religions don’t kill people, people kill people

When we see an act of political violence, such as last week’s attacks in France, we think the perpetrators were motivated by ideology. Earlier in my career, that is how I thought about a lot of political behavior. People read a book, or learn a system of thought, and they try to implement it. A man reads Das Kapital and tries to topple the capitalist system. The religious militant reads the Koran and runs out to build the next Caliphate.

Surely, there are genuine ideologues who really try to make the world fit their views. But I don’t think that is how most people operate in the world. What happens for most people is that they reinterpret religion, or whatever system they happen to be part of, in ways that fit their own agendas. In other words, religion is used in a highly pragmatic fashion.

I am not original in this thought, but it bears repeating because it helps us understand the world. For example, when I was younger, I wondered how evil people could belong to religions that preached peace. How could American Southerners preach Christianity but hold slaves? How could Hitler go to Catholic mass and be responsible for such large scale murder?

Later, I noticed that the link between religion and violence varied greatly. Every religion seemed capable of justifying evil. Catholics gleefully slayed Native Americans; Christians owned slaves; Japanese militants followed Shinto Buddhism. You could even be atheist and still murder at will. Ask the peasants of the Ukraine, or the victims of the Cultural Revolution in China, or victims of the Khmer Rouge. Religion didn’t seem effective in stopping violence, nor was a lack of religion effective in stopping violence.

In today’s world, we have militants who kill in the name of Islam. Many point to their religion and say that Islam itself is an inherently violent religion. What I would say is that it is like a lot of religions. It’s a bundle of beliefs that people interpret and edit in the way they see fit. For example, the Koran itself doesn’t say that people should be harmed for making engraved images. It turns out that the Koran itself only has an oblique reference to “likeness” – and it is not in the context of making statues. Only the later in the Hadith does the Prophet speak out against images – but it seems to be in the context of speaking out against idolatry, not the banning of ALL images. Not surprisingly, within Islam, there are actually some traditions where its fine to make images and even some religious images. Similarly, there are texts that come down hard on non-believers, but people seem free to come up with all kinds of Islam, including non-violent Ghandian Islam.

The point here isn’t to argue about proper interpretation, but merely to point out that texts are texts and people use their predispositions to assign meaning to them. I no longer believe that religions motivate people to kill. Killers provide justifications for their actions that have legitimacy. If you are in Russia 1919, you can kill “counter revolutionaries.” If you are in Florida in 1685, you can kill in the name of Christ. In 2015 in Syria, you can kill for Islam. Ultimately though, it’s not religion, or lack of religion, that counts, it’s something more profound – respect for other people, even those you hate. And that’s the highest social virtue.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 13, 2015 at 12:12 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

17 Responses

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  1. Regarding religion and religions, wholly true. Which is why we are concerned about their adherents.

    The Boers of what is now South Africa, for example, were a pious people who believed they were doing God’s will by oppressing the blacks native to their land. Their revolt against the British could be called, in fairness, a war of conscience that could not abide demands that they treat the blacks decently instead. That they claimed be to Christian didn’t matter.

    Right now only a very small number of Muslims around the world are actually terrorists or militants. But far more are sympathetic with the cause of ISIS or Al Queda. And even more believe it is proper to enforce Muslim practices, even on members of other religions, with violence; or agree that people who leave Islam should be put to death.

    Of course the religion itself does not necessarily call for this (although in the case of apostasy it comes perilously close). But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that a significant number of who call themselves Muslim, claim the religion justifies their beliefs, and control many of its institutions do believe this.



    January 13, 2015 at 12:45 am

  2. But the point is that the exact same thing has been true of Christians in many times and places–consider, for example, the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades. The fact that these people right now who are making up Al Queda and ISIS are Muslim is only historical contingency, and they could just as easily be killing in the name of the Cannaanite Pantheon.



    January 13, 2015 at 1:08 am

  3. The interpreting is not limited to killing, one can pick and choose for other issues; can see this with those using religion to support and fight climate change theories. As the quote for this blog states:

    “…the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.” Alexis de Tocqueville

    We have to look specifically at the groups or individuals in question, and look at the identities they create and recreate through social actions.


    chris eberhardt

    January 13, 2015 at 1:08 am

  4. Reblogged this on SocioTech'nowledge.


    Pedro Calado

    January 13, 2015 at 1:42 am

  5. Religious belief is entirely irrelevant to these kinds of actions, terrorism is ordered and someone follows those orders. We call them Islamic fundamentalists as if this explains anything, perhaps the fundamentalist term gives an inkling to their OCD perfectionistic psychosis, but these are criminals of the worst sort: vicious and brutal. Sometimes, the one giving the order is an ayatollah or imam or caliph. Was Hussein, Awliki. Arafat, Gaddafi, the list goes on, none of them are religious in any serious sense of the word – they are criminals, terrorists.


    Fred Welfare

    January 13, 2015 at 3:30 am

  6. The piece implies that there are “killers” out there looking for a justification: “Killers provide justifications for their actions that have legitimacy. If you are in Russia 1919, you can kill “counter revolutionaries.” If you are in Florida in 1685, you can kill in the name of Christ. In 2015 in Syria, you can kill for Islam.”

    I’d like to hear more about this fascinating group of people–the “killers”–and I’d like to know why they seek justifications. Why not just form a group whose virtue is killing?

    Now, just ignore for a moment all this G.W. Bush talk of “killers” and note the argument’s conclusion:

    “Ultimately though, it’s not religion, or lack of religion, that counts, it’s something more profound – respect for other people, even those you hate. And that’s the highest social virtue.”

    That is to say, if we accept the ideas of liberalism, we will not be killers. Anyone spot an internal contradiction?

    I’d hazard that the relationship between ideas and action is more complicated than all this and that it’s mediated by groups, who themselves are partly a product of ideas.



    January 13, 2015 at 4:03 am

  7. This reminds me a bit of Scott & Lyman (1968)..



    January 13, 2015 at 4:18 am

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    January 13, 2015 at 5:37 am

  9. So, would you then also argue that Weber’s spirit of capitalism thing was fundamentally misguided? He really should have argued that catholics self-selected a less industrious interpretation of the bible than protestants? It was the same text, after all.



    January 13, 2015 at 7:43 am

  10. Reminds me of Ezra Klein’s take on the murders.

    What if it’s not religion, per se, that makes people engage in violent acts but radicalization (of any type)? Religion isn’t necessary for radicalization to occur, but it seems to be one of the factors most strongly associated with it. I assume that’s because religion provides an ideology that can be radicalized. But the same is true of political ideology. We wouldn’t say that political ideologies lead to violence but political radicalization might.


    brayden king

    January 13, 2015 at 3:43 pm

  11. Harry nailed it, I believe. US history is full of mass shootings and some bombings by White Christians. Sometimes the perpetrators claim to be driven by an ideology, other times not, but in no case does public US discourse attribute their killing to their Christianity. Why?

    US and world history is full of massacres. The US was settled by Christian Europeans displacing and killing native people in the Americas. If you don’t know this, it just means your own education was deficient and you can have a sub-question in which you ask yourself why that would be true.

    States kill many more unarmed civilians than non-state actors; many of the states that have killed millions of people have been Christian or atheist in their nominal profession.

    Lesson 1: it isn’t about the act of killing, it is about the framing of the act of killing. The question becomes NOT why some groups kill more than others, but why some killings are treated as instances of inter-group conflict or instances of the power of ideology and others are not.

    Lesson 2: the formation of groups and us-them thinking is the fundamental process to examine, not religious ideology, although people do sometimes articulate their justifications for killing to religion.



    January 13, 2015 at 4:03 pm

  12. Just wondering to what extent emotions play a role in religiously motivated actions? Perhaps it is the emotional dimensions of ‘personal predispositions’ that are activated in those who carry on the violent acts, and exploited by those who radicalise these people? My personal anecdotal evidence hints in this direction: Negative comments on some taboo topics, say about Prophets etc, invoke severe emotional outbursts, even from those who are otherwise non-practicing people.

    In general, despite many calls, emotion remains an undertheorised aspect in org theory. Correct please if I am wrong.

    p.s. Fabio, thanks for highlighting a leading non-violent Gandhian Muslim, Badshah Khan; I am also from his tribe…but alas things have taken a violent turn in our land ignoring his message of non-violence.


    Amer Khan

    January 13, 2015 at 4:05 pm

  13. Great piece, but …..

    As long as there are people that kill people in religion then religion will continue to kill people. There is very little difference in the history of Christianity and the history of Islam. Both justify their followers killing people in the name of their god.



    January 13, 2015 at 5:25 pm

  14. It was called ‘revolutionization’ during WWI when Germany appealed to anti-British Irish and to communists in Russia to subvert their governments by implementing terrorism. Since the Islamic states are theocracies, when Islamic terrorists attack people in other states, it is the same thing. Those theocratic Islamic states are trying to subvert other states by terrorizing their citizens, not to mention the propaganda value in their own states.


    Fred Welfare

    January 13, 2015 at 6:03 pm

  15. I find it puzzling that there’s no mention of blasphemy and sacrilege here. Religions (like ideologies and other things) specify that certain acts are blasphemous. Then social norms dictate how you respond to blasphemy. However, religions and social norms aren’t orthogonal. Thus, certain religions will be more prone to executing people than others.



    January 15, 2015 at 7:26 pm

  16. Shouldn’t there be a disavowal by the people whose religion is being used in this way, or do the true believers support this behavior as part of their faith? As another post pointed out, claiming that your religion gives you a causal power, as “Christian” Boers did against the blacks, does not matter, it is illegal.


    Fredrick Welfare

    January 15, 2015 at 7:39 pm

  17. Of course belief systems and ideologies can be interpreted in different ways. No one (worth listening to anyway) is saying they picked up a Koran and wanted to reinstate the Caliphate. But they ARE drawing from specific religous , historical and political traditions. Their actions cant make sense without understanding, to some degree, those traditions, what they mean to people (especially these specific people), and how it influences their targets and goals. That’s all people mean by ‘ideology’ as shorthand.

    More broadly, of course their specific route to radicalisation is unique, and very difficult if not impossible to identify and rank the specific mechanisms that turned them to violence. Theyre also embedded in larger movements that have their own strategies and goals (some very specific – create division between religions, recruit in the west, shut down debate – some more broad, reinstate the Caliphate.Yes,that is their goal.)
    Disentangling all of this is complicated. In their specific case how much is influenced by their social circumstances, their social networks, perceived threats to the people they associate with etc..but part of the explanation *is* ‘ideology’. It’s really very difficult to understand Al Qaeda without taking ideas and beliefs seriously. The fact that those ideas and beliefs can mean different things to different people is obviously true, but there are still very broad concepts (around relious doctrine, or political aspirations) that can unite people around a specific movement.
    And I agree that if it wasn’tIslamic radicalism it would probably be something else. In a different context it could be communis, or facism or neo conservatism..but does that really mean that we shouldnt take the ‘Islamic’part seriously? Taking it seriously doesnt mean we have to deal with a carictured picture of Islam, or create any simple deterministic stories, just see what it meant to them, how it influenced their thinking, the targets they choose, the people they associated with, their larger political goals.



    January 16, 2015 at 2:37 pm

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