Religion and violence

Religion leads to violence. Dogma divides, experience unites. We hear such things all the time, but are they true?

The answer isn’t obvious. There have been religious wars and persecutions, but also non-religious and anti-religious ones. It was secular ideologies, after all, that led to the political catastrophes of the last century, and the most successfully murderous of the ideologies was explicitly atheistic. Besides, dogma is everywhere. PC, and American constitutional law, would be incomprehensible if there were no dogmas in American public life. “Religion leads to violence” is itself dogma.

The argument that religion is essentially violent is that it is non-rational, and can’t be satisfied by anything limited, so religious disputes can’t be compromised and proceed to the last extremity. The argument is not nearly as good as it sounds. Every social order is based on commitments that can’t be proven; the “democratic faith” is a faith like any other. And the religious sense that the thing we need most is something that transcends every finite good seems at least as likely to moderate as inflame political passions. Men need to have heaven somewhere, and if they think it can’t be found in heaven they’ll try to set it up here on earth. That can be dangerous.

The real concern about religion and violence, however, is not the abstract nature of religion in general but something far more specific. Religion is a threat not to peaceful social order in general, but to the liberal order in particular. The advanced liberal order achieves peace by deciding all serious issues nonpolitically, as questions of economic management, human rights, expert social policy, constitutional law, international treaty obligations and so on. We are all free and happy under advanced liberalism because there are no conflicts, and the reason there are no conflicts is that everything has already been decided for us.

For such a system to work the people have to accept what’s done without questioning it in any way. If questioning were possible, then the reality of conflict would have to be recognized, and advanced liberalism functions by denying that legitimate conflict is possible in any serious matter. The problem with religion is not that it is unreasonable, but that it gives its adherents a perspective independent of that provided by the liberal state, and that, for liberalism, is intolerable. The illegitimacy of religion, insofar as it suggests answers different from the liberal answers, has therefore become a non-negotiable principle. If it were legitimate then something would have to be discussed, and the whole game would come to an end.

2 thoughts on “Religion and violence”

  1. Exactly right. But do you
    Exactly right. But do you think it is possible to have a “democratic faith” along with an integral religous faith, if it were possible that the democratic faith could be strictly defined and kept at the level of the finite peace of the temporal order? or will this democratic faith always supplant religous faith? Maritain thought it did not have to supplant it. I am trying to figure out if there is any possibility that Maritain was right, that is, that a practical consensus which abstracts from theoretical foundations (on the public level) could exist along side of deep, comprehensive worldviews which ground this consensus (on the private level). Something between Rawls and the confessional state, perhaps?


  2. You could have a great deal
    You could have a great deal of democracy, freedom, equality or whatever alongside an integral religious faith. The point, though, is that those things have to be subordinate. What they mean and how far they go has to be determined by reference to the human good in its fullness.

    I don’t think there can be a practical consensus that prescinds from all theoretical foundations. Flesh and spirit are just not that alien to each other. The modern state feels that it has comprehensive responsibility for the welfare of each of us. How can that possibly be exercised without reference to a particular theory of what we are and what our good is?


Leave a Comment