Does Religion Cause Violence?

Brief responses from several writers

Every society experiences violence. Francois Houtart focuses on social dimensions that link religion and violence: animal sacrifice, good versus evil, using defense to expand. Such connections appear in Hindu Rig Veda rituals, the Gita battle between immortal souls, and lawmaker Manu’s caste relations. Buddhism’s focus on nonviolence, compassion, and ethical intent neither seeks nor rules out violence. Houtart thinks that Islam may justify violence since it calls for justice more than love. Many kinds of human violence and God’s assistance appear in the Hebrew Bible; violence increases when people expect a messiah. Christianity adds some oppression to that heritage as it plunges into holy war and crusades.

Soon after Biblical created goodness, distance appears between people and God, nature, or comrades. God shows regret through blotting out life. Later, whether with Egypt, Canaan, or Jericho, God led in wars won and with wars lost, God punished. Hear a personal response. After teaching me about her daily puja at her home altar, my Hindu hostess in an Indian city asked if I might give her a Bible. Upon finding a rare Christian bookstore, I chose to buy only a New Testament. Did that choice to avoid the Hebrew scripture reflect anti-Judaism or shame for violent religious heritage? Was my choice Lakshmi’s loss, depriving her also of human stories linked with a personal God and segments of psalms with which her ancient scripture might resonate?

Protestant Wesley Ariarajah lists types of biblical violence and forms of it like economic, social, or moral. He notes blood for sacrifice and military lingo in hymns, mission effort and church history. The lingo includes conquering as soldiers of Christ and mission strategy; the history reports burning heretics and Sheol. Ariarajah also highlights biblical resistance to violence—a command not to kill and prophetic support for justice with the poor. How people interpret such accounts affects what is justified, whether pacifists feel polarized. Ariarajah notes Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Nazi regime, priests who counter dictators, and Martin Luther King’s battle with racism. The writer calls to all Christians: work harder to predict, prevent, and manage conflict, and find peaceful ways to resolve complex violence. His call to look inward—to assess the lure of power, why people exclude or fear difference—reveals what repression or terror religion might excuse.

Writer Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer describes a “spiral of violence” from oppression, rebellion, and repression through violence that ignores unjust systems on to spiritual violence. The last type suggests human will for vengeance against God; it projects human misery as God’s will. Not built on believers’ distortion of texts, Nelson-Pallmeyer believes that religious violence is rooted in “violence-of-God” traditions. Martin Marty, former Christian Century editor, agrees. Battle-inclined monotheists use their holy books to serve their all-powerful God who knows enemies. Muslims fight in Allah’s name; Jews stake boundaries based on the Torah. Christians crusade because “God wills it” or mount crosses against blacks, Roman Catholics, or Jews. “The killing dimension of religion is an interfaith phenomenon,” Marty says [in another Nelson-Pallmeyer source—“Is religion the Problem?” Tikkun. Mar/Apr, 2002] Nelson-Pallmeyer critiques both eastern and western religions. Hindu extremists quote scripture: “Take up arms” against the British. Theravada Buddhist monks battle Tamil Hindu separatists in Sri Lanka. Japanese Buddhism declares “all Japanese wars holy.” And Sikh followers of Bhindranwale prepared for war, just as he preached.

Professor Vimal Tirimanna also responds to the question, “Does religion cause violence?” by declaring that religion can be one factor. Not alone, it can prompt or further the process—toward violence, or toward human betterment. Religion, along with economic, social and political factors, provides meaning and adds to identity. Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, suggests in The Mighty and the Almighty that, if harnessed, the strong bond between religion and politics can work for justice and peace. Many major religions teach the Golden Rule. Most people loyal to religions long for harmony. They can abuse scriptures or use ‘seeds’ embedded within religions for good.


Ariarajah, S. Wesley. “Religion and Violence: A Protestant Christian
Perspective.” The Ecumenical Review, 55/2, April 2003, 136-43.
[Personal copy, 8-page handout]

Dietrich, Walter. “The Mark of Cain: Violence and Overcoming Violence in
the Hebrew Bible.” Theology Digest, 52/1, Spring 2005, 3-11.

Houtart, Francois. “The Cult of Violence in the Name of Religion: A
Panorama,” in Religion as a Source of Violence. Wim Beuken and Karl-
Josef Kuschel, eds. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997, 1-9.

McTernan, Oliver. “Religion and the Legitimization of Violence,” in Religion
in an Age of Conflict
. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003, 45-76.

Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jack. “Religion and Violence,” in Is Religion Killing Us?
Violence in the Bible and Qur’an
. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International,  2003, 13-25.

Tirimanna, Vimal. “Does Religion cause Violence?” [Based on a paper given
in Bogota, Colombia, 16-21 July, 2006], Studies in Interreligious Dialogue,
17/1, 2007, 5-19.