Religion, War and Terrorism

In a fascinating, engaging, and wide-ranging talk in the New St Cross Special Ethics Seminar series, Professor Tony Coady provided several powerful arguments against the increasingly widespread assumption that religion, and religions, have a tendency to violence, particularly through war or terrorism.

To start with, we need to recognize the complexity of human motivation. It is tempting, for example, to associate suicide bombing with religion, in particular that of Islam, but in fact careful analysis by Robert Pape has plausibly concluded that most suicide attempts are best understood in political terms – for example, as attempts to coerce modern democracies to withdraw their forces from land taken by the suicide attacker to be under illegal occupation. Scott Atran and others have shown how many of the young men who sign up to ‘jihad’ have only a superficial understanding of that notion or its religious context.

In many cases of extreme violence, religion has played no significant role, while other, non-religious ideologies have. An excessive focus on religion can lead to non-religious factors being ignored: Osama Bin Laden, for example, spoke not only of holy duties, but of the Israeli occupation of Palestine lands. And even if some religions, or some forms of some religions, do have a tendency to inspire violence in their followers, this is not true of all. Indeed research suggests a correlation between taking religion seriously and opposition to violence, which is hardly surprising given the eirenic doctrines at the heart of many religions. In general, while it is true that religion is often a significant component of a person’s identity, and attachment to identity can often lead to violence if that identity is threatened, there are many other components which have similar potential.

But what about more narrow objections, against involvement by particular religions in certain acts of violence, or against the tendencies of particular religions rather than religion in general? If one is to claim that religion causes violence, one ought to have a clear view on what a cause actually is. If what is meant is that the violence would have occurred if other factors (such as political grievances) had been absent, then this will be hard indeed to prove. Religion would be at most one factor among others, and quite posssibly not the most significant (though of course there are exceptions, such as the Christian crusades).

It is sometimes said that religions inspire fanaticism; for example, the belief in an afterlife might justify unconstrained violence. But there are many non-religious fanatics and dogmatists – consider, say, the totalitarians of the twentieth century. Further, religious fanatics are often open to criticisms of blasphemy, from within their own religion. And the religious are often the most vocal in denouncing non-religious violence – consider the response of many Christians to the terror bombing of civilians in the Second World War.

Whatever one thinks of Coady’s specific claims about particular religions or non-religious movements, his talk demonstrates beyond question the unhelpfulness of evaluative generalizations about notions as complex as religion. Certain ‘new atheists’ would be well advised to take note.


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2 Responses to Religion, War and Terrorism

  • Keith Tayler says:

    As an ‘old atheist’ I accept that mental health issues, social alienation, misinformation, post imperialism, politics, etc., influence and sometimes are the major “causes” of violent behaviour that is often ascribed to religious beliefs. However, we should always place these causes within the context of the religious beliefs which are, especially in the case of the Abrahamic religions, founded upon the doctrine that might is right and an extremely violent hatred of the ‘other’.

    Religion is indeed complex, but certain theists should avoid giving atheist advice – be they new or old – without taking note of their own religious texts. Although they are certainly not the solo cause of extreme religious hatred and violence, they must be a major driver and the harm they do to both young and old minds should be recognised when considering the causes of violent behaviour in those that have been indoctrinated.

  • Roger Crisp says:

    Thanks, Keith. I think Tony would agree with most of this, though he’d point out — as he does in the lecture — that there are positive messages as well as negative in many religious texts. He’s claiming not that religion is good overall, just that it looks like a mistake confidently to claim it’s bad.

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