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Is Religion Inherently Violent?

Is Religion Inherently Violent?

Part 1 of our series, Nick Spencer explores what it means to say that religions are inherently violent 16/07/18

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This is part of a series of blogs on the relationship between religion and violence from Theos. The series also marks the launch of the new Theos report Killing in the Name of God: Addressing Religiously Inspired Violence. All the authors are expressing their personal views on this subject rather than necessarily the views of Theos.

The great British public doesn’t think so. At least, they probably don’t.

When Theos and ComRes put exactly that question to a nationally representative sample of British adults recently, only 32% agreed that religions were inherently violent, and only 8% agreed ‘strongly’. By comparison, more than half – 55% – disagreed. Add to that the fact that 61% of people agreed that “the teachings of religions are essentially peaceful” and you get a reasonably clear picture. We do not necessarily associate religion with violence.

Then again, we also asked people whether they thought that that “the world would be a more peaceful place if no one was religious‘. Nearly half (47%) agreed. More striking still, when presented with the statement – ‘Most of the wars in world history have been caused by religions’ – a remarkable 70% of the sample agreed. So religion may not be intrinsically linked to violence, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t linked at all.

Vox populi ain’t vox dei, however much we like to think otherwise but in this instance, the great British public might be on to something.

You have to be pretty bone headed to believe – really and truly believe – that the great religions of the world preach violence and hatred. Go into any religious place of worship any day of the week and I would say the chances of hearing a kill the infidel sermon are vanishing small. Referencing the Crusades or the Inquisition is pretty poor work. Atheist regimes were more efficient and rather more recent in their genocidal efforts.

That said, you have to be pretty boneheaded to believe that there are no violent elements – be they sects or scriptures, however hidden or contested – within religions that do not give grounds for violence. Robin Gill investigates a sample from the Abrahamic faiths in his new Theos report of the topic. The “it’s–all–really–about–economics–and–politics” lines doesn’t convince. At very least, there is need for a conversation here.

Thus, the “violent but not inherently so” option towards which public opinion appears to gravitate seems to be not so very wrong.

Where public opinion is wrong – or at least misleading – is in its overwhelming conviction that “it is religious extremists, not religions themselves, that are violent”, a statement with which over four in five – 81% – of respondents agreed. Superficially this is encouraging. It’s not you chaps who toddle off to mosque/ temple/ church every Friday/ Saturday/ Sunday who we need to worry about. It’s those fruitcakes who are there every day and take it all so seriously that they even end up working for religious institutions or think tanks that we should watch out for.

Of course, it is “extremists” who kill strangers. But it is also extremists who insist we don’t. Or put another way, when the Christian Dee Walker prayed for her son’s murderers or when the Muslim Dr Sombat Jitmoud publicly hugged his son’s killer they were being extremists, behaving in a way of extreme, excessive, fanatical, frightening forgiveness and love.

This is more than word play. If it is religious extremists that are violent rather than religions, the implication is that they are simply taking to extreme what their co–religionists, for whatever reason, don’t. Religion is still the sickness; it’s just that most people are safely taking the secular pills.

On the contrary, if we really do believe that the teachings of religions are essentially peaceful, the extremists are the Dee Walkers and Sombat Jitmouds, the Martin Luther Kings and Mahatma Gandhis of the world. And that being so, we need a lot more religious extremists than we have.

Where that leaves the question of how we talk about those people who do kill strangers for religious reasons is open to debate. Religious unextremists hardly works. Perhaps murderers is sufficient; it is after all what they are doing.

Changing the labels in this way is readily, and sometimes rightly, derided. What I choose to call the person who kills a loved one does not bring the loved one back. But we are a uniquely linguistic species, a little bit God–like in as far as we speak the world into existence or, more accurately, into coherence. Misspeaking, to borrow a term made popular in recent US politics, puts the world out of joint or, at very least, prevents us from setting it aright.


 Image by Spoilt.Exile under a Creative Commons license. 

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Nick Spencer

Posted 11 July 2018

Extremism, Secularism, Security, Terrorism


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