Beliefs vs. Interests

I’ve been listening to an interview with Lawrence Wright about his new book examining Scientology, Going Clear (which grew out of his New Yorker article The Apostate which we’ve mentioned before). Wright is also the author of The Looming Tower, a Pullitzer winning history of Al-Qaeda.

At the end of the interview, Wright is asked what he’s learned about humanity over his career:

I’ve been so struck by the power of belief to transform individuals in society for good or ill. I used to be very religious as a young man and I’m not now, but I sure understand how radical changes can be brought about simply through the power of belief. I don’t think we respect it enough, because it can be great and it can be terribly, terribly dangerous.

Coming on the heels of his discussion of Al-Qaeda and the abuses of power within Scientology, that “terribly dangerous” seems to refer to the conflicts sparked by religious belief.

Yet, over at Religion Bulletin, Craig Martin throws out this challenge:

I would argue people don’t tend to fight over differences in belief; they tend to fight over conflicts of interest. However, characterizing conflicts in terms of belief has the effect of masking conflicts of interest.

I’m prepared to take this one step farther: perhaps the talk of “religious violence” as resulting from “beliefs” is not merely misguided, but is in fact motivated. Perhaps those who utilize the “divided by faith” rhetoric want to forget that conflicts usually follow from a clash of interests rather than a difference in beliefs.

So which causes religious violence, beliefs or interests? I guess it’s a chicken-and-egg problem: our beliefs shape our interests and our interests give rise to our beliefs. Maybe we just can’t separate the two cleanly.

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