A recent discussion on Facebook centered on whether or not religion is responsible for violence. The context, naturally, is the mass murders in Paris magazine office perpetuated by Muslim terrorists, but could refer to 9/11 or any other multiple outrages around the world.
Sometimes, the link is obscured. For example, the African group, Boko Haram, which has kidnapped young women and killed thousands, is actually trying to impose strict Muslim law, but that aspect is overshadowed by its vicious actions.
The simple answer is: no, religion is not responsible for all violence. Just for starters, FBI statistics show that 14,866 murders were committed in the U.S. in 2013. Few of the killers were motivated by religion. That’s equally true for the criminals who ran up 1.2 million violent crimes that year. Religion didn’t prompt their unwarranted actions either.
However, religion is responsible for violence and has been throughout human history.
Until the separation of church and state in the United States, people lived completely in the embrace of religion. No aspect of life escaped its clutches. No one, not even the most powerful emperor, was immune. When a country was conquered, its citizens typically accepted the faith of the winners. The invaders' god had to be stronger.
As a result, when ancient Israel fell to the Assyrians, the erstwhile Jewish residents assimilated. The 10 tribes weren’t “lost,” but rather incorporated into the new state and its religion. Judeans about 190 years later were able to retain their beliefs because the conquering Persians were Zoroastrians, a faith that believes in free will. Free to pick a religion, many Jews stuck with their ancient faith, allowing it to survive.
Persia was an exception. Alexander the Great tried to impose his Greek culture on the lands he overran. The Romans did allow vanquished people to retain their own religions, but obligated everyone to pray to Roman gods and emperors. That created some of the conflict from Jews in the enslaved Judea and their overlords at the time of Jesus.
Once Christianity became the sole religion of the dying Roman Empire in the late 4th century, people of other faiths were ostracized and attacked, religious buildings burned, and texts destroyed.
non-Christians often buried sacred writing, some of which were finally unearthed starting around about 150 or so years ago.
Christians then perfected the art of religious murder by inventing heresy, burning many conveniently identified as heretics, attacking pagan groups in military maneuvers and persecuting everyone who didn’t accept their creed.
After the rise of Islam, Muslim leaders did the same thing among the non-Muslim populations through the Middle East, Africa and Western Europe. The two sides frequently faced off. At times, one invaded the other, such as during the Crusades, and the subsequent Muslim conquest of Christian Constantinople and battles outside Vienna, Austria.
Religion became less of a cause for war in more recent times as the separation of Church and State has become a more common approach in the West.
However, that’s not true in the Muslim world where religion still dictates. Just a few examples: In Afghanistan, the Taliban want to impose strict Muslim law. Religious leaders run Iraq. The king of Saudi Arabia needs approval from imams before he can take any action affecting his citizens.
As a result, residents do not understand that, in the West, writers and artists can and do mock religious ideas without fear of reprisal. Even the grossest representations, such as crosses in urinals, have been placed in art museums. Outrage follows along with protests, but not terrorists’ attacks. So far, the most-common targets have been abortion clinics and their doctors as religious zealots without any awareness of the irony try to use violence to end what they claim is violence in the clinics.
Bereft of an understanding of Western culture, Muslim extremists are trying to overcome what they see as a relentless Christian attack on their beliefs. They don’t commit random forms of violence, but rather are lashing out in all directions in a misguided effort to counter the media tide.
Therefore, without question, religion is at least a significant cause of violence. Today, most of the terrorists appear to be Muslim. However, given similar circumstances, devout Christians and Jews would do the same thing. After all, a pious Jew, Baruch Goldstein, shot up a Jerusalem mosque in 1994, killing 29 Palestinian Muslims and wounding another 125. In the brief time period in the distant past when Judaism was the dominant faith, leaders condoned the murder of those who violated its laws and, as the Bible records, authorized the annihilation of non-Jewish tribes defeated in battle, such as the Amalekites.
In Christianity has also fostered killers. As one example, devout Christian
Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal office building
In Oklahoma City in 1995, killed 168 people.
The link between religion and violence remains as strong as ever. In fact, religion will continue to engender violence as long as any faith proclaims itself as the sole bear of truth and the single avenue to God. Christianity and Muslim both insist that nonbelievers will suffer in Hell. To prove it, they are busily creating a hell on Earth for each other and everyone else who gets trapped in the crossfire.
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net. He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. He can also be followed on Twitter.
You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1