Fighting Words: How Religion Causes Violence

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by Neil Godfrey

FightingWordsI have just completed reading Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence by Hector Avalos. The argument is not quite what I expected but it was certainly clear and logical and has given me a new perspective on the way religion and religious conflicts function in our communities and the world at large.

Now I have been one of those atheists who does not see religion in and of itself as evil; I quite understand and to an extent sympathize with people’s attachments to their faith. There was a brief time in my past when I had an essentialist view of religion and saw its irrational and exclusivist belief systems as an evil blight on our society but I have long since tempered my outlook. Too soon, I think I can hear Hector Avalos objecting. Not that religion necessarily causes violence. Clearly it doesn’t always and there are times when religion is used for the benefit of others. But “as a mode of life and thought” Avalos argues that religion is “fundamentally prone to violence”.

Avalos begins with the axiom that it is scarcity of resources that so often lead to violence. Even the fear of imminent scarcity or the mere perception of an imagined scarcity can be enough to provoke war. Land can be a scarce resource. (We might add “oil” as another and let myself be sidetracked for a moment by referring to a recent Guardian article that has appeared on the web, Tony Blair’s Islamist obsession is a smokescreen to defend ‘blood for oil’, by Nafeez Ahmed.) Resources do not have to be tangible. A sense of security, for example, can be a scarce resource.

Hector Avalos argues that many scholars have misunderstood the nature and function of religion in conflicts by thinking of it as “essentially good” while violence associated with it is considered a perversion of its true values. Rather, Avalos argues, we need to understand that religion itself has the ability to create scarcity of resources — imaginary ones, or at least those that are unverifiable by normal methods — and it is this function that can be the trigger to violence.

The difference between scarcity caused by religious beliefs and other types of scarcities is that the former are unverifiable while the latter are clearly real to all. This is what makes religious violence morally worse than other forms of violence: religious violence is about imaginary or unverifiable resources (e.g. an offended deity) while other types of violence are seeking to exchange blood for something real (e.g. self-preservation).

Religion, as a mode of lie and thought that is premised on relationships with supernatural forces and/or beings, is fundamentally prone to violence. . . . Since there are no objective means to adjudicate unverifiable claims, conflict and violence ensue when counterclaims are made. As such, the potential for violence is part of every religious tradition. . . . (Loc. 5119)

The solution, Avalos, argues, must begin with

making believers aware of how religion can create scarce resources. (Loc. 4834)

Let’s explain. It was a new concept for me, too.

How Religion Creates Scarce Resources

Avalos defines religion as

a mode of lie and thought that presupposes the existence of, and relationship with, supernatural forces and/or beings. (Loc. 1218)

By supernatural Avalos means whatever is beyond detection by means of our five senses and/or logic. The significance of this is that religious claims are always ultimately based on unverifiable premises or conclusions. Scarcities created by religion are accordingly unverifiable. These religiously created scarcities are:

  • access to divine communications, especially through inscripturation
  • sacred space
  • group privileging
  • salvation

When divine words are believed to be confined to one set of texts or revelations then those who challenge this resource may become the targets of aggression. When certain topographical areas are considered sacred, again those who challenge this scarce resource may put themselves at risk of violent retaliation. And so on.

If Hector Avalos is attempting to win our minds with his argument he is not likely to win quickly the hearts of many believing biblical scholars (and probably most biblical scholars are Christian believers in some sense) — or their counterparts in Judaism and Islamic studies — when he declares, quite logically, the ultimate arbitrariness of condemning a fundamentalist reading of a sacred text in preference for more liberal interpretations. Ultimately, the value judgement is based upon what interpretation will be seen to privilege or advantage one in one’s preferred cultural community. There are no independent and objective criteria to arbitrate between such interpretations.

Avalos argues that anyone who attempts to address religious violence by targeting only the violent expressions of a religion are grappling with the symptom and not the cause. The fact remains that there is no way to objectively verify one interpretation of a religious belief over another and therefore religious belief itself will always contain the seeds for violence given that its adherents will always be prone to fear for the security of their (unverifiable) resources.

Fighting Words does, by the way, address the arguments of scarce resources from the perspectives of all three Abrahamic religions. Nor does he deny that where religious violence does exist that there are not at times other motives, more material ones, involved as well.

Back to solutions

We started to address what Avalos sees as solutions.

Since religious violence is caused mainly by competition for resources, then part of the solution must involve making religious believers aware of how they have created scarce resources. Nonbelievers must challenge believers to explain why they believe in such resources in the first place. We should challenge believers to explain why they believe certain spaces are sacred. Nonbelievers should challenge believers to explain how their notion of salvation is any more verifiable than the notions offered by other religions. Of course, it is naive to expect believers will automatically examine their beliefs and abandon them. However, making believers aware of how religion can create scarce resources must be a starting point if there is a solution at all. (Loc. 4832)

If we think that “notions of salvation, sacred space, divine revelation, and group privileging” — those resources that are perceived to be vulnerable in their scarcity — are the essence of religion itself Avalos proposes an alternative view.

Of all of these elements, however, we believe divine revelation is the only essential feature of all religions.

Sacred spaces, group privileging, salvation, Avalos argues, are “not so clearly essential” to religion as they may seem.

It’s an idealistic view and hope, perhaps. And Avalos has already shown how all three Abrahamic religious traditions have experienced violence over threats to the scarce resource of conviction of divine revelation. But Avalos tempers his strategy by pointing out that in reality there are “degrees of sacredness” and various beliefs in sacred space and salvation can become so diluted that they no longer create any significantly scarce resources. He cites the Holy Land as an example of a sacred space that has been “redefined or abandoned” throughout history by Christians and Jews who consider themselves religious in some sense.

English: Dust jacket of the book Mein Kampf, w...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But one thing Avalos is firm about and that is that there must be zero-tolerance for any scripture that contains any form of religious violence. He clarifies his reasoning with an analogy to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Suppose a new church arose, the Hitlerian Believers, say. In response to accusations that their sacred book promotes genocide, the intellectual in this church may come to argue that even though it may have been understood that way by the first generation of believers, the faithful no longer treat those anti-semitic passages literally. They are symbolic of a metaphysical struggle against evil within our souls. The point of this argument is that most of us would quite rightly scoff at the idea that a religion should be based on a book that originally meant something far more sinister. The rationalization would be considered ludicrous and self-serving. Yet Hector Avalos sees the same thing happening with the Bible. Even if the original passages in Joshua and the Pentateuch ordering genocide did not literally happen historically, they were certainly written with an intent that has no relevance to civilized peoples today.

Even the New Testament does not escape. The slave mentality of the commands to worship, love and obey Christ are, in effect, transpositions of ancient cultural attitudes from a slave society and from an era of emperor worship.

Christ often appears to be nothing more than the Christian version of a Roman emperor. (Loc. 4997)

And the sacrifice of Christ to save us?

The idea that violence is an expression of love is the problem. (Loc. 4941)

Christ crucified
The love of God. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Fighting Words: How Religion Causes Violence”

  1. Curious the last points, the bit about the slave mentality…

    This looks to be most common after Irenaeus and the Commodus era.

    Especially with the Commodan era. Cosmocrator idea? One of Commodus’ favorite ideas, from some of what Huller covered.

    Not necessarily an idea attached to the Gnostic Christians, though.

  2. Sacred spaces, group privileging, salvation, Avalos argues, are “not so clearly essential” to religion as they may seem.

    I agree about sacred spaces, but can a religion exist without salvation? In other words, is there any point in having divine revelation if one does not benefit from it? If a group has exclusive access to divine revelation, then group privilege would seem to inherently follow, so in the sense that this privilege is secondary, I suppose it is not so clearly essential. Is Avalos arguing that salvation is also secondary in the sense that it inevitably follows from divine revelation?

    1. Avalos expands on the salvation issue by speaking of the preference to spend time and effort in making abundant the resources that people really do need and that are lacking — food, shelter, justice, etc. These are verifiable needs and we can verifiably “save” people through efforts in education, health, etc.

      He does allude to some “new models of atonement” that others are experimenting with but I don’t know what these are. I also hinted at one of his points in my final image — that the idea that God died to save us is not helpful.

      I was thinking of Jehovah’s Witnesses who, I understand, seem to accept that their “salvation” (at least for all but 144,000 of them) will be to live a hundred years in a Utopia and then die. Some mystics seem to think of salvation as a continuation of their present inner selves in some disembodied form. Ancient religions did not always promise eternal life as far as I am aware. Just living a good life is its own reward for a few religionists today.

      But granted, I suspect that the notion is very idealistic. I can’t really imagine trying to persuade my octogenarian mother that it would be a helpful step towards world peace if she gave up any hope of an afterlife. 🙂

      I wonder if instead of attempting to dismantle something that appears to be integral to the human condition, at least for most humans, that we pursue innovative ways to try to regulate it. We have had the Congress System, the League of Nations, now the United Nations, all established in attempts to address the problems (scarcities?) that caused the previous wars. Maybe some sort of counterpart for religious violence, or introduce an extension of the UN to deal with issues like religious violence.

  3. The following are comments and corrections forwarded me (Neil) from Dr Avalos re the above post:

    RE: “If religious belief is part and parcel of human nature — and I understand anthropologists tell us it is, or that it is at least a universal in all human cultures — then I don’t see how attempting to persuade believers to reconceptualize their faith is going to get any traction in any significant scale.”

    I am an anthropologist by training, as well. I also know that rationality is ALSO part of all cultures. So, it is not an either-or situation.

    If the genetic theory or inherent theory of religiosity were completely true, then how would you explain the fact that I went from fundamentalism to atheism? And why can’t others do the same?

    We have ample empirical evidence (e.g., the studies of sociologist Robert Wuthnow, and others) that education does diminish fundamentalism and can help people reconceptualize life. Similar results have been obtained with economic factors.

    The changes brought by education do not reflect just my own personal experience, but also what I witness among my own students (thousands of them in the last 25 years of teaching biblical studies).

    Nor do I think it will be as instantaneous as your description of “reconceptualization” might make it appear.

    I see reconceptualization as a long term process, but one that has been shown to be effective before. For example, slavery was thought to be an inherent part of human nature (the need for dominance, etc.), but we have been able to minimize it.

    It took a long time, but eventually empathy, which is also part of our human nature, overcame the need for this sort of dominance. That is a type of reconceptualization of human relations.

    I argue in my other book, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (2011) that it was secularization, not religiosity or biblical ethics, that should receive the most credit for the abolition of slavery in western civilization.

    1. Interesting to compare experiences — since I myself went from liberal Methodist to fundamentalist-cultist and back again — and now am an atheist. While a confirmed believer no amount of education made the least dint on my faith. I was even doing post-grad studies at the Uni of Queensland in the nature of propaganda for a time. The rational compartment works with a different set of assumptions and is compartmentalized quite separately from rationalism as applied to other areas of life in the “true believer”, no? (I’m thinking here of Atran’s argument @ http://vridar.org/category/book-reviews-notes/atran-in-gods-we-trust/ What it took for me to begin to question my faith were certain experiences that undermined it, and I suspect that is true for others I know who left such cults. Not many, in my experience, simply thought and reasoned their way out as a matter of course. The nature of faith itself does not permit such reasoning and questioning.

  4. RE: “Not many, in my experience, simply thought and reasoned their way out as a matter of course.”

    I agree that people don’t just simply reason their way out of fundamentalism. That is to say, people don’t just wake up one day and revise their rationales without new information.

    What I am suggesting is that new information can help move people away from religious rationales because rationality is not completely extinguished by faith. Faith is also utilizing rationality (e.g., you are still saying “I believe X because of reason Y” even if Y is false or a bad reason) to some extent.

    So, when you speak of “certain experiences that undermined” your faith, you are speaking of new information you received through those experiences that did not make sense with your previous information.

    If you believed X because of Reason Y, then the new experience may have undermined part of that rationale, either because you found that Reason Y was false or questionable, or you realized, either immediately or through more cumulative experiences, that Y is not a good reason to believe in X.

    In my case, for example, I began to read science books that contradicted what my pastor was saying. More importantly, when I was told that my translation of the Bible was wrong by Jehovah’s Witnesses, then I began to question how I knew whether my Bible was translated correctly.

    I had thought all Bibles said the same thing, but I saw that that was wrong. That was the beginning of a paradigm shift for me, but it took years to end up in atheism. There were other experiences that contradicted what I had been told.

    That is why education is very important, and we have a lot of empirical data showing that it can move people away from fundamentalism. So, I don’t believe that any inherent religiosity is immutable at all.

    If it were, then there would never be conversions such as mine. You may never completely eliminate religiosity in human beings, but you can minimize it or render it so minimal that it ceases to make much of a difference to humanity as a whole.

    That is why most Americans don’t go to exorcists to cure their diseases anymore, whereas at one time almost everyone in Europe thought that diseases were caused by personal beings called demons or by God’s punishment. We have managed to de-supernaturalize disease causation for the most part.

    Overall, it is not an either-or situation, but rather a complex interaction that can modify any inherent religiosity. That is so because human beings don’t just have religiosity as an inherent component but also other components that are antagonists to religiosity.

    1. I can accept your argument more easily for those who have grown up in a faith and who stand to be surprised that they have not been exposed to the full story about evolution, history, human nature. Okay, I guess that’s probably the majority! 😉

      I don’t know how much more information or education I could possibly have received that might have undermined my faith when I was doing a post grad degree in educational studies and for a time delved into the differences between “education” and “propaganda”. And we know of trained biologists who reject genuine evolution in preference to Intelligent Design.

      The ability to rationalize one’s faith against all evidence and reason is what “faith” is all about for a good many people.

      What re-directed my questioning from being a simple “slightly non-conforming but harmless dedicated” member of the flock was the church itself changing direction and renouncing all that many of us had sacrificed everything for. (The Armstrong cult ditched all its core teachings after the death of Armstrong himself.) Some people of course did not even let that shake them.

      I guess that I am dwelling upon the worst-case believers or the hardest-nuts to crack. If that’s all we had left I suppose we would be making good progress to a saner world.

  5. Yes, it is probably best to see human behavior on this issue as a spectrum. There will be those who will never be convinced at either end of the spectrum to join the opposite side.

    But I think that there are plenty of people in the middle who can be convinced to join our side. It is not necessary to convince EVERYONE. It is just necessary to convince ENOUGH people to make a difference or to ensure that secular approaches predominate.

    In any case, thanks again for a good discussion.

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