March 4, 2015

Religion and Violence

The skyline of Ahmedabad filled with smoke as ...
The skyline of Ahmedabad filled with smoke as buildings and shops are set on fire by rioting mobs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Continuing on with the recent topic of the relationship between religious ideology and violent behavior, we are forced to confront the reality that only a tiny number of religious adherents commit acts of extreme violence. The murder of physicians who provide abortions by Christian extremists is an extremely rare occurrence. The murder of individuals who dare to draw Muhammad by Muslim extremists is also exceedingly rare. If religious ideology caused this sort of violence, wouldn't we have to expect much more of it?

This is a misleading question because virtually nobody is claiming that the relationship between religious belief and violence is a simple linear one that does not involve a constellation of other variables. The claim, at least as I am familiar with it, is that religious belief provides a justification for violence and a context in which certain types of violence are supported. The claim is not typically that religious believers are inherently more violent merely because they are religious believers.

At the same time, I would find it very difficult to argue that one's religious beliefs were completely irrelevant to the manner in which one justifies one's treatment of others or the treatment of others by members of one's religious tribe. Some Muslims are perfectly willing to speak out against the violent extremists who use their religion to justify violence. And yet, there are reasons that certain cartoon-related "offenses" result in violence and others do not. I could not reasonably claim that Islam was not among these reasons.

According to the National Secular Society, a recent opinion poll of Muslims residing in the UK revealed some interesting findings about the acceptability of certain forms of violence:
10% of UK Muslims aged 18-34 agreed with the statement that "organisations which publish images of the Prophet Mohammed deserve to be attacked". 14% of over 45s agreed, as did 7% of 35-44 year olds. Overall, 11% of UK Muslims agreed with the statement, with 85% disapproving and 3% saying they "didn't know."
Some will see these results and exclaim, "Only 11% of UK Muslims agreed. See how rare these attitudes are! Islam has nothing to do with such actions." But remember that the question asked whether organizations that publish images of Mohammed deserve to be attacked. Even though 11% is certainly better than something like 30%, doesn't it still seem far too high a number?

This is the point where I'll be accused of focusing too much on Islam, picking on Muslims, or something similar. But Islam is just one example of the sort of thing we're talking about. When Christian extremists in the U.S. commit violent acts, they almost always point to their religious beliefs to justify their actions. Their victims are usually not selected at random but on the basis of the offender's religious ideology.

It is certainly true that the 11% number from the survey of UK Muslims is a much smaller number than some other disturbing numbers we have seen from U.S. Christians on subjects such as refusing to accept the reality of evolution or climate change, refusing to vaccinate their children, opposing marriage equality for same-sex couples or reproductive rights for women, and so on. A recent poll of Republican voters from Pew found that 57% supported establishing Christianity as the national religion, Constitution be damned. But as disturbing as such findings are, they do not involve condoning violence.

So while I am not suggesting that the attitudes of some U.S. Christians mentioned above are equivalent to the support for violence against cartoonists by some UK Muslims, I still believe that such attitudes provide a context that we should examine if we want to understand the behavior of the group that holds them. When a Muslim extremist kills someone and tells the world that he did it for some sort of god, his religious beliefs deserve consideration. When a Christian extremist kills someone and tells the world that he did it for some sort of god, his religious beliefs deserve consideration. I would not expect religious beliefs to be the only relevant factor in either case, but I would expect them to have some relevance in both cases.

Update: Since writing this post, I decided to follow it up with one on atheism and violence.

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