Religion & Violence

A good part of the violence in the world, not only in the past but even today, seems to have been inspired by religious loyalties. This seems particularly true of organized violence, such as that which we have recently seen in Northern Ireland (Catholic vs. Protestant), the Holy Land (Jews vs. mostly Muslim Arabs), the Balkans (a three-way struggle between Muslims, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Serbs) and in India and Pakistan (Muslims vs. Hindus -- and both vs. Christians of all types). Why is this so?

The most obvious answer should be that if religion is "the search for ultimate meaning", then it only follows that ultimately it is the thing in life that counts the most. Without it, and without the system of values it contains, life is seen as meaningless. No wonder then that people will often fight to defend their particular view of life to the last drop of their blood!

True, religion here is often being used as mask or even a banner to cover or even identify other interests, be they ethnic, cultural, or even economic. But again, all these other factors are usually seen as being part and parcel of what is (or at least was) fundamentally a religious view of life. This is even true in our United States America -- do we not hold that "all men are created equal" and "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights..."

Yet there is little in nature to confirm this belief. From the Big Bang on, any progress in the evolutionary process has involved violence, struggle, and often an incredible amount of suffering. For the most part might has made "right" rather than belief in "inalienable rights". Should anyone be surprised that the advance of civilization and the religions which have given people their sense of meaning would have been any different?

Still, at the heart of almost every major religious system has been a very different ideal. Whether it be the biblical ideal of a "peaceable kingdom" where the lion lies down in peace alongside the lamb, or the buddhist ideal of "nirvana" where all warring of desires (the interior cause of violence) have ceased, religions have held out for a universal resolution of all conflict as the ultimate state of being. The problem has been how to get there. And therein lies the paradox.

Pacifists, religious or otherwise, hold that you cannot achieve peace by violent means. "Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword" and those who are true peacemakers must "turn the other cheek". In other words, using violence or the threat of violence to prevent violence is for them a contradiction in terms.

Realists, religious or otherwise, on the other hand, believe that sanctions (laws backed up by the threat of violence) is often the only way to protect people from those who do not share the "peaceable" ideal. Or even if all share the same ideal, what to do about those who fail to live up to it?  Who is right? Or could it be that both are? And if so, how can these two views be reconciled?

R W Kropf              July 20, 2000                              Violence.doc   00-07-21.html