January 16, 2019

Does Religion Encourage or Prevent Violence?

“Almost the very first stories in the Bible are of violence; expulsion from Eden is soon followed by angry fratricide. And as Jonathan Sacks reminds us, we are the stories we tell.

Many approaches to understanding violence in religion either link it to an imperative to holiness, as in holy wars fought to preserve a particular ideology, or else commentators narrow the focus in order to ignore our more difficult traditional texts, highlighting instead those that affirm our own morality. A good example of the latter are the texts in Deuteronomy which require trying to negotiate peace before attacking a city and even then leaving an escape route for its inhabitants.

Some see violence as a natural extension of religion, blaming it for creating “us and them”, a narrative which will always lead to imbalances of power and perceived value of the different groups. So, for example, the internal patriarchal suppression of women can be supported by religious texts, as can the view that those who do not share the same religious worldview are lesser than us and are unsavable and animalistic.

Monotheism has been blamed for creating a sense of superiority and intolerance among its adherents, as the perfect crucible for seeing the other as “less than” us. Supercessionist theologies regularly diminish and dishonour that which came before.

But is religion actually a contributor to violence or is it a way of constraining it?

Aggression is older than love. Violence is both existentially human and a force that belongs to the natural world. Two recent books discuss religious violence and bring refreshing nuance to a vexed subject.”

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