religious violence

Is Religion Inherently More Violent Than Other Ideologies?

Is religion inherently more violent than other ideologies? Do all ideologies have the propensity for violence?

In the contemporary age, characterized by the phenomenon of globalization and an interconnected global-political economy, communication and interaction among previously disparate cultures and civilizations is becoming increasingly more common. The results of encounters between various modern cultures have the potential to create a world of bonded nations, fostered by positive trade relations and open borders, or a world divided by ideology.

According to Samuel Huntington, his theory regarding “The Clash of Civilizations ” argues that the fundamental source of conflict in this new age of globalization will primarily consist of ideological divisions of humankind, whereby cultural or religious distinctions between civilizations will encourage the greatest levels of violence and alienation, more so than any other distinction of humanity.

Samuel P. Huntington

Since the publication of Huntington’s theory, catastrophic events have been understood through this lens: the case of Charlie Hebdo, the events of September 11th, and the invasion of Iraq are seen as clashes between the civilizations of the West and Islam; wars in Croatia and Slovenia, as well as the crises in Ukraine constitute clashes between Orthodoxy civilizations and the West; and Boko Haram is seen as a clash between the civilizations of Islam and Africa. 

Despite the potential for ideological conflict, the intersection of religion and international politics in an increasingly interconnected world also possesses great potential for understanding the various groupings of people around the world. In Doug Underwood’s From Yahweh to Yahoo! The Religious Roots of the Secular Press, Walter Ong (a Jesuit Priest and media theorist) argues that the phenomenon of globalization positively impacts religious progress, “by bringing us closer together as a world community, making it easier to understand our many different cultures and advancing peace through open channels of communication ” (16).

In Alan Haworth’s “The Value of Truth,” Alasdair MacIntyre argues a cultural relativist approach, whereby “we inhabit a social universe composed entirely of rival traditions, ” which implies no single tradition is qualitatively better than any other. With this understanding, ideological conflicts are inevitable as they butt heads within the contemporary global culture.

Understood to be one type of the various conflicting ideologies, religion and its supposed propensity towards violence, is a crucial element of contemporary international politics that must be addressed in terms of its potential for worldwide chaos.

Ultimately, this essay argues that religion, as an ideology, is no more inherently violent than any other ideology — secular, economic, political, etc. — but tends to produce more catastrophic results when it is used as an ideological justification for violence or mass killing, due to the nature of its various claims (depending on religion) and their psychological hold over people, with its social and philosophical implications.

A Few Definitions

Before a sufficient analysis of religions’ inherit propensity towards violence or the existence of religious violence can be addressed, various explanations and definitions are vital to the discussion. First, the elusive term, “globalization ” must be defined due to the modern implications of this phenomenon’s effect on world religions and in regards to its confusing simultaneous conceptualization as a theory of modernity and as a process of homogenizing effects.


“Globalization ” will refer to “the rapid developments in communications technology, transport and information which bring the remotest parts of the world within easy reach, ” as well as “an ever more interconnected global economy, with vast social and political implications. ”

Akbar S. Ahmed & Hastings Donnan
Peter L. Berger


Regarding “religion,” many scholars and scholars of religion have attempted to create a definition that includes theistic and non-theistic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, theistic and non-theistic Hinduism), while excluding political, economic, secular, or humanistic ideologies (Marxism, Stalinism, humanism, liberalism, nationalism, patriotism, capitalism, etc.). The act of pinning down a precise definition of “religion ” has proved so problematic that many scholars do not attempt a definition at all, asserting that others must know what they mean. Despite its imperfections, John Hicks definition is most useful for this discussion.

Hicks proposes that “religion ” is “an understanding of the universe, together with an appropriate way of living within it, which involves reference beyond the natural world to God or gods or to the Absolute or to a transcendent order or process. ” This definition includes theistic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and theistic Hinduism) and non-theistic faiths (Theravada Buddhism and non-theistic Hinduism), while it excludes “’naturalistic’ systems of belief such as communism and humanism. ”

William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence

Additionally, Hector Avalos in Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence, defines “religion ” as “a mode of life and thought that presupposes the existence of, and relationship with, unverifiable forces and/or beings. ” This essay emphasizes the importance of religion as one kind of ideology within a world of conflicting ideologies. Like other ideological institutions, religion is attractive due to the human nature desire to belong; since religion discusses and deals with philosophical and psychological questions of humanity’s and individual people’s purpose in life, the bond of those within a particular religious grouping is strong.

Violence & Religious Violence

Essentially, the more a person identifies with an ideology, the greater the sense of connection between individuals identifying with the same ideology. The nature of religion as a particular ideology has a propensity to bond individuals — not unlike any other form of ideology — which, when combined with its politicization or psychological and sociological hold over people, has the ability to produce something called “religious violence. ”

Before it can be understood what “religious violence ” is, a definition for “violence ” must be provided. According to Hector Avalos, “violence ” is “the act of modifying and/or inflicting pain upon the human body in order to express or impose power differentials. ” Avalos utilizes this definition of violence in relation to religion as he argues that violence is driven by scarce resources — whether real or perceived — and that “religious violence ” is violence caused by the scarce resource of salvation that religion necessarily creates.

Cavanaugh discusses Charles Selengut’s definition of “violence, ” borrowed from John Hall: he argues “violence ” is understood to be “’actions that inflict, threaten or cause injury’ and such action[s] may be ‘corporal, written or verbal’ ” (231). While this essay agrees most with Selengut’s/Hall’s definition of “violence, ” this definition does not discuss the element of intentionality in regards to violence, which is a crucial facet of harmful actions imposed on someone or something else.

Mark Juergensmeyer, in Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, discusses the interrelation of religion and violence: both are methods employed to challenge or replace authority and have “emerged at times when authority is in question ” (231). While “violence, ” Juergensmeyer argues, gains its power from force, “religion ” gains its power “from its claims to ultimate order. ” He goes on to state that, as an ideology of public order, religion plays a significant role in various parts of the world and in combination with various other ideologies.

Though his book states that religion is not innocent, it also states that religion “does not ordinarily lead to violence ” (10). He argues that “religious violence ” occurs “only with the coalescence of a peculiar set of circumstances — political, social, and ideological — when religion becomes fused with violent expressions of social aspirations, personal pride, and movements for political change. ”

Cavanaugh, on the other hand, argues that “religion ” is an artificial construct and, therefore, “religious violence ” does not exist. Since, at any given time, what counts as “religion ” and “secular ” is “a function of different configurations of power, ” a definitive distinction between the two cannot be made (4). Thus, understanding violence through a religious-secular dichotomy is unhelpful insofar as it presumes “secular violence ” to be ignored or praised, while “’religious violence’ creates the villains against which a liberal social order defines itself ” (14).

While this essay does not argue for a religious-secular dichotomy when understanding the violence perpetrated throughout the world, it also claims that Cavanaugh’s argument regarding the lack of anything called “religious violence ” at all is ultimately unhelpful when attempting to understand contemporary international conflicts, since it is undeniable that people commit violence in the name of religion.

This essay serves to make a similar point to Juergensmeyer: while it does not deny that there is something called “religious violence ” — just as there is “secular violence, ” “political violence, ” or “economic violence ” — it claims that religion is no more inherently violent than any other ideology, and that religious violence occurs in combination with particular psychological, political, or social aspects, whereby religion is the ideological method used to express the inherently violent nature of people.

Theories Regarding Religion’s Inherit Propensity Towards Violence

Within the contemporary age of globalization, numerous religion writers and theorists call for a reform of religion, arguing for secularization and rational thought as global universals to combat religions’ “inherit propensity towards violence ” and the ramifications of this belief.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Hector Avalos, and the New Atheists (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Barker, and Daniel Dennett) all discuss the problems of religion, specifically monotheism, believing it to cause unnecessary violence in the world. While there is truth in these theorists’ proposal of religious violence — and even in the necessitation for reform, or adaptation to modernity — the claim that religion is inherently more prone to violence than other ideologies is false.

All ideologies have a propensity for violence in the sense that humanity is inherently violent, all people have the potential for violence, and all have the potential to commit violence in the name of human-constructed ideological categories, some of which are considered to be religious.

While Avalos expresses religions’ propensity towards violence in regards to its creation of scarce resources, Hirsi Ali focuses specifically on Islam — claiming it to have a greater propensity towards violence than other contemporary religions, which have all assimilated into the modern world — and Barker claims, in his chapter titled “Genocidal, ” of his book, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, that the greatest atrocities in all of history are religious, thus speaking to religions’ greater propensity for violence than other ideologies. Though compelling, the claims of these three authors possess inaccuracies and mistakenly assume that religion has an inherit propensity towards violence, more so than other ideologies.

With significant capacities to instill in people the desire to belong, monotheism has a great ability “to unite and mobilize humans on behalf of great undertakings, and to also plunge them into bitter and often bloody conflict, ” as understood in Rodney Stark’s One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism. As an ideology that speaks to the existence of unverifiable beings and places, and that addresses deep psychological and philosophical fears regarding the nature of human existence, religion simultaneously bonds people together in “a group toward which they feel a strong sense of solidarity — mutual feelings of common identity, purpose, and concerns, ” and divides them, pitting religious groupings against each other “as strangers and enemies ” (33).

Essentially, religion as an ideology creates a common culture comprised of a common language, traditions, and history that serve to establish clear borders between the various religious ideologies, as well as between other types of ideologies.

In regards to monotheism, the claim of the existence of only one God necessarily implies that all other gods of other religious ideologies must be false, leading to Avalos’s claim that monotheistic religions have a great propensity towards violence since it creates insiders and outsiders of those who have faith in any particular religion.

Arguing that religions are prone to violence and that religious violence is “more tragic than nonreligious violence, ” Avalos outlines a theory of religious violence in regards to its ability for conflict due to its creation of resources that are always in demand (18). First, Avalos argues that most violence and conflict is due to scarce resources, which “can range from love in a family to oil on a global scale. ”

Second, religious violence occurs due to its creation of scarce resources: scriptural access to God’s will; sacred space, which is declared more valuable and therefore in higher demand; group privileging within a religion; and salvation as a set of valued beliefs with high costs that some might not be able to accept (110).

The re-appropriation of the term “resource ” to mean “anything that is believed to be necessary or advantageous to a certain mode of living, ” is problematic in and of itself, as it creates the potential for anything to become a resource, and thus the term becomes somewhat meaningless. Additionally, his ultimate claim that scarcities within religion “render religion a more tragic source of violence, ” has no basis (100). Conflicts comprising issues of scarce resources entail political or economic ideological involvement; religious violence could take part surrounding the issue of a scarce resource, but the nature of the conflict would arise from nonreligious ideologies.

While Avalos argued that the nature of all religions are inherently prone to violence and that religious violence is more tragic than nonreligious violence, Hirsi Ali focuses specially on Islam’s inherent violence and need for reform. Hirsi Ali, in Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, believes Islam to have a particular propensity to violence and argues that while “other religions have undergone a process of reform, modifying core beliefs and adopting more tolerant and flexible attitudes compatible with modern, pluralistic societies, ” Islam has resisted change and the modernity imposed by the West for 1,400 years (25).

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

As an absolutist regarding ideological creeds, Hirsi Ali argues vehemently for liberalism, secularism, and the freedoms of the West, positing that Islam creates a culture of oppression due to its aversion to adaptation. Specifically, she argues that five precepts central to the faith need to be reformed for its propensity towards violence to be quelled: Muhammad’s infallible status and the literalist reading of the Qur’an; the investment in life after death rather than life before death; Shari’a and Islamic jurisprudence; the practice of encouraging people to enforce Islamic Law; and the imperative to wage jihad, or holy war (24). She argues that “violence committed in the name of Islam is so often justified by the Qur’an, ” and Muslims must be encouraged to engage in critical reflection of their holy text (94).

This claim, however, is not unique to Islam; religious violence committed in the name of any religion — though it can take various forms and have a variety of justifications — has the potential to be instigated by the sacred text of the religion, and propelled by the psychological and social desire to belong.

New Atheist thinker, Dan Barker, discusses genocidal atrocities and argues that since the greatest “human annihilation ” was religious, religion is inherently more prone to violence and religious violence “causes more practical harm ” (135-6).

Barker discusses various genocides throughout history — the European Holocaust, the American Indian Holocaust, and the Rwandan genocide — but claims that Noah’s flood described in Genesis was “by far the largest single act of genocide, ” whereby God is understood to be “the most horrific genocidal monster of history, ” and religious violence is deemed the most horrendous form of violence.

Barker continues citing examples from the Bible of religious violence throughout the chapter, attempting to prove that religion is more violent than other ideologies. His focus on Biblical stories to prove religions’ inherently violent nature seems odd, since these stories cannot be proven; thus, his argument is illogical and irrelevant. While it is undeniable that violence is present within the Bible, it does not prove that history panned out the way the Bible claims, nor does it prove that religion is any more prone to violence than other ideologies.

Paul Copan, in Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of The Old Testament God, and William Cavanaugh, argue opposite that of Avalos, Hirsi Ali, and Barker, claiming that religion is not necessarily prone to violence. Copan and Cavanaugh take distinct approaches, wherein Copan argues against the claims of the New Atheists, working his way through various parts of the Bible and pointing out the inaccuracies of common arguments regarding religions’ inherent violent nature, and concluding with the argument that “we actually need more religion, not less ” (199). Cavanaugh instead argues that there is violence in the world, but “religious violence ” does not exist since the distinction between what is religious and what is secular is impossible to make.

Further, there is a critical inability in religious scholarship “to identify a transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion, separate from politics, with a peculiar tendency to promote violence that is absent from secular realities; ” thus, there exists a myth surrounding the idea of religious violence (225). This myth, Cavanaugh argues, serves to reinforce adherence to a secular order, presents non-Western and non-secular social orders as “inherently irrational and prone to violence, ” and is useful in justifying “secular violence against religious actors; their irrational violence must be met with rational violence. ”

While I disagree with Cavanaugh’s claim that there is no such thing as religious violence, or religion, I believe there is truth in the argument that secular violence is viewed as rational, whereas religion itself is viewed as irrational, and thus more prone to violence. This belief — heavily emphasized by the New Atheists — condones secular violence in the name of stopping religious violence, which is contradictory, immature, and serves to prove the point of this paper: people are inherently violent and their violence is expressed through ideological conflicts.

Copan discusses the New Atheists and the Neo-atheists further, pointing out discrepancies in their arguments and ultimately claiming that religion is not the problem when it comes to violence in the world. First, Copan states that “for all [the neo-atheists’] emphasis on cool-headed, scientific rationality, they express themselves not just passionately but angrily ” (16). While I understand the argument of the apparent hypocritical behavior, the neo-atheists are no different from any other grouping of people in that they are equally prone to passionate emotionality.

Though I would like to agree with Copan’s arguments against the New Atheists — in that the New Atheists insist on the inherently harmful and violent nature of religion, such that it should modernize into Western secularism — the first critique he presents says nothing about their ideological claims. Second, Copan states that “the Neo-atheists’ arguments against God’s existence are surprisingly flimsy, often resembling the simplistic village atheist far more than the credentialed academician ” (17) Utilizing a combination of emotion, verbal rhetoric, and “fallacious argumentation, ” the Neo-atheists mispresent the faith they are critiquing; therefore, their assertion of religions’ inherent violent nature is moot.

Lastly, and most importantly, Copan argues that the New Atheists “aren’t willing to own up to atrocities committed in the name of atheism by Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mao Zedong, yet they expect Christians to own up to all barbarous acts performed in Jesus’ name ” (18). Copan states that Dennett argued Stalin was something of a religious figure — though he was a hard-core atheist — and thus, killed in the name of religion, not atheism.

Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany

Further, New Atheists do not acknowledge immorality in the name of atheism, such as the Inquisition, the Holocaust, or horrific serial killers, such as Jeffrey Dahmer. While the New Atheists make valid points regarding violence in the name of religion, they do not address that the potential for violence exists within all ideologies, and the fault is not entirely that of religion. Copan concludes by arguing that religion is not the problem, “but we need the right kind of religious values, not simply anything that calls itself religious (think Jim Jones, David Koresh, and jihadists) ” (199).

This claim, nothing more than a personal ideological assertion of Copan’s, almost serves to undermine the valid points he makes in regards to the New Atheists — what exactly are the “right kind of religious values, ” since any ideology has the potential for violence or immortality depending on the ways in which an individual or group of people choose to utilize it? Though their approaches are drastically different, Copan and Cavanaugh both disagree with the claim that religion is inherently violent and provide rationales that discredit arguments (Avalos, Hirsi Ali, and Barker/New Atheists/Neo-Atheists) regarding religions’ inherent propensity towards violence.

Read Part II here.

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