Religion and Organized Violence (5)

It will be useful at this point to bring religion back into the discussion.

I have argued that religion is not an independent variable in history and society. While it is one of the most powerful factors influencing human actions, the causal role of religion in a particular context is very difficult to isolate from the total web of factors that shape the behavior of human agents. To repeat a point made earlier, I am in no way trying to exonerate religion; my point, on the contrary, is that we should not oversimplify an otherwise complex socio-historical reality only for the sake of identifying a single culprit that we can then blame and reject. For any complex phenomenon, a monocausal explanation is incorrect by definition.

weberTrying to locate the cause of a particular kind of social action in the realm of ideas is usually a mistake. This is because human conduct is almost never motivated by ideas alone, without the mediation of our worldview and, more directly, of our material and ideal interests. Ideas are important because they help shape what we imagine the world to be; our image of the world then makes it possible for us to conceive of a few more or less distinct courses of action in any given context. This means that every worldview allows a limited number of possible courses of action while excluding all other possibilities. Exactly which of these several courses of action we actually choose depends not on ideas but on the unique configuration of our interests. It is true that what we conceive as our interests are at least partly shaped by our beliefs, but it is also true that our interests are even more significantly shaped by our concrete needs. When we pursue certain interests, such as power or money, we are trying to satisfy or meet some of our concrete needs; these needs, and the resulting perception of interests, are largely the outcome of our peculiar life conditions.

As a result, locating the cause of organized violence solely or primarily in certain religious ideas misses the entire realm of life conditions and the associated needs and interests that actually motivate us more directly than ideas. Take the example of the Crusades. If we believe that the cause of organized violence may be traced to certain religious teachings, particularly when the perpetrators themselves make such a claim, then we would have to take at face value the historical reports that locate the crusading ethos in the following biblical verse: “Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). This, however, raises the question of why did the Crusades take place during a particular historical period? Why was there no Crusade before the eleventh century? Why was there no Crusade after the thirteenth century? The answer, obviously, would be found in the changing life conditions of the people in question, for the New Testament verse that is said to be the guiding source of the crusading mentality had existed before the crusading period and continued to exist afterwards. Under a unique configuration of needs and interests, resulting from a peculiar set of life conditions, certain Christians read Luke 14:27 in a particular way. As those life conditions changed, and the unique configuration of needs and interests that had made Luke 14:27 a source and/or justification for choosing a particular course of action no longer existed, the verse in question ceased to be read in the same way.

Another problem with identifying religious beliefs as the main culprit is that it refuses to honor the reality of human agency.  Human beings are not robots that run on the basis of particular programs that their manufacturers had placed into them! To think of religious teachings or scriptures as pieces of software that directly cause us to behave in one way or another is to forget the crucial element of human choice. All religious actors pick and choose from among a plethora of religious teachings that they had received from their tradition; they not only exercise choice in selecting which teachings they would follow but also how and to what extent they would follow them. This is so because no religion is a monolithic entity; all religious traditions provide their respective adherents with a wide range of teachings that, furthermore, may contradict each other (and frequently do). Religious actors choose from among the many possible courses of action that their tradition seems to offer them, and they do so on the basis of their needs and interests which are, in turn, the products of their unique life conditions. Consequently, even if we assume religions to be monolithic realities (which they are not), taking the element of human agency into account should preclude us from identifying religious beliefs as the sole or primary cause of organized violence.

I have no quarrel with those who argue that religion is one of the most important factors influencing human behavior. I also have no quarrel with those who identify religion as a significant factor behind organized violence, including war and terrorism. However, I do have a serious problem with those who, while identifying religion as a causal factor, fail to mention the role of social and historical context, the role of concrete needs, the role of ideal and material interests, and the role of life conditions as equally important, if not more important, factors involved in the genesis of violence.


The problem with focusing on religion to the exclusion of all other variables is that it distracts us from the real issues. To point out the obvious, there is an elephant in the room! Generally speaking, organized violence, whether it is carried out by the powerful or the powerless, is almost always a symptom of a deeper pathology. That deeper pathology may be unsound interpretations of a particular religious tradition, but faulty interpretations are actually the least of our troubles. By using the phrase “deeper pathology” I am referring to forms of violence that are too subtle, too pervasive, and too “normal” to make it into the evening news; yet they are real enough to give rise to instances of organized violence that do get reported and that do get our attention. These forms are sometime identified under the umbrella term “structural” or “institutional” violence. Widespread injustice that has been institutionalized into “legal” and even “moral” forms tends to harm on a subtle but much more pervasive scale; the reactions are often overtly violent, which are then crushed by even more spectacular forms of violence, producing not just a vicious circle but an ever-widening “spiral of violence.” This spiral, and its causes, constitute the elephant in the room.

Whatever else we do, the elephant in the room should never be forgotten.


  1. This is a holistic perspective that takes into accoount all variables as equally important in explaining the phenomenon of violence. The traditional reductionist view that blames religion as the only main source of violence is debunked by this sound yet logical argument. Pr. Afzaal, thank you very much for this objective, deep reflection on the origin of violence.

  2. I found this site while researching for a course I am doing on Religion and Conflict. A very thought provoking series of writings which puts into perspective [and words] the whole ‘organised violence’ war/terrorism ideas running around in my head far better than I ever could have.

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