Does Religion Cause Violence?

Does Religion Cause Violence? May 16, 2019

Of course, the problem here is in the question. What we mean by religion and what do we mean by cause and violence? The claim is certainly commonplace that religion causes violence to the point that even my own mother now often says it’s in light of news of religious violence around the world. But I think it’s a little more nuanced than that.

One of my most widely-read pieces is the article “True Islam and violent extremism – redux” in its several incarnations, especially at a time of Islamic extremist violence that was taking place a few years back (Charlie Hebdo etc.). It would have been easy for me to have concluded that religion causes violence. What I conclude in that piece is that Islam is a very convenient tool for many people to commit violence and it is violent at its core, in its history and theology. But does is Islam cause violence or are the people who are more likely to be fundamentalist religious types for either environmental or genetic and biological reasons more likely to commit to religious violence?

These are difficult questions to answer. But I do think is Islam is even more of a challenge to world peace than Christianity, and neither are good sources of moral guidance in the modern world (without a boatload of cherry picking).

That piece was always controversial to many fellow liberals. I always found it odd that no one bats an eyelid when I attack Christianity, but when I attack Islam, some liberals get all up in arms where they wouldn’t otherwise. Anyway, I digress. The point is that the relationship between Islam and violence is certainly very complex.

In one other of my most popular pieces, “A Great Myth about Atheism: Hitler/Stalin/Pol Pot = Atheism = Atrocity – REDUX” (again, in its several incarnations), I conclude:

Yet I have shown, I hope, that atheism wasn’t a central causal factor in the genocides of the twentieth century anyway; moreover, one could argue that religion did play an important causal role in many atrocities throughout history. Causality is notoriously difficult to assign to events, as I have set out in my piece “Have I killed someone?” and we are often far too naive in how we apply that sort of determination. Daniel Dennett, in his book Freedom Evolves, expresses the difficulty in understanding the different types of causes, in looking at a French Foreign Legion thought experiment, as well as looking at the causality for the Dow Jones falling or First World War (pp. 70-89). These things are multifaceted and wondering what would be necessary causes requires knowing about possible worlds in which they didn’t occur. Take atheism away from these people, ceteris paribus, and would such horrors have happened? Are there aspects or personality traits which caused both atheism and other things which went on to manifest themselves in wartime atrocities?

In this way, it is easy to scapegoat humans on account of singular ideas and factors. Life ain’t that simple. Things are complex; why people do things is a complex thing to tease apart. And, essentially, humans can be right bastards. Quite often the most obvious thing can be the overriding cause: humanity. Lust and greed for power, resources, and a distorted idea of utopia. Status, aggression, anger, alpha male: all these things that evolution has dealt humanity (predominantly men in this context, as women aren’t so warlike and bloodthirsty) can be called into causal efficacy and blamed for the continual warmongering throughout history. It’s bleak, but potentially accurate, and it might even get atheism and religion off the hook. I said might.

I’m not trying to get atheism off the line here by trying to exclusively implicate religion. Atheism is merely a lack of belief in God, or an affirmation that God does not exist. Everything else, such as killing millions of people in an organised fashion, takes a heck of a lot more politics and philosophy. But when religious books explicitly dictate the punishment of people for whatever reason, things get a little bit more complicated.

That said, I hope I am honest enough to admit that, in reality, much violence (and this might be in many forms, including otherisation from ingroup and outgroup psychology) is caused by people being…people. Human nature is often less than ideal.

I would like to pull on a piece by Jesse Singal in the Research Digests for the British Psychological Society entitled “Religion Really Cause Violence?“:

But what if it’s more complicated than that? What if there’s less evidence than one might think that religion causes violence? That’s the provocative thesis of an upcoming new article in Contemporary Voices: St Andrews Journal of International Relationsa journal launched in April of 2018 (available as a preprint), authored by Joshua Wright and Yuelee Khoo at Simon Fraser University.

The paper is mostly dedicated to a literature review which summarises a wide array of findings about the supposed link between religion and violence. Overall, Wright and Khoo argue that the literature points in both directions, and that there’s little reason, at this relatively early juncture in understanding the connection between religion and behaviour, to believe that there’s something unique to religious ideologies that cause them to foster violence.

And that fits in line with my conclusion, broadly speaking. There appears to be research that supports both sides of the argument. As mentioned earlier, we might have definitional problems:

However, the authors also highlight complexities that fog up the picture. For example, they cite one study by US psychologist Tammy Greer that found (in Wright’s and Khoo’s words) “greater frequency of church attendance and greater frequency of engagement in church activities was associated with less self-reported vengeance,” but at the same time that “a more consistent donation pattern was related to greater self-reported vengeance.” This suggests that, in some circumstances at least, asking slightly different questions about religiosity can yield answers pointing opposite directions.

Causality is often a difficult thing to narrow down and pinpoint:

Other studies, meanwhile, provide apparently unequivocal evidence against the “religion causes violence” argument, including one of “600 men in the Arkansas correctional system” for whom religiosity was correlated with “lower self-reported acts of actual violent behavior over one’s lifetime,” which lined up with the results of another study showing an inverse link between church attendance and crime in Sweden. And “Longitudinal work confirms the relationship between greater involvement in religious activities and less aggressive behavior across the lifespan,” say Wright and Khoo.

So the literature is clearly a hodgepodge. And even if religion can be linked to an increased susceptibility to violence, the authors point out that this is not unique to religion. “While threat perceptions toward individuals’ religious identities may institute aggressive or violent responses, these effects are a product of a general social psychological process of group behavior, rather than anything inherent to religion,” they write. That is, when ardent adherents of secular ideologies sense threat, they, too, often lash out at outsiders – what’s going on is a fairly universal aspect of social psychology.

There could have been many situations in which researchers, by only asking questions about religion, missed this bigger picture. For example, while attendance at religious services has been associated with increased hostility toward, and intentions to harm, outgroups, it could be that religious attendance is simply a proxy for people having strong in-group identification. It’s plausible that greater attendance at national, sporting or other secular ceremonies, might similarly correlate with hostility towards relevant outgroups – but if the only questions you ask are about religion, the only answers you get will be about religion.

I would like to see whether there is any way of looking at violence on a mass scale compared to violence on a smaller, individualistic scale. Has research differentiated between wars and smaller scale violence? Are things like violent wars too difficult and complex in nature to research in this way?

I will now see if I have time to read the paper (If anyone fancies writing a guest post on this topic, or indeed any other, please let me know):

Empirical perspectives on religion and violence (the link is to a PsyArXiv preprint, however the paper has been peer-reviewed and is due for publication in Contemporary Voices: St Andrews Journal of International Relations. There was controversy around the publication process which Jesse wrote about for his newsletter Singal-Minded).

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