Religion and violence revisited


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:

  1. grievance narrative (real or perceived)
  2. identity crisis
  3. a charismatic recruiter
  4. 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 religion. The 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:

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)

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.

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, when our communications architecture seems built to result in sharp divisions, rival truths, and an environment where the violence of extreme minorities continually results in calls to either suppress minorities at home and protect vulnerable minorities in regions that have yet to discover the West’s pluralism.



4 comments on “Religion and violence revisited

  1. James Cross says:

    Where does religious violence leave off and ethnic violence begin?

    These are often so highly intertwined. Is it really religion at the root of the issue? What about religions like Buddhism with little – almost no – history of religious violence?

    The four part model for religious extremism by Nawaz could just as easily be apply to many non-religious groups. The armed militias in the United States, although associated with Christianity, really take their energy from the four part model. Grievance against the government and non-whites, identify crisis with perception that their way of life is threatened, I assume some charisma in their leadership, and an ideological absolutism that empowers them to act.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Hi James,
      I think your question is absolutely the right one, though I’d expand it beyond ethnicity to any strong group identity- say soccer fans.

      It might sound counterintuitive, but I think the religious message has little to do with its history of violence. Christianity despite its founder’s pacificism has gone through periods of incredible violence. Even the Buddhists of Myanmar have treated the minority Rohingya brutally.

      And yet we probably wouldn’t want to live without such strong group identities and might not survive as a societies absent them especially where states are weak or weakening?

      • James Cross says:

        “And yet we probably wouldn’t want to live without such strong group identities and might not survive as a societies absent them especially where states are weak or weakening?”

        What if the group was all of us and our society was planetary?

        Ultimately that may be where we need to go.

  2. Rick Searle says:

    Certainly, but it’s a long haul and always in danger of being undermined by the narcissism of small differences.

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