Theos Think Tank have been polling about religious violence

Theos Think Tank have been asking people whether they regard religions as violent. By their own admission, they didn’t entirely like the results.

Nearly half (47%) agreed that “the world would be a more peaceful place if no one was religious”. Fully 70% said that: “Most of the wars in world history have been caused by religions”.

Faced with that, Theos’s Nick Spencer took some comfort from the fact that “only 32% agreed that religions were inherently violent”. Only? So one-in-three British people thinks that religions are inherently violent and this merits an “only”?

Can one imagine people saying that Cancer Research UK or the Battersea Dogs Home are inherently violent? I mention two charities because “promotion of religion” still attracts charitable status in the UK along with tax exemptions. That should surely change given that half the nation now thinks the world would be more peaceful without religion.

I would concur with those saying that the Abrahamic religions, at least, have an inherent tendency to violence. That’s because they think that morality flows from the God and that moral conduct consists of believing in God and doing what God wants. From there, it’s a rather small step to thinking that anyone not of the right religious opinion is necessarily immoral for rejecting that religion’s beliefs and dictats. Hence one has a moral licence — or even a moral duty — to correct their errors, using force if sadly necessary.

The belief that obedience to God is morally paramount, even if it means killing someone, goes back of course to stories about Abraham himself. The Eid al-Adha festival is a public holiday celebrated throughout the Islamic world, honouring the willingness of Abraham to kill Isaac for no better reason than that God wanted him to.

Liberal Christians tend to squirm on this topic, changing the subject by saying that the important part of the story is that God rescinded the instruction. But do they go further and admit that Abraham’s intention to kill his own son was a moral failing on his part, and that a righteous man would have flat-out refused? No, they still laud Abraham’s obedience, and they even take that line in story books given to their kids (honest, they do!).

The story likely has no historical basis, but even so, if such stories are told as spiritual lessons, shouldn’t the supposedly peaceful Abrahamic religions now repudiate it? Until the mainstream religious opinion is moral condemnation of Abraham’s obedience, I submit that religions do indeed have an inherent tendency to violence.

Nick Spencer disagrees, saying that “You have to be pretty bone headed to believe — really and truly believe — that the great religions of the world preach violence and hatred. Go into any religious place of worship any day of the week and I would say the chances of hearing a kill the infidel sermon are vanishing small”.

So Imams in Pakistan do not preach in favour of their blasphemy laws, saying that blasphemers and apostates should be killed? No Imam has ever called for any punishment of Salman Rushdie? Friday prayers in Iran have never voiced hatred of the Great Satan, and mosques throughout the Islamic world never express any animosity towards Israel and the Jews?

Many Islamic countries prescribe the death penalty for apostasy or blasphemy. Several dozen people have been killed in Pakistan for mere accusations of blasphemy. In Bangladesh, multiple secularist bloggers have been killed by Islamists merely for criticising Islam. Other Islamic countries imprison, flog and outlaw secularists for speaking up.

This is not violence by lone rogues, but violence widely supported by mainstream Islamic opinion. Even voicing opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws is itself considered blasphemous and so can get you killed, with wide swathes of that nation’s people openly supporting the murderer.

Nick Spencer’s claim reflects the gentle and anodyne theology of today’s Church of England, but Western Christianity has long been neutered by the Enlightenment and by secular values of church–state separation, individual rights, and religious liberty. This is tamed religion. But religion in the raw prevailed through much of the history of Christendom, and still blights the Islamic world.

Spencer continues: “Referencing the Crusades or the Inquisition is pretty poor work. Atheist regimes were more efficient and rather more recent in their genocidal efforts.”.

And yet the Crusades and the Inquisition were not isolated aberrations, they were manifestations of how the Christian churches were for much of their history. And on the recent genocidal efforts, Third Reich Germany must take the prize, and yet was thoroughly religious and theistic. The fact that it was a nation that was 94% Christian that murdered millions of Jews with genocidal intent is something that Christians still don’t want to admit.

Spencer can rightly point to the large-scale atrocities of the communist regimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot (motivated, by the way, by totalitarian communist ideology, not by the irrelevant point that they were “atheistic”), but is that what today’s religious apologists are reduced to? “Yes, half the nation thinks the world would be more peaceful without us, but “only” a third think we’re inherently violent and … well, we’re not quite as bad as the totalitarian communist regimes”. As exculpation goes, that’s feeble!

Progress means accepting that we must not impose our ideology by violence even if doing so would be justified or even demanded by our God, our religion or our ideology. Because, judging by our religious history, we sure as hell cannot rely on Gods to be peaceful!

That Enlightenment principle is now widely accepted in the West, but can we hope that it will become accepted by those for whom the whole ethos of Islam, and indeed the very name itself, means “submission” to the will of God?

9 thoughts on “Theos Think Tank have been polling about religious violence

  1. Dan Steeves

    The bible book of Revelation chapters 17 vss. 3-6 and chapter 18:24 compares religion that is part of the world system as a bloodthirsty harlot or prostitute. Revelation 17:16 describes how the world political and military system as is represented by the U.N. will soon turn on the religions of this world and completely annihilate them. Just as the worldly religions have tortured and slaughtered millions in the name of their many gods, they will also face the same end. This religious prostitute, called Babylon the Great the mother of the harlots, will soon meet a violent end before the eyes of all mankind. Babylon the Great includes all religions both christian and non christian that are part of this world system and have supported it in all their bloody wars.

  2. Rob

    Religion, like smoking, is a dying habit. It poisons every part of society. It should be taxed out of existence instead of being subsidized. I am, however, encouraged by the fact that in our last census nearly a third of Australians (30 per cent) reported that they had no religion. I expect that trend to continue in the west. In the Muslim world the short term prospects for reform are bleak and will remain so until science is more widely understood and embraced as the only real source of truth. How that can be accomplished I have no idea.

  3. danielwalldammit

    The Abrahamic narratives certainly don’t help, but I wouldn’t be too quick to assume religious reasons are the real reasons for violence. God strikes me as more of an excuse, albeit a bad one, than a genuine motivation for much of the evil done in his name, Some of these folks could as easily blame their crap on the Easter Bunny.

    1. Coel Post author

      There’s some truth in that, but the raw anger over — for example — blasphemy in Pakistan seems to me something that can only be explained by people actually believing in the religion and its ideology. I think we’re too ready to discount the likelihood that many people do actually believe their religion.

  4. Peter N

    Once again the murderous careers of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot are trotted out in an exercise in “whataboutery”. Don’t tell me those were atheistic regimes. Those guys invented themselves as gods, claiming godlike omniscience, asserting godlike authority, and brutally suppressing the worship of competing gods. Exactly like Jehovah as depicted in the Old Testament.

  5. Henry

    “The belief that obedience to God is morally paramount, even if it means killing someone, goes back of course to stories about Abraham himself.”

    That’s not true, fool. You are a fool, by the way, because you are an atheist – it is impossible, under any circumstance, to be an atheist through (rational) reasoning. Since you are irrational on the most important subject for a human, we can label you, generally, as a fool. Especially when you are publicly flaunting how much of a fool you are.

    Anyway, to get back to the point. Obedience to God being morally paramount is a fact not a belief, and it doesn’t go back to Abraham, because it goes back to basic understanding of logic. But you are a fool, so how could you know that, eh?

    You see, God is the creator, creator of everything created, and only non-created is God Himself.

    So, for brevity, God is the existence. Everything the existence does is good by default. It is impossible for the existence to do something “bad”.

    When the existence gives a command, which is an act of the existence, that command is always good, by default, automatically. It is impossible for such a command to be “bad”. But it’s possible that created fool is not able to understand reality and promote himself to be a judge of the existence.

    Now, there’s an absurdity of me trying to explain something to a fool. So I’ll stop here…

    1. Coel Post author

      So would you kill a defenceless and innocent child if God instructed you to? Second question: do you consider yourself a moral person?

  6. Rob

    Isn’t it remarkable how angry many of the religious get when religion is even questioned. As with Henry above, you can almost feel the smoldering hatred it invokes in them. And because they have no decent arguments they often resort to insults. One gets the feeling they would physically assault you if they could. I have no doubt religion is inherently violent as well as actually violent.


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