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Religion and Violence: An Interesting Conversation

Some friends are visiting from Alberta and we spent part of yesterday over at a market in North Vancouver. After a bit of shopping our friends’ kids were getting a little restless so we camped out in the play area for a while and let them run off some steam with the other kids. As we were sitting around watching the kids play, we struck up a conversation with a gentleman who was there taking care of his granddaughter. After a bit of pleasant small-talk, the conversation turned, as it inevitably does, to where everyone’s from and what they do.

“Where are you originally from?” I asked him, after learning North Vancouver was not his place of origin. “Yugoslavia,” came the reply. I’m always curious to hear the stories of people who have been through considerable turmoil and upheaval, so I asked him what the area he is from is now known as. “Slovenia,” he said. “It’s a beautiful place, but we had to leave when all of the fighting started.” My friend and I nodded, and didn’t say anything more. Then, out of the blue, the man said, “you know, if you look at pretty much any part of the world where there’s fighting, the main problem is always religion.”

I was a little surprised—you don’t often hear someone speak in such strong terms about such a potentially loaded topic with virtual strangers, after all. Perhaps ironically, given that I had just handed in a chapter of my thesis devoted in large part to the very assertion this man had made, I didn’t quite know how to respond. After all, for this man, the issue of religion and violence was not merely an academic one. He was tragically familiar with a situation where religion was at least perceived to be a major factor in fomenting hostility, and leading to massive suffering and dislocation. Who was I to presume to contradict him on the topic of religion’s role in violence?

Well, as it turns out I didn’t really say anything—but my expression must have given me away because he looked at me and said, “you don’t agree?” Well, now there was no hiding from it. No more seeking refuge in words left unsaid, no more possibility of casually steering the discussion in another direction. I had been asked a direct question and a direct response seemed obligatory. “No,” I said, “I don’t agree.” I told him that I thought that while religion could be a causal agent in some conflict, more often it performed the task of what David Martin has called “mediation”—it “mediates” or “transcendentalizes” other forms of social differentiation (ethnicity, for example) providing a kind of spiritual veneer in the attempt to legitimize what is, at root, a complicated combination of social, political, economic, and racial differences. “Religion” can, and often does, serve as a heuristic device, a handy tag with which to label and limit the complex set of causal factors which lead to violence.

I braced myself for the response, but there was none forthcoming. He nodded a bit, but seemed uninterested in talking about the matter further. So we left it at that. The conversation moved to other, less divisive topics (although we did manage to cover some politics as well). But I couldn’t stop thinking about our discussion for the rest of the day. A strong—even necessary—connection between religion and violence is a view that has considerable cultural traction these days, I think. Maybe it’s just the reading I’ve been doing for the last year, but the sense I get is that many people believe that all of our problems would be solved if we could just find a way to eliminate religion.

Of course the question of religion’s role in violence depends, in large measure, on how “religion” is defined. Often, “religion” is just used to refer to whatever anyone happens to believe about the meaning and purpose of life and the shape society ought to take—especially if they believe it strongly enough to be willing to resort to violence to defend it. This becomes particularly obvious when one watches, for example, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins awkwardly try to cram Josef Stalin or Mao Tse Tung into the “religious” camp to avoid the charge that atheism hasn’t exactly proven to be a benign force throughout history. If Stalin is “religious” then the claim “religion is the cause of violence” amounts to little more than the claim “strongly-held beliefs about the world are the cause of violence.”

Meic Pearse’s The Gods of War arrived from my brother this week and I spent a bit of time reading it yesterday after we got back from the market. For Pearse, the statement “religion leads to violence” is a somewhat vacuous one because people have always been and will always be willing to fight about the things most important to them:

[A]side from human greed and power for things, the principal cause of warfare throughout history has been conflict over the shape of society itself, in terms of its meaning, its traditions or perceived traditions, and its culture. Where that is perceived to be under threat, people will be willing to fight. And religion, historically and in the present, has been one of the biggest single frames of meaning.

Human beings are meaning-seekers. We need to understand ourselves and our world in terms of a narrative which tells us who we are, what’s wrong with the world, and how this can be (or has been) addressed. The narratives we embrace may or may not include a “supernatural” component but everybody has an answer to these questions – either implicitly or explicitly – because they are important questions. Questions having to do with who we are, what, if anything, we’re here for, and how we ought to order society matter deeply to us and this has led to a good deal of violence.

That doesn’t make it right, nor does it mean that we ought not to try to find ways of ordering society that can allow for the peaceful co-existence of people who continue to profoundly disagree about the kinds of meta-questions mentioned above. But the cultural assumption that our problems would be solved (or at least ameliorated) if we would all just stop caring so much about the meta-questions seems pretty naive to me.

Toward the end of our discussion at the market in North Vancouver, we turned to the question of what we “do” for a living. “I’m an accountant,” my friend said. “I’m finishing off a graduate degree,” I said. “Oh yeah, what are you studying?” our Slovenian friend asked. “Theology.” “Theology?!” [I gulped – I’m quite accustomed to abrupt changes of topic when people discover that I’m “religious,” but given our preceding discussion I hadn’t quite known what to expect] “That’s great! You know, I spend a lot of time reading and studying about astronomy… I find the ‘higher’ questions about life to be just fascinating…” “The higher questions” and “religion” were, apparently, two very different things in this man’s mind. “Religion” was to be avoided, but the “higher questions” were obviously an important element of this man’s life. And maybe that’s OK. If “religious” equals dogmatic certainty about the higher questions and a willingness to resort to violence to promote/defend them, then I suppose I’m not very “religious” either.

After the man had talked about his astronomy for a while, he concluded “You know it really is amazing, the world that Almighty God has made. It’s a miracle, really.” “I agree,” I said. It seemed like a good way to end a very interesting half-hour.

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