Does Religion Cause Violence

JAMES HITCHCOCK

The terrorism which manifested itself on September 11 has of course started a whole new round of alarmed warnings about the dangers of religious fanaticism, with some secularists professing to see no significant difference between Osama bin Laden on the one hand and the pro-life movement on the other.

  Religious believers are accustomed to being accused as perpetrators of intolerance and violence, and there is enough truth to such charges to take them to heart. At the same time, it should be recognized that what is called religious strife is usually only partly that. The “religious wars” of the 16th and 17th centuries were at least as much about politics — with, for example, Catholic France supporting German Protestants in order to weaken the Catholic German emperor. Today it would be extremely simplistic to think that religion is all that fuels the strife in Northern Ireland or the Middle East.

However, religion does possess a peculiar potentiality for “extremism,” because it has to do with extreme things. We might manage to compromise a boundary dispute, for example, but how can we compromise the will of God?

Critics cluck their tongues and note the contradiction whereby religion, which is supposed to be based on love, has the potential to turn into strife and hatred. The critics do not note the close parallel to the family, where love can so easily turn into hate.

But the dangers of strife and fanaticism come from the very nature of religion itself, which deals with ultimate things. In a sense people ought to be more ready to fight over religious dogma than over disputed territory, because religious dogma has to do with the highest and most important truths. (It requires some kind of divine revelation to teach us that we should not kill one another over religious dogma.)

The terrorism which manifested itself on September 11 has of course started a whole new round of alarmed warnings about the dangers of religious fanaticism, with some secularists professing to see no significant difference between Osama bin Laden on the one hand and the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the pro-life movement on the other. Thus, we are warned, the extirpation of all forms of religious intensity is what we must do to achieve social peace. In this secularist world, merely saying that one disapproves of homosexuality, for example, is equated with bombing the World Trade Center.

The Secularist dogma

We can all agree on the need to end the kind of religion which does issue in violence and hatred. But as the secularists point out, all real religion has that potential, in the same way that deep love between a man and a woman has the potential of leading to murderous jealousy. Thus many secularists in effect now call for an end to religion completely, something they have been predicting for a long time but which so far has not happened.

Why is there religion at all, of any kind? Ultimately the only satisfactory answer is that it enlightens people about the meaning of life, of how they should live their lives. Religion is what gives meaning to human existence. Therefore, it follows, to abandon religion would mean abandoning all hope of meaning — to which the secularist nods and says, “Precisely!” The secularist position, which has a long history, is that the religious search for meaning is an illusion but that, even when successful, it is a bad thing, because man should not be encouraged to think about ultimate realities.

American Pragmatism is perhaps the clearest example of this tendency. It argues that we can choose moral positions, and orient ourselves in life, not by asking what is true or false but simply on the basis of what seems to work. We might claim, for example, that all men have worth and dignity but, if someone asks why this is so, we are not required to answer. It just is.

Although they seldom admit it, these secularists really are calling upon the human race to amputate itself spiritually, to suppress, quite consciously, the religious hungers which have been part of human existence since the beginning of time. They call on us deliberately to wall ourselves up within the empirical limits of our world and resolutely to ignore everything which does not fit. Whatever else might be said about such a view of existence, it is immeasurably drabber and shallower than what men have thought was real for these thousands of years.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

James Hitchcock "Does Religion Cause Violence?" Catholic World Report (April, 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic World Report an international news monthly.

THE AUTHOR

James Hitchcock is a widely published author on many topics and Professor of History at St. Louis University. James Hitchcock is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2002 Catholic World Report


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