Religion and violence
Charlie Ducey | Sunday, February 15, 2015
As is tradition, the Oriel College Whately debating society convened on Monday evening to discuss contemporary controversies over red wine and the odd cookie-cracker hybrids that the Brits call “biscuits.” The motion for debate last week: the world would be a safer place without religion.
The alleged correlation between religion and violence is by no means a recent observation, though it has been granted currency by the recent atrocities in Paris and Nigeria. With renewed verve, critics of organized religion have been quick to point to the dogmatic doctrine of various faiths as the source of bloodshed and bombings. What I came to discover after two hours of alcohol-fueled debate was that many people are not in the position to make this allegation because many people — even at Oxford — simply do not know what religious doctrine is or, even more shockingly, what the word “religion” means.
The etymology of the word “religion,” however, was brought up early on, having something to do with reverence and worship. The Oxford English Dictionary entry for the word is vast, tracing back to the Latin “relegere,” meaning “to read over again,” and “religare,” meaning “to bind fast.” Both words evoke the idea of ritual observance and communal tradition. From these definitions, religion seems to concern itself with unified structure of “reading” the world that brings adherents together in common practices. How, then, might this sort of unification lead to or perpetuate violence?
The Whately society spent little time investigating this question, as we became increasingly caught up in spelling out just what was meant by religion. Many disparate views emerged: some claimed that religion was a set of antique rules in need of modernization. Others saw religion as a primarily personal experience. For still others it was a kind of social glue that allowed for unity. A particularly comical view equated religion to “the old sky cake routine,” borrowed from comedian Patton Oswalt, in which stone-age brutes were prevented from dominating their feebler cave-dwelling brethren by being told that if they behaved they would go into the sky after they died to eat as much cake as they could ever want.
None of the views, unfortunately, examined any specific religious doctrine, and the disarray of speeches was only kept in order by the rattling of a toy machine gun and frantic gestures directed at the board on which the all-but-abandoned motion of debate was penned in bubble letters.
What the debate lacked was a unified understanding of the basic reality over which we opined. In a very narrow sense, we lacked a religion.
I once took part in a Notre Dame seminar led by a University of Indiana postdoc who defined religion as “any comprehensive, structured attempt to relate meaning to reality” — a definition so broad that it includes any worldview that asserts that life is meaningful. And nearly everyone hungers for meaning in life — as Kurt Vonnegut writes in Cat’s Cradle: “Tiger got to hunt, Bird got to fly; Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’” What religion does is orient itself around this desire and direct one’s quest for meaning outward, away from the self and toward a greater transcendent reality.
The views that really are dangerous, after all, are selfish ones. Desires for power, wealth and territory underlie human conflict stemming all the way back to the alpha-male caveman whose power-hunger was allegedly quelled by religious doctrine. Perhaps religion actually safeguards against individual greed. As David Foster Wallace said in his much-quoted 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech: “an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship— be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles— is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
Let’s remember, however, that this message speaks about religion in an incredibly general sense. Not all religious doctrines unify personal interests around selflessness. Indeed, just as religion can bring people together to overcome greed, it can also channel that greed into communal acts, turning a religious group into one selfish collective intent on conquering those outside itself.
Christianity, specifically, seems to concentrate on service to the non-self, exemplified in Christ as the suffering servant. Embedded in so much Christian doctrine is the notion of self-denial and sacrifice, from the two greatest commandments to love God and neighbor to the call to take up one’s own cross and follow Christ.
Each religion must be judged on its own specific doctrines, but in a general sense, it seems fair to say that religion does perpetuate a violence of sorts — a violence against the more vicious desires of the self.
Charlie Ducey is a junior studying the languages of John Henry Newman (English) and Immanuel Kant (German). For the next academic year, he is residing on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in Oxford, UK. He welcomes your words. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.