Tom Gilson

“Religion and violence”

From Victor Reppert:

Religion doesn’t lead to violence. A willingness to use the powers of the state to enforce religious or non-religious conformity is what leads to violence. Political power carries with it temptations. Christians have a track record in dealing with those temptations. It has some bad patches in it, but by and large Christians aren’t going down that road. Do atheists have a track record? No, unless the Communists count. If they do, the record is bad, if they don’t, then atheists are untested when it comes to not persecuting when possessing sufficient political power to do so.

Would you take The Ring if you thought you could make things so much better by so doing?

[Link: dangerous idea: Religion and violence]

I would qualify this by noting that the atheism he refers to is modern secular (Nietzschean) atheism, not Confucian or Buddhist atheism. There are some essentially atheist-led countries in Europe, but their track record is short compared to what Victor was speaking of, and their Christian heritage is too recent and strong to consider them entirely atheist at this stage.

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14 thoughts on ““Religion and violence”

  1. Thinking one is right can lead to violence, and thinking one is right is more likely when one’s views are rigid than when one’s views are accepting of diversity. Some religions are more rigid than others.

  2. Some atheisms are more rigid than others, too.

    What conclusions ought we to draw from either of these observations? I can think of some, certainly. But I think (from past experience) that os would have us believe that “some religions are more rigid than others” means “some religions are dangerous because they are religions; but atheism isn’t because it’s not rigid like religions are.” If I’m guessing correctly, and that’s what os wants us to conclude, that inference in particular is without any merit.

  3. Some atheisms are more rigid than others? Could you say more, please? I’m not sure how you mean this.

    You wrote, “…os would have us believe that ‘some religions are more rigid than others’ means ‘some religions are dangerous because they are religions; but atheism isn’t because it’s not rigid like religions are.'” Nope, I meant exactly what I said: Some religions are more rigid than others. Fundamentalist religions are more rigid than progressive or liberal religions–or, I suppose you could say that fundamentalist interpretations of religions are more rigid than non-fundamentalist interpretations. Fundamentalist interpretations require adherence to a rigid set of beliefs. Atheism has only one requirement: Lack of belief in God.

  4. You have answered your own question. Atheism has only one requirement, but there are many versions from that starting point. There was the government-enforced, extremely rigid atheism of Stalin. There is the rigid scientistic, naturalistic atheism of Dawkins or Provine. There is the “all religions are dangerous so let’s eliminate them” strain very clearly evident in the rigid atheism of Harris and Hitchens. There is the friendlier atheism of Dennett, who is sure there’ no God and that religion is misinformed but isn’t so sure it needs to be driven out of all humanity. There is I-don’t-think-there’s-a-God-but-I-don’t-give-a-d***-if-you-do laissez faire atheism. There is Huxley’s agnosticism. See also here for more on the same.

    So you see, you can define various shadings and gradations of religion, and I can point to the same in atheism.

  5. Okay, but your point supports my point: that rigid worldviews can lead to violence, no matter their “religious” aspects.

  6. I don’t see the relation between rigidity and violence. It would seem to matter just what is believed, not just that what is believed is rigidly believed. One might, for instance, be quite rigid in one’s pacifism. (I would suppose that Gandhi and King were.) If this were so, the rigidity would actually decrease the probability of violence, not increase it.

    Now, I don’t doubt that if one’s ideology endorsed violence, then a rigid adherence to that ideology would increase the risk that one would endorse violence. But again the point is that we must consider the content of belief, not just the way in which that belief is held.

  7. Franklin, you are of course right on this. I let the point go too easily in my earlier response.

    I suppose there is probably a relation between rigidity and violence in the special case where the belief, by its content, condones or promotes hatred or violence. I would think that the more rigidly that kind of belief is held, the more likely the holder of that belief would be to act it out.

    Consider also the way we choose words by their connotations: the more violent or hateful a belief tends to be (in one’s own estimation, at least) the more likely one is to call it “rigid,” rather than “firm,” “strong,” or “unwavering.”

    Words are marvelous things. Take up a thesaurus and you can find all kinds of synonyms representing slowness to change (back down on, yield on) one’s beliefs. Some of them you can use to make the person look like a (rigid), unbending, unthinking, uncaring moral moron, and some of them you can use to praise the person’s strength of conviction.

    But you have focused the question where it actually belongs: not how strongly a person believes x, but what x is (the content of the belief). Martin Luther King, Jr.’s beliefs regarding nonviolence were rather rigid firm, solid, and substantial, wouldn’t you agree?


  8. I would qualify this by noting that the atheism he refers to is modern secular (Nietzschean) atheism, not Confucian or Buddhist atheism.

    Modern secular atheism is Nietzschean? The primary strain of western atheistic ideology is humanist. Not Nietzschean. I don’t know a single atheist who identifies himself as a Nietzschean. I’m sure a few exist. Just as there are still a few existentialist atheists in the Sartre vein. But they’re few and far between. Even the Randian Objectivist atheists vastly outnumber Nietzscheans.

  9. I agree that rigidity alone is not enough to bring violence. I recently went with my father to have some work done by an Amish craftsman—now those are some people with a rigidity ideology. And also pretty thoroughly nonviolent.

    A couple of other elements seem necessary besides rigidity. The main one, I think, is a determination to change the world by whatever means necessary. Even if the change sought is a good one (better lives for the working class in the case of Marxism) it can still be a recipe for disaster.

  10. You could interpret it in a lot of ways, and while some of those ways don’t fit contemporary atheism very well, as David rightly said, what I had in mind was Nietzsche’s central statement: “God is dead, and we have killed him.” It is not an atheism that (as in Confucianism or Buddhism) more or less ignores the whole idea of God. It is an atheism that is well aware (though not always accurately) of our culture’s history of Christian belief, and consciously, intentionally, rejects it.

    You might call it a post-Christian atheism. Certain individuals’ rejection of belief in God depends on (what they assume to be) the Christian view of God that they are rejecting.

    One huge discrepancy between current atheism and that of the Madman (Nietzsche’s character who spoke those words) is that the Madman, and Nietzsche, recognized the huge loss that came with the supposed death of God. He knew it mattered.

  11. Thank you for the clarification. It seems to me that a lot of the “secular atheism” that we find in the west (think of dominant culture we find in any top-tier university) is precisely the sort of atheism that “more or less ignores the whole idea of God.” The same could be said of the typical atheistic “Communist.” Or, we might at least say that, for the individual, even if one begins by “consciously, intentionally, reject[ing]” Christian belief, one usually ends up more or less ignoring the whole idea of God for the rest of one’s life. Moreover, if we consider those who have been raised by atheists (Nietzschean or otherwise), these also (in my experience) typically fit that profile of “more or less ignoring the whole idea of God.”

    None of this is to deny, of course, that in the west there are still a lot of God-fearers among these God-ignoring atheists. But if we’re talking about such mixed “cultures”, how are we to decide to which part of that mixture is responsible for the violence, when violence happens?

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