Is Religion Responsible for the World’s Violence?

Sébastien Mamerot, Second Battle of Ramla, from Les Passages d’Outremer (1475)

Last week, a “gun-toting atheist” and self-proclaimed “anti-theist” killed three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There’s some question still about whether the killer was motivated by atheism or some other motivation. What there’s no question of is that much of the secular response was predictably tasteless and exploitative. For example, the Daily Beast’s Suzi Parker responded with an essay on how hard it is to be Muslim “in the most religious—and Christian—part of the country.” How are Christians to blame for this one, again?

CNN’s response was perhaps worse, lumping the Chapel Hill murders in with seven other attacks as examples of “religion’s week from hell,” blaming the attacks on the “religious violence” that either “is fueled by faith or is a symptom of larger factors.” There’s been a lot of talk lately about so-called “victim blaming,” and it’s something of a nebulous term, but I think that blaming religious people for an atheist murdering them probably constitutes victim blaming.

The Chapel Hill murders have upset the popular “religion is what makes people violent” narrative, and both the Daily Beast and CNN’s response amounted to shutting their collective eyes and repeating the “religious people are bad” mantra. So let’s talk about that narrative: is it true that religion is the main cause of violence in the world? Or if not all violence, what about terrorism? Or if not all terrorism, what about suicide bombings?

I. Which Group Commits the Most Terrorist Attacks? the Most Suicide Bombings?

In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Sam Harris tries to lump “religion” in with “terror,” pitting the two against “reason.” He opens with this story:

The young man boards the bus as it leaves the terminal. He wears an overcoat. Beneath his overcoat, he is wearing a bomb. His pockets are filled with nails, ball bearings, and rat poison. The bus is crowded and headed for the heart of the city. […] The young man smiles. With the press of a button he destroys himself, the couple at his side, and twenty others on the bus. […] The young man’s parents soon learn of his fate. Although saddened to have lost a son, they feel tremendous pride at his accomplishment. They know that he has gone to heaven and prepared the way for them to follow. He has also sent his victims to hell for eternity. It is a double victory.

At this point, he hasn’t told you the man’s religion (although his inclusion of Heaven and Hell in his story conveniently exonerate atheists). He then asks, rhetorically:

Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy, “you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy,” to guess the young man’s religion?

As I’ve mentioned before, Harris wants you to guess Muslim, an answer he claims is “you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy.” But there’s just one problem with this claim, which is that it’s factually incorrect. Worse, Harris knows this, but buries that fact in an endnote:

Some readers may object that the bomber in question is most likely to be a member of the Liberations [sic] Tigers of Tamil Eelam—the Sri Lankan separatist organization that has perpetuated more acts of suicidal terrororism [sic] than any other group. 

So if you bet your life on the suicide bomber being a Muslim, chances are, you were wrong. And the Tamil Tigers aren’t just the deadliest in regards to suicide bombings. They’re the deadliest terrorist group on earth, period. You can check out the numbers for yourself at the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database or Periscope’s summary by group. Since 1975, the Tigers have killed nearly 11,000 people, and wounding nearly 11,000 more.

If you’re not familiar with the Tamil Tigers, here’s how the Library of Congress describes them:

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) strongest of Tamil separatist groups, founded in 1972 when Tamil youth espousing a Marxist ideology and an independent Tamil state established a group called the Tamil New Tigers; name changed in 1976.

The University of Chicago’s Robert A. Pape, whom Harris cites in the endnote, is even more direct:
“Religious fanaticism does not explain why the world leader in suicide terrorism is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a group that adheres to a Marxist/Leninist ideology.” Marxist-Leninist groups are hardly what you’d call “religious.” Here’s what Lenin had to say about religion:

The philosophical basis of Marxism, as Marx and Engels repeatedly declared, is dialectical materialism, which has fully taken over the historical traditions of eighteenth-century materialism in France and of Feuerbach (first half of the nineteenth century) in Germany—a materialism which is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion. […]

Religion is the opium of the people—this dictum by Marx is the corner-stone of the whole Marxist outlook on religion.[1] Marxism has always regarded all modern religions and churches, and each and every religious organisation, as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class.

So the deadliest terrorist group in the world, and the one responsible for the most suicide bombings in history isn’t just a secular group, but one advancing an ideology that is is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion.

Nor are the Tamil Tigers an isolated case in this regard. The 25 deadliest terrorist groups in the world are responsible for most of the terror deaths since 1975. And the Tigers are just one of several Marxist-Leninist, Maoist, and Communist groups on that short list. They’re joined by Peru’s Shining Path, El Salvador’s FMLN, Colombia FARCthe Kurdistan Worker’s Party, the Philippines’ New People’s Army, Angola’s UNITAthe Communist Party of India (Maoist), Spain’s Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA), Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN), and Chile’s Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front (FPMR).

II. Is Religion the Chief Cause of the World’s Violence?
Having seen that the world’s deadliest suicide bombers and the world’s deadliest terrorist group are the Marxist-Leninist Tamil Tigers, what about the world’s deadliest ideologies? Compare the number of killings done in the name of religion to the number of killings done in the name of an anti-religious ideology. 
At the top of the list of the twentieth century’s deadliest regimes, you’ll find three anti-religious states: Communist China, the USSR, and Nazi Germany. These three alone were responsible for an estimated 130,000,000 victims, which dwarfs the number of people killed in the name of all religions throughout all of history. And that number doesn’t even take into account the millions killed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rogue, the Communist North Korean regime, or the Derg (the Ethiopian Communist state, headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam).
Religion isn’t the cause of most of the world’s violence: it’s not even close. In fact, in each of the deadliest states of the twentieth century, we see the same pattern: an aggressive campaign to neutralize or eliminate religious belief (and believers). Ross Douthat pointed this out, using the example of the Soviet Union, in a debate with Bill Maher:

Maher: “Someone once said: to have a normal person commit a horrible act almost never happens without religion. To have people get on a plane and fly it into a building, it had to be religion.”
Douthat: “I think that what’s true is: to get a normal person to commit a crazy act, it does take ideas, right? But those ideas can be secular as well as religious. A lot of normal people …”
Maher: “But mostly, in history, they’ve been religious.”
Douthat: “Not in the twentieth century. Not in the Soviet Union. A lot of dead bodies there, not a lot of Christians… except among the dead bodies.”
Maher: “I would say that’s a secular religion.” (Maher then quickly shut down debate before Douthat could respond.)

In a way, Maher ends up conceding one of Douthat’s points: that secular ideas can be just as deadly religious ones (and in fact, have been many times deadlier). But Douthat’s other point is worth drawing out: religious belief serves not only as a potential motivator for violence, but as a check against state totalitarianism
For a totalitarian regime, religion is dangerous. As a believer, I recognize that human rights come from God, not the state or social convention. I recognize that there’s an authority higher than the state to Whom both I and the state leadership will someday be accountable. It’s precisely this sort of belief system that serves as a check on ideology and state authority that made these Soviet and Nazi states so anti-religious: they don’t want you to render unto both God and Caesar. They want you to obey Caesar alone. 
That’s one reason that the bloodiest regimes in history have tended to be atheistic and anti-religious. But there may be a second, related point. Maher calls Soviet totalitarianism a “secular religion,” and that’s something of a cop-out. He’s trying to pin all the blame for violence on religion, by labelling all potentially-violent ideas as “religious,” even (as in the case of Soviet Communism) the ideology’s founder and adherents were fiercely anti-religious. This evasion would seem to turn everything, even atheism, into at least a “secular religion.” 
But Maher may yet be on to something in referring to these totalitarian systems as a “religion,” of sorts. Nazism and Soviet Communism did mimic religions in certain fashions, and did hold themselves out (implicitly and, at times, explicitly) as replacements for religion. That’s because there’s something inescapable about religion. Michael Crichton described the phenomenon like this:

I studied anthropology in college, and one of the things I learned was that certain human social structures always reappear. They can’t be eliminated from society. One of those structures is religion. Today it is said we live in a secular society in which many people—the best people, the most enlightened people—do not believe in any religion. But I think that you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely re-emerges in another form. You can not believe in God, but you still have to believe in something that gives meaning to your life, and shapes your sense of the world. Such a belief is religious.

At its core, this is a rudimentary point. All of us operate according to our beliefs about the world. Sometimes, we’re conscious of this, sometimes, we’re not, but we do it all the same. And these worldviews are heavily influenced by what we believe, or disbelieve, about religion. 
Christianity carries with it beliefs about every human being made in the image of God, and being worthy of dignity and respect, along with the notion that we’ll be held accountable for our evil actions. If we really believe these things, these beliefs can’t help but shape how we interact with the world. And when people stop believing these things, it’s not surprising that something else sweeps in to fill that void. Sometimes, as in Crichton’s talk, that religion-replacement is a movement like environmentalism. Other times, it’s something much darker.
III. Which Religion?
I said in the last point that religion can either motivate you to commit violent acts (as with ISIS) or it can motivate you to resist violence and tyranny (as with the 21 Coptic Christians recently martyred by ISIS). But on the question of whether religion will spur or spurn violence, a lot depends on which religion we’re talking about.
All of this brings me to my last point:  the whole question of whether or not “religion” is violent is badly-formed. People don’t believe in “religion.” They believe in a particular religion, and different religions teach different things. Given this, we need to stop pretending that all religions are equally prone to violent extremism, as if a Quaker is as likely as a Wahhabist to be responsible for the next terrorist attack. That idea is both illogical and directly contrary to the empirical data (here again, I’d point you to the Global Terrorism Database or Periscope summary).
Denouncing “religion” for the sins of radical Islam is disingenuous, akin to blaming “politics” for the Holocaust. “Religion” wasn’t to blame, but one particular, violent religious movement, just as the Holocaust was the fault of one particular, violent political movement. In both religion and politics, we’re dealing with sets of ideas — ideas about God, morality, human dignity, and the like — and ideas have consequences. Good ideas tend to have good consequences, while bad ideas tend to have the opposite. Treating all ideas as if they’re equally valid is ridiculous.
That’s why it’s foolish to approach this question in the way that it’s typically formed – whether or not “religion” is to blame – and why it’s wrong to blame all religion for the actions of a few (or one). Using violence done in the name of a particular religion to justify hating all religion is no better than the Daily Beast using violence committed by an irreligious atheist against Muslims as a stick with which to bash Christians.

16 Comments

    1. We haven’t heard about most of these groups lately because the world, just a few decades ago, was focused on bigger issues such as the “Cold War”, Korean war, and the Vietnam war. We had enough problems with these three to keep our minds on. Moreover, they were viewed by most from more of a political perspective, as compared to a religious or moral one. In recent times, everything has been so mixed up both politically and ‘religiously’, with both secularism and Muslim extremism on the rise, that most people probably just don’t care too much about what others believe, or do, as long as it doesn’t involve them.

    2. De Maria,

      I suspect that at least part of the answer is that these terrorist groups weren’t targeting Americans. They were mostly partisans in guerrilla wars in Third World countries that we would struggle to find on a map.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    3. “Why have I not heard of them?” Easy answer to this: “These atheist terrorist groupings are shielded by the world’s Media the vast majority of which is controlled by atheists under the name of “liberals”.

      Remember that satan is powerful and as he has said: “I control what people read, hear and see on television and newspapers because so few know that the media belongs to me.”

  1. An insightful perspective. I suspect there is a great deal of truth in your observation of the way people are so adherent to their narrative that religions are bad, that anything that contradicts it is merely met with misrepresentations of reality. From Maher, who I havnt paid attention to in some time, to our own president. They are very orthodox and intolerant.

  2. To note that if you look at history, most reasons for wars and atrocities are related to conquest and imperialism, not religion.

    Take the Roman Empire (or any ancient empire): they warred not for religeous reasons but for glory, imperialism, resources, etc…
    For example when it came to the Roman and the Persian Empire, the conquered lands were largely free to continue to worship their own gods (or often the conquerors even adopted some of the local gods…)

    So Bill Maher is full of sh*t and never studied history even at an high-school level.

    Sure there have been religous wars as well, but they amount to less than 7% of the total.

    Atrocities have been commited for many reasons. When the Romans crucified Spartacus and his 5000 or so man on the side of te road for miles they did not do so for religous reason, but to show that an army of slaves was no match for the migth of the Empire.

    Even in the Middle Ages most wars were between rivaling lords, for land and power. Sure there were the crusades and other wars that had their root in religion, but they were still minor compared to all the other fights and wars that had purely secular motives.

  3. To note that if you look at history, most reasons for wars and atrocities are related to conquest and imperialism, not religion.

    Take the Roman Empire (or any ancient empire): they warred not for religeous reasons but for glory, imperialism, resources, etc…
    For example when it came to the Roman and the Persian Empire, the conquered lands were largely free to continue to worship their own gods (or often the conquerors even adopted some of the local gods…)

    So Bill Maher is full of sh*t and never studied history even at an high-school level.

    Sure there have been religous wars as well, but they amount to less than 7% of the total.

    Atrocities have been commited for many reasons. When the Romans crucified Spartacus and his 5000 or so man on the side of te road for miles they did not do so for religous reason, but to show that an army of slaves was no match for the migth of the Empire.

    Even in the Middle Ages most wars were between rivaling lords, for land and power. Sure there were the crusades and other wars that had their root in religion, but they were still minor compared to all the other fights and wars that had purely secular motives.

  4. Good article. Very informative. Unfortunately I think you are letting Islam off too easily. It was soread by the sword. indeed, from what I understand, some in north Africa were fooled into thinking that they could make there land unappealing by, e.g., destroying the crops, and therefore discourage any further muslim aggression. They only fooled themselves since the muslims were conquering for religious reasons and not, at that time, for booty.

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