Religion, it would seem, breeds violence. Far from being great, God might be thought terrible.
In a globalized world, the terror of God’s crazy-eyed followers is threatening lives, peace and prosperity of everyone on the planet. We are tempted to conclude: The sooner that humanity either eradicates or quarantines off religion, the better our world will be. This conclusion would be too hasty, however.
First, if the hope for the world depends on eradication of religion, we should all despair. Religions are in fact growing in absolute and relative terms. In 1970, there were 0.71 billion unaffiliated or non-religious people, while in 2050, there will be 1.2 billion. That’s impressive growth, until you compare it with the projected growth of religions.
Between 1970 and 2050, the number of Hindus is projected to grow from 0.43 to nearly 1.4 billion, the number of Muslims from 0.55 billion to 2.7 billion and the number of Christians from 1.25 billion to 2.9 billion. And due to the immense popularity of the democratic ideal, religious adherents are becoming increasingly politically assertive.
It is impossible to eradicate or quarantine religion. Any attempt to do so would result in far more bloodshed than religious people have perpetrated throughout their long histories.
Second, many are mistaken about the relationship between religion and violence. Critics argue that religions are inherently violent for three main reasons.
For most religions, the distinctions between true and false religion, justice and injustice, and good and evil are central. Each religion insists on the goodness of the way of life it promotes, rejecting other ways of life as imperfect, misguided or even wicked.
Also, most world religions are based either on positive revelation (Moses, Jesus or Muhammad) or on spiritual enlightenment (Buddha or Confucius) granted to foundational figures. Reason stops at some point, critics object, and gives way to mere conviction, so all world religions are marked by irrational certainty.
Finally, unlike rationality, which all humans possess, revelation or enlightenment belongs only to a select few. World religions divide humanity into an in-group and an out-group. Insisting without sufficient reason on the truth of your own view of the ultimate reality and the way of life corresponding to it is bound to breed violence, many critics insist.
The data does not support the claim that world religions are by nature violent. They are likely to become violent under certain circumstances. What are these circumstances? As the sociologist David Martin has argued in “Does Christianity Cause War?” the single most significant factor in determining whether a religion will be implicated in violence is the level of its identification with a political project and its entanglement with those striving to realize and protect that project.
Put the glove of religion on the hand of either a revolutionary or a statesman, and religion will be pulled into the dynamics of cohesion, control, acquisition and maintenance of power, and the marking of boundaries — and will more likely than not turn violent. In other words, align moral self-understanding of society, state and religion, and even most peaceful religion will become ready to “take up the gun.”
But all world religions have resources not just to avoid underwriting violence but to promote cultures of peace in pluralistic environments. Religions have significant resources precisely because they claim to be true for all human beings at all times and places, as I argue in my new book “Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World.”
Many world religions today and throughout history have not embraced certain values precisely because they have misperceived themselves as “political religions” rather than politically engaged religions. Here are four fundamental values religions embrace:
First, equal moral value of all citizens. Because world religions are universalistic, they affirm the equal value of all people. They do not distinguish between moral “insiders” and moral “outsiders.” They all embrace some version of the Golden Rule with its underlying principle of reciprocity.
Equal value of all citizens also includes equal voice for all citizens, whether religious or a-religious, in public matters. Every citizen and every community ought to be able to appeal to any reasons they find compelling — and do so in a form that they hope will be persuasive to their fellow citizens who don’t share their overarching perspective on life.
Second, freedom of religion. World religions can and many do embrace full freedom of religion, which includes freedom to adopt and change religion as well as freedom to propagate religion.
Each world religion addresses itself to individual people. Every person is summoned to respond to a transcendent call. Each religion asserts a way of life as true — not just appropriate for one person or a group, but true universally, for all human beings at all times and places, designed to guide every person to fulfillment as a human being. So each religion also tacitly assumes that each person has both a capacity to espouse a way of life and a basic responsibility for the kind of life he or she leads.
Third, separation of religion and rule. Just because world religions have what Nietzsche called “two worlds” account of reality, transcendent and mundane, and give primacy to the transcendent realm, they contain a clear impulse to construe “religion” and “politics” as two distinct, though intersecting, cultural territories.
Drawing the distinction between the community called the “Body of Christ” and the political order of the empire, early Christians, for instance, embraced different levels of loyalty: Christ gives substantive direction to Christians’ lives, and they give him ultimate allegiance; the political order provides for the conditions of their living, and they give it conditional loyalty. All world religions provide resources and motivations to make similar distinctions.
Many religious people, especially religious leaders, seem unable to resist the lure of political power. They hope to use the power of the state to achieve what they deem to be noble ends of their religion.
But the attempts of religions to assert dominance in political societies are disastrous, mainly for people who suffer as a result but also for these religions themselves.
As history teaches, aspired dominance ends in a religion’s subservience; more often than not, religions become tools in the hands of the powers that be. And when they express the moral unity of a nation and political order with a sacred aura, world religions distort themselves and betray one of their signature features: the alignment of individuals, universal values and religion.
For the sake of the identity and reputation of the religions themselves and for the sake of justice and peace in the world, religions need permanent reformation.
At the heart of reformation must lie the conviction that, as the Apostle Peter put it in the first public sermon he preached, that “we must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29), asserting that “religion” and “state” are two distinct cultural systems. Such reformation of religions will not stop the blood and tears from flowing, but religions will no longer be implicated in the carnage.
Miroslav Volf teaches theology at Yale University and directs Yale Center for Faith and Culture. His most recent book is “Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World” (Yale University Press, 2016).
(This piece has been updated to reflect the projected growth of Hindus.)