The following is an expanded version of my presentation in the Science, Religion, and Lunch Seminar held on February 24 at the North Dakota State University.
That religion very often plays a significant role in the etiology of organized violence is indisputable. But the claim being made here goes beyond not only what is historically accurate but also beyond what can be realistically demonstrated.
In order to identify religion as a causal agent in relation to any given phenomenon, whether that phenomenon is a desirable one or an undesirable one, we have to first agree on a working definition of what constitutes religion. We do not need a full and comprehensive definition but we do need to agree on exactly what kind of phenomenon are we referring to when we use the word “religion.”
Is “religion” a system of beliefs and practices that exists somewhere in a vacuum, independent of historical and social changes, shielded from political and economic realities, from where it affects our thoughts and actions but is itself immune from any external influences? Or is it an attitude or orientation that we carry within ourselves, that lives and grows and changes in response to the contingencies of life and history and society?
In the first case, we treat religion as a well-defined entity, a circumscribed “thing” that we immediately recognize as such as soon as we set our eyes on it. In the second case, we treat religion as an integral part of our earthly, embodied, existence and of our earthly, embodied experiences. In the first case, we treat religion as a noun, in the second case we treat it as an adjective.
When we think of religion as a noun, we imagine it to be a discrete thing that has clear boundaries and that is easily distinguishable from other discrete things. There is no confusion, for example, between Religion A and Religion B, just as there is no confusion between religion on the one hand and politics or economics or culture on the other hand.
Unfortunately, this way of looking at religion has become normative, mainly because it helps us categorize our concepts and ideas into neat little compartments, but it is also extremely deceptive and misleading, mainly because it completely fails to represent the messy reality.
A better way to understand religion is to approach it as an attitude or orientation, as an adjective rather than as a noun. When we approach religion as a human disposition, we recognize it as a set of phenomena that lacks well-defined boundaries, phenomena that are characteristically human. To say that religion is a set of human phenomena is to emphasize that it is too nebulous and too fuzzy to be captured and imprisoned in a net of rigid categories. Historically speaking, there has been too much contact, interaction, and mutual influence among apparently distinct religious traditions for these to have remained genealogically pure entities; there is always too much contact, interaction, and mutual influence between religion and politics, between religion and economics, and between religion and culture for any of these to be identified as discrete entities, except for the limited purpose of conceptual clarity.
Religion as a noun, as a discrete entity with clear boundaries, is mainly an abstraction that is created primarily by academicians, scholars of religion, for purely academic purposes. It is a very useful concept, but we should never mistake a concept for the real thing. Nowhere in the real world is there any such thing as “religion,” nor is there any such thing as Religion A or Religion B; you won’t find it no matter how long or how hard you look. It’s just not there. What’s there in the real world is a wide variety of religious phenomena that always exist in and through particular human beings, phenomena that are in a state of constant interaction with innumerable other phenomena, including history and politics, economics and culture. These religious phenomena are real, and they are worth studying, but they are also too restless and too dynamic to remain still long enough for us to catch them, isolate them in their pure form, and draw clear boundaries around them. They are more like processes, fluid and ever-changing, than they are like things we can be grasp.
So, when it is said that religion has caused more violence than any other institutional force in history, the first thing we need to do is to clarify whether we are using the word “religion” as a noun or as an adjective. If we are using this word as a noun, then we are referring to religion as a reified concept, as an academic abstraction, which has no causal efficacy simply because it doesn’t exist in the real world. On the other hand, if we are using the word as an adjective, then we are referring to a very wide variety of religious phenomena that are never found in their pure form, but are always mixed up, and hopelessly so, with an even larger variety of social, historical, cultural, political, and other variables. Furthermore, even these religious phenomena, by virtue of their sheer number and diversity, are quite ambivalent when it comes to particular issues; there are violent religious phenomena and peaceful ones, for instance, and who is to say which one predominates in any given culture or tradition or historical epoch? I guess some sort of judgment can be made for relatively restricted times and places, but in that case we shouldn’t be using the word “religion” at all, for it covers phenomena that are too many and too complex and too diverse to allow any monolithic judgment.
Given this background, is it even possible to say that a particular religion is violent or that it is peaceful? Strictly speaking, the answer has to be an emphatic No! For “religion” as an abstraction is too unreal to be either violent or peaceful, and the same is true for other reified concepts like “Religion A” or “Religion B.” On the other hand, religious phenomena are undoubtedly real, and religious beliefs can and do play an important role in shaping behavior. However, they are too complex and too diverse to be realistically placed in the category of violent or peaceful. Either way, “religion” is not an independent variable whose effects can be meaningfully isolated from the effects of innumerable other variables and then judged as desirable or undesirable, violent or peaceful, conservative or progressive. Again, this is not to say that religious beliefs have no power; it is to emphasize, instead, that the power of religious beliefs can be appreciated only in relation to particular contexts.
A more accurate but cumbersome way to frame the question would be as follows: Can a particular interpretation of a particular teaching of a particular religious tradition predispose particular believers to either violent or peaceful actions? This is a question that may be answered in the affirmative, but only with significant qualifications. Since religious phenomena never exist in pure form, and since human motivations are always complex and multi-layered, religious beliefs can have a real influence on motives only in association with other motives and only in the presence of other facilitating or predisposing or contributing factors. To ignore these other factors is to make religion into an independent determinant of human action, which it is not.
What should never be forgotten in any examination of particular religious beliefs as possible motivating “causes” is the concrete historical setting within which that motivation is said to have been operative. The importance of the historical setting is underscored by the fact that the same religious belief can have very different, even diametrically opposite, consequences under different social and historical contexts.