Eye of the Beholder: Religion, Liberty, and Violence

(Battle of Nandohrfhervar/Wikipedia)

By David Wheeler-Reed

After the recent terrorist attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store in Paris, France, by men who claimed to be al-Qaeda militants, it didn’t take long for Twitter and the blogosphere to reignite the old debate about whether religion leads inexorably to violence. This debate calls to mind Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek's take on what he calls the “pseudo-revolutionary critics of religion,” who attempt to denounce the tyranny of religion while creating their own kind of totalitarianism. “In fighting religion,” he says, "they are compelled to forsake freedom itself, thus sacrificing precisely that which they wanted to defend.” In other words, people often become the monster they wish to destroy.

As someone who spent a decade in graduate school studying religion, I would be the first to admit that it has what Carl Jung terms a dark, shadowy side. Christianity had the Crusades; the pograms against Jews; the Inquisition; and, in our own country, the theocracy of Puritanism. Islam has political Islam, a perversion of the teachings of the Quran, which inspires in some of its followers the kind of atrocious acts carried out most recently in Paris, France or every day in countries in its thrall. Judaism has its radical adherents who will murder co-religionists or assassinate an Israeli prime minister to bend other Israelis to their philosophy. Hindu nationalists in India have slaughtered Muslims, most infamously, perhaps, in Gujarat, and the leader of the nationalist party, who was chief minister of the Gujarat state at the time of the riots, has been elected president of India. Buddhist monks have been in the forefront of attacks against Muslims in Burma. The shadow side of even the most "peaceful" religions is not hard to find.

But maintaining that religion is the major cause of violence in the world is a false claim. Noam Chomsky points out that some of the "new atheists" (e.g., Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris) have created what he calls a kind of “state religion” that is much more dangerous than the major religions in the world today. This new religion is more dangerous because it often fails to critique the political policies of Western governments and unregulated capitalism. One of the "new" atheism's major proponents, Christopher Hitchens, for example, gave ideological cover to the Iraq War, which caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings. Going further back, the fire bombing of Dresden, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Gulag of the Cold War were not propagated by religious fanatics but by scientists and intellectuals using what they thought were rational, utilitarian arguments.

There seems to be a growing consensus that fundamentalism, whether religious or secular, is the real problem. Those who take their beliefs—and perhaps themselves—too seriously are often the cause of violent atrocities in the world. Think, for instance, of the destruction caused by those who never question American Exceptionalism and assume that their perverted form of Social Darwinism gives the United States the right to spread "democracy and freedom" throughout the world. In fact, American Exceptionalism can be a religious ideology, a secular ideology, or both simultaneously, depending on who is invoking it.

When I reflect on Charlie Hebdo and its cartoons, many of which would never be printed in the United States because of the self-censorship and pressure from powerful interest groups, I think of Michel Foucault's statement that "somebody who writes has not got the right to demand to be understood as he had wished to be when he was writing; that is to say from the moment when he writes he is no longer the owner of what he says, except in a legal sense." In other words, cartoonists, filmmakers, visual artists, dancers, and writers have no control over how their work is interpreted. But the people who interpret them are responsible for their own actions, for how they interpret the world around them. Personally, I think we are stuck in a debate that is asking the wrong questions.

How can religious socialists shift the sterile debate?  We need to ask hard questions while still remaining true to democratic principles. These would include: (1) How do we allow different groups to voice their opinions while being critical of opinions that ultimately lead to violence and destruction? (2) How do we educate people about different religions and be fair in our assessments? (3) How do we address the plurality of religions in the world today? and (4) How do we convince people to take personal responsibility for their reactions to things they may not like? I don’t pretend to have answers to any of these questions, but I do think that without asking them, we run the risk of becoming the monster we wish to destroy.

Suggested Readings

William T. Cavanaugh. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of

            Modern Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Terry Eagleton. Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. The Terry

            Lectures. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

RS Editors. “The Freedom to Offend: Religious Socialists and Cartoons” RS 30 (2006): 1, 4-5.


David Wheeler-Reed, Ph.D. (Toronto) is a visiting fellow at Yale University and Yale Divinity School. He is working on his first book, Sex in the Empire: Strategies of Power from Augustus to the Early Monastics, and is a member of the editorial collective of DSA's Religion and Socialism blog, launching in February.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

Showing 4 reactions

commented 2015-03-20 10:11:32 -0400 · Flag
right on….!
the KKK based their attacks on Blacks, Catholics & Jews on some type of warped view of Christianity….

Observer Jules in Ohio
commented 2015-01-17 20:43:19 -0500 · Flag
I find this discussion very strange here.
commented 2015-01-17 00:07:31 -0500 · Flag
Thanks for the article. Very thought-provoking at just the right time. I think you are asking the right questions.

“How can religious socialists shift the sterile debate?"

Can’t atheistic and agnostic socialists shift the debate as well? I often get the impression that religions are expected to be these great autonomous organisms solely responsible for their own ideological self-regulation, like great amorphous Vatican Cities, that their adherents are somehow insulated from their common man like some intellectual cabal, and that ultimately adherents are solely responsible for their religion as a whole and vice versa. Groupthink alone won’t shift this debate. In fact, it’s part of the problem. The only way to reach people is to approach them as individuals with individual concerns for themselves, individual concerns for their group. Here are my thoughts:

“(1) How do we allow different groups to voice their opinions while being critical of opinions that ultimately lead to violence and destruction?”

Believers and unbelievers alike have a common cause, which is to promote social harmony and civilization and to ensure individual freedom. This is not a religious issue. It’s a civil rights issue in the international community, and all groups must first of all recognize that. That being said, everyone must still feel respected and like they have a seat at the table. Even fundamentalists must be given the benefit of the doubt, even when they wish to violate the agreement of civil society, because they too want to be happy and free. But they should know that governments have a responsibility to protect individual rights, including freedom from oppression and violence, whether codified by religion or not. Sometimes, the state of individual rights in an autonomous nation morally compels the rest of the world to act. This must also be understood. Individual rights are non-negotiable and the same for men, women, children, and all kinds. That is why secular law is the only viable law, because it is the only law capable of universal application. Law must appeal to reason, not to itself, in order to make a case for itself. This should also be the policy of religious and world leaders in the discussion: appeal to reason as well as faith, if you must appeal to faith at all. Discussion should not be merely about appeasement and reconciliation but about where common cause meets selfish desires, because that’s where cooperation and outreach are possible. That means we must be less narcissistic and self-righteous and more open-minded toward our ideological opponents; instead of treating them all with suspicion and distrust, we should listen to what they have to say. If a kid wants to travel to Syria to join ISIS or another group we should listen to what he has to say, and respond with rational arguments, not an appeal to a more peaceful version of his same faith. Sometimes one’s heart cannot be open to peace, but the mind may still be susceptible to reason. It is universal. Faith is not. We must also be willing to forgive. So somebody gets killed because of somebody’s beliefs. Does this mean we can never trust each other again? We also might want to look beyond the surface of religious expression and discover what underlying motivations and environmental factors are at play. Would a more geopolitical-focused or historical materialist perspective perhaps better explain the character of some religious movements? Then we should address those sides of the issues in the discussion. Make it about more than religion and politics, because life is about more than religion and politics. Ultimately, though, international law must be respected, obeyed, and enforced. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

“(2) How do we educate people about different religions and be fair in our assessments?”

How about philosophy and religious studies courses in primary education? Teach people about the rich history of ideas in different cultures, and not just of the cultures themselves. This should foster curiosity regarding one’s own and others’ beliefs, their origins, and their aim. Soon it will be easy to see that we all have much in common. There should be no qualms about being fair or unfair. Instead, teach open-mindedness and the questioning of authority. Facticity, creative analysis, and honest expression should be the only standards of inquiry. If this is dangerous to your faith, accept it as the price of truth. Buy the truth, and sell it not!

“(3) How do we address the plurality of religions in the world today?”

We need to get religious leaders and the wealthiest nations together, hit the history reset button, and create a plan to rebuild our shattered world. A plan that addresses the plurality of people. People before religion. We must share our resources and privilege with countries decimated by religious war. An international peace-keeping force may be necessary to oversee the implementation and integrity of the plan, the distribution of resources, and the political protection of minority beneficiaries. We have to be willing the share resources as well as have a military presence in the world, to protect the weak instead of exploiting them for profit at home as the price of their freedom. But then we must also respect the autonomy of nations. It’s a fine line, to be sure. But if a plan of this scope is not practical, then we need to stop being practical and just act to do what’s right.

“(4) How do we convince people to take personal responsibility for their reactions to things they may not like?”

Nothing works better than secular law and educating citizens about the roots of secular law and the implications and consequences of violating it.

I hope my ideas aren’t too terrible!

commented 2015-01-14 01:26:02 -0500 · Flag

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