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In Theory: Does religious belief make the world more violent?

A survey of more than 2,000 British adults suggests that while few people think of religions as inherently violent, 47% of those surveyed believe “the world would be a more peaceful place if no one was religious.”

The survey report, detailed on the Church Times website, points out that a majority of respondents believe political ideologies and socioeconomic issues have more to do with “religious violence” than faith.

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“This is emphatically not to say that religion in itself — its practices, loyalties, scriptures and even ethics — has nothing to do with violence,” the report states, arguing that specific religious texts are “hijacked to legitimize violence.”

Q. Does religious belief contribute to violence in the world? What could be done to counter texts that appear to advocate violence in the name of religion?

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Not to be rude, but this is hardly a new observation. People have been accusing religions of violence and destruction since religions began — probably because religions have been guilty of it, or misused for it, ever since they began.

No one can deny that ancient religions reflect the barbarism common in their founding eras. But they often improved upon it; and in any case, the violence is certainly not the end of what can and should be said about religion.

Those fond of making these accusations regularly fail to point out the even more massive waves of goodness which religions have accomplished in the world — all the schools, hospitals, orphanages, clinics, shelters and help centers of every stripe that would never have existed without religious impetus to found them. Religions have been at the forefront of peace efforts, racial reconciliation, fair wages and labor laws, immigrants’ rights, women’s rights, children’s rights (and yes, gay rights, some of us) — pretty much every human rights or social justice movement on the planet.

And of course there are the good works done every single day by ordinary folk: countless billions of random acts of kindness, all done in the name of religion, by good earnest people whose names and faces will never make it onto the evening news or into the history books.

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So, yeah, religion has a pretty long history, and in the millennia of its existence, it’s done some infamously bad stuff, and even more bad stuff has been done in its name, without its consent. It has also been quietly responsible for immense good, perhaps for the majority of the goodness and human progress that has happened on earth to date.

Religion should play and is playing its part in the end of violence; it also continues to do good. Let’s keep helping it do that.

The Rev. Amy Pringle

St. George’s Episcopal Church

La Cañada Flintridge

Belief in God, religious belief, does not itself contribute to violence in the world. How people interpret scripture contributes to violence. Leviticus 19:18, “Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself,” has been interpreted by fellow clergy as being ethnocentric on the grounds that “people of the same religion live together in the same neighborhoods.”

Hence, you are only mandated to love people of your same religio/ethnic belief.

Religio/political leaders also choose to ignore scripture in favor of political goals. “Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians, (Zoroastrians) — any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” Quran, Sura 2:62.

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How can a true believer make Jihad given the restrictions listed above?

What we can do to counter texts that are incorrectly interpreted to advocate violence? Establish open dialogues between religious leaders who are knowledgeable about scripture, theirs’ and others,’ and make available to the general public speakers to discuss what in Hebrew is called “P’Shat” (simple linguistic) translations of formerly misinterpreted texts.

As the Talmud says, “The righteous of all nations have a portion in the World to Come” (Tosefta, Sanhedrin13.2).

So, let us do the right things to earn a deserved portion now and in the World To Come!

Rabbi Mark Sobel

Temple Beth Emet

Burbank

As the article from Church Times states the connection between violence and religion is complex and I agree. What makes this connection complex is the various religious traditions, cultures and political realities that are hard to measure into the equation Religion plus belief equals violence. I observe many people mistakenly assume that when acts of violence are done by those who claim they are doing it in the name of whatever religion, will point and say, “You see? ___ promotes violence not peace.” If you took the time to understand the core teachings of the religion, you would find there is more to it than that. I speak from the Christian perspective and in Christianity there is much debate upon when violence is appropriate and when it is not. Is there such a thing as a just war or violence that prevents further violence? There are Christian chaplains who serve in the military, who address the spiritual health of those who are serving their country. Jesus teaches us to love our enemy, so how can we apply that ethically to our military personnel that often have to be protective of our country’s freedom using violence? For some there is never justification of violence and we do others and ourselves much harm when we use violence. Others find that self-defense is a legitimate use of violence, still others feel when others are being harmed violence is necessary to restore order.

As to what can be done to counter texts that appear to advocate violence in the name of religion, perhaps we need to put more weight in the other texts that are contrary to violence. For example: in Christianity, there are plenty of texts in the Bible used to justify violence. However, I believe Jesus calls us to love the Lord our God and our neighbors as ourselves. This is the key text that opens the door on all the other texts. Jesus teaches us that God created the world, and we are called to be caretakers of all creation, to love all of it, not to subdue it, abuse it and commit violence against it.

Our neighbors may be those who live next door to us or live across the ocean, but their welfare and our welfare are dependent on one another. Acting out in violent ways hurts all of us. Many times we do violence to ourselves, through drug addiction or committing a crime that lands us in jail, cutting ourselves off from others or suicide. These are not loving acts but acts of violence contrary to what God calls us to do and be.

We need to do the hard work of transforming the world from addiction to violence by starting with ourselves. By turning inward and listening to God we can find ways to heal what causes the violence to reign in our lives. Then we can work on bringing what we have learned to the outer world and resist the tendency to give into being violent. This is not easy work, nor will it always be clear what to do right away, but if we start with loving God, our neighbors and ourselves, we will find the way forward.

Rev. Steve Poteete-Marshall

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Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church

Montrose

Regarding the poll about how the world would be a better place without religion, we mustn’t forget that most of the world’s violence has been a result of not having religion to intervene or have any input. Remember the genocidal massacres of Chairman Mao numbering in the millions, the reigns of Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev, numbering the same, and who can forget the Cambodian communist, Pol Pot, responsible for the infamous Killing Fields and the decimation of one-third his population? These were all godless, irreligious monstrosities that murdered wholesale for their own agendas. Communists are religionless, so it’s not religion, per se, that’s responsible for Earth’s plenteous violence, it’s our myriad belief systems.

Beliefs are what move believers to action. Does state-avowed godlessness, as in all communist regimes, result in world peace or death and destruction? I would argue the latter, and I would say that without the religion of Christianity, we wouldn’t have the many hospitals, care facilities and charitable institutions we have, nor would evils such as slavery be essentially done away as it is now in the Western world. The whole notion of personal rights is stated in our nation’s Declaration of Independence wherein God grants these unalienable privileges, and without believing that we would be far more violent and untethered because there would be no reliable lawgiver.

Many will try to make religion guilty of sin, by pointing to such as the KKK with their fiery crosses or the Nazis hailing from the birthplace of Protestantism, or one of the Crusades (though they originated to stop the Islamic invasion of Bible lands). It is one thing to commit violence in the name of some religion or to be wrongly associated with pure religion, and it is quite another to actually commit violence for religious purposes. There is no Christian injunction to do violence in this day for religious aims. The Bible says, “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom 12:18). There are other religions today that implore their disciples to do violence, and there are political ideologies that do the same without any divine mandate, but it’s up to the world to sort these out and fight against them. There will never be a day without violence before the return of Christ because all of mankind is rife with sin and violence is in us all. But if not for godly religious restraint, we would all be murderous pirates and justifiably so.

Rev. Bryan A. Griem

Tujunga

In a commentary on the survey report mentioned in our question, religious leaders describe what can be done to counter violence-inspiring texts, and I am happy to defer to these experts. They recommend providing historical context about real-life conflicts which may have given rise to violent language in writings from the time. These theologians also counsel readers of scripture to downplay or even ignore a rare violent phrase or two as not representing the overall message of the faith.

We need not rely on subjective opinion because we actually have a good indication of how much violence is inspired by religion: Most violence has nothing to do with Islam or with any other faith. A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. on firearm deaths worldwide pointed out that 90% of all violent deaths, whether by firearms or by any other means, happen in the absence of any conflicts, whether political, economic, territorial or religious in origin.

Violence is overwhelmingly an interpersonal problem, and all humans have a personal responsibility to counter it in ourselves and around us in any ways we can no matter what beliefs inspire us.

Roberta Medford

Atheist

Montrose

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