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Religion, Violence, Nonsense, and Power


The Cambridge Companion to Religion and TerrorismChapter summary

The recent frequency of Islamist militant attacks in the name of God has added fuel to a long-standing Western notion that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence. The subject in this common notion is not just certain forms of Islamism or Islam in general but “religion,” a category that is commonly held to include Christianity, Hinduism, and other major world faiths. The common Western notion is meant to be neutral with regard to particular religions; it does not discriminate against Muslims, for example, but sees religion as such as potentially dangerous. Any time disagreements are ratcheted up to a cosmic level, there is the danger of blood being spilled. For that reason, the Western liberal ideal has insisted on the domestic separation of church, synagogue, mosque, etc. from state, and the privatization of religion. And it has generally insisted that foreign policy promote this ideal in non-Western countries whenever possible.

The notion that people kill in the name of God is undeniable. Arguments that try to pin all violence on other factors – economic deprivation or political marginalization – are easily refuted by the terrorists’ own words; they also assume a clear distinction between religious and political and economic factors that is impossible, even in theory, to pull off, as I argue later in the chapter. Nor does it work, despite frequent attempts, to claim that the Crusaders were not really Christians or Islamic terrorists are not really Muslims. Normatively, it is important for Christians and Muslims to claim that Crusaders and terrorists have gotten the message of Christianity and Islam all wrong. Descriptively, however, it is disingenuous for Christians and Muslims to absolve their own group from wrongdoing by disowning their bad coreligionists. We must do penance collectively for our collective sins.

People can and do commit violence in the name of God. But obviously people kill for all sorts of other things too. Behind the common tale of religion and violence, therefore, there must be a stronger claim: religion has a greater propensity to promote violence than what is not religion. What is not religion is called “secular.” The idea that religion promotes violence depends entirely on this distinction between the religious and the secular.

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