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Religion and violence

| 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 cducey@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Charlie Ducey

Charlie Ducey is a senior who studies English at Notre Dame. He is currently a big fan of alternative German rock music.

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  • Nathan

    I always find it rather interesting when I hear people decrying organized religion. Generally it’s the more unofficial, disorganized elements of religion that do most of the killing these days.

  • Arafat

    Bringing other religions down to the level of Islam is one of the most popular strategies of Muslim apologists when confronted with the spectacle of Islamic violence. Remember Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber? How about Anders Breivik, the Norwegian killer? Why pick on Islam if other religions have the same problems?

    The Truth:

    Because they don’t.

    Regardless of what his birth certificate may or may not have said, Timothy McVeigh was not a religious man (in fact, he stated explicitly that he was agnostic and that “science” was his religion). At no time did he credit his deeds to religion, quote Bible verses, or claim that he killed for Jesus. His motives are very well documented through interviews and research. God is never mentioned.

    The so-called “members of other faiths” alluded to by Muslims are nearly always just nominal members who have no active involvement. They are neither inspired by, nor do they credit religion as Muslim terrorists do – and this is what makes it a very different matter.

    Islam is associated with Islamic terrorism because that is the association that the terrorists themselves choose to make.

    Muslims who compare crime committed by people who happen to be nominal members of other religions to religious terror committed explicitly in the name of Islam are comparing apples to oranges.

    Yes, some of the abortion clinic bombers were religious (as Muslims enjoy pointing out), but consider the scope of the problem. There have been six deadly attacks over a 36 year period in the U.S. Eight people died. This is an average of one death every 4.5 years.

    By contrast, Islamic terrorists staged nearly ten thousand deadly attacks in just the six years following September 11th, 2001. If one goes back to 1971, when Muslim armies in Bangladesh began the mass slaughter of Hindus, through the years of Jihad in the Sudan, Kashmir and Algeria, and the present-day Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq, the number of innocents killed in the name of Islam probably exceeds five million over this same period.

    Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 innocents in a lone rampage on July 22nd, 2011, was originally misidentified as a “Christian fundamentalist” by the police. In fact, the killings were later determined to be politically motivated. He also left behind a detailed 1500 page manifesto in which he stated that he is not religious, does not know if God exists, and prefers a secular state to a theocracy. Needless to say, he does not quote any Bible verses in support of his killing spree, nor did he shout “praise the Lord” as he picked people off.

    In the last ten years, there have been perhaps a dozen or so religiously-inspired killings by people of all other faiths combined. No other religion produces the killing sprees that Islam does nearly every day of the year. Neither do they have verses in their holy texts that arguably support it. Nor do they have large groups across the globe dedicated to the mass murder of people who worship a different god, as the broader community of believers struggles with ambivalence and tolerance for a radical clergy that supports the terror.

    Muslims may like to pretend that other religions are just as subject to “misinterpretation” as is their “perfect” one, but the reality speaks of something far worse.

    • Charlie Ducey

      To which I reply: what specific doctrines of Islam lead you to make this jump? Islamic people have participated in terror. But is Islam, as a system that conveys meaning to reality, intrinsically prone to inciting terrorism? There are so geo-political exigencies tied up with this, it’s hard to say. Again, turn to the doctrine before you paint religions with a broad brush.

    • Captain Murphy

      You also forgot about the LRA, they definitely commit their crimes in the name of Christianity.
      There are many instances where Christians killed for their religion. There are bad apples in all organizations.

      • Arafat

        Bringing other religions down to the level of Islam is one of the most popular strategies of Muslim apologists when confronted with the spectacle of Islamic violence. Remember Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber? How about Anders Breivik, the Norwegian killer? Why pick on Islam if other religions have the same problems?

        The Truth:

        Because they don’t.

        Regardless of what his birth certificate may or may not have said, Timothy McVeigh was not a religious man (in fact, he stated explicitly that he was agnostic and that “science” was his religion). At no time did he credit his deeds to religion, quote Bible verses, or claim that he killed for Jesus. His motives are very well documented through interviews and research. God is never mentioned.

        The so-called “members of other faiths” alluded to by Muslims are nearly always just nominal members who have no active involvement. They are neither inspired by, nor do they credit religion as Muslim terrorists do – and this is what makes it a very different matter.

        Islam is associated with Islamic terrorism because that is the association that the terrorists themselves choose to make.

        Muslims who compare crime committed by people who happen to be nominal members of other religions to religious terror committed explicitly in the name of Islam are comparing apples to oranges.

        Yes, some of the abortion clinic bombers were religious (as Muslims enjoy pointing out), but consider the scope of the problem. There have been six deadly attacks over a 36 year period in the U.S. Eight people died. This is an average of one death every 4.5 years.

        By contrast, Islamic terrorists staged nearly ten thousand deadly attacks in just the six years following September 11th, 2001. If one goes back to 1971, when Muslim armies in Bangladesh began the mass slaughter of Hindus, through the years of Jihad in the Sudan, Kashmir and Algeria, and the present-day Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq, the number of innocents killed in the name of Islam probably exceeds five million over this same period.

        Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 innocents in a lone rampage on July 22nd, 2011, was originally misidentified as a “Christian fundamentalist” by the police. In fact, the killings were later determined to be politically motivated. He also left behind a detailed 1500 page manifesto in which he stated that he is not religious, does not know if God exists, and prefers a secular state to a theocracy. Needless to say, he does not quote any Bible verses in support of his killing spree, nor did he shout “praise the Lord” as he picked people off.

        In the last ten years, there have been perhaps a dozen or so religiously-inspired killings by people of all other faiths combined. No other religion produces the killing sprees that Islam does nearly every day of the year. Neither do they have verses in their holy texts that arguably support it. Nor do they have large groups across the globe dedicated to the mass murder of people who worship a different god, as the broader community of believers struggles with ambivalence and tolerance for a radical clergy that supports the terror.

        Muslims may like to pretend that other religions are just as subject to “misinterpretation” as is their “perfect” one, but the reality speaks of something far worse.

  • GopherPatriot

    Arafat is a known internet bigot with a track record of several years of posts against minority groups like Muslims. He usually posts a lot of repeated comments, quotes and yadda yadda. He likes to insult people who disagree with him as well. He almost always dodges and usually generalizes the actions. This is a source of employment for him to post all day.

    Be way if you choose to engage him as it’s mostly a waste of time and he’s not an honest debater (reference his posts). Remember the adage about wrestling with a pig.