WASHINGTON, April 30, 2013 ― The Boston Marathon attacks have revived old claims that Islam is inherently violent and all Muslims should face heightened scrutiny. When a Lutheran kid shoots up a movie theater or a Norwegian fundamentalist describing himself as a “modern-day crusader” slaughters kids at a summer camp, we take it in stride. When someone with a connection to Islam commits a crime, every Muslim faces suspicion.
Perhaps this is a good time to investigate the question: Which religion is the most violent?
The analysis presents some challenges. Should the answer be based purely on a body count? Professor Juan Cole casually estimates that Christians chalked up roughly 50 times more violent deaths than Muslims across the past century. That, however, doesn’t necessarily prove that Christianity is more violent. It just demonstrates a high level of efficiency. To answer the question we need more than a raw death toll.
When measuring violence, should grievances count as mitigating factors? When a Christian Lebanese militia spent two days in a besieged Palestinian refugee camp raping and slaughtering civilians under Israeli supervision, ought they be excused by the previous Muslim slaughter that inspired it? And should the Muslim slaughter be excused by the Christian slaughter that inspired it? Who is guiltier, the chicken or the egg?
A look at each religion’s holy books won’t provide much guidance. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists will all point out the ways their religion embraces compassion, humility, and humanity. They will all be correct. Their detractors will point out the ways their foundation texts promote violence. They will also be correct.
The word Islam actually means peace in Arabic, which might imply pacifism. The Qur’an also instructs the believers to “strike off the heads” (Surah 8, verse 12) of the unbelievers, which isn’t very neighborly.
Judaism emphasizes justice and humanity, inspiring Jews to become advocates of the oppressed in every society where they have influence. The Jewish scriptures (the Old Testament to some of us) also encourage a certain decisiveness in dealing with God’s enemies.
In one notable example, God commands King Saul to deal with a tribe who offended him several generations back: “Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.“ Saul is then cursed for failing to exercise the requisite brutality. Let that be a lesson to you. And a potent lesson it remains, enough to inspire violent Jewish souls today who would advocate hanging Arab children.
Christians have some juicy material to work with too. First, they have access to the whole panoply of Old Testament gore when it suits them. More importantly, when it comes to violence Christians have the problem of their two Jesus’.
When Christians want to get righteous about other religions’ violent streaks, they’ll talk about the Hippie Jesus of the Gospels; the guy who’s always turning cheeks and blessing his enemies. They seldom mention the other Jesus.
The Lord knows what happened to that peaceful, passive guy. When he returns he’s planning a very different sort of visit. According to the New Testament, the next time you see Jesus you should run like hell.
The Jesus at the end of the book is coming back with “eyes like a flame” wearing a “robe dipped in blood.” He’s got plans to make a feast for the birds out of “the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.” Kill ‘em all and let Dad sort ‘em out.
Christianity can keep up with anybody in the murder contest. You can still find Christians today who will passionately defend the slaughters of the Medieval Crusades. You can use Christianity to kill abortion doctors, massacre Muslims in Bosnia or Kosovo, or launch a preemptive war. Jesus is more flexible than some people might think.
Go find the most peaceful, passive religious ethic in the world and you will still find violence. Buddhist teachings are so fanatically pacifist they probably couldn’t stomach football, but Sri Lankan Buddhists will rack up piles of dead Tamil civilians like nobody’s business. Nirvana can wait.
And Atheists have no room to gloat. Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung tallied tens of millions of kills between them in the 20th Century alone. The absence of a religion is no more protection against fanatical rampages than blind faith.
The faithful like to offer qualifiers. “That’s not what [insert religion here] stands for.” “True believers would never engage in [insert incident of maniacal slaughter here].” And sometimes they offer the hilariously un-ironic “they had it coming.”
Those who want to defend their own religion’s violent spasms are right to distance themselves. A careful, intelligent reading of any of the Big Five will turn up appeals to consider the needs of others, exhortations to peace, and an insistence on the basic humanity we all share.
The closest I’ve ever come personally to being killed by terrorists was an incident in London perpetrated by Irish Catholics. Nevertheless, I am fairly comfortable boarding a plane with a priest, even if he has red hair. I understand Catholicism and Irish culture well enough to recognize that the IRA does not represent the values of all Catholics or Irish.
We all recognize the highest values in our own faiths while putting our own more troubling passages into some philosophical perspective. Your culture’s violent rampages are representative of your faith. My culture’s violent rampages are committed by lunatics and outliers who represent no one.
The most violent religion on Earth is any that have people in them. Those who are trying to win elections or ratings by telling us scary Muslim stories are playing a dangerous game. They are calling into question the basic humanity of others, making it easier for us to tolerate their persecution. They’ll get as far as our ignorance and cowardice will allow.
No matter what a religion teaches, some bloody-minded believers will twist it to justify their own dark urges. Religion does what people tell it to do. There is a clear connection between religion and violence – human beings.
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