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.