Religious violence is in the news these days with the attack by al-Qaeda operatives that murdered cartoonists in Paris, allegedly because of cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. The brutality of the Islamic State continues unabated, the Taliban commits atrocities against women, and less-extreme Muslims all over the world look on all this with dread and concern. Violent Islam is in the news, but other religions aren’t far behind. In several African countries, Christians engage in literal witch hunts, while American Christian extremists continue to engage in violence against gay people and providers of reproductive health services. Even some Buddhists are getting into the act, terrorizing Muslims in Sri Lanka.
Where is all of this violence coming from? It’s not central to the teachings of any of the religions claimed by those who do the vile deeds. Not that either Christianity or Islam is any stranger to violence historically, of course, but attempts to blame the viciousness on (for example) teachings appearing in the Quran or the Hadith amount to special pleading, and ignore the fact that violence is quite rare among followers of Jesus or of Muhammad, as in fact it’s rare among people in general.
On the whole, the level of religious violence in the world is declining. This makes it stand out all the more when it happens. Christianity’s past is soaked with blood: the torture and murder of heretics, the slaughter of Jews, pagans, and Muslims, the Crusades, religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Yet today, Christians for the most part seem to have risen above the brutality of the past. Or have they? In the West, in Europe and North America, yes, with the occasional religious-right exception. But today, Christianity is increasingly a religion of the Southern Hemisphere, especially Latin America. Religious conflict and persecution continue in a Christian context, emerging with the greatest ferocity in majority-Christian developing countries.
At the same time, Muslims living in the West increasingly adopt Western values, including many things we reflexively think are in conflict with Islam (it’s not actually that clear-cut): feminism and gay rights, for example, and secular government in general. Educated Muslims living in advanced societies tend to look upon Islamic terrorists with horror, partly because their behavior comes from no version of Islam they want anything to do with, and partly because they know how easily that kind of thing can provoke a backlash threatening the lives and livelihoods of Muslims everywhere in the West. (Which may actually be the terrorists’ intent.)
Where Does it Come From?
If one wishes to nitpick scripture, it’s pretty clear that the actions of Muslim and Christian terrorists violate injunctions in the Quran and/or words of Jesus or the Apostles in the New Testament. The Quran clearly enjoins Muslims to be at peace with unbelievers who are willing to live in peace with Muslims, and to fight only in defense against the attacks of infidels. The Jesus of the Gospels frequently exhorted his disciples to mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, and similar advice comes from the Apostles in their letters.
This kind of argument convinces no one who is determined to engage in violence, unfortunately. Passages in scripture that condemn certain kinds of behavior or belief or people are enough to justify the violence in their eyes, and they fudge over passages leaving the punishment up to God.
Nitpicking scripture may make the co-religionists of the violent feel a bit better, but it does nothing to help us understand why the violence is happening. The terrorists and other violent folk are clearly acting in accordance with their own understanding of their religions, so saying that they are not acting in accord with “real Islam” or “real Christianity” serves no practical purpose.
At the same time, it also doesn’t do much good to pander to bigotry. Condemning Islam as a religion of violence, when most Muslims aren’t violent, doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it makes even less sense to condemn all religious belief because some people commit violence in the name of theirs. There’s a clear distinction to be drawn between religious people who commit acts of violence and those who don’t. Any explanation or understanding that fails to recognize that distinction is lacking in nuance.
But on the other hand, some of the facile arguments advanced that attribute all religious violence to some convenient secular resentment, e.g. against Western imperialism, also sound facile and are much too glib. When violent people say they are committing their violence for religious reasons, we should recognize that that is indeed part of their motivation. But what does it mean exactly? Why do these particular people find themselves inclined to commit terrorist acts, when most of their co-religionists not only don’t join in, but condemn the violence?
How Religion is Changing
At root, religion is an attempt to give intellectual clothing to spiritual experience. As I noted in the last post, spiritual experience gives us an understanding that is non-propositional — it can’t be literally expressed in words or symbols — and so all religious ideas regarding the nature of the sacred are metaphors and myths. One of the questions emerging from spirituality is, “How does this impact the way we should live?” Hence the religious involvement in questions of morality, social justice, and human relations generally.
But such questions don’t involve spirituality alone. Moral questions are always asked in a material context: they are questions of what we should do, given a set of circumstances and possible actions. As those circumstances and the possible actions we can take change, moral values become outdated and either wrong or irrelevant. When the pace of change is glacial, as it was throughout the agrarian age, religions can make claims to timelessness. But today, change is rapid. Moral values have had to adapt. Many things that were once acceptable are now condemned, and other things that were once condemned are now acceptable.
Believers in the timelessness of the old agrarian age religions are often uncomfortable with these changes, and that leads, at the apex of fanaticism, to religiously-motivated violence in an attempt to force a stop to the decline in the old ways. But among those who don’t engage in violence, other sorts of circle-the-wagons behavior emerge, including political activism aimed at shoring up the decaying structure of old dogmas and commandments through legal and governmental, rather than private force.
It Will Pass
This trend is not the future. It’s a last-ditch attempt to preserve the past, and it will fail. Things look frightening at the moment, but these movements exist at all only because our religious consciousness is in transition, and that’s a good thing. As the transition continues, the attempt to stop it will crest and decline, and with it the violence and terrorism we’re currently seeing.
If I’m right about this, the peak should be either on us already, or soon to come. The religions of the future, which will include new ones, transformed versions of the old ones, and increasing numbers of people who, although spiritual and in a sense religious, don’t identify with any one tradition to the exclusion of all others. We will come to see the ugly things going on today as no more than growing pains.