Religion and Violence? Short Answer: “Religion” Does Not Exist in a Vacuum

“Religion doesn’t kill people. People kill people.”

It works nearly as well for religion as it does for anti-gun-control lobbyists. Why? Because it is partly true. People with guns can destroy lives with ease, and so can people “armed” with religion. These tools not only provide a convenient means; they provide empowerment. That is why while we are wise to resist the simplistic blaming of all evil on religion, it is a greater mistake to dissociate religion from violence.

In his article here a few days ago, before the second suspect had been captured, Ivan Strenski predicted that although many experts would be called to comment on the bombings, few would be professionals in the field of religious studies—and we would thus get the same black-and-white presentation of the problem.

Unfortunately, however, it is often scholars in the field—partly in reaction to stigmatization of religion in the media—who repeat the same truisms. “Yes, but religion is not all bad.” Certainly true, and perhaps framing the issue in the public eye can go no further than this, but a conversation that ends by condemning individuals (despite their admission of religious motivation) denies the psychological and social organizing power of religion and the empowerment that eschatological dogma provides.

The presentation of religion sanitized of all but ethics is a patronizing discourse, and I suspect that it is based more on issues of class than of religion itself. (Many who claim religion is harmless do not live in social strata in which religion is woven into daily life and community).

So I understand why we shy away from associating religion and violence. We know that some among us will distribute blame among all members of the tradition, and may commit even retaliatory violence as a result. But we cannot overlook the fact that in this case, as in others, the suspect insists he acted out of religious beliefs.

The mistake here is in oversimplification, in blaming only religion for acts of violence. There are millions of religious adherents who do not commit violent acts in the name of their traditions. But there are some who do, and it is readily justified in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy texts. One does not have to look far, and the reinterpretation of religious texts to allegorize their violence indicates that there are more literal readings as well.

There needs to be a more responsible conversation by experts; especially those in religious studies. Just as important, though, is an honest conversation by religious leaders themselves. The tenuous position of Islam in America, especially when tragedy strikes, is such that religious leaders clamor to decry the claims of the perpetrators and redefine the boundaries of “true” and “false” religion. These actions recreate a gap between “types” of religion, ensuring that no conversation can be had about religion’s clear role on both sides. We need more scholars and religious leaders to step into this gap, recognizing this is where most religion is lived out.

Strenski talks about this gap in today’s follow-up piece, asking whether the “Internet Islam” of the Tsarnaev brothers is somehow distinct from traditional Islam. I agree with his assessment, contra Juergensmeyer, that there is no “essential Islam,” but would dispute the implication that this moment is historically unique—with different Islamic sects competing for authenticity and legitimacy. Universality implies singularity of belief and practice, yet methods of religious practice have always varied based on the contingencies of time, place, and circumstance.

Unfortunately, the presumption of a “true” religion requires the adherent to dismiss all competing claims out of hand, and scholarship often follows this dichotomization. This essentialization of religion, good or bad, is a theological proposition, one that has no place in public discourse.

My original analogy between guns and religion is limited, and this is the point where it breaks down. If a citizen successfully intervenes to stop a crime with the use of a weapon, it is the person behind the gun, and not the gun itself, that is given credit. This may indeed be because guns are often used on both sides of the transaction, both to commit crime and to stop it. But is it so different with religion? While religious leaders are quick to disavow any direct acts of violence, they are just as quick to claim acts of goodness. Christians, for example, credit their tradition for producing such influential individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa, but deny any responsibility for a Jim Jones or a David Koresh.

How could this be the case unless a double standard is applied, unless religion is a priori good, a principle that flies in the face of history?  

So a serious assessment of the relationship of religion and violence is by no means the sole responsibility of Islam. Christian ideology permeates American society to such an extent that it usually goes unnoticed, but it sometimes rises to the surface, particularly as we look to the Divine to answer the “whys” of tragedy. Though many in the West are able to hold their religion loosely, it too facilitates the perpetration of violence in less direct forms, violence perpetrated elsewhere. As a result, we too stand to lose in frank conversation about the relationship between religion and violence, because we will have to confront the ways religion not only supports violence, but lessens the impact of death and assuages our guilt. But the sacrifice may be worth it.

In the last week, members of Congress made a decision symbolizing that the positive benefits that accrue to gun owners, their rights as Americans, were not outweighed by the tragedies that have taken place in recent years—tragedies often facilitated by illegitimate access to weapons. The dialogue around political issues such as these often implies that we are looking for a magic bullet (as it were), as if we all agree there is only one “real” problem, and just disagree on what that is.

This is fallacious—and sometimes religious—thinking, preventing the incremental progress of creating a better society. There is no all-purpose answer, and it is counterproductive to continue to gamble on it. “Religion” is not to blame for the events in Boston, but if we are successful in isolating this event as yet another example of crazed individuals, cutting off all analysis of the identity religion provides, we will advance no further in understanding the violence that can be justified by its precepts and examples. 

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