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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Religion and violence: Do materialist intellectuals have answers?

A friend writes to draw my attention to Martin Amis's somewhat convoluted discussion about religion and violence: Asking whether al Qaeda's violence is based on religion, he ponders,
Then what, you may be wondering, was all that talk about jihad and infidels and crusaders and madrasas and sharia and the umma and the caliphate? Why did people write whole books with titles like "A Fury for God" and "The Age of Sacred Terror" and "Holy War, Inc."? There are several reasons for hoping that international terrorism isn't about religion -- not least of them the immense onerousness, the near-impossibility, now, of maintaining a discourse (I'll put this simply) that makes distinctions between groups of human beings. Al Qaedaism may well evolve into not being about religion, about Islam. But one's faculties insist that it is not not about religion yet.
Well, the best way to resolve whether Al Qaedaism is about religion is to ask its members. Do they have religious convictions, and what are they? That would surely settle the matter - yes, they are motivated by very specific religious convictions, not shared by the vast majority of Muslims.

But making that point spoils the fun. It means that materialist intellectuals cannot insinuate that "all religions are like that." Which is what many want to do, of course.

In reality, a brief examination of religion in most places will soon reveal two things:

(1) Few religious people are interested in any type of religiously inspired violence.

(2) The few that are interested in violence are usually more trouble to their fellow believers than to anyone else. For example, radical Islamists are especially dangerous to traditional Muslims, if we go by death rates. The Protestant and Catholic terrorists of Ireland were basically Christians murdering other Christians over matters that few non-Christians would even make sense of*. But they never represented the majority of Irish Christians.

*For example, if you are not a Christian, you likely do not know what "transubstantiation" means. If you are a Christian, you still might not know, but in either case, you would wonder, I am sure, that anyone would kill someone else for disagreeing about it. And not many people would. But of course you are more likely to get killed by such a fanatic if you are a Christian in Ireland. And you are more likely to get killed by an Islamist if you are a Muslim in the Middle East.

Materialist intellectuals don't have any worthwhile answers for religiously inspired violence. If Amis's essay is any example, they find it difficult to discuss the matter intelligibly. The societies that forcibly got rid of religion, like Stalin's Russia and Pol Pot's Cambodia, were more violent than most others because religion prevents far more violence than it encourages. That is probably because religious authorities teach people to control themselves in many situations where they otherwise would not.

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