For a number of years now, there has been a building narrative about so-called “religious violence”. Numbers of commentators have been almost enthusiastic in their assertion that there is a connection between violence and religious commitment. Islam is probably used more than other traditions at the moment to build this narrative, given that a number of the world’s most notorious purveyors of violence claim to justify their actions in the name of Islam. This week’s horrible attack in Paris upon a newspaper office, which resulted in the death of 11 people, is the most recent example of this, as the perpetrator of this crime claims an Islamic connection. But building the narrative that connects religion with violence in the world does not seek to lay this connection at the feet of Muslims alone — it seeks to portray religion itself, regardless of tradition, as a force that, by its very nature, promotes violence.
Karen Armstrong, in her recent book, Fields of Blood, takes on this narrative directly in her typically thorough way.
As she describes, each [religious tradition] arose in an agrarian society with plenty of powerful landowners brutalizing peasants while also warring among themselves over land, then the only real source of wealth. In this world, religion was not the discrete and personal matter it would become for us but rather something that permeated all aspects of society. And so it was that agrarian aggression, and the warrior ethos it begot, became bound up with observances of the sacred.
In each tradition, however, a counterbalance to the warrior code also developed. Around sages, prophets, and mystics there grew up communities protesting the injustice and bloodshed endemic to agrarian society, the violence to which religion had become heir. And so by the time the great confessional faiths came of age, all understood themselves as ultimately devoted to peace, equality, and reconciliation, whatever the acts of violence perpetrated in their name.
Industrialization and modernity have ushered in an epoch of spectacular and unexampled violence, although, as Armstrong explains, relatively little of it can be ascribed directly to religion. Nevertheless, she shows us how and in what measure religions, in their relative maturity, came to absorb modern belligerence—and what hope there might be for peace among believers of different creeds in our time.
As Armstrong’s analysis makes clear, religion has, indeed, at various times, absorbed some of the violence of the societies in which they found a home. And there is no question that violent people have used religion to try to justify and promote their violent agendas. However, it is also clear that the violence which some seek to place at the feet of religion is, in reality, not to be found in religion but, rather, in human beings.
In other words, the problem of violence is a human problem, and as Armstrong points out, all the great religious traditions have quite specifically seen themselves as seeking to overcome the problem of human violence, not to enable that violence. Sadly, there are a number of religious people — including religious leaders — who seem immune to the teachings of their own traditions and twist those traditions in ways that justify or excuse their own violent words and deeds. Such people force a connection between religion and violence that is improper, and certainly not inherent to religion itself. But when witnessed by people who are not well-versed in religious traditions, these caricatures of religion seem like all that religion is or can be. The religiously unsophisticated thus reach the conclusion that if only we removed religion from the world, much of the world’s violence would disappear.
This, however, is a delusion. If religion were somehow removed from the world, it would no longer be available to be used as a tool by human beings committed to a violent path. Those people would simply find other tools to use — and violence would continue. We have seen this, in fact, in places like Soviet Russia, where religion was severely oppressed and virtually eliminated as a force in society, and yet violence and oppression continued. It underscores the fact that violence is a human problem, not a problem with religion.
When we insist on going down blind alleys in our response to violence — like the blind alley that religion is somehow the reason for that violence, and if only it went away, all would be well — we permit ourselves to ignore the real causes of that violence. Modern terrorists who use Islam to justify their violence are not, ultimately, motivated by religion. They are motivated by a deep rage that is related to a sense of powerlessness and economic disadvantage, a violent anger over corrupt Middle Eastern regimes and Western economic and political dominance. Even this is too simplistic an explanation, but it does point us toward the real seeds of violence. Religion, far from being the cause, is used as a catalyzing agent to focus this rage into violent acts that they mistakenly believe will somehow alleviate that rage and correct what they see as the injustices of the world. Until we are willing to acknowledge and address the real causes of this violence, it will continue — no matter what happens in the world of religion.
Over and over again, humanity fails to learn the lessons of its own religious traditions, of its own wisdom traditions: that violence does not solve problems, but only leads to more problems and perpetuates human suffering.