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The A-Z of Believing: V is for Violence

The A-Z of Believing: V is for Violence

It’s my conviction that nothing enduring can be built on violence – Mahatma Gandhi Violence in the name of religion has been an enduring feature of religious history and life, from ancient times to the modern day. But does religion cause violence, or is it simply exploited by those who use violence to achieve their own, often…

It’s my conviction that nothing enduring can be built on violence – Mahatma Gandhi

Violence in the name of religion has been an enduring feature of religious history and life, from ancient times to the modern day. But does religion cause violence, or is it simply exploited by those who use violence to achieve their own, often political, ends?

It is a confusing picture. The latest report by the thinktank Theos shows that 61 per cent of the UK public think the teachings of religions are essentially peaceful, but 70 per cent also think that most of the wars in world history have been caused by religion. The two opinions are not necessarily contradictory but the picture is complex. To add to the confusion, the popular science author Steven Pinker argues that violence has declined over time and we are far less likely to die violently in the western world than any previous generation, yet the latest surveys show that violent crime is increasing. Stabbings in London in 2018 are at a record high and concern about violence in the USA, particularly among young people, is also at record levels.

Not that there is anything new in public concern about violence. It seems to have been going on for years. But recently, the pace of it has accelerated along that road. Admittedly, George Orwell’s apocalyptic prediction has not yet come to pass but his warning, “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on the human face forever”, is a vision too near the truth for comfort.

So, what is the role of religion? First, we should accept that violence is often carried out in the name of religion. In Israel for example, there is a marked increase in religious intemperance, abrasiveness and aggressiveness. This has been fuelled by a lethal combination of Jewish radicalisation, nationalistic chauvinism and political demagoguery. Ugly religious extremism is raising its head and it is clear that a battle is being fought among Israeli Jews over expressions of Jewish radicalism, intolerance and religious violence. 

Elsewhere we see a similar picture. In May 2017, an Indian Muslim farmer, Gulam Mohammad, was lynched in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Four men, from an extremist Hindu group, were arrested for his murder. They suspected him of helping a young Muslim neighbour elope with a local Hindu girl, which religious nationalists term a “love-jihad”, that is, an attempt to convert Hindus to Islam through marriage. Like Israel, the political-religious landscape in India has shifted to the right in recent years, and everything from what one eats or who one loves is politicised, and used to polarise. Believe it or not, Hindu nationalists now call for the creation of “anti-Romeo squads”, a kind of moral police force.

Religious violence also generated by cow vigilantes who forcibly ban cow slaughter, search homes and vehicles, set up checkpoints on roads, and in some cases lynch people involved in the beef industry. Cow vigilantism has become a convenient cloak for brutality and murder in the name of the sacred cow. Yet, Hinduism and Judaism also have techniques and strategies for overcoming violence. For example, the traditional and most common Jewish response to violence is based on Jeremiah 29:4-7:

“Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all the captivity, whom I have caused to be carried away captive from Jerusalem unto Babylon:… Seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto the Lord for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.”

For its part, Hinduism accepts that more than one path leads to God, more than one path is “true”. The Hindu concept of ahimsa, “non-violence”, also comes to mind, based on the realisation that we are not separate from the world around us. You might complain that these fine words are good in theory but where do we find them in reality? Are there actual examples? Let me point you to two very different examples, one Hindu and one Jewish.  

For most of his career, political and military, Yitzhak Rabin regarded Palestinians as the enemy, and pursued violence to secure victory over them. In time, his experience convinced him this was unachievable. “I’ve learned something in the past two and a half months,” Rabin told a group of Labour Party colleagues in 1988 during the first Intifada, “Among other things, that you can’t rule by force over one and a half million Palestinians.” In other words, if you seek respect, you must give respect. And Rabin was killed because he sought respect for Palestinians, and argued that if you ask for tolerance, you must demonstrate tolerance.

For his part, Mahatma Gandhi devoted his life to achieving political ends through peaceful activities, including, of course, against the British. A year after India had won its independence Gandhi sought reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims by travelling to Delhi where he began a fast for Muslim rights. Like Prime Minister Rabin, he too was murdered by his own religious community, in this case by a Hindu nationalist.  

Both Rabin and Gandhi lost their lives at the hands of co-religionists to overcome violence. Both were killed because of their vision of an open, pluralistic country. Whilst India and Israel remain some way from their goal, they realised their society cannot be sustained by hate or violence.

No redemption was ever brought by violence but until we learn this, religion will remain one of the great threats to the peace of the world. Why?

Because religion is a cause of as well as solution to violence.

Next week: W is for Words

Listen to each episode of An A-Z of Believing: from Atheism to Zealotry on the Woolf Institute podcast site or wherever you get your podcasts

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Written and presented by Dr Ed Kessler MBE, founder and director of the Cambridge-based Woolf Institute, this compelling guide to religious belief and scepticism is a must-read for believers and nonbelievers alike.

Founded in 1998 to explore the relationship between religion and society, the Woolf Institute uses research and education to foster understanding between people of all beliefs with the aim of reducing prejudice and intolerance.

Says Dr Kessler: “Latest surveys suggest that 85 per cent of the world’s population identify themselves as belonging to a specific religion, and in many parts of the world the most powerful actors in civil society are religious. Understanding religion and belief, the role they play and their impact on behaviour and decision-making is, therefore, vital.” 

Dr Kessler – who was awarded an MBE for services to interfaith relations in 2011 – is an affiliated lecturer with the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University, a principal of the Cambridge Theological Federation and additionally teaches at the Cambridge Muslim College.

He says: “This A-Z of Believing aims to show how the encounter between religions has influenced and been influenced by the evolution of civilisation and culture, both for good and for ill. I hope that a better understanding of believing will lead people to realise that while each religion is separate, they are also profoundly connected.”

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