May 2016 Feature Article

We have recently witnessed tragic events of violence in many parts of the world.  The massacres in Belgium, Paris, and Pakistan, the shooting in California, the tension in Jerusalem, and the terrorist attacks in Turkey, Egypt, Ivory Coast, and Tunisia are but a few examples.  While many of these assaults are attributed to fanatics of Islamic extremism, there is an unspoken thesis that their religious conviction is the seed of such violence.  People like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens would like to brand all religious beliefs under the same banner of intolerance and hate.

For instance, after 9-11, this slogan was posted on some billboards: “Science will fly you to the moon…  Religion will fly you into a building.”  Occasionally, the media would reinforce the idea that religion is outdated and the enemy of modernity.

While these accusations are mostly unfair, the challenge remains.  What is the relationship between religious beliefs and violence?  Are monotheistic religions more prone to violence than polytheistic or Asian ones?  Does belief in a One True God translate into proselytization and the intolerant suppression all other “false” gods?  How do we explain the different passages in the Bible or the Koran that advocate violence towards unbelievers?

It is important to address these assertions, as religions in general and monotheistic belief in particular is increasingly under the scrutiny of the secular world.

Monotheism and violence

The claim is that polytheistic religions, which already allow for the coexistence of different deities, are therefore more tolerant to different, ‘foreign’ conceptions of God, and hence less likely to militantly enforce their view on others.  Because of this oriental religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism are also more tolerant than monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—which are historically marred with much fighting internally and externally.

At a first glance, there seems to be some veracity in this.  There are many conflicts described in the Old Testament between the Jews and other peoples, and then one can add the wars between Muslims and Christians in the Crusades, between Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation and the Thirty Years War, and the current situation in Israel and the Middle East.  Christians persecuting Jews, Muslims fighting against Jews, Shiites against Sunnis, and the al-Qaeda and ISIS jihad against the West seem to validate this claim.

However, upon closer examinations, history has shown that states with polytheistic religions are not at all benign.  The Roman Empire was very violent against minorities and intolerant towards Christianity in the first three centuries.  In the past century, we witnessed how several atheistic regimes have perpetrated the worst massacres and genocides in human history.

We need to look for the causes elsewhere. Samuel Huntington, who wrote The Clash of Civilizations in the early 1990s, claims that geopolitical conflicts will occur along the lines of cultures.  Thus, these conflicts are often equated as religious ones because most civilizations define themselves along religious lines.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ recent book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence provides further insight as to why it seems religions could be a source of division.  He believes that people commit atrocities because of an identity crisis.  Human beings are social by nature, and as a result of the herd mentality tend to define their world in terms of “us” and “them.” Religious identity is often the strongest social bond that distinguishes one group from another.  He states,

“Violence has nothing to do with religion as such. It has to do with identity and life in groups. Religion sustains groups more effectively than any other force. It suppresses violence within. It rises to the threat of violence from without. Most conflicts and wars have nothing to do with religion whatsoever. They are about power, territory and glory, things that are secular, even profane.  But if religion can be enlisted, it will be.”

This is confirmed by the fact that many of the suicide bombers and terrorists are not really religious. Their upbringings were not ultra-religious when they were recruited.  They are often radicalized through a process of socialization when given a new mission and meaning in life.

It is interesting to note that the current wave of terrorism is related to the secularization which began in the West and now spreading across the globe. Secularization was a process that began in the 18th century with the Enlightenment, where reason was seen as the alternative to religion as the unifying force of peoples.  By depriving society of the central role that religion plays in it, it was thought that people would unite under the standard of science and reason. The secular state becomes the norm of modern societies where individual freedoms are guaranteed.  After all, wasn’t “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’) the motto of the French Revolution and the cornerstone of modern democracy?

With secularization, however, relativism and individualism have become prevalent.  And once cultures and religions become relative, modern man is forced to live an individual existence unmoored from his cultural roots and traditions and isolated from community, church and extended families. Autonomy, individual rights and “spirituality” have replaced virtues, duties and religious practices.

Yet, the modern man is restless, constantly in search of meaning and identity before an array of possibilities. Many people find comfort in religious fundamentalisms and sects which offer a sense of meaning and spirituality in the West and in Islam.  This turn towards fundamentalism can at times result in violence.

Faith and Reason

One way to resolve this tension is to emphasize the possible harmony between reason and faith. On the one hand, the secularists need to learn that while human reasoning is the common basis and starting point of knowledge, it is not the only font.  On the other hand, religionists must also shun fideism which only blindly accepts revealed sources without being open to dialogue with different interpretations in a reasoned manner.

One area where this is applicable is in the field of theology and biblical exegesis, especially the difficult passages where violence seemed to be condoned in the Old Testament. Between the two extremes of literal interpretation and historicizing away the difficulties, a mature approach that balances faith and reason can help us to better understand the biblical message.  One such example is the International Theological Commission publication God the Trinity and the unity of humanity: Christian monotheism and its opposition to violence which concludes that, “The Christian faith, in fact, sees the incitement of violence in the name of God as the greatest corruption of religion.”

Faith and reason needs one another, to purify one another from potential pathologies.  For Christians, Christ being the Logos Incarnate means that faith itself cannot be illogical. Human reason finds its fulfillment in the new commandment of charity of Christ impels believers to enter into dialogue with others. A healthy tension of faith and reason that avoids the extremes of fideism and rationalism can therefore allow peaceful dialogue to take place among cultures, religions and the secular world.


Father Joseph Tham
Fr Joseph Tham (LC, STL, MD, PhD) is Dean of the School of Bioethics at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome and Fellow of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and Human Rights.