Religious Violence, Causes and Solutions

Religious Wars

by Jayaram V

Question: Religions are supposed to promote peace and oppose violence. Then, why are they so destructive and cause so much harm and suffering to people?


We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. Teilhard de Chardin


You have to see from where that violence is coming. Is it coming from the scriptures, from the interpretation of the scriptures, or from the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of human beings? You may find that all the three are responsible for the religious violence, wars and bloodshed they often cause. It is also difficult to speak objectively about this subject, especially if you are a religious person and committed to a particular religion. If you are a secular person it is even more difficult.

Religious violence may be directed against people, religious institutions, cultural symbols, leaders of the faith or authority figures. It may be caused by overzealous individuals who are entirely motivated by their own psychological problems or collectively by groups of people as part of their social, cultural, national or communal expression and dominance. In a diverse society where people from different backgrounds practice multiple faiths, differences about social, economic and racial issues, which are inevitable may also lead to religious violence.

It is also true that violence is inherent to human nature, and human beings are easily swayed by emotions and irrational behavior. Many factors incite them into violent behavior, and religious attachment or loyalty happens to be one. Political and ideological differences may also lead to religious conflicts. Therefore, the problem of religious violence is a complex issue and should not be oversimplified with generalizations. In the following discussion, we focus upon religious violence, its causes and solutions.

The forms of religious violence

Religions caused a lot of bloodshed in the past. Many wars were fought for the sake of religions. The subject of religious violence is still a contentious issue, and religious wars are still fought in some parts of the world. For a long time, world religions have been stumbling blocks in the progress of our civilization. There are people, who fervently wish for the destruction of the world so that they can go to heaven and live there forever. In the context of religions, it is probably the most violent thought, which one can find in many religious scriptures with necessary justification.

It is sad but true that then and now religions have been the source of great violence and suffering to many people. It is not necessary that such violence should be caused by physical acts of aggression only. Religious violence can be expressed in various explicit and implicit ways to discriminate, demean, antagonize, minimize or harm particular groups or people. It is also true that religious violence is not always caused by religious groups only. Secular groups may also incite religious violence or aggravate religious passions to suit their political and ideological agendas. The following are a few known forms of religious violence.

1. Religious wars: Many wars were fought in the past either to spread particular religions or destroy rival faiths. Most notorious among them were the Roman conquests, Muslim invasions and Spanish invasions in Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America. Millions of people died in such wars, and entire nations were wiped out.

2. Religious persecution: Medieval India witnessed religious persecution on a massive scale by Muslim rulers. Their persecution took on many forms, including over taxation and reducing people to utter poverty. Millions of people died due to the cruelty, violence and ill treatment perpetrated by the Muslim rulers in the subcontinent. Religious persecutions were also practiced in Europe, Africa and Americas for a long time. Subtle forms of persecution still happen in some parts of the world.

3. Gender violence: Women and girl children have always been the victims of religious violence. In the past, women proved to be the biggest victims of religious wars. They were subject to rape, abduction, slavery, forceful marriages and killing as part of the political strategy of the aggressors to establish political dominance through religious wars and propagate their faith with impunity. In many Muslim majority countries, minority women are still exposed to threats and personal harm by religious fanatics and extremists.

4. Destruction of sacred places: One of the most notorious forms of religious violence is the destruction and desecration of religious places. In medieval India, Muslim rulers plundered and destroyed thousands of Hindu temples and built mosques in their place. They used sacred images from the destroyed temples as stepping stones in the construction of secular buildings. Destruction and desecration of religious places still happen in many countries to intimidate minority groups or incite religious violence.

5. Forced conversions: This is one of the major forms of religious violence. In the past, it was mainly used to propagate faith against the will of people and secure their loyalty. Whole nations were converted under the fear of punishment, death, discrimination, arbitrary taxation, fines or persecution. In some cases, monetary rewards, social or political privileges and other incentives were offered to the willing converts to set an example. Forced conversions still take place in some parts of the world where minorities are targeted for such conversions.

6. False propaganda: This is a form of verbal violence, which includes spreading false and negative information about opposing religions, their leaders, scriptures, traditions, beliefs and deities to undermine their importance or influence. Its main purpose is to cast aspersions and create doubt and confusion among people about their faith so that they could be swayed to change their religion. False propaganda against rival religions still takes place with missionary zeal in many countries often with the blessings of the highest religious authorities and theocratic governments.

7. Discrimination: Religious discrimination has been a persistent and pressing problem in many parts of the world since ancient times. It is especially so in countries where one religion has a clear advantage over the others with the largest following. Religious discrimination is a subtle form of cultural, religious and even racial violence in which people are discriminated because of their religious beliefs, race or nationality and subjected to social and economic disabilities. It is a common practice in those religions which tend to discriminate between believers and nonbelievers and subject the latter to unfair, unequal and unjustified treatment.

8. Religious extremism: This is the most overt and extreme form of religious violence, which is used by overzealous individuals to establish dominance or express hostility and disapproval. Religious people, who are deeply committed to their religions with ambitious political aims often resort to it. They indulge in aggression and violent behavior as a counter measure to protect their own faith or oppose others. As part of their strategy, they advocate rigid adherence and loyalty to their traditional beliefs, scriptures, dogmas and doctrines to preserve their faith, while offering strong resistance to those which they perceive as a threat. Fanaticism, fundamentalism, terrorism, religious nationalism are its extreme forms.

The causes of religious violence

Religions are meant to promote peace and harmony. They are supposed to elevate human character and consciousness to the level of God and bring out the best of the humanity. Yet, many times they end up doing the opposite. Instead of alleviating the suffering of people and providing them with solace, they often cause violence and bloodshed.

Many religious wars were fought in the past. Even today, religions are major sources of disturbance and conflicts in various parts of the world. We have to then wonder why religions are so destructive and why they divide people, and cause them such harm. The following factors seem to be directly or indirectly responsible for religious violence.

1. Scriptures: Religious scriptures may incite violence or violent behavior if they seem to condone certain forms of aggression and behavior as virtuous or if they contain explicit or implicit information, which encourages such behavior with the promise of heavenly rewards or an eternal life. Because of them, some people may feel motivated to be part of God’s war against evil.

2. Beliefs: Certain rational and irrational beliefs which are reinforced or justified by the scriptures, tradition or precedence, may strengthen or promote aggressive behavior. For example, the belief that a person who dies in the battlefield or for a religious cause goes straight to heaven encourages many to participate in religious wars or extreme forms of religious violence. Because of such beliefs some people feel encouraged to indulge in violence against nonbelievers, or those who lead unconventional lifestyles such as homosexuals.

3. Politics: In democratic societies and secular nations the politics of divide and rule often incite communal passions and lead to violent clashes. In theocracies religious violence is used by rulers to enforce obedience, loyalty and discipline. One of the worst examples was the partition of India in 1947 in which millions of people died both in India and Pakistan due to communal clashes. Certain political ideologies also tend to discriminate religious people for their beliefs and values and create resentment and hostility.

4. Economic interests: Wide disparities in incomes or standards of living among religious groups or the discriminatory policies of governments which seem to favor certain religious groups against others, may lead to violence and civil unrest. Religious propagation was the main driving force behind the colonial and imperial policies of the European nations until the Second World War. They openly encouraged discriminatory policies and religious propagation to subdue native populations.

5. Community interests: Religious violence may result if the interests of one community are threatened or undermined by another community, an inimical ideology or political leadership, especially when the community seem to be disproportionately enjoying higher status, power or privileges. When community interests are threatened, aggressive elements within in the community may rise in protest to protect them. In turn, it may create a counter reaction in other communities and provoke the extreme elements within them to register their feelings and concerns.

6. Exploitation: Religions and their emotional appeal have often been used by vested interests to exploit others by appealing to their sentiments and religiosity. For example, in almost every country weaker sections of society have been traditionally exploited by privileged classes in the name of religions, God, virtue, fate and service. When such exploitation becomes intolerable, people may rise in unison against the established authority to express their anger as it happened in France in the 18th Century or in the USSR in the 20th century.

7. Ideology: Secular ideologies, which seem to oppose or undermine religious groups or conventional beliefs, traditions and practices, may create deep divisions within society and lead to social and political or civil unrest. Ideological conflicts, coupled with propaganda and misinformation by secular institutions against conventional beliefs and practices, are a major source of conflict and unrest in many democratic and socialist countries.

From the above it is apparent that while religions are responsible for the violence they cause, the problem also partly rests with the people who practice them or oppose them as they misuse their religious affiliation or beliefs to indulge in violence or aggression. In many instances, such evil behavior is due to their ignorance or extreme loyalty and attachment. Instead of practising their religions to improve themselves or spread peace and happiness, they rally people against others and draw them into conflicts for domination and suppression. Ignoring the highest values, which are enshrined in their scriptures and selecting information or passages from the same scriptures to justify their evil actions, they violate the very principles which their religions seem to uphold.

Religious violence and organized religions

Whatever may be the validity of religious discord you cannot overlook the divisive and destructive tendencies that are hidden in many religions. The problem is mostly with organized religions which wield considerable influence upon their followers. Religions are essentially human inventions. They draw their inspiration from divine revelations but mix up the revelatory knowledge with human values, myth and mythology to give the impression that they carry within themselves the authority of God to mold the lives of people, their choices, beliefs and behavior.

They also vest additional authority in specific groups and organizations, giving them the formal authority to represent them and their interests. Religions are thus a mixture of light and darkness. They are vulnerable to misuse and exploitation by vested groups. As the products of collective egos, which thrive upon group identity and institutional authority, they create in people conflicting feelings of being with them or against them.

The negative influence of religions upon human actions and human beings cannot be denied or ignored. History shows that organized religions which rely upon rigid dogma and proselytizing philosophies are prone to misuse, violence and discrimination, especially when political, social and economic factors are involved. In this regard, the following facts are worth mentioning.

  • Organized religions incite strong passions in weak minds, which can be easily exploited by vested interests.
  • They sow seeds of division and discard by imparting to their followers group identity and collective egos, which can lead to religious and communal stratification of society.
  • They encourage loyalty and submission to scriptural authority, which can be misused by traditional power groups to play with the emotions of their followers.
  • They justify the propagation of their faith, offering heavenly rewards to those who indulge in it. Some even justify violent methods against those who disagree or disobey. It brings them into direct conflict with each other and sets the stage for discord and unrest.
  • They encourage blind faith and suppress freedom of inquiry, which in turn may lead to superstition, irrational thinking and justification of practices that oppose with the values of humanity.

These problems are mostly due to the people who practice their religions, rather than the religions themselves. If people are ignorant, impure and evil-minded, they are going to misuse their faith for personal ends. While they may take pride in the superiority of their respective dharmas, they fail to exemplify the values which they are expected to uphold. It is as if having a religious identity or affiliation is more important than practising it or expressing it through one’s behavior, personality and conduct.

The Solution to religious violence

If religions are causing strife and discard, or if they are being misused by vested groups, what can anyone do about it? How can people save themselves and others from the destructive tendencies that are inherent in their religions or from the evil machinations of those who want to exploit them? Religions are meant to elevate human consciousness and promote spiritual wellbeing. They are not meant to limit our choices, but to transcend our dependence upon them and our bondage to a limited and restricted life. To live in balance, express positive emotions, enjoy life, experience peace and happiness, they are why anyone should be religious or practice any religion.

You may use your religious identity to fight with others, incite passions, indulge in arguments, debates and discussions to denigrate rival faiths, show intolerance or persecute people. It may earn you the support and appreciation of a few like-minded people, but from the perspective of karma it will do you immense harm. People may misuse their religious identities and affiliations to capture political power, or use that power to oppress others. Spiritually, it degrades them and makes them vulnerable to spiritual downfall. It does not help anyone. It only spreads unhappiness, suffering, creates divisions and discard, and brings out the worst of human aggression. Therefore, there is no point in using any religion for harmful and destructive purposes. Its purpose should be to facilitate God’s will upon earth. In this regard, the following points are worth remembering.

  • Your religion is as good as your knowledge, character and personality. Religions become evil in the hands of evil people.
  • The primary purpose of any religion is to see life from a wider perspective and understand its significance in the evolution and elevation of human consciousness.
  • Religion may have its source in God and his revelations, but its major corpus comes from human intellect and ego. Therefore, you need discerning intelligence (buddhi) to distinguish truth from falsehood and make right decisions.
  • In your spiritual progress, religious identity is a barrier rather than a facilitator. At some point you have to choose between your faith and God.
  • You cannot practice any faith without knowing the value of restraint, purity, balance, and moderation.
  • Your faith can pave the way for your spiritual destruction and downfall, if you use it to promote passions or incite violence.

As long as religions exist, because of their extremely divisive nature, religious violence is going to stay and be part of human expression. However, some forms of religious violence and their intensity may be curbed to some extent both at the individual and collective levels. For that, religious institutions must provide right knowledge to their adherents. Governments should pass strict laws and enforce them without discrimination to discourage those who resort to violence to settle their differences. People need to focus upon the positive aspects of their religions and cultivate tolerance. Most importantly, religious extremists, to whichever religions they may belong, must be isolated and dealt with severe punishments and deterrents.

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