Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Religion and Violence

Richard Beck has a post on religious intolerance that Christian H pointed me to. 
There is a certain configuration of religion that is highly explosive:
1.) Certainty: A feeling that what is right vs. wrong or moral vs. immoral is a FACT that is obvious to everyone and universally binding.
2.) Ingroup: The creation of an ingroup and an outgroup.
3.) Infrahumanization: Viewing the outgroup as less intelligent, honest, or righteous because they disagree with the ingroup.
4.) Victimization: A victim mentality justifying aggression (overt or psychological) toward the outgroup.
He zeros in on the first one as the problem. That is if we become certain about our religious ideas then we are on the road to intolerance and possibly violence.It becomes immediately self-refuting. He identifies an ingoup and an outgroup. That is religious moderates are good. Religious fundamentalists are bad. He sees the fundamentalists as less intelligent and less honest. In fact, they do great hard to society by portraying this certainty about religion. So then what should society do to solve this problem that these pesky outgroup people are causing? One can see how this can cause aggression against fundamentalists.

The trouble is he has identified the wrong step. You can't keep people from being certain of their religion. People are going to order their lives around a central truth and seeing that truth as tentative is unnatural. Just like when Beck rejected fundamentalism with great certainty. People are not tentative by nature especially when dealing with moral outrage.

What I see as more important is step #3. I think that is the step where Catholics should always get off the religious intolerance train. We cannot dehumanize those who disagree with us. Yes, Catholic history is full of examples of this. Despite this Catholic teaching has developed into an understanding that no people group should be diminished no matter how wrong their faith and morals are.

Vatican II went so far as to say that the holiest of Catholics can learn something new about God by dialoguing with the most mistaken people. Why? Because God interacts with everyone on a spiritual level. God does not refuse to talk to anyone. This means that if we want to know God, and that is what we should want, then it makes sense to talk about matters of faith with anyone and everyone we can. Aggression towards any group is therefore ruled out not because Catholicism might be wrong but because Catholicism is a work in progress and anyone can contribute to that progress.

It occurs to me that any belief system, whether religious or political or whatever, needs to have this. That is a teaching that values human beings that oppose the system. That is what democracy and human rights are about. They flow from the Christian notion that all people are made in the image of God and that trumps any religious or political wrongness they might have. The trouble is not that we hold our doctrines strongly but that we think right doctrine gives us greater dignity as persons. It does not.

So the danger of intolerance comes from any belief system that does not include that basic dignity not just for non-believers but even for those who energetically oppose the system. This is where so many governments have failed. How do they deal with the opposition? It is also a place where God is mind-bogglingly generous. He allows people to oppose Him and to influence others to oppose Him and even allows them to corrupt His church and other important institutions. Why doesn't He just zap them? Yet He avoids aggression. He does not force them to become Christians and he does not prevent them from doing great harm.

This does remind me of what Pope Benedict said at a meeting of world religious leaders at Assisi. He even made sure atheists were invited. Then he denounced all violence justified in any way by the Christian religion. He was giving the leaders of other world religions an opportunity to condemn those who used their religion to justify violence. The awkward fact was that one religion represented there was used to justify a lot more terrorist acts than all the others put together. That would be the Muslim religion.

When you look at why that is, it comes down to what Beck calls infra-humanization. They just don't have clear teaching on respecting the human dignity of non-Muslims. In fact, they have a long tradition going back to Mohammad himself of using very brutal violence against the enemies of Islam. That is a huge problem because saying what Mohammad did was immoral would be denying a central teaching of their faith. It would be similar asking a Christian to say something Jesus did was immoral. The difference is Jesus never killed anyone.

The thing to note is the difference is in the content of the religion and not the certainty of it. We should not fear those who hold to a faith as strongly as Osama Bin Laden. The question we should ask is what that faith teaches. Does it teach that those who reject that faith can be dealt with violently? If so, we should be concerned .

This is precisely why we should be concerned about atheism. Sure there is a history of violent atheists but that is not the big reason. Atheists don't look to previous generations of atheists the way Catholics and Muslims do. So no atheist will get violent because the Nazi's or Communists were violent. Still they have no doctrine that says they need to respect the human dignity of their opponents. So there can be an atheist Osama Bin Laden. There can never be a Catholic Osama Bin Laden.


  1. Interesting post. I definitely agree with you that out of those 4 items, number 3 does seem to be the most dangerous. No only does it cause violence, but it ensures that communication will be difficult or impossible.

    I definitely see 1 as being dangerous as well though. Once someone thinks they are right, and moreover, that God is on their side, they will be emboldened. Seems like a potentially dangerous cocktail. Of course, I've seen people say that this alone will inevitably lead to these problems, which I think is an overstatement. However, I see it as dangerous for sure.

  2. I do agree that 1 is dangerous. I just don't think it is avoidable. It is like falling in love is dangerous. We can't avoid it. We should not try. But if it goes bad it can go real bad.

    My point is we need to be more careful when contemplating any religion that fails the infra-humanization test. Not just any religion but really any belief system. Political systems are at least as dangerous. When you get something that mixes both then you are playing with fire.

    That is why Catholicism has been so negative about liberation theology. It mixes the church and political revolution. Some of the worst chapters in Catholic history come that way. Don't go there.

  3. 1 is unavoidable? I think to a certain degree this is true, everyone is going to think they are right and their opposition is wrong. But there is a degree of it that becomes really dangerous that I don't think is necessarily inevitable. That is when you get to the point where you won't even listen to opposing views, or entertain the possibility that you might be wrong.

    I wouldn't argue that this is only possible in the realm of religion (your example of politics is perfect illustration of this fact) or that religion always leads to this kind of thing (plenty of religious people are open to new ideas). But something about the thought that God is on your side seems to make the extreme more likely. If someone thinks God agrees with them, there is automatically less motivation to consider a different viewpoint.

  4. Do we also have to entertain the possibility we might be wrong? I do a prison ministry. I talk with rapists and gang members and all sorts of people with very bad moral thinking. Do I have to entertain the idea they are right and I am wrong? I don't see that as a good thing at all.

    Even an atheist like yourself. I love the conversation but i would not say it should be based on an openness to conversion. Some Christians say that. If people are obviously not going to convert they don't bother with them. I don't believe that is a good thing.

  5. "Do we also have to entertain the possibility we might be wrong?"

    I don't really see it as dangerous. Let's take your example of rape, I don't think there's any chance that I will suddenly change my mind and think rape is okay. So what happens if I ask myself "Is rape moral?", I will immediately say "no" and then give a list of reasons why it is not okay. When the answer is so obvious (like with rape) it becomes more an exercise about WHY it is immomral, not so much a question as to IF it is moral or not. Things might get more interesting though if we are talking about questions that are more difficult, like the trolley problem for example.

    I didn't realize you did a prison ministry. I'm curious about the rapists that you talk to. Do they think rape is morally okay, or do they just not care about whether or not it is moral? My guess would be the second.

    I agree that likelihood of conversion shouldn't be necessary for a conversation. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of changing people's mind, but understanding each other better is much more likely and a worthwhile goal.

  6. In you example you are remaining 100% certain you are right. Osama Bin Laden would have been happy to give reasons why the US is the great Satan. So if having what you consider to be good reasons can absolve you of any obligation to be open minded then I don't really understand what condition #1 means.

    As far as what rapists say? I only talk to the ones who want to come to a Catholic bible study. They do tend to justify their actions. She took my drugs so she owed me sex. Not the height of moral philosophy but some sense that what they did was OK. I have not met anyone yet who does not care. They either justify their actions somehow or they say they behaved badly and they are ashamed of themselves. A lot of times they lie. That is another indication of shame.

  7. haha, maybe you are right, perhaps 1 is just unavoidable.