Examining the Intersection of Religion and Violence Two authors look into correlations between Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and other theologies, and violent acts.
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Examining the Intersection of Religion and Violence

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Examining the Intersection of Religion and Violence

Examining the Intersection of Religion and Violence

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

For much of the latter half of the 20th century, most of us relegated the horrors of religious violence to history and attributed the conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East to secular causes. The Lebanese civil war was harder; then Bosnia, Afghanistan, 9/11 and Iraq forced us to reconsider the issue entirely. Scholars who study the relationship between religion and violence are now being asked urgent questions. Do religions that profess peace also foster violence? Why? How? Are some more violent than others? What about all the bloodshed in the Bible and in the Koran?

Today we'll talk with Hector Avalos, a professor of religious studies who argues that the roots of violence are contained in the nature of religion. We'll also hear from a religion expert and ordained Baptist minister, Charles Kimball, who says there are clear signs that always precede religiously sanctioned evil. He's taken a look at religious traditions from Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism.

If you can cite examples of religious violence that might test these theories or if you have questions about the relationship between religion and violence, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Hector Avalos joins us now from member station WOI in Ames, Iowa. He's an associate professor of religious studies at Iowa State University, the author of the newly published "Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence."

Thanks very much for joining us today.

Professor HECTOR AVALOS (Iowa State University; Author, "Fighting Words"): Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: So am I correct in saying that according to your theory, religion itself is at the root of this problem?

Prof. AVALOS: Well, yes. I say that all religion has the potential to create violence. I don't necessarily say they will create violence necessarily, but they have the potential to do that. And it resides, number one, in the unverifiability of religious claims. Religious claims cannot be verified and therefore they can't be adjudicated by objective means. And therefore, since they cannot be adjudicated by objective means, violence becomes one of the ways to settle arguments. I do say there are other fundamental issues with religious violence, and I set out in my book to try to explain the how and the why: Why and how does religion cause violence? And so that's what my book is about.

CONAN: And one of the theories that you talk about is this idea of scarcity. Now we're accustomed to the idea of--well, there's a scarcity of food and, of course, if there's a warehouse full, people are going to fight over it. But you say religion in a sense causes scarcity, too.

Prof. AVALOS: Yes. My thesis has two parts. I would say that most violence is the result of scarce resources, real or perceived. So whenever people perceive there is not enough of something they value, then conflict may ensue to maintain or acquire that resource. Now that can range from the smallest unit of organization--say, in a family there's not enough love--people might fight over that--to a global scale--not enough oil, not enough energy. You've been talking about that subject of energy. And that, of course, can be a scare resource and people can fight over that.

And the second part of my thesis is, well, when religion causes violence, it often does so because it has created new scarce resources, and in particular I focus on four scarce resources that I see repeatedly causing violence in the Abrahamic traditions. And these I call inscripturation, the idea that God's word is contained only in this particular text or set of texts and not distributed equally everywhere. The idea of sacred space, wherein one space is declared more valuable than surrounding space for religious reasons. And, of course, if more people live on that space than some groups will allow, then it becomes a source of conflict. Group privilege is a third scarce resource, I would say, in that when believers believe they have certain privileges that non-believers don't, then they may fight to keep that resource, that privilege, or others may fight to get it away from them or to fight some oppression because of that group privilege. And finally salvation, the idea that you receive certain--more supernatural and eternal benefits in some way by belonging to a religion can--becomes a scarce resource when not everybody is--has access to them, to this salvation, or only certain ways are authorized to receive that salvation. Then it can function as a scarce resource, and people will fight to maintain it or to take it away, just like oil, just like, you know, scarce water and so forth.

CONAN: Does that relate to a concept that I've read about called particularism, that every religion, I guess, differentiates itself from every other religion by saying that `we know the truth, the light and the way'?

Prof. AVALOS: Well, yes, that has--that is an aspect of what I would call group privilege, the idea that I or this group of believers have the access to God's mind in some way, access to the authorized divine communication in some way. Then that could create what some people call particularism. I relate it to this broader category of group privilege, and it can be linked with inscripturation, you know, the idea that only this set of texts has God's word, not--God doesn't reveal himself equally everywhere; immediately available revelation is not there. So that in itself--putting God's word in a particular set of books--creates sort of a textual boundary then that can cause conflict over who's authorized to interpret it, who is authorized to even read it in some cases. So...

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get listeners involved in the conversation: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail: totn@npr.org. And we'll begin with Ron. Ron calling from Detroit.

RON (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on the show.

CONAN: Sure.

RON: I would like to ask your guest if he's ever made a comparison between the number of people who've been killed motivated by faith orientation vs. the number of people who have been murdered in the name of economically organized thinking or economic dominance as a motivation.

Prof. AVALOS: I don't think those statistics can really be accessed because there is so much from the past that we cannot derive precise statistics on. I don't...

RON: May I ask one more thing real quick?

Prof. AVALOS: Sure.

CONAN: Go ahead.

RON: Your concept of group privilege and particularism, you just explained...

Prof. AVALOS: Yes.

RON: ...I think that can be linked to secular materialists just as easy as it can be linked to faith.

CONAN: Well, scarcity can be linked to economic issues, as he's already done, as well as to religious ones. Yeah.

Prof. AVALOS: Yes. I don't say that only religion causes scarcities or that there are no economic causes to violence or any other causes. I'm just saying that when religion causes violence, I can link it to a scarce resource that religion has created somewhere.

RON: I understand. That's cool.

CONAN: OK, Ron. Thanks very much for the call.

RON: Thanks.

CONAN: And let's get another voice in on the conversation. Joining us now is Charles Kimball. He's a professor of religion at Wake Forest University in North Carolina and author of "When Religion Becomes Evil." And he joins us now by phone from Winston-Salem.

Thanks very much for joining us today.

Professor CHARLES KIMBALL (Wake Forest University; Author, "When Religion Becomes Evil"): Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: Now your book recognizes a link between religion and violent conflict. I think you've been listening to our conversation a little bit. How does your theory differ from Professor Avalos' theory?

Prof. KIMBALL: Well, it differs in some fundamental ways, although there are a few places I think that we probably overlap a bit. I look at religion as a global phenomenon; the vast majority of people who've ever lived and who are alive today perceive themselves to be religious. I think we can argue that religion has inspired people to their highest and noblest best throughout history, and some of the worst things human beings have done to one another they've done in the name of religion or justified their behavior by religion.

What I'm looking at is across the different traditions and through the centuries and particularly the major religious traditions, some of them that have stood the test of time, and asking what are some of the common patterns we see where things go awry, where people following these particular traditions begin to justify violent and destructive behavior that seems to be contradictory to what they claim is at the heart of their religious tradition. And I identify five major warning signs that I think cut across the traditions and reveal patterns of human behavior that we have to be very alert to, particularly--now we can see it in cases, contemporary cases with violent extremists who are doing things in the name of Islam. Can we see it so clearly in our own traditions, historically and in the current setting where well-intentioned people, sincere people begin to justify violent and destructive behavior, thinking that they are acting out and doing what God wants them to do.

CONAN: Well, that's interesting. You talk about sincere people. Your book talks about evil.

Prof. KIMBALL: Right.

CONAN: Can sincere people commit evil?

Prof. KIMBALL: Certainly. I don't doubt the sincerity of the 19 people who hijacked the planes on September 11th. I think they were horribly misguided. I think they were very much out of step with the heart of Islam as the vast majority of Muslims have understood it and understand that religious tradition today. But I don't doubt that people, as we see from materials left behind by Mohamed Atta, who were preparing to meet God thought of themselves as being insincere. They felt they were doing, in however misguided a way it was, what God wanted them to do.

CONAN: Now we've heard Professor Avalos talk about some of his principles. You were talking about five warning signs of religion going awry. Can you list them for us?

Prof. KIMBALL: Yes. The listing would be--the first is absolute truth claims; second is blind obedience; third is pursuing an ideal time--that would take a little bit of unpacking; the fourth sign that I talk about is when the end or the means justify the end, any end; and then declaring holy war is the fifth warning sign that I talk about.

CONAN: And any one of these or all five have to be present?

Prof. KIMBALL: It could be any one, but often they're in combination, and that's why I really begin with absolute truth claims. I think--and this is one of the places I think we probably would converge some in our analysis--that there is a kind of danger in absolutism. Anytime, I argue, that someone thinks that he or she has God in their pocket, that they know exactly what God wants for them and for everybody else you have--I think you can argue historically--you have a disaster waiting to happen. People can justify doing anything when they are convinced they're carrying out exactly what God wants. We have to always be in all traditions far more humble in our approach to religious understanding, religious truths, and recognize that none of us possess the mind of God; that we are all in a process of growing and learning and changing. And so however powerful our religious perspective and experiences may be, that has to always be tempered by the fact that we are conditioned human beings in a process of learning but certainly not possessing the mind of God.

CONAN: We're going to take a short break now. We're talking this hour about correlations between religion and violence through history and regrettably into the 21st century as well. Call us to talk about angry words, brutality and war over sacred places and ideas: (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org. Our guests are Hector Avalos, an associate professor of religious studies at Iowa State University, and Charles Kimball, professor of religion at Wake Forest University. Both have written books. Please join the conversation.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Pope Benedict was blunt this past weekend when he addressed Muslim leaders in Germany. He said they had a duty to help defeat terrorism and turn back what he described as the wave of cruel fanaticism that falsely uses religion to instigate hate. Of course, the history of the Catholic Church includes some waves of cruel fanaticism in itself. We're looking at religion and how it may foment violence. We want to hear your feelings. Do sacred places or sacred writings lead to aggression and brutality? (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail is totn@npr.org.

Hector Avalos is our guest. He's an associate professor of religious studies at Iowa State University. And also with us, Charles Kimball, a professor of religion at Wake Forest University. They both have books. Mr. Avalos' is "Fighting Words: The Origin of Religious Violence." And Professor Kimball's book is "When Religion Becomes Evil." Charles Kimball is also an ordained Baptist minister.

Let's get some callers on the line. And we'll go with Steven. Steven calling from Detroit.

STEVEN (Caller): Hi. How are you? I love the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

STEVEN: I just wonder how you feel about--just maybe even because religion, as a structure, causes anxiety, which, you know, will produce erratic behavior in people as opposed to, like, spirituality or oneness in your belief. I don't think you hear too often of, you know, Buddhists freaking out and beating people up over things.

CONAN: Why don't we start with you, Charles Kimball?

Prof. KIMBALL: Well, certainly religion can produce anxiety for some people. There are cases sadly where Buddhists have engaged in violent behavior, and I cite one of those, the case about a decade ago in Tokyo when a Buddhist-related group released sarin gas in a Tokyo subway system, and I tell the story of that--book--around the theme of blind obedience to this particular leader. But I think there is more of a problem historically, speaking as a historian of religion--I think there is a bigger problem particularly with the monotheistic traditions and particularly with Christianity and Islam, the two largest religious traditions, both of whom can easily fall into these patterns of exclusivism and absolutism, and they are missionary in orientation, which is probably a contributing factor as well, that you don't find in the same way with, say, the Hindu tradition or Shinto in Japan on a widespread basis.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Liane Gunn(ph) in Beaverton, Oregon. And this is for you, Professor Avalos. `Can your guests address religions that believe in more than one god? It seems that his idea of scarcity, in particular, is a problem of monotheistic religions.' Bearing on Steven's question.

Prof. AVALOS: Yes. I believe that all religions have that potential to create scarce resources, so you may have so-called polytheistic religions that also have sacred spaces that have been fought over. The famous case of Ayodhya in India, where Muslims and certain Hindus have been fighting over that sacred space, is an example in recent times.

CONAN: Steven, thanks very much for the call.

STEVEN: Can I ask one more quick question?

CONAN: Sure.

STEVEN: I'm sorry. I just wondered how you--do you feel about the religious structure could be like a form of control, which is confusing to people?

CONAN: Hector Avalos?

Prof. AVALOS: Well, all ideologies, whether religion or not, seek some sort of control. What I argue about, the tragic nature of religious violence, is that basically you end up trading bodily well-being and human life for resources that either are not scarce or cannot be proven to exist in the first place. So whereas in non-religious violence you sometimes fight over scarcities that are real--there's sometimes not enough water, sometimes there isn't enough oil, perhaps--but in religious violence, you're always fighting about things that cannot be verified to be scarce in the first place.

CONAN: I wonder, Charles...

STEVEN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Steven.

I wonder, Charles Kimball, what do you make of that scarcity argument?

Prof. KIMBALL: Well, I think there's some merit to it, but I also think it's much more complex. I agree that a lot of the violence that we've seen throughout human history gets linked to religion, but I think many of the cases of war and conflict are far more connected to economic, to social, to political power issues where religion is drawn in, or is used as the excuse or justification. And there--it's often a mixture; it's never quite so simple as just scarcity of this resource over against religion passions. They're usually linked together. Lebanon was mentioned earlier as a good case in point where a very convoluted, multisided civil war from 1976 to 1990 that had multiple dimensions that related to demography and to economic power of some groups over others, that had the Israeli-Palestinian conflict laid over it. And in the midst of that, what seemed to come out was a kind of sectarian violence where Sunnis and Shiites and Druse and Christians were fighting against each other on these sectarian lines, but it was much, much more complex. And I think that's true throughout much of history.

CONAN: And Northern Ireland much the same, again Catholics and Protestants, but there was a lot more going on.

Prof. KIMBALL: And I think what happens is often that religion provides that kind of ultimate framework for meaning, and so leaders naturally turn--which is why I talked about declaring holy war--leaders will naturally turn to the justification, you know, why our war is right and if you die it's for a greater cause. And so you lay the religious framework over that often as a way of saying the death was not in vain, it's for a higher purpose, you'll be in heaven if you do march across this minefield or whatever the argument may be, even if that's not really what's at the base of the conflict.

CONAN: Hector Avalos, Northern Ireland, neither side framed this as a religious conflict.

Prof. AVALOS: Well, I'm not arguing that there are no other factors in conflict or that there are no other conflicts that result from other factors. But let me give you an example where sometimes you inject political and economic motives for the violence when, in fact, they are derivative of the religious aspects. Israel has no great economic resources. It has no oil. The value of the space there has been created almost entirely by religious belief that it's sacred. Therefore, you've declared this space more valuable than surrounding space, and it has accrued, then, economic and political value because it first had this religious value.

So there are cases, and I point to a number of examples in my book, where it's not the case that political motives and economic motives bring in religion; rather, the space has been created by religious belief and then economic value and political value accrue because of it.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. This is Ryan. Ryan, calling from Sacramento.

RYAN (Caller): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Sure.

RYAN: Really, I don't know if I have a question or maybe it's more of a comment for Dr. Kimber(ph) and just the rest of you however you like to chime in, but...

CONAN: It's Kimball, but go ahead.

RYAN: OK. Kimber, sorry--Kimball. As a Christian, he mentioned--touched on the concept of humility, and as a Christian I believe that it's important to evaluate the truth claims of each religion, but come at them, you had mentioned, not so much as stating that--whether or not God is on my side but more in a sense am I on God's side. In other words, I believe that truth is transcendent. It's not based on sincerity. I believe that it's absolute, but that doesn't, in my view, lead to a dangerous place. It leads to a place of the essence of who God is, something that--God transcends our sincerity, he transcends what we say from one generation to the next to the next. And that's what I'm interested in, is knowing who God is, his absolute character. And I'll just throw that out for you guys to discuss.

But I don't believe--Neal, you know, your question was pretty indicative, I think, of our postmodern culture where you said, `Can a sincere person really commit evil?' The obvious answer to me and to countless other Christians is, `Yes.' And it's not so much as Christians that we want to know--or we want to proclaim God is on our side and go out with our megaphone. It's more humility, to evaluate the truth claims of Scripture, the Old and New Testaments, compare them to the truth claims of other faiths. Say, `What side is God on? I want to be on his side.'

CONAN: All right, Ryan. Thanks very much for the phone call. Charles Kimball?

Prof. KIMBALL: Yes. Let me say I personally believe that there is such a thing as absolute truth, but I believe it rests with God and not with any of us. To use the words of the Apostle Paul, speaking now as a Christian, we see through a glass darkly not yet face-to-face. None of us possess the mind of God and anybody, Christian--particularly Christian or Jew, who thinks they do should go read the book of Job one more time and realize just how vast is the God of all creation and how little we really know and understand.

Even given what the caller said, and obviously since you've introduced me as a Baptist minister, I obviously take my religious tradition seriously; we still are always in the process of trying to interpret and make sense. I mean, you can make a claim about the Bible, which was underlying his question, and that's fine, and Muslims make a claim about the Koran being the word of God. But you still have to interpret. You have to make sense of that and apply that somehow. Nobody can take the Bible literally at every point. A lot of people claim this. I mean, flip on religious broadcasting day or night and you see people making the claim; it really can only be made by people who actually don't read the Bible and don't know what's in there.

We all pick and choose, and we all have to use metaphor and interpretation to try and make sense of very diverse messages that are contained in a variety of literature that we call our sacred text. And so one can't simply step aside and say, `It's just a matter of being on God's side.' You're still interpreting that. If that weren't the case, we wouldn't have 20,000 or so different Christian denominations. That tells you that not all Christians see things the same way.

CONAN: Did you want to get in on that, Professor Avalos?

Prof. AVALOS: Well, one of the ways I think I would respectfully disagree with Dr. Kimball is the idea that there is absolute truth and that certain interpretations are more true or more essentially good and religious than others. I think that's a form of essentialism where you've already decided what the true religion is or what God really would want and then you declare the others either deviant or fundamentalist.

Just to give you an example from Dr. Kimball's book on page 57, he says, `Christians who say they take the Bible literally are either ignorant or self-deluded. No one takes the Bible literally,' but yet he will probably take the passages where Jesus preaches love literally and not others. And I'm saying that that kind of essentialism simply generates more violence. It's better to just go to a post-scriptural society. Why are we taking these texts as authoritative in the first place for anything we do? And when there are so many interpretations, we can never verify which one's the true one in the first place.

CONAN: All right. Let's get another caller on the line. And let's go to Steve, Steve calling from San Francisco.

STEVE (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

STEVE: The question I have, first of all, is to represent the atheist point of view, is I am astounded by the hypocrisy that you see in religion, and I wonder if somebody could address that for me. One obvious example of that is that one of the Ten Commandments says `Thou shalt not kill,' but yet you see examples all over the place and our current war going on now of people being killed in the name of religion.

CONAN: Well, yeah...

STEVE: And I've never had a satisfactory answer to that before. If somebody could help me, I'd appreciate it.

CONAN: Well, Professor Avalos, you've read a lot about the amount of blood, violence, that's in not only the Bible but in the Koran, as well.

Prof. AVALOS: Yeah. That's in Exodus 20:13, and that verse of course has been interpreted various ways. The Hebrew word `ratsach' there can mean `kill,' but it could mean `murder.' So some people would say it doesn't really mean `Don't kill,' it means `Do not murder.' And murder itself, however, can be interpreted relatively because murder just simply means a killing that's not authorized by the social group that's making the laws. So you can play with that word. And I can find you instances where the same word was defined as `murder' and other times where the same Hebrew word was not defined as `murder.' So it's difficult to make a case on that.

CONAN: Professor Kimball?

Prof. KIMBALL: Yeah, I would say it's certainly the case that there is a great deal of hypocrisy in religion. There's a great deal of hypocrisy in politics, there's a great deal of hypocrisy in economics and in human life. I think that is fairly obvious if we open our eyes and look around.

I do want to make one quick comment on something Professor Avalos said before...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. KIMBALL: ...and that is what I'm saying is that no one takes the Bible literally at every point. And I said earlier we all pick and choose, and the challenge becomes to be sure. And what I'm calling for is be honest, put that on the table. Yes, I do believe when Jesus says, when he's asked what's the greatest commandment, and he says, `To love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. In this is all the law and the prophets,' that's the summary of--in his day, that was the Scriptures, the law and the prophets. He's saying, `Here's a kind of summary of what the Scriptures teach us.' I'm saying, yes, for me, that is bedrock teaching. And so you can come along if you wish and see a passage where Jesus says, `Don't think I came to bring peace, but a sword.' And so the problem for me, if I take this as my sacred text, `How do I make sense of those?' I'm saying--I'm calling for some honesty in wrestling with that, but I am--rather than saying, `This is essential and this is what you have to have,' it's where I think I and many others have taken a stand.

And it's important, I think, too, in the midst of--and I think one of the problems I have with the book that Professor Avalos has written is that it doesn't give due credit to the way people have been inspired by their religious faith--the Gandhis, the Martin Luther Kings, the Desmond Tutus...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. KIMBALL: ...who draw deeply from that well of religion and have changed the world in the process.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call.

STEVE: Thank you.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get John in. He may be the last caller given the amount of time these calls are going. John, go ahead.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. Yeah. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

JOHN: I think that the scarcity issue is interesting, but I've always felt that it is more a psychological issue. And basically, it just plays--religion plays into the fear of what happens to me after I die. Now I mean, this isn't going to hold true for everybody, that's for sure, but there are certain susceptible people that are so concerned with it that religion for them is little more than fire insurance. So if they think that--I mean, something's threatening that viewpoint, they're willing to go to great lengths to protect their ideology and to protect their, you know, hope for the afterlife.

CONAN: Well, Hector Avalos, that would seem to go right in with your scarcity theory.

Prof. AVALOS: Yes, because I would say that the afterlife then functions as a scarce resource. That is what you want; you value that. And so you're going to either--you might commit violence to get it or to maintain it. If you look at the 9/11 hijackers--Mohamed Atta, he wanted to go to paradise. So the afterlife then can become the scarce resource you want, and so that is very consistent with my theory, I would believe.

CONAN: And Charles Kimball.

Prof. KIMBALL: Well, I think the other thing to point out here is that there are some changes afoot even within certainly the Christian and Islamic traditions, but more widely Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. A very interesting article today, a cover story of Newsweek, is looking at religion and spirituality in America. And one of the striking findings which contradicts this notion of rigid exclusivity and scarcity of getting into heaven is that while over 90 percent of the people in the United States identify themselves as religious or spiritual, 79 percent believe that people outside of their own religion can get to heaven, and only 12 percent believe that their religion holds the only key. That's a very interesting--and I'd say a shift from historical dominance of a more exclusivist position, where more and more people, as we live in an interconnected and interdependent and pluralist community in our country as well as in the world, there's more openness and an awareness to various ways that people understand and appropriate religion and spirituality and an affirmation of a wider picture than many people have had, I think, throughout much of history.

CONAN: Uh-huh. John, thanks very much for the call.

JOHN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And, Charles Kimball, who we just heard from, thank you very much.

Prof. KIMBALL: Good to be with you.

CONAN: Charles Kimball, professor of religion at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, the author of "When Religion Becomes Evil."

And we'd also like to thank Hector Avalos for his time today.

Prof. AVALOS: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Hector Avalos, associate professor of religious studies at Iowa State University, the author of "Fighting Words: Origins of Religious Violence." He joined us from the studios of WOI in Ames.

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