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Religious Violence

May 26, 2014

Earlier this week one of my Facebook friends made the mistake of posting the comments of a moderate Muslim denouncing extremists as fringe lunatics. Needless to say he was rapidly dog-piled by people insisting that Islam is a religion of violence.

Now, many of the specific claims these people made were ignorant or illogical. There was a lot of mistaking correlation for causation and a lot of bad correlation – very few of these people seemed to know enough about areas of the world that are economically and socially similar to majority-Islamic areas which would be required to draw meaningful comparisons between countries (this would allow one to actually separate out economic and social drivers of violence from religious ones). However, while the specifics of the modern tendency to describe Islam as a religion of violence are interesting and complex it raises a more interesting question: does religiously-motivated violence exist?

On the surface it seems like it must exist. There are plenty of areas of the world where people fight those who have a different religion than themselves. However, there’s a difference between fighting someone because they have a different religion and wanting to fight someone, realizing that you and they have different religions, and picking that as your excuse to start a fight. Take, for instance, the Uyghur-Han violence in Xinjiang, China. From one side this appears to be religiously-motivated violence: the Muslim Uyghurs attack the non-Muslim Han Chinese, sometimes using the same sorts of terrorist methods used by Islamic radicals elsewhere in the world. However, there is also Han-on-Uyghur violence which can’t really be described as religious since a number of Han Chinese don’t have a clear religious affiliation. Indeed, sometimes the violence against the Uyghur appears to originate from local officials who are probably toeing the Communist Party’s officially non-religious line. It is actually much easier to describe the Han-Uyghur conflict as an ethnic one than a religious one – a descriptor that makes sense out of the actions of both sides. Religion is a marker for ethnicity in part of this conflict but since it isn’t a good marker on the other side it doesn’t make sense to describe this conflict as religious in nature. But that begs the question – if the Han were all uniformly some other religion would we describe the exact same conflict as being driven by religion? If so, does this mean that we need to question other examples of religiously-motivated violence?

Let’s go back in a time for a minute. It seems relatively hard to argue that in today’s world Islam isn’t the religion most likely to spawn violent radicals. However, has this always been true? It’s hard to say since history always has gaps, but during the Middle Ages it seems like no religion was a clear leader in violence (proportional to the size of its follower-base). Of course, this was accomplished not by having less violence between religions, but more. It may be that the violence coming from Islam these days is a holdover that strikes us as odd precisely because many other areas of the world have changed. In fact, if we go back far enough we see a reversal: you’d probably rather be a religious minority living in some of the early Islamic empires than a religious minority living in Christian Europe. However, that itself may be a clue: in that era the Islamic world was a much nicer place to live overall with better medicine, better economies, and more social stability. It’s notable that violence in the name of religion in the modern world doesn’t seem to originate much in the developed world. Sure, America and Europe face occasional acts of terror by religious extremists but many of these are imported extremists or imported extreme ideologies. Perhaps the rule is as simple as this pattern suggests: people who are well-fed and comfortable aren’t about to get up from in front of the TV to kill you for ideological reasons.

This is where I begin to have serious doubts about large-scale religious violence. The United States has relatively little ethnically-driven violence. Sub-Saharan Africa has a lot. The United States has relatively little religious violence. Sub-Saharan Africa seems to have a good share of religious violence. This pattern repeats over and over again. Instead of religious violence tracking with religions, religious violence seems to track with other forms of violence. This suggests that most of the time religion is an excuse for violence that is driven primarily by other factors. This doesn’t mean that religious violence isn’t terrible but it does mean that removing the local religions wouldn’t stop the violence. (Indeed, communist insurgencies have managed to emulate religious violence pretty well in a number of cases which suggests that we should really be talking about ideological violence [unless you wish to embrace my more inclusive definition of religion].)

What doesn’t seem to be deniable is that individuals commit violence for religious motives. The problem comes in scaling this idea up. And, honestly, this is one of the problems I have with American Christians claiming that Islam and Islam alone motivates Muslim terrorists. If this were actually the case then Islam would be far more powerful than Christianity. Here’s the issue: Christians are kind of lame when it comes to following hard dictates of their religion. Christians get divorced at rates not that much different than the culture at large; Christians frequently have sex before marriage; and average church giving for decades has hovered between 2-3% of income despite the fact that most Christians claim to believe that 10% is the standard. If tomorrow everyone’s Bibles changed to say, “Go abandon your home and family to fight people in another country because they aren’t Christian,” almost nobody would do that. If you can’t be bothered to toss in another few percent of your income you aren’t about to risk your life for religion.

Realistically, religion doesn’t seem to motivate people to do much that they wouldn’t already do. While religion seems to be about as effective as culture (another rather amorphous term that can’t always be clearly separated from religion) at changing the way people dress, eat, marry, and so on it seems that religion gets only a small minority to really change the way they live. This is a good thing when we think about religious violence – I’m glad to know that if my neighbors started a religion called “everyone else must die” that they would find few devout adherents (unless there is a pre-existing cadre of people who already would like to kill everyone else). It’s not such a good thing when we think about religious good. I’m quite happy to have very few bin Ladens, I’d like more Mother Theresas.

The irony is that despite the fact that at least one preacher against religion (Richard Dawkins) is an evolutionary biologist it looks like religion rarely breaks the patterns set by our more basic biology. When it comes to life and death most of us act according to the rules derivable for any social primate. Our lofty ideas, the things that make us human, seem not to be responsible for much of what we do except as an afterthought.

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