Does religion cause all the trouble in the world?

You sometimes find it said that it’s religion that causes all, or most,
or at least half the trouble in the world. Let’s look at this.

It’s true that the United States have been and probably will be again
under attack from political fanatics who also have different religious
beliefs from most US citizens, and who tie the two things together.
It’s also true, and very important, that a very large majority of the
people who share those religious beliefs, even if they also think that
there at things that are wrong in the attitudes and lifestyles typical
of the US, would utterly reject the kind of attack seen here. This
should be the background of our discussion --  violent fanatics,
whether they give themselves a religious justification or not, are
always minorities. If they weren’t, the human race would have destroyed
itself long ago.

But it’s not true that violence comes specially from religion. The
attacks of the ancient Germanic tribes on the Roman empire, the attacks
of the Huns on the West and on China, had no religious overtones. There
was no special religious animus in the war that nearly destroyed the
United States 160 years ago, and left a million dead. And religious
people aren’t always violent in pursuit of their beliefs, either. For
hundreds of years Christians, Jews and Muslims got on quite peaceably
together in Spain, except when kings were fighting over their borders.
Violence, in history, looks more closely tied to the existence of
governments than to the existence of religion -- but we’re all sure, I
suppose, that the existence of governments is necessary to protect us
from widespread private violence.

People may say: “But don’t most religions teach ethical codes, which
should at least hold believers back from extreme and fanatical
violence?” And my answer is: yes, they do, and they succeed for most
believers. When you believe anything strongly, there is always a
temptation to act violently and unfairly against the people you regard
as offending against those beliefs. Most people in this country believe
very strongly that the sexual abuse of children is a very bad thing,
and that those who commit such acts should be severely punished. The
temptation is there for any of us who feel strongly --  rightly
--  on this question, to carry out acts of private revenge, or to
act just on suspicion. But this would be very wrong.

Whenever you feel very strongly about something, whenever you think
that there is some good to be promoted or evil to be overcome, you will
be tempted to do terrible things to get what you believe in. Religious
believers feel this temptation too. But religious believers usually
believe that the future is in God’s hands, and we can know nothing
about it: meanwhile, we do know that God has told us “Thou shalt not
commit murder”. So religious believers are less likely to do terrible
things to get what they believe in than are other people — they know
that they can’t get what they believe in unless God gives it to them,
unless God’s will goes along with them. And how are they to expect that
God’s will will go along with them if they themselves go against God’s
will by breaking his commands?

Christopher Martin teaches philosophy at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas.


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  • Christopher Martin