On Pushing Back

The recent violence in Lebanon, as well as the worsening sectarian bloodshed in Iraq, that have dominated the headlines in recent weeks remind us of the sheer unending vindictiveness of religious warfare. Indeed, of all the worst trouble spots in the world either currently or in recent memory – Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, India and Pakistan, Sudan – religion has played a major causative role in virtually every one. The defenders of religion assert that it has brought into the world much good that would not have existed otherwise, and perhaps this is true, but it is undeniable that it has also brought into the world a vast amount of war, bloodshed and violence, including some of the worst violence in our species’ history. Religious hatred tends to be transmitted undiminished down through the generations in a way that few other kinds of hatred are, and the degree of commitment many people hold for their religious beliefs unfortunately makes it all too easy to justify oppressing and attacking those who believe differently.

The nagging question in all such conflicts is how they began. Who threw the first stone, so to speak? Although the answer matters little to resolving these conflicts, it seems to matter greatly when it comes to apportioning blame. Whenever fighting breaks out, partisans on both sides usually assert that they were acting in good faith, while the other side initiated hostilities unprovoked and forced them to defend themselves.

Strange as it sounds, both sides in these battles may be both wrong and right. A recent article from the New York Times, “He who cast the first stone probably didn’t“, discusses a study that sheds some light on the ancient roots of modern violence:

In a study conducted by Sukhwinder Shergill and colleagues at University College London, pairs of volunteers were hooked up to a mechanical device that allowed each of them to exert pressure on the other volunteer’s fingers.

The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer’s finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. And so on.

…The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.

Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating.

As the article explains, the reason for this seems to be that people have direct access to their own sensations, but not to the sensations of others. Therefore, although each volunteer can directly feel the discomfort the other inflicts on them, they cannot feel, and therefore cannot accurately gauge, how much force they are exerting in return. Of course, a person’s own pain, which they can directly perceive, feels more significant to them than the pain of another, which they cannot, and this leads both of them to a continual escalation.

In light of this study, the question of “which side started” a religious war may not just be irrelevant, but may literally have no answer. It is very likely that, in many of these conflicts, the initial provocation was something that was not even intended as a provocation by the group that did it, but was interpreted as such by the group that received it. That group may have then retaliated with what they thought was equal force, but was actually greater force, thus provoking the initial group to strike back even harder – and so on ad infinitum, as the conflict perpetually escalates in a series of steps that are each viewed as a fair and deserved retribution by the perpetrating side but as an even greater insult by the recipient side. Extrapolated over hundreds of years, this cycle results in the bloody quagmires of religious warfare that are now playing out in so many places across the world.

Alas, there is now no straightforward solution to troubles such as these, any more than there is a straightforward way to reassemble a glass once it has been shattered. A lessening of religious belief among both sides would probably not end most of these conflicts, since most of them have taken on political, racial or nationalistic dimensions as well. However, it undeniably would help cool the flames of anger that have burned so hot, and take away one of the major and perpetually recurring justifications for almost any kind of violence: the belief that God has marked the other side as inferior and desires them to be subjugated. But what might help even more would be if both sides were to accept the humanistic principles of universal utilitarianism. Its key teaching that all people’s happiness matters the same would, if believed and practiced by both sides, be a strong counter to the regrettably natural human tendency to view one’s own pain and suffering as more significant than those of others.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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