Religion and Violence

Part of the problem with “the real reason” for human violence, I suspect, is that it simply does not exist. My kids, for example, fight like puppies (not always fairly or kindly), and when asked, “Why are you punching your brother, after I explicitly asked you not to?” often look up with genuinely blank faces (and even on occasion answer honestly, “I don’t know”). I suspect many people genuinely don’t know why they are violent (in ways that historically prove helpful–look up the benefits of play-fighting with kids–or not, e.g. jihad). They just are, and so inevitably their mind works to create justification(s) (Deus vult! national security! etc.) for a prior existing condition (must punch someone!).

The really intractable problem here is that it is genuinely wrong (bad practice) to arrest people for thought crimes, but that is essentially what I see us having (in many cases). By thought crime here I don’t mean “carefully planned, conscious crime” but pre-rational determination toward violence (without any pre-determined method or justification).

Rather than take an approach like Karen Armstrong, who seems to suggest that religion is never to blame (as a legitimate rationalization of violence: I don’t believe this), I prefer to observe that religion is simply one of many tools available to foster and culture (the old word would be civilize) human violence (which is simply there in humanity, an unavoidable part of our biological heritage).  Sometimes, we use our tools to express violence well (in ways that improve quality of life); other times, we don’t.  Religion, like all our tools, is in itself neutral.  It is neither evil nor good.  How we use it determines what it is in individual circumstances (its immediate valence for good and for evil).

When people talk about transcending religion, leaving it behind, etc., what they are really advocating, it seems to me, is leaving behind some aspect of humanity whose momentary expression (as violence or superstition or whatever) they don’t particularly like (indeed, they might hate it–with righteous indignation).  To seize upon some momentary justification for genocide (or some other awful crime in recent human history) as itself the cause for all genocide, to proceed in the righteous struggle against genocide on the assumption that (for example) de-converting people from Islam en masse will radically alter our species’ expression of violence–to me this seems fundamentally wrong (ineffective, resting on a misprision of the reality that we are a genocidal species–we commit crimes of violence, historically, including the crime known as genocide, and we invent stories to illustrate, explain, and facilitate this aspect of our character).  If we got rid of Islam today, then tomorrow would bring us another myth equally obnoxious.  If we got rid of all Abrahamic religions, the same thing would happen.  If we got rid of every traditional religion, we would simply re-invent them (and tell ourselves, as many Nazis and communists did in the last century, that our crimes against one another were justified by some modern and progressive myth–clothing our genocide, etc., in the trappings of science).

This is why I roll my eyes when people talk of abandoning religion for something better.  There is nothing better.  People really are that stupid (and violent, and whatever it is that you don’t like that you are calling ‘religious’).  What we can do, what we should do, is learn to confront the evil we carry inside ourselves (Christianity gets this part right with its doctrine of Original Sin).  This evil is not something separate or separable from us (Christianity gets this wrong: Grace and Salvation are bullshit, at least as commonly taught among most believers; I don’t mean that nothing good can ever come from believing in them, only that most people seem to derive more lie than truth from them).  We must learn to live with ourselves as we are–with tendencies toward crime that are inseparable from our other tendencies, which as often as not are those same tendencies, in different (and better) circumstances.  We have an instinct to love: this instinct carries implicit an imperative to hate.  We have an instinct to protect what (and whom) we love: this instinct carries implicit an imperative to destroy what (and whom) we hate.  Religion, and other forms of collective and individual culture, can help us prune these tendencies.  It can direct us toward better or worse ways of expressing ourselves in whatever circumstances we might be.  But it cannot remove these tendencies entirely, not even when we make the mistake of externalizing our evil and assigning it to religion that we dislike (for any reason).  Leaving my childhood religion behind might help me become a better person, empirically speaking, but there is no guarantee that this must happen.  I will still be a human being, no matter what I do.  I will still carry with me all the causes and conditions for superstition and violence and other potentially criminal behavior that comes coded into humanity (my own and everyone else’s).

This is why Greek tragedy is so gripping.  It is about looking oneself in the face, honestly, and seeing everything there.  Katharsis is not a matter of expressing or indulging rage (as many modern readers of Aristotle seem to think); it is looking deep into the recesses of one’s own humanity, and seeing there the little baby emotions that might become rage (homicidal and suicidal), envy, lust, etc.  It is seeing the strength and the weakness of our species, and realizing that they are the same thing.  The same qualities that make Oedipus king and savior also make him criminal and outcast.  Until we see this reality and accept it, we are fundamentally separate from ourselves–broken, lacking integrity, unable to help others or ourselves without running an unacceptable risk of causing harm (because we think we can love without hating, serve without ruling, help without harming).  We are like children who imagine themselves able to fly because they have wings patched together with feathers and wax.  Such fantasies are cute until we walk to the edge of a real cliff and jump.

This article appeared originally on my personal blog.  –JGM

About kalekotxakur

Joseph Gresham Miller grew up in the southern United States, where his parents provided a well-stocked library and a large garden in lieu of school. As a young man, he left the States for two years to live in northern Spain, where he worked as an LDS Mormon missionary (basically an unpaid intern in corporate sales). After this adventure he went to school for more than a decade to acquire a doctorate in classical studies. Along the way, he met a very nice girl in Latin class, and they had two boys. Today, he and his family live in the mountain West. While his wife works full-time in academia, he adjuncts at local universities, writes, and takes care of the kids. He is interested in finding practical applications for more or less defunct ancient philosophies (especially Cynicism, Skepticism, and Stoicism) in modern life.

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