When Religion Gets Violent


May 21, 2009


Recent books by proponents of atheism like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have included indictments of religion for promoting violence, rhapsodizing about the newly humane and peaceful world that would result if religion could only disappear. (Somehow they are not particularly troubled by the deaths of more than a hundred-million victims of atheistic violence during the 20th century at the hands of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse-Tung, and others.)

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Violence under the auspices of religion is, of course, a problem. Religious people do bad things, frequently terriblethings. But the essential issue is how much their religion itself is responsible for the bad things they do.

In the Christian New Testament, the gospel message comes down constantly and consistently against violence. When a Samaritan city refused entrance to Jesus’ disciples, and James and John asked Jesus whether they should call down fiery destruction on the city, “Jesus rebuked them” (Lk 9:55). About the closest we get to Christian violence is the passage where Peter sliced off part of the ear of a servant of the high priest (Jn 18:10); and this action was promptly rebuked by Jesus, who told Peter to put his sword back in his scabbard, and warned him that those who live by the sword will die by it. Then, when standing in judgment before Pilate, Jesus explained that His followers did not battle the Jews who were arresting him because His “kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36).

In Revelation, we do indeed hear much about the war being waged by Michael and his angels against the devil (12:7), but the final victory of Christ is assured not through military victory but through “the sword of his mouth” (2:16). Until this victory is attained, Jesus warned His disciples that their acquaintance with violence will be on the receiving end: “The hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God” (Jn 16:2). (On the other hand, it must be admitted that the perpetration of an extremely paradoxical type of “violence” is recommended by St. Paul, who advises his Roman congregation (Rom 12:20) to be charitable to their enemies, and promises that by doing this the Roman Christians will “heap coals of fire over their heads.”)

There are without doubt elements of violence in the Old Testament. The most egregious case is the use of the “ban” (herem), which involved the wholesale extermination of men, women, children, and sometimes even animals, in campaigns against the enemies of the Israelites. In a Philosophy and Rhetoric article titled “Biblical Terrorism,” I argued that such examples could certainly be dangerous in the hands of the wrong Biblical fundamentalist. These incidents are described as the result of personal revelations to Hebrew heroes like Joshua and Moses, devising tactics of war for taking possession of the lands Yahweh had promised them (see, for example, Dt 3:2, 7:2-5, 20:16; Josh 6:21, 8:26-28, 11:20, 1 Sam 15:3). On the other hand, there is no blanket command for all Israelites to exterminate gentiles. This is important.

Inconveniently, there do seem to be such blanket commands in Islam. Sura 2.191 of the Koran, for example, commands Muslims, “Kill [unbelievers] wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out….” In Sura 8:12, Allah says, “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them,” and Sura 9:5 commands, “When the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them.” There are many similar Suras enjoining violence.

It is difficult to interpret these passages, primarily because in Islamic tradition the verses of the Koran are not received secondhand from a prophet or apostle but are supposed to be the precise words of Allah, passed on directly through Allah’s messenger, the prophet Mohammed. Thus, nothing like the current use by Christian Scripture scholars of the “historical-critical” method, or the division of books into various “sources,” is allowed; that is,interpretation, in the usual sense of the word, is not an option. For example, an Islamic scholar could not say that the mandates for forcible subjection of Jews and Christians in Sura 9 are simply time-bound exhortations restricted to the realities of ancient Arabic culture and not relevant in the contemporary world.

The solution to such a problem is not through theology or scriptural exegesis, but through a higher law, or “natural law.” In my book Natural Law: a Reexamination, I follow St. Thomas Aquinas’s analysis of certain basic tendencies built into human nature — including the drives for self-preservation and the pursuit of truth in all of its aspects. The natural law, in accord with these tendencies, requires a basic respect for life, especially human life, and prohibits irrational destruction of one’s own life or the lives of others; it finds the censorship of all contrary and unwelcome ideas as irrational and unnatural; and it prohibits the forcible imposition of one’s own notion of ideal society on others. If a particular religion fuels hatred for outsiders, recommends “ethnic cleansing,” forbids exposure to any contrary ideas by its members, and prohibits the public practice of any other religion, a rational person, unless he is willing to “kick against the goad” like Paul before his conversion (Acts 26:14), will be able to perceive wrongness in the religion itself, or in its interpretation by religious authorities.

As a response to the multiplicity of terrorist acts by Muslims in our day, a distinction is sometimes made between “moderate” and “extremist” Muslims (or “Jihadists,” or “Islamists”). But with regard to violence in the name of religion in general, the distinction most relevant for Muslims, Christians, Jews — and all other religions — is between basic reasonable human living and the mindless destructiveness that tries to cloak itself in the respectable garb of religious commitment.


  • Howard Kainz

    Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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