Secular roots of religious violence

By Philip Jenkinsauthor When Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams meets with clergy furious over his church’s sexual liberalism, he might expect … Continued

By Philip Jenkins
author

When Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams meets with clergy furious over his church’s sexual liberalism, he might expect to encounter insults and unpleasantness. He does not worry too much about being assassinated in the gathering, of being battered to death by priests and monks. Yet that kind of violence was a real danger in the early church, when leaders gathered regularly to decide exactly what they believed about the relationship between Christ’s human and divine Natures. Violence and persecution spiraled out of control, until in 449, a mob of monks assaulted and killed the patriarch of Constantinople in the middle of a great ecclesiastical council being held at Ephesus. Exploring the sources of that mayhem also helps us understand the roots of religious-based violence today.

By modern standards, the issues at stake in the 5th century seem bafflingly technical. All participants agreed that Christ was both fully God and fully Man, and all that remained was to find a formula that did not undermine either side of the equation. But between 430 and 630, a series of Jesus Wars tore the Christian world asunder, in an era of coups and rebellions, urban riots and pogroms, beheadings and burnings.

The violence killed hundreds of thousands, and left much of the Eastern Roman Empire under military occupation. Peace only came when the eastern realm collapsed before Muslim invaders who really did not care what the Christians were arguing about. The Christian church eventually found a formula that determined orthodox belief about Christ’s Nature up to the present day, but in the process it lost half the world. That forgotten history cries out for rediscovery, a task I have tried to accomplish in my book Jesus Wars.

The story makes us rethink our assumptions about the role of violence in the great world religions. We still hear claims that Islam is a uniquely violent religion, and that intolerance and fanaticism grow inevitably from the warlike teachings of the Qur’an. But long before the rise of Islam, Christians were acting according to the worst stereotypes of religious fanaticism. Christian patriarchs and bishops acted as petty kings and warlords, directing their own armed militias and death squads, and they justified their deeds in the words of the Bible. This history must cast into question any charge that violence is especially built into the DNA of Islam, or indeed of any faith.

When we look at Christian violence in bygone years, or Muslim extremism today, we should look less at the scriptures of the particular faith, and more at the society in which believers live.

Two ideas above all drive religious violence. One is the Providential theory that God intervenes directly to punish a society that tolerates sinful behavior or false belief. If you hold this point of view, which is all but universal in pre-modern societies, it is dangerous nonsense to talk about individuals doing whatever they want so long as they don’t harm other people. If a society tolerates homosexuals or adulterers, God will punish that community with famine, plague, earthquake and military catastrophe. According to this worldview, silencing and killing heretics or infidels is utterly rational behavior, while tolerant pluralism is a recipe for national suicide.

The other core theme is that of honor. Across the Middle East and much of Asia, society is founded on the concept of family honor. Your status as an individual depends absolutely on defending this collective honor against any potential insult, by violence if necessary. When the state is weak, the fight for honor can escalate into feuds, vendettas and even civil wars. All too often, religious believers project those values into the cosmic scale, making God the ultimate patriarch of a great clan or family, who demands that his followers fight and die for his honor and name. Without the idea of honor, we can never understand why ancient monks would murder a prelate accused of giving the Christian God a status lesser than he deserved. Modern Islamists issue death threats against those infidel cartoonists who have violated the honor of the Prophet Muhammad.

In both cases, the problem is not the religion itself, but the secular ideas that become attached to it. But the consequences are very grave. As ancient Christians demonstrated, taken to extremes, the notion of God’s honor can destroy a world.

To read more from Jesus Wars, click HERE:

Philip Jenkins, author of “Jesus Wars” is a professor at Penn State University. His work has been featured cover story of The Atlantic, he writes and blogs regularly for The Boston Globe, The New Republic, is a sought-after religion expert by the Wall Street Journal, and regularly covered in key Christian publications such as Christianity Today.

  • persiflage

    ‘Secular roots of religious violence’ is a highly misleading introductory lead. It seems more accurate to portray the problem as the inherent violence imbedded in human nature and human society. Trying to grapple with the insoluable conundrum below was probably enough to give anyone a splitting headache – arguably the most fundamentally illogical proposal in all of human history. ‘By modern standards, the issues at stake in the 5th century seem bafflingly technical. All participants agreed that Christ was both fully God and fully Man, and all that remained was to find a formula that did not undermine either side of the equation. But between 430 and 630, a series of Jesus Wars tore the Christian world asunder, in an era of coups and rebellions, urban riots and pogroms, beheadings and burnings.’ In any event, the Jesus Wars apparently failed to result in any kind of consensus, much less the universal adoption of a peace-loving Jesus as the central religious role model – and Christianity went on to slaughter millions that disagreed with this core nuevo-theistic JesusGod point of view – heretics, apostates and assorted non-believers of every kind fell to the sword, the axe, the stake, and various creative mechanisms of torture. ‘Secular’ is what happens when humans decide to try and keep religion at arms length for a change. In other words, a human effort that is based on folks finally becoming wise to their own flawed and easily deluded nature. Humans will remain violent with or without religion, until they manage to either evolve beyond it or die trying.

  • ThomasBaum

    Philip JenkinsYou wrote, “When we look at Christian violence in bygone years, or Muslim extremism today, we should look less at the scriptures of the particular faith, and more at the society in which believers live.”Maybe we need look no farther than human nature.With “human nature” being what it is, it seems as if the only way to “eradicate” violence would be to have the most repressive police state even beyond imagining, even then it would only be contained.Most, if not all, human societies came into being thru violence, most by inflicting it and some by weathering it.If it were not for the “violence” of the USA and it’s allies during WWII, the world would probably be a much different place than it is now, if it even still existed, is this not a “fact”?The world is a mess and if anyone thinks “violence” is the only thing not quite right is rather short-sighted.See you all in the Kingdom.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • mbeck1

    Religion and religious beliefs are part of what constitute human societies. Religion often unifies those societies from within and is used as the basis for social violence against those outside a society. In the book “The Stillborn God”, Mark Lilla proposes that the people in many societies orient themselves to their world through their relationship to god. To cite secular roots seems to miss the point.

  • cornbread_r2

    If I were going to wage war, I’d want an entire army of true believers who were absolutely certain that they were going to live forever in heaven, even (or especially) if they were killed in battle.Moral relativists make lousy warriors.

  • Davidd1

    Anyone expressing an absolute certainty regarding an untestable “truth” is far more likely to go to extremes than is a skeptic who questions certitude itself.

  • EnemyOfTheState

    I think violence is in the human DNA. When you consider that we share about 95-percent of our genetic code with chimpanzees, one of the most aggressive and, at times, gratuitously violent primates on the planet, it begins to make sense. Given that lineage, the only thing left for the uniquely self-aware cousin of the chimp is to dress up the violent impulses with religion to make it more palatable.

  • wireman65

    In both cases, the problem is not the religion itself, but the secular ideas that become attached to it.

  • ZZim

    I think violence is in the human DNA. Posted by: EnemyOfTheStateOf course it is.Religion is a foundation block of civilization. You can’t have a civilization without it. And religion’s primary function has always been to control the Human male propensity for violence. Unfortunately, from time to time in all societies there have been religious leaders who used this control for bad ends.Now on a tangent, this violence-controlling role also accounts for why the backbone of Christian churches has always been the support of the women in the community.

  • Garak

    @yeal9: Don’t forget the 12 million Gypsies, Jew, Slavs, gays, and others killed in the oh-so-christian Nazi Holocaust. Or the totally-christian pogroms against Jews. Or the calls for genocide of gentiles in the Old Testament. Personally, I think we need to put the Monophysite Liberation Front on the terrorist watch list.

  • dharma2

    we all should spread non dualism as the universal dogma…devoid of any named god or messenger prophet this unity in cosmic diversity takes all humanity to divinity without any man made barriers..even atheists must live in harmony accepting this line of philosophy

  • EnemyOfTheState

    Religion is a foundation block of civilization. You can’t have a civilization without it. And religion’s primary function has always been to control the Human male propensity for violence. Unfortunately, from time to time in all societies there have been religious leaders who used this control for bad ends.Now on a tangent, this violence-controlling role also accounts for why the backbone of Christian churches has always been the support of the women in the community.Posted by: ZZimI can envision a society based on reason and humanity, with no need of supernatural beings or mystical beliefs. Does such a utopia exist? Not yet, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility.

  • leafgreen

    The last nation to try truly secular leadership was the USSR. Didn’t work out so well for them.

  • spidermean2

    Before you call it Jesus’ Wars maybe you should check if Catholicism is Christianity at all.

  • YEAL9

    Muslims definitely are not secularists since Allah as per the dictates of the koran demands that male Muslims dominate not only females but also the world in general by any means possible.

  • lartfromabove

    I don’t see how labeling this “Providential theory” or “honor” as “secular” ideas is justified, relevant, or in any way excusing the violence that arises from these beliefs.

  • jaho

    Yes, the title secular “roots” of religious violence is totally misleading. What the author is really getting at, I think, are the secular “goals” of religious “extremism.”You strip away the pre-modern rhetoric of religious fanatics in every religion, and look at what they want to accomplish, and its 100% all about modern-day temporal power, and 0% about God. God’s really just a talking point.

  • leafgreen

    Religion in some shape or form is a starting point for any endeavor: I do not speak here of “established” or “organized” religion, but rather a basic faith that there are underlying laws of basic conduct and decency which are applicable in any society (the most commonly phrased one is the premise that killing is usually wrong). Without basic assumptions such as this in a society, we’re really no better than the apes we supposedly descended from.

  • acebojangles

    Secular ideas may play a part in religious violence, but that doesn’t excuse the part religion plays. Rules about family honor, etc are codified in religious teaching and elevated to the point of being beyond question. I’m perfectly comfortable stating that secular ideas that lead to violence are wrong. Once those ideas get wrapped up in religious teaching, however, people start writing articles trying to excuse them.I also fail to see how early Christian violence excuses modern day Muslim violence.

  • cbl55

    These two observations about religious violence strike the casual observer as profound and spot-on. It explains Christian violence both in the far past and the not-so-distant past (northern Ireland). Ironically, it also explains Muslim violence by describing it as pre-modern (isn’t that what the author is saying?)I would agree. At some point, Christianity (or most of it anyway) abandoned much of the Providential perspective (although it seems to be alive and flourishing in fundamentalist communities in America today) and the notion of honor killings is simply beyond the comprehension of most of us. But both flourish in areas where Islam is practiced.My hope is that Islam somehow gets through this awful stage where God is conflated and confused with notions of order, providence and honor, and evolves into something else. Until it does, we are all subject to random episodes of pointless and cruel violence.

  • wleeper

    One thing to note here is that the author looked at what is now the Eastern Orthodox church. This is the church based out of Constantinople (now in Turkey). It is not the catholic church based out of Rome, which staged their own wars including the Spanish inquisition and battles throughout Germany against the “separatists” today the basis of most protestant churches. I agree with the authors point that forces outside religion drove these leaders. Many stories within the new and old testaments detail the human elements that drove the violence. The ‘King’ of Israel Herod issued an order that all 2 year old and younger boys were to be killed and they were to protect his power just to name one of many examples. I can’t imagine any ‘modern’ society getting away with such a barbarous act.

  • Chaotician

    It should be obvious that religion’s main and primary usefulness is to create an “in” group, a tribal group, which has rules of behavior which protect somewhat its members; while allowing the “in” group to kill, torture, rape, pillage, and generally be inhuman towards all not in the “in” group! The rest of religion’s nonsense is just window-dressing and a sop to the human conscience!

  • skewb

    The author’s conclusion reads like a non sequitur. He identifies the religious motivation toward violence that dominates recent human history, but then, in one sentence, blames secularism, without the slightest argument to defend his accusation. The type of religious honor he speaks of could be considered similar to the dreadful type of honor we see espoused in street gangs (respect is demanded above all). But just like those street gangs, we see how utterly mindless a value that “honor” is when it leads one to violence and murder simply because they feel disrespected (often by mere words). So if this is the secular connection the author wishes to make, then he must accept the correlation of religions to street gangs.

  • RichardHode

    I agree with enemyofthestate. Humans, in spite of the self-granted cognomen “sapiens,” are a variety of ape, which goes a long way toward explaining both violence and religion. In essence, the human ape is pounding his chest at uncaring nature, making up fantastic tales in an attempt to deny his utter insignificance and frequently explodes in a gorilla-like fury against deviations from the conventional “wisdom,” such as it is.Humans are significant only to each other, and when this particular species of ape goes extinct, like all the species that preceded us, not another organism on earth will notice, or care. If anything, the other animals will breathe in blessed relief to see this vicious predator disappear. Good riddance to bad rubbish in nature’s big recycling bin.

  • lauther266

    Who would Jesus kill?

  • MarkDavidovich

    leafgreen wrote:”I would agree. At some point, Christianity (or most of it anyway) abandoned much of the Providential perspective (although it seems to be alive and flourishing in fundamentalist communities in America today…”But even with its Providential perspective modern American fundamentalism is still pretty nonviolent. Why is it not violent?

  • abrahamhab1

    Primitive people can and do always find an excuse to vent their frustration by projecting it on something other than themselves. The 5th Century monks found their nemesis in the person of a patriarch. There is no text in the New Testament that incites for persecuting the other, let alone eliminating him.

  • ThishowIseeit

    Jenkins,

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