Is Violence Antithetical to Religion? -- Jeffrey Stackert

July 11, 2013

Against the backdrop of the recently reignited and widely publicized violence in Egypt, violence that has included calls for jihad against President Mohamed Morsi’s opponents, I was struck by a thought-provoking article in Time (July 1, 2013) that details the relatively unpublicized but growing violence between Buddhists and Muslims in several Asian locales (“The Face of Buddhist Terror”). In a reflection on the growing diversity of religious violence, its author, Hannah Beech, opines, “Every religion can be twisted into a destructive force poisoned by ideas that are antithetical to its foundations. Now it’s Buddhism’s turn.”
 
What interests me in this instance of the commonplace diagnosis of “good religion gone bad” is its identification of religious “foundations.” What Ms. Beech seems to mean by these foundations are a religion’s doctrines and values as they are expressed by its esteemed leaders (past and present), its sacred texts, and its most beneficent and laudable practices. Yet we might ask, can such an externalization of religion, disembodied from its practice and practitioners as doctrines and values, bear the weight of the designation “foundations”?
 
The sociologist of religion, Martin Riesebrodt, defines religion in his recent book, The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion, as follows:

"Religion is a complex of practices that are based on the premise of the existence of superhuman powers, whether personal or impersonal, that are generally invisible…The 'superhumanness' of these powers consists in the fact that influence or control over dimensions of individual or social human life and the natural environment is attributed to them—dimensions that are usually beyond direct human control."
What strikes me in this definition—and what makes it particularly apt for the present discussion—is its human-centeredness. Riesebrodt does not define the powers that are the focus of religious practice as “supernatural.” He calls them instead superhuman, for they exert control over dimensions of the world that are beyond human control.
 
In his carefully crafted definition, Riesebrodt underscores the fundamentally human nature of religion. For him, though religion offers an account of the world beyond humans, this account is framed in light of that beyond-human world’s importance to, and impact on, humans.
 
If we accept Riesebrodt’s view, we cease to look for the “foundations” of a given religion in its external (and contested) doctrines and values. Instead, we look for its “foundations” in our basic humanness, including all of the capacities and contradictions that characterize humans.
 
There are at least two advantages to Riesebrodt’s definition of religion in relation to religious violence.
 
First, his approach is grounded in a realistic view of the behavior of religious people. Evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, and history itself attest to humanity’s capacity for unspeakable violence. Understood as a fundamentally human enterprise, religion expresses this dreadful capacity—even as it also expresses humanity’s capacity for deep generosity and magnanimity. If Riesebrodt is correct that religion is fundamentally oriented toward dimensions of life beyond human control, power relations and, with them, potential for abuses of power in religion’s name, stand at religion’s heart.
 
Second, a human-centered view of religion opens up new avenues for effective responses to religious violence. What these responses should be, of course, must be determined by the details of each situation; moreover, we will rightly continue to lament religious violence when it occurs. Yet moving away from the misconception that such violence is unreligious, antireligious, or even less religious than other actions done in the name of religion is an important first step. Reframing the issue in this way shows, for example, that questions like, “Is Islam a religion of violence? Is Buddhism?”—questions that characterize much contemporary political and media discourse on religious violence—are of little value, for they tend to ignore precisely the humanness that stands at the heart of religion.
 
What is needed to move beyond the paralysis of such responses is a more sophisticated understanding of religion.
 
 
References:
 
Beech, Hannah. “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” Time, July 1, 2013. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2146000,00.html.
 
Riesebrodt, Martin. The Promise of Salvation: a Theory of Religion. Translated from the German by Steven Rendall. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Author, Jeffrey Stackert, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible in the Divinity School, the University of Chicago. He is a specialist in the composition of the Pentateuch, biblical and ancient Near Eastern legal and ritual texts, and ancient religion.
 

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.

Publication author: 
Jeffrey Stackert