ended up displaced in refugee camps. Some were barely compensated and others meet death through resistance of any compensation and refuse to leave. Starvation was an issue in the camps and life as they new it was robbed from them because the Jews were following their God and their right to the land. Thats the religious part. They used this as the excuse to displace the rightful owners off the land so they could claim it. They had no land and no place to belong so they had to do something.,so they stole the land from its inhabitants in the name of God. The only reason the Palestinians are fighting for the land is because it was stolen from them like theist in the night and the Jews stole it in the name of God.

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  • War is expensive to wage, and is usually a last resort when all diplomacy fails. I mentioned land and political control as real motives, the religious side is window dressing. If I could cite another example, is anyone going to argue that the German Christians and the Russian Christians blasted the hell out of each other on what we, in the west now call, the Eastern Front during WW2, resulting in 20 million plus deaths, for religion ?

    Pernicious though religion undoubtedly is, I think not. Blessing bombs is cheap, – making them and delivering them is expensive.

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  • There is a blatant contradiction in your argument:

    IMO wars are not fought for religious reasons, …
    Yes of course religion is…a way of giving justification for barbaric acts, and self-righteousness." ergo – you inherently argue wars are indeed fought for religious reasons.

    It is also associative:
    Wars are a display of barbaric acts and self righteousness

    You argue religion is a way of giving justification for barbaric acts, and self-righteousness.
    If A=B, and B=C, therefore Religion is a justification for War.

    ….and then you cite past conflicts as arguments……please explain why you omitted the greatest war in human history that brought about the slaughter of over 60 million lives. Are you going to argue that had nothing to do with religion as well ?

    [Edited by moderator to bring within Terms of Use: please see separate Moderator Message]

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  • Yes, but now Palestinians have also been hijacked by religious nuts who want East Jerusalem for the same religious reasons. They built their holiest temple there and consider it the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven. Even though Islam says nothing of Jerusalem at all, they have made it a part of their religious narrative. Both sides are wrong and there will never be peace as long as this religious conflict is given up on by reasonable people!

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  • Religion is certainly not always the sole cause of a given conflict, but to say it plays no part in conflicts at all is to ignore some of the worst recent tragedies done by people acting out of the beliefs from their holy books. The Crusades is an odd example as it was as much for financial reasons as it was religious, but once again you can’t simply separate one from the other. Finance is what drove the people who funded the wars, religion is the tool they used to continue to justify it.

    Also, if we’re willing to admit that religion has been a part of culture for about as long as culture has been around, why play favorites on how it has influenced violent conflict? Can we ignore the constant fighting in the middle east over land that only exists because of difference in religious opinion?

    Yes, there is almost always a tangible, more grounded reason that people commit to a full on war with other people or other nations but to simply say that religion hasn’t played a part at all would be simply ignorant. At what point do you separate the pious, fervent zealot and his faith from the violence of his actions? If religion played no part then a war over land should be just that. what the other people believe should mean nothing. If a country has inadvertently created chaos elsewhere, should the oppressed and offended call them devils and issue a fatwah, or should they call them on the reasons they live in the conditions they do and legally declare war on those grounds?

    Are infidels being killed for reasons other than religious? Are women being stoned for reasons other than religious? Why then would war for religious reasons be a bridge too far?

    If religion can indeed poison anything, then of course it can poison war. not like war needs to be poisoned to begin with.

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  • Religion is a philosophy based on bazar fairy-tale metaphysics–that there is another world, another life after this one, and an all powerful eternal creator of the universe–and of the metaphysical view of man as an impure, imperfect, excremental by-product of some other perfect world (In Augustines words: bespotted, foul, ulcerous). Religion is a philosophy based on the epistemological veiw that true knowledge, including knowledge of ethics, is to be obtained not by reason but from mystic revelation (Augustine again: “Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”).
    If the ultimate purpose of philosophy, and of life, is living this life in the only world that exists, then religious philosophy is horrible because the only possible consequence of irrational, otherworldly mysticism has nothing to do with reality and always results in an ethics of self-sacrifice and a politics of destruction.
    Reason as the primary means of human survival is a METAPHYSICAL FACT. When reason, reality, and the view of man as a being capable of surviving only by reason are OUT, people are left with only one alternative for settling disputes–violence.
    Religious philosophy is BAD, and to the extent that people believe it and apply it in their lives, it will necessarily influence politics. And to the extent that it influences politics, it will result in the destruction of human life and human values. It always has, and it always will.
    Plato, too, was an otherworldly mystic who viewed the sacrifice of worldly values as a moral ideal, and Plato was a totalitarian and the father of communism.
    Today there is a growing movement of mystic savages practicing Islam, and the totalitarian-theocratic leaders of this movement (Iran, Saudi Arabia) disallow free speech and stone woman to death for the crime of being raped.
    Throw reason out the window and you’ll be left looking at the barrel of a gun. Every time.

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  • One problem with this view of history is that it doesn’t explain the popularity of war. It’s the pope’s fault you say? Okay then. A man in a dress in Italy wants war! How do we go from that to an actual war, where hundreds of thousands of people on both sides are trying to kill each other? Where is the motivation for everyone else? It’s kinda hard to credit that religion plays no part in that process.

    Or take the Nazis. Religion played no role you say? So Hitler mentioned god frequently for purely personal reasons, and the crowd responded positively, again for entirely personal reasons – and these reasons had nothing to do with religion? Are we suddenly claiming that the Nazis invented antisemitism whole cloth some time in the late 30s? I was under the impression that christians had been dumping on the jews for a good thousand years before that. Jews killed Christ! Jewish blood debt! Jews are bad – and deserve to have bad things happen to them! Such sentiments were common in the pews.

    Oh but you’re right. I’m sure there’s some other explanation which won’t make christians uncomfortable with the long and bloody history – or admit that it exists at all.

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  • Apart from the materialist reasons for war ie sheer conquest and plunder, religion creates situations that can only be resolved by backing down or fighting. Its all about imagination. Religious belief is entirely imaginary. For any two people to agree that what a person is imagining is the same as what the other is imagining is virtually impossible. If the imaginary beliefs are strong and different, one party will either have to agree that the other’s belief is the correct one ie back down, or will have no option but to reduce the disagreement to a tangible (ie non imaginary) physical confrontation where the most powerful will win.
    “you don’t believe what I believe so you must either change your belief voluntarily or I will have to force you to change!”

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