Timothy Egan writes in the New York Times that fewer than 7 percent of humankind’s wars involved religion. “Of 1,723 armed conflicts documented in the three-volume ‘Encyclopedia of Wars,'” he says, “only 123, or less than 7 percent, involved a religious cause.” That surprises me, frankly. I would have guessed at least half.
But of course, there are disagreements about which conflicts are religious and which are not. Egan mentions “Hitler’s genocide, Stalin’s bloody purges and Pol Pot’s mass murders” as examples of not-religious atrocities. But I’ve read arguments that those terrible things were religious, really.
One such argument I discussed in my book, Rethinking Religion, is that religious messianism can seep into a culture and inspire the kind of political messianism that gives power to a Hitler or a Mao Zedong. And I do think there’s something to that argument. But I propose that it’s more likely messianism, fanaticism, and violent aggression come from deeper places in the psyche and attach themselves to whatever cause or issue is at hand, religious or not religious.
Egan’s point is that while religious violence has not been the norm in history, right now it is. If you look around the globe, the majority of ongoing violent conflicts have some connection to religion, somewhere. Sometimes it’s hard to find one that doesn’t,in fact. And these same religions also preach love and compassion.
“The problem is that people of faith often become fanatics of faith,” Egan writes. “Reason and force are useless against aspiring martyrs.”
It’s important to look carefully at the connection between religion and violence. The terrible irony is that very often people engaged in religious violence are violating the teachings of the very religion that is the object of their fanaticism. That is definitely true of the Buddhist of Burma and Sri Lanka who are attacking Muslims, for example. There is absolutely nothing in Buddhist teaching that condones or excuses what they are doing.
I say the one element most current religious violence has in common is that they are coming from reactionary movements opposed to some kind of social change. The change may be creeping western hegemony, or the presence of a despised ethnic minority, or many other things. But what often seems to happen is that political, social, or cultural reactionism seizes religion to give itself moral cover, or to justify bigoted and irrational fears.
Very often political and religious reactionism form alliances and support one another. This is certainly true in Burma and Sri Lanka and in the Islamic Middle East. It’s also true in the United States, even though our religion-based terrorism has been mostly centered on abortion clinics, which for some reason means it doesn’t count.
Extremist religious groups rarely follow their own religion’s teachings in any kind of holistic way. They make a fetish of some practices — usually those involving moral purity and the status of women, or respect for symbols and icons — while completely ignoring teachings about compassion and tolerance. This suggests to me that religious violence has deeper social and psychological roots than doctrinal ones.