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Michael Moore Religious Violence

Religion and Violence (2017)

Michael Moore

There is no greater social evil than religion.
It is the cancer in the body of humanity.
— A. C. Grayling (2005, p. 34)

The connection between religion and violence is a long-standing one. Its roots can be found in Edward Burnett Tylor’s description of the “murderous practices” found in so-called “primitive cultures.” Tylor documented an assortment of funeral-related rituals in which family members, friends, servants, or way-laid strangers were killed so as to accompany the deceased in his afterlife (1871/1958, pp. 42-50). In some societies Tylor found a different rationale for murder (often by burning): it constituted an attempt to appease some angry deity by sacrificing a valued member of the group (1871/1958, p. 484). Similar justification lies behind the brutal killing (by various methods) of as many as thousands in Central American cultures, according to contemporary anthropologists (Stevenson, 2005).

In this paper I will address three foci of violence in modern societies: interreligious, intrareligious, and domestic violence. The argument I intend to support is not about the existence of so much violence amongst the religious. After all, the same three foci of violence are evident in nonreligious wars between countries, in civil wars, and in domestic violence in secular families. Instead, I direct readers’ attention to abundant religious inconsistencies about violence within dogma, between dogma and practice, and between slogans and behavior. In addition to demonstrating hypocrisy, this also serves to refute oft-heard claims about the beneficial effects of religion, especially those relating to peace and harmony.

Good Tidings

Each of the religions whose attitudes toward violence I shall discuss below has something to say about peace, as shown by the following excerpts:

  • The Book of Psalms, revered and devotedly consulted by both Jews and Christians, exhorts its readers to “depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it” (34:14; 34:15 in the Hebrew Bible).[1]
  • The Great Prayer of Judaism ends with the words: “He Who makes peace in Heaven, may He make peace for us and for all Israel and say Amen.”
  • And did not Isaiah prophesize about the wolf living with the lamb (11:6), turning swords into plowshares (2:4), and the beauty of those who proclaim peace and bring good tidings (52:7)?
  • According to Luke 2:14, when announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, the angels proclaimed “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”[2] This “peace on earth” concept became the title of the encyclical issued by Pope John XXIII in 1963 (Ziegler, 2013).
  • “Islam is a religion of peace in the fullest sense of the word. The Qur’an calls its way ‘the paths of peace'” (CPS International, 2016).
  • “The very word Islam, which means ‘surrender,’ is related to the Arabic salam, or peace” (Armstrong, 2011).
  • According to Dalil Boubakeur, mufti of the Paris Mosque, “The prophet did not found a terrorist religion, but a religion of peace.” (“Prophet cartoons,” 2006).
  • “The Buddha’s teaching, which tells people how to eliminate greed, anger and foolishness, is a good teaching and those who follow it attain the happiness of a good life” (Society for the Promotion of Buddhism, 2004, p. 121).
  • It is so written in the Dhammapada (a collection of sayings of the Buddha): “For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law” (Easwaran, 2007, verse 5).
  • A saying of Mahatma Gandhi: “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man” (Prabhu & Rao, 1960).
  • From the Atharva Veda, a sacred Hindu text: “Give us agreement with our own; with strangers give us unity: Do ye, O Asvins, in this place join us in sympathy and love. May we agree in mind, agree in purpose: let us not fight against the heavenly spirit. Around us rise no din of frequent slaughter, nor Indra’s arrow fly, for day is present!” (Griffith, 2010, 7:52).

Let us now turn to comparing these sentiments with other overt acts and opinions.

Interreligious Violence

This is how an anonymous witness described the Crusaders’ entrance into Muslim Jerusalem in the 12th century: “Our men followed, killing and slaying even to the Temple of Solomon, where the slaughter was so great that our men waded in blood up to their ankles” (Krey, 1921, pp. 256-257). Massacres of those of another faith are not difficult to find in sacred texts. They appear several times in the Jewish Bible (e.g., Numbers 21:2-3; Deuteronomy 20:17; Joshua 6:17, 21), where God commands the destruction of entire idol-worshipping nations. They are found in Buddhist literature as well, such as a 6th-century chronicle of Sri Lanka (Mahanama-Sthivara, 1912). There we learn that when King Duthagamani lamented over the thousands that he had killed, Buddha’s disciples came to console him. He was told that he had committed no real sin because he had only killed Tamil unbelievers, who are no better than beasts: “Thou wilt bring glory to the doctrine of the Buddha in manifold ways; therefore cast away care from the heart, O ruler of men.”[3] Similarly, religious fervor was behind the vast territorial gains of the 7th-century Rashidun Caliphate’s holy wars (jihad); though there were also political and economic gains, the Caliphate believed that their conquests had been commanded by God (Bonner, 2006, pp. 50-63).

Moreover, one does not have to search history books to find examples of interreligious violence. There is ample contemporary evidence for the violent persecution of Buddhists (e.g., BBC News, 2016), Hindus (Ethirajan, 2013), Christians (Zaki, 2010), Jews (Morris, 2001), and the Yazidis (Arraf, 2014; BBC News, 2016a) by Muslims; of Muslims by Buddhists (e.g., BBC News, 2013 and BBC News 2016c) and Jews (e.g., BBC News, 2000); and of Christians (Human Rights Watch, 1999), Sikhs (Charny, 1999, pp. 516-517), and Muslims (BBC News, 2016b) by Hindus. The sources cited represent but a small fraction of daily violent incidents between followers of diverse religions, ranging from a rampage-like attack by a fanatic individual, through mob actions, to full scale wars.

Intrareligious Violence

A naïve observer may think that religious fervor is more likely to be directed against those of a different faith. And this is probably true—once we define “different.” An oft-told joke (“The guy on a bridge”) illustrates this. The speaker questions a would-be suicide about his faith. When the speaker discovers that both of them are Baptists, he asks:

“Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over! (Philips, 2005).

Heresy—professing a belief that differs from the one endorsed by one’s religious authorities—may range from the addition of a single word to the creed (as in the Filioque, i.e., the “and the son” controversy—see a 24,000 word-article in Wikipedia, 2016a for an explanation), to the casting of doubt about Jesus’ divinity (in Arianism, where the Son is distinct and subordinate to the Father). While Wikipedia (2016b) names only 132 heretics that have been executed in Catholic countries (among them Jan Hus, Joan of Arc, and Giordano Bruno), other sources mention thousands, both named and unnamed. The number of the victims of the infamous Inquisition is set at 3,000 by Kamen (2014), though others have suggested a number tenfold higher. If we add the killing (by various methods) of (mostly Christian) witches, considered heretics by Eymeric (the inquisitor of Aragon in the 14th century) (Behringer, 2004, p. 36), this raises the number of those killed for differing from Church doctrine by at least 40,000 (Gaskill, 2010, p. 76). Though the Inquisition was abolished in the 19th century, Paul Johnson (1976, p. 514) reminds us that the “oath of allegiance of all Roman Catholic bishops includes the promise: ‘with all my power I will persecute and make war upon heretics.'”

Christianity is not alone in its violent persecution of those straying from the faith. Devoted Hindus have flogged Dalits for not respecting holy cows (BBC News, 2016d). Saudi religious police have stopped firemen from saving girls trapped in a burning house because the girls were not wearing scarves, causing 15 of them to die (BBC News, 2002). Ultrareligious Modesty Guards beat up or break the bones of those Jews in their community who are suspected of immoral behavior (Nana News, 2011). But all of these pale in comparison to the Sunni–Shia enmity within Islam: this nearly 1,400-year-old feud has claimed the lives of millions and reached genocidal proportions (e.g., Langtree, 2012).

An important insight into the widespread occurrence of intrareligious violence is offered by Pascal Boyer. He writes:

[Fundamentalist violence] seems to be an attempt to raise the stakes, that is, to discourage potential defectors by demonstrating that defection is actually going to be very costly, that people who adopt different norms may be persecuted or even killed…. A good part of fundamentalist violence is directed, not at the external world but at other members of the same cultural, religious communities. (Boyer, 2002, pp. 338-339)

Domestic Violence

Most researchers are of the opinion that “although there is no compelling evidence that violence is more frequent or more severe in families of faith, religious women are more vulnerable when abused” (Nason-Clark, 2004; though see Durankev, 2015)[4]. Many factors contribute to this increased vulnerability, including fear, isolation, religious ideology, and cultural norms. In an interview given to CBC News, Professor Nancy Nason-Clark commented on the involvement of the religious establishment in the prevention of domestic violence: “There’s a holy hush and that holy hush permeates small churches, large cathedrals, synagogues, other houses of worship” (CBC News, 2015).

Wife abusers of the Christian faith can rely on Scriptures to justify their behavior. For two millennia, Ephesians 5:22 (“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands”) has not only served the wife-beaters of the flock, but also their pastors. One survey found that 71% of clergymen would never advise a battered wife to leave her husband or separate from him because of abuse (Alsdurf & Alsdurf, 1998). A mid-1980s survey of 5,700 pastors found that 26% would tell an abused woman that she should continue to submit to her husband, and to “trust that God would honor her action by either stopping the abuse or giving her the strength to endure it” (Adams & Fortune, 1998, pp. 428-429). Another survey reported that 42% of U.S. pastors rarely or never speak to their congregations about domestic violence, though 74% know someone who has experienced it (Smietana, 2014).[5]

Muslim husbands are also purportedly in their divine rights when they mete out corporal punishment to a disobedient wife. The Religion of Peace website (2016) quotes two Quran verses (4:34 and 38:44) that urge husbands to physically castigate their wives, then brings in an additional 9 quotes from the Hadith and the Sira that approve of this practice. A further list of contemporary dignities follows, all of whom speak highly of the value of wife beating “to reform the wife,” “to save the marriage,” or “to safeguard Islamic behavior.” It is little wonder, then, that 7 of the 10 countries that George Durankev (2015) lists as having the highest rates of domestic violence in the world are predominantly Muslim, or that 87% of women in Muslim Bangladesh are abused, while 38% of them experience serious injuries (UNFPA Supplement, 2015).

Naomi Graetz’s comments on Jewish views about domestic violence are based on the Responsa literature, which includes rabbinic rulings to specific questions. She found that “Gratuitous abuse, striking a wife without a reason, is forbidden by all. However, the attitude of rabbinic sources toward perceived ‘bad wives’ is ambivalent, and wife beating is occasionally sanctioned if it is for the purpose of chastisement or education” (Graetz, 2014). The effect of this attitude is so powerful that in orthodox Jewish communities, there is the widespread conviction:

that domestic violence is not an issue that should be openly discussed or brought up publicly. In many communities, domestic abuse is considered an intermarital issue, and therefore it is considered taboo and often is not discussed even with a mother, sister, or close friend. Consequently, women may not be aware that spousal abuse is not part of normal marital relationships or that it is illegal. (Gilad, 2014, p. 494)

In a survey conducted on behalf of the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 64% of Hindu women and 51% of Buddhist women reported having suffered physical or sexual violence in the preceding 12 months (International Institute for Population Sciences, 2007, p. 514). In another study, Bontha V. Babu and Shantanu K. Kar similarly found that nearly 60% of women in predominantly Hindu eastern India report having suffered physical, psychological, or sexual violence (Babu & Kar, 2009). According to Dhawesh Pahuja, India’s National Crime Records Bureau reported that a crime was recorded against women every three minutes; every 60 minutes two women were raped; and every six hours, a young married woman was found beaten to death, burnt, or driven to suicide (Pahuja, 2011).

In light of all this I must conclude that people of faith have no privileged status: neither the Prince of Peace, nor the founder of the Religion of Peace, have prevented horrible acts of violence in their name; and neither the peace-loving prophets of the Hebrew Bible, nor the gentle messages of the eastern religions, have stopped their followers from committing mayhem. Though interpersonal violence may be both endemic and inherent in human beings, rather than abating it, religious fervor contributes to it immensely. The 1st century BCE Roman poet Lucretius knew this well when he wrote: “Such are the heights of wickedness to which men are driven by religion” (Lucretius, 50 BCE/1995, ii: l. 75).


[1] Let us not forget the “great commandment,” recognized by both Jews (Leviticus 19:18) and Christians (Mark 12:31): “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

[2] But see the controversy over this verse’s translation. The correct rendering of the Greek should be: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

[3] See Moore (2013b) for other instances of dehumanization by religions.

[4] For an analysis of religious misogyny, see Kramer & Moore (2002).

[5] Though not belonging to any of the above categories, let us remember and shudder at the many cases of sexual violence committed worldwide by clergy (e.g., Philip, 2001).


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