Does Religion Really Cause Violence?

GettyImages-184088243.jpgBy Jesse Singal

To many, the statement “Religion causes violence” seems intuitively true. After all, one can easily summon to mind a huge number of examples, from the Crusades to warfare connected with early Islam, to the September 11th attacks and sectarian warfare in the Middle East, and on and on and on. Some liberal-minded people, particularly those of an atheist bent, will rattle off these examples as clear proof that religion is a force for evil in the world.

But what if it’s more complicated than that? What if there’s less evidence than one might think that religion causes violence? That’s the provocative thesis of an upcoming new article in Contemporary Voices: St Andrews Journal of International Relations, a journal launched in April of 2018 (available as a preprint), authored by Joshua Wright and Yuelee Khoo at Simon Fraser University. 

The paper is mostly dedicated to a literature review which summarises a wide array of findings about the supposed link between religion and violence. Overall, Wright and Khoo argue that the literature points in both directions, and that there’s little reason, at this relatively early juncture in understanding the connection between religion and behaviour, to believe that there’s something unique to religious ideologies that cause them to foster violence.

That said, there are certainly plenty of studies on the side of the ledger that suggest religion does cause violence. For example, the authors cite research showing that the more that people felt the September 11th attacks to be a violation of their sacred values, the more likely they were to “endorse … the use of nuclear and biological weapons in response.” Similarly, “The more Christians perceive Jews as desecrators of Christianity, the more prejudice they exhibit toward [them].”

However, the authors also highlight complexities that fog up the picture. For example, they cite one study by US psychologist Tammy Greer that found (in Wright’s and Khoo’s words) “greater frequency of church attendance and greater frequency of engagement in church activities was associated with less self-reported vengeance,” but at the same time that “a more consistent donation pattern was related to greater self-reported vengeance.” This suggests that, in some circumstances at least, asking slightly different questions about religiosity can yield answers pointing opposite directions.

Other studies, meanwhile, provide apparently unequivocal evidence against the “religion causes violence” argument, including one of “600 men in the Arkansas correctional system” for whom religiosity was correlated with “lower self-reported acts of actual violent behavior over one’s lifetime,” which lined up with the results of another study showing an inverse link between church attendance and crime in Sweden. And “Longitudinal work confirms the relationship between greater involvement in religious activities and less aggressive behavior across the lifespan,” say Wright and Khoo.

So the literature is clearly a hodgepodge. And even if religion can be linked to an increased susceptibility to violence, the authors point out that this is not unique to religion. “While threat perceptions toward individuals’ religious identities may institute aggressive or violent responses, these effects are a product of a general social psychological process of group behavior, rather than anything inherent to religion,” they write. That is, when ardent adherents of secular ideologies sense threat, they, too, often lash out at outsiders – what’s going on is a fairly universal aspect of social psychology.

There could have been many situations in which researchers, by only asking questions about religion, missed this bigger picture. For example, while attendance at religious services has been associated with increased hostility toward, and intentions to harm, outgroups, it could be that religious attendance is simply a proxy for people having strong in-group identification. It’s plausible that greater attendance at national, sporting or other secular ceremonies, might similarly correlate with hostility towards relevant outgroups – but if the only questions you ask are about religion, the only answers you get will be about religion.

In their conclusion, Wright and Khoo make a final point that should give pause to anyone who thinks the research literature, at present, offers a comprehensive look at the link between religion and violence. As they explain, “What makes religion unique … is a belief in the supernatural, the meaning of this belief to the individual and the group, and the internalization and integration of religious identity to the individual.” And yet “Direct study of supernaturalism is noticeably absent in the literature.” If the authors are correct, this means researchers have so far left out the single most important aspect of religious identity – leaving an incomplete picture as to whether it really does have a unique effect on the likelihood of violence or not.

Empirical perspectives on religion and violence (the link is to a PsyArXiv preprint, however the paper has been peer-reviewed and is due for publication in Contemporary Voices: St Andrews Journal of International Relations. There was controversy around the publication process which Jesse wrote about for his newsletter Singal-Minded).

Post written by Jesse Singal (@JesseSingal) for the BPS Research Digest. Jesse is a contributing writer at BPS Research Digest and New York Magazine, and he publishes his own newsletter featuring behavioral-science-talk. He is also working on a book about why shoddy behavioral-science claims sometimes go viral for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

15 thoughts on “Does Religion Really Cause Violence?”

  1. How can a study that purports to be about whether religion causes violence not mention the 100 million+ people murdered by explicitly atheist regimes in the Soviet Union and China?

    1. Because those regimes didn’t murder people in support of Atheism. Indeed I would like to see your cites in support of your numbers you claim were murdered.

      1. I think the argument would be that, per Dostoevsky, if here is no God then all is permitted, and religion serves as a highly useful damper on humans’ tendency to kill other to accomplish our aim, per Bentham. Since the majority, the strong majority throughout history of people have been very religious, then by your reasoning we should all be dead, the world being post human. Contrary, to my knowledge, all contemporary religions preach sanctity of life, the fact that we are alive effectively undermines your argument. Res ipsa locquitur?

        Stalin: at least 60 million is generally accepted. Mao: probably equal, around 60 million. Cambodia? Millions. Venezuela? Thankfully relatively few, but Communists are a murderous bunch so we are lucky there. N Korea? Who knows, starvation, people worked to death, the occasional American tourist tortured to death. Can you actually be defending Communism?

      2. I would argue that the Soviets killed and/or imprisoned thousands of Orthodox priests, nuns, and hierarchy precisely in the name of atheism .. everyday we Orthodox commemorate the names of some of them.

    2. And to go further into what impels violence, there are genocides and conflicts that occur with no or only marginal religious roots. Tribes, ethnicities, castes, class, conquest of territory, or scapegoating minorities et al. It might be fair to say that people will always find a reason to kill each other.

    3. Hi there. If religion is a group ideology that incorporates strongly held beliefs then it would be better to compare it to other group ideologies that hold similar level of belief to look for evidence of greater or lessor violent tendencies. Not sure the atheism is a good example of this – atheism is the absence of belief and doesn’t tell us much about what else the atheist believes. A better comparison would be with communism, capitalism, liberalism, national socialism or many of the other non religious groups with a belief system.

      As an analogy I suggest that it’s more like supporting sport- you can follow, say, soccer or mountain biking, and each group of followers can have different values and behaviours but not following sport at all is different altogether. Non sports fans don’t congregate in groups to ignore sport if you see what I mean



  2. My observations would be that Religion give support to a persons drive.
    If that person is inclined towards violence then a strong belief in Religion helps inspire them to do violence.
    But if the person has no great desire to do violence or tendency towards bigotry then having a strong faith won’t give them such a desire.

    There is an addendum to that. Religion does provide platforms for demagogues to inspire violence in others, using the others religious faith to enforce obedience to their calls for violence.
    None of this is unique to religion, but it is significant within religion.

  3. This is clearly a biased perspective. Not all religions are *created* equal. There are religions which do not focus that much on “belief in the supernatural, the meaning of this belief to the individual and the group”. There are religions which aren’t really focused much on faith, per se, as much as they are about shared ethics and shared metaphors.

    1. “There are religions which aren’t really focused much on faith, per se, as much as they are about shared ethics and shared metaphors.”

      What would the difference be between a religion and, say, the Boy Scouts, then? Tylor, confronted with the challenge of defining “religion” in the late 19th century, proposed that a belief in, and practices related to, the supernatural was a fair description. Presumably many social organizations, clubs, etc promote “shared ethics and metaphors” without being religions?

      1. One difference “between a religion and, say, the Boy Scouts” would be the mythology. And some religions gladly embrace that their mythologies are mostly metaphor rather than something to be taken literally.

      2. @Steven. Why would that be a difference? The Boy Scouts embrace a rich mythology of their origins and early years. Most countries have elaborate mythologies about their origins, most institutions do as well — but we would not classify “England” as a religion because the English have a particularly complex mythology, some of which some people take as literal truth while other people take as metaphor. Even if that were not the case, I am not altogether clear about why that would demarcate “religion” from anything else.

  4. Man’s inhumanity to man is based on human pride and desire to exert power over others to gain for oneself. If you want evidence, look at the causes of WW1 and WW2 the most devastating examples of violence by human nature. You do not need religion to bring about those wars unless you think they were religious wars.

  5. It is often said that religion is the primary cause of war/violence. However, is this statement really accurate?

    Among the overwhelming majority of wars throughout all of history, even those considered to be “religious wars”, there has nearly always been a STATE involved with its financing. It’s easy for atheists to falsely blame “religion” for war and violence while ignoring this fact.

    Further, when the claim is made that religion is the primary cause of war (and/or violence) throughout history, it’s rarely if ever considered that “religion” includes different forms of worship other than of a supreme being or God.

    For example, STATE worship is a form of religion which has been largely adopted by societies throughout time via the philosophy of Collectivism, which dishonors individual free will. Those in society who wish to impose their will over the otherwise free will of the individual, strive to do so in most every case through the power of the STATE and regardless of the issue.

    This often initially occurs in a non-violent way, like imposing some law upon others in accordance with some collective cause. However, while such an act may appear to be “non-violent”, in nearly every case this new law has in some way violated the Natural Rights of the individual, and is therefore provocative toward violence.

    When those being victimized by such acts of tyranny speak out against it, they are often then vilified by the collective masses who initiated the provoking action toward violence. As tensions grow without redress of such grievances against one’s Natural Rights, violence is a likely outcome on some level — this is how wars begin.

    Therefore, it would be far more accurate to say, “Collectivism causes war/violence”.


    bernard baruch carman
    ∞ ∞ ∞

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