Religion and Violence

Nicholas Kristof recently wrote on Facebook

I’m struck how many Westerners see Islam as intrinsically violent. No religion is intrinsically anything, in my view. The Bible approves of genocide (those poor Amalekites), the Fifth Dalai Lama ordered massacres, and Shintoism justified atrocities. And yet each has also been an inspiration at times for peace and justice. Ditto for Islam.

I’m not going to address whether Islam is “intrinsically violent,” but Kristof’s position ignores the specificity of religions, ignores their history, beliefs, and theology as if they were all the same. In a secular society, all religions (within certain bounds) are according basically equal standing in the eyes of the law. This does not mean that all religions are the same. I’ve particularly been struck by this fact while reading (slowly!) through Augustine’s City of God. In this book, Augustine responds to Roman pagans who have aruged that Christianity was responsible for the fall of Rome. In our contemporary, “post-Christian” culture, we so easily forget the great diversity of religion throughout history, and the variety of values, beliefs, and gods that have been worshipped.

Greeks worshipped Ares, god of war, who became angry if war was not well-waged. Jainism forbids ALL violence, even against plants and microbes. Romulus, founder and chief god of Rome, was a murderer and warrior, and the Romans worshipped him BECAUSE of his violence, not in spite of it. Quakers, Baha’is, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have made pacifism a supreme virtue, even one worth prison and death to preserve. How then can anyone claim that there are not different levels of privilege given to violence in different religions?

Further, if this is the case, why make peace or violence a presiding factor in a religions value? If one god says that violence is good, and another says peace is good, how can we judge between them? Are there, perhaps, other factors which determine a religion’s truth or value besides its view of peace and violence?

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