Explaining Religious Violence

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Photo by Melanie Wasser on Unsplash

Our new millennium got off a violent and rocky start through the 9–11 World Trade Center incident. By now, we are all familiar with religion-based terrorism and violence. In January 2018, US News magazine published an interesting article titled Religion Needs a Savior. The article informed us that based on a recent international survey conducted by US News which interviewed more than 21,000 people all over the world, the majority of respondents identified religion as the “primary source of most global conflict today.”

That is quite a damning conclusion, but it should not be a surprise. In recent years, there has been an intense debate as to whether religion has done more harm than good to humanity. The atheists and those on the Left certainly think so. The believers and those on the Right dispute it. I think the issue can be argued either way, depending on how we define the term “religion” and the metrics we use to measure “harm.” To me, many modern ideologies can also be considered as “religion” — racism, colonialism, nationalism, Nazism, Fascism, Communism, Anti-Communism, Capitalism, notions of racial superiority, etc. The two world wars are driven by factors not related to traditional religions, but closely related to ideologies. A religion, in this contest, is simply something that the believers consider as the highest good, worthy of sacrificing their lives for. The secular religions can be just as deadly. So, this is an important question — why do religious people have a tendency to be more violent? Here lies the true source of institutional evil. Note the key word “institutional.” I am not addressing the evil committed by individuals. But I want to understand better the nature of group evil, i.e. evil that is committed by a large group of people. If we can find out why religious people are more prone to commit atrocities, then we will also have an explanation for such institutional evil.

All human groups, regardless of religion, have committed group violence. Buddhism is known in the West as a peace-loving religion. In recently years, however, the Buddhists in Myanmar shocked the world in their treatment of the Rohingya Muslims. But looking back at world history for the last three thousand years, we can’t help but conclude that the monotheistic religions are the bloodiest religions humanity has seen. Just think about the Crusade Wars and the Inquisition. The only question is why. A Buddhist answer to that question is that it has to do with the close connection between God and the ego (or the self). According to Buddhist understanding, both “God” and the self are human concepts invented for the purpose of self-protection, and Buddha refuted both. In the chapter on Anatta (the Buddhist doctrine of no-self), Buddhist scholar Walpola Rahula made this observation:

“Buddhism stands unique in the history of human thought in denying the existence of such a Soul, Self, or Ātman. According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems. It is the source of all the troubles in the world from personal conflicts to wars between nations. In short, to this false view can be traced all the evil in the world.” (Chapter 6, What the Buddha Taught)

This is a strong criticism — the notion of a self is the source of all the evil in the world. Now, the concept of God is also closely connected with the notion of self. God, in this context, is the result of the projection of one’s self, incorporating one’s likes and dislikes, love and hate, one’s notions of what is moral or immoral, one’s favoritism and prejudices. Author Ann Lamott once said, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” There is therefore very little difference between “God” and the ego. The anthropomorphized God is an expanded version of your self, your people, your race, your country, etc. In this sense, religion can be seen as the institutionalization of the “us versus them” mentality, and “God” is a glorified way of tribalism. “God” represents everything that is dearest to you, everything that is “sacred.” Thus, any criticism of God is taken by the religious people as an attack of his self and everything they cherish. This easily triggers a violent response.

Modern social science research seems to back up this view. In social psychology, there is a theory of aggression based on “threatened egotism.” The US News article offers this explanation of why religious people tend to be more violent:

Religious communities teach different ways of responding to criticism of their identity, (Andrew) Tix says, but it comes down to the notion of threatened egotism. …The stronger a person’s convictions in their identity — of which religion is often a key part — the more likely they are to be violent when their identity is threatened.

It is for this reason that the non-believers, the “infidels,” and the heretics are demonized. They are demonized because in the religious mind, a person is either in the in-group or the out-group. In the context of a spiritual war, call it a “holy war” or “jihad,” the non-believers are seen as agents of the devil. They represent a mortal danger to the believers. It is a high-stake zero-sum game. When the two sides as fighting a war of dominance and survival, the believers cannot afford to lose.

Of course, the rivalry for dominance exists in all spheres, not just in religion. There is, for example, rivalry in business where two or more companies are fighting to monopolize the market and capture a bigger share of the profits. So, what makes rivalry in religion so special and more prone to atrocities?

I have been working on a book on institutional evil. I am willing to say that there is a violent element in human nature. We can see this in our close animal relatives — the primates, such as the chimps. In addition, Buddhists, just as Christians, believe that there is certain built-in human weakness, such as greed, lust and proneness to prejudice, anger and hate. These attributes exist in all humans, regardless of race, nationality, culture or religion. But my own theory of evil finds something unique to the religious mind, and this theory is counter-intuitive and ironic. Religious people are more capable of committing atrocities, not because they want to do evil, but because they want to do good! Soviet dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, articulated this well when he said:

To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good… Ideology — that is what gives evil-doing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors.

There is no atrocity which cannot be justified in the name of God. The History Channel website provides this background of the First Crusade War:

On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II makes perhaps the most influential speech of the Middle Ages, giving rise to the Crusades by calling all Christians in Europe to war against Muslims in order to reclaim the Holy Land, with a cry of “Deus vult!” or “God wills it!”

In summary, the monotheistic religions are more bloody because their “God” has personal attributes and He is not impartial. Yahweh, for example, is a god who plays favoritism and takes sides. Since “God” is often a projection of a people’s tribalism, visceral likes and dislikes, it should not be surprising that religious people tend to be more violent. They see their persecution of others as doing God’s will and because faith does not require evidence, such “God’s will” does not have to appear in physical evidence, say, on a tape recorder. The religious people are more prone to commit atrocities, not because they are more evil than others, but because they believe they are doing good deeds, even against their self-interest and self-preservation. Even as acts of self-sacrifice. This is the ultimate tragedy. Thus, religion is dangerous due to its very nature — as the highest good worthy of self-sacrifice. Today, we look back at the prehistoric days of human sacrifice as if they belong to the dustbin of history, as if human sacrifices are no longer relevant. I have a very different view. Human sacrifices are still happening every day, although the name of “God” changes.

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