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date: 08 May 2021

Introduction: The Enduring Relationship of Religion and Violence

Abstract and Keywords

This Handbook describes four major dimensions: 1) overviews of major religious traditions; 2) patterns and themes relating to religious violence; 3) major analytic approaches; and 4) new directions in theory and analysis related to religion and violence. There is a much more nuanced interpretation of the presence of violence in so many different traditions. This chapter, which specifically presents overviews of traditions, patterns and themes, analytic approaches, and new directions in order to offer a roadmap to the academic field of studies in religion and violence, demonstrates both the range and diversity of areas of inquiry within this emerging field. The images and acts of destruction discussed in the chapters can be collectively described as “religious violence.” The study of religious violence and the religious dimensions of violent situations do much to shed light on the nature of religion itself.

Keywords: religious violence, religious dimensions, religious traditions, analytic approaches, religion

The dark attraction between religion and violence is endemic to religious traditions. It pervades their images and practices, from sacred swords to mythic conquests, from acts of sacrifice to holy wars. Though much has been written about particular forms of religious violence, such as sacrificial rites and militant martyrdom, there have been few efforts to survey the field as a whole, to explore the studies of religious violence historically and in the present, to view the subject from personal as well as social dimensions, and to cover both literary themes and political conflicts.

The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence provides a comprehensive examination of the field and introduces new ways of understanding it. The forty original chapters in this volume are written by authoritative scholars who address four major dimensions of the topic: 1) overviews of major religious traditions, each of which is examined with an attempt to understand how violence is justified within the literary and theological foundation of the tradition, how it is used symbolically and in ritual practice, and how social acts of vengeance and warfare have been justified by religious ideas; 2) patterns and themes relating to religious violence, such as sacrifice and martyrdom, which are explored in cross-disciplinary or regional analyses; 3) major analytic approaches, from literary analyses to social scientific studies, which are surveyed with an eye to showing the diversity of analytic perspectives; and 4) new directions in theory and analysis related to religion and violence, which are presented by some of the most innovative contemporary scholars and provide novel insights into the understanding of this important field of studies. In its entirety, this volume forges new paths in the analysis of religion (p. 2) and violence, anticipating the way that this field of studies will continue to evolve. The book should be useful for students and teachers for generations to come.

Our hope is that the handbook will help to unravel some of the perplexing aspects of the relation of religion to violence and will show how acts of destruction in the name of God (or gods) or justified by faith have been rooted in historical and literary contexts from early times to the present. Contemporary acts of religious violence, of course, are profuse. Since the end of the cold war, violence in the name of religion has erupted on nearly every major continent, and many of its perpetrators have been revered by those who find religious significance for such actions. Although no longer novel, religious violence and the adulation of its prophets continue to confound scholars, journalists, policy makers, and members of the general public. Some of them have argued that religious violence is not really religious—it is symptomatic of something else and thus is an anomaly, a perversion of foundational religious teachings. Yet it is precisely foundational religious teachings that are claimed to sanctify violence by many of its perpetrators. Others cite bloody legends of martyrs and heroes and argue that religions, or some of them, are violent at the core, their leaders masterminds of criminal behavior. Yet the chapters in this volume show that there is a much more nuanced interpretation of the presence of violence in so many different traditions. The relationship of religion to violence is vexing. The chapters in this handbook reveal a variety of ways in which religious violence can be understood. Some social scientists point to a resurgence of anticolonialism, poverty, and economic injustice; the failures of secular nationalism; cultural uprootedness and the loss of a homeland; and the pervasive features of globalization in its economic, political, social, and cultural forms. Alternatively, literary theorists and historians examine how scriptural traditions and founding cults are steeped in violent myths, metaphors, and apocalyptic expectations that support acts of violence in the contemporary world. Different still are analyses based in evolution, anthropology, and psychology. The various approaches represent the range of lenses from which one might view religion and violence within the total realm of historically situated human experience.

Is violence, then, the rare exception in religious traditions, or is it one of the rules? Adherents of most religious traditions almost universally regard their own faith as pacificistic, one that abhors violence and proclaims reconciliation among foes. Perhaps they are right, since the overwhelming message of scriptural writings and prophetic voices is that of love, peace, and harmony. Yet both historians and keen observers also see another side. They point to the legends of war, sacrifice, and martyrdom that cling to the histories of all the great religious traditions. The disconnect between these two points of view raises some profound questions: Is violence peripheral to the religious imagination or at its core? Is it religion that promotes violence or some other social or natural factor? Is religion even distinguishable from those factors? Some argue that the great global religious traditions, because of their long histories of intertwining clerical authority with political powers, are more inclined to violence than are local ones. Yet sources for local religions, collected often at the crossroad between tradition and modernity, also report many (p. 3) forms of ritualized violence, such as assault sorceries, martial initiations, and prebattle sacrifices. Thus, for scholars of the global and the local, the question looms: What is the link between religion and violence and how profound is it?

As the scholars included here explore the answers to this question, they have to deal with semantic complications. Religion and violence are each ambiguous terms. The search for a suitable definition of religion has exercised the scholarly imagination for centuries, luring psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, theologians, philosophers, ethologists, and others into debates over its meaning. Must a religion be centered on supernatural beings? Does the term refer to social or private behavior? Is dogma or praxis the key to its essence? Is it a philosophical system or a poetic structure, a matter of art? Violence, too, is not an easy thing to identify. Immediate bodily harm, verbal assault, social manipulations, cultural destruction, injurious magic, political oppression—the range of ways of thinking about violence is enormous. From whose perspective and at what point is an act to be deemed violent? What act cannot be construed as violent in some way? For instance, are we talking only about war and genocide, or psychological coercion, social restrictions, and binding categorizations? The contributors to this volume have wrestled with these issues and many more. Their collective work reflects the complex and contested meanings of both religion and violence. While the contributors do not operate with a collective definition for either term, they use these words in a manner that illuminates relationships and deepens the understanding of particular phenomena.

The chapters that make up the volume are rich in their interpretive and descriptive quality. The four sections—overviews of traditions, patterns and themes, analytic approaches, and new directions—provide a roadmap to the academic field of studies in religion and violence. The chapters in each section show both the range and diversity of areas of inquiry within this emerging field.

Part I: Overview of Religious Traditions

Part I provides overviews of Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, Sikh, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, African, and Pacific Island religious traditions as they have engaged with violence. While the ideas and adherents of most of these traditions have spread throughout the globe, they are anchored in distinctive histories and cultures that set them apart from one another. For instance, Jewish, Hindu, Chinese, and Buddhist traditions draw from their respective sets of sources that are thousands of years old. The Sikh tradition, however, emerged in the 1600s and is one of the youngest global religions. Some traditions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, are united by core beliefs and ideological frameworks; others, such as Hindu, Jewish, Chinese, African, and Pacific Island traditions, tend to be rooted in particular (p. 4) places and are linked with specific communities and social systems. The traditional religious communities differ also by size; Islamic, Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist traditions have more than one billion adherents each, while the numbers of Jewish, Sikh, and Pacific Islander followers are only in the millions. Together, however, these traditions influence more than six and a half billion people around the world. The histories of their relationships to violence are a part of the fabric of global history.

Each of the chapters in this section introduces readers to the diversity within the religious traditions. Within Christianity, for instance, the Protestant history of religious violence is distinctively different from that of the Catholic. In the Hindu traditions, the theology and history of devotees of Vishnu (Vaishnavites) are dissimilar to that of devotees of Shiva (Shaivites), and both differ from the communities related to the earlier Brahmanical and Vedic traditions in India. Differences also emerge between theological pronouncements in scripture and the actual instances of religious violence in society. In some cases, sacred texts do not just pronounce but describe forms of religious violence, such as sacrifice and warfare; these accounts are found in the Jewish Torah, the Qur’anic surahs, the Buddhist sutras, the Christian gospels, and the Hindu epics. Violence is also embedded in religious symbols. The sword of the Buddhist bodhisattva Manjushri, for instance, symbolizes the cutting away of illusion; the cross that represents Jesus’s persecution and death signifies the atonement of Christians from sin; the two edges of the blade in the Sikh symbol, the khanda, represent the spiritual and temporal power of the faith; the warlike tattoos of the martial Chinese gods are believed by adherents to invigorate warriors. The chapters review these theological and symbolic connections to violence and also the historical and social manifestations, including warfare, torture, ritual, or suicide. Through a historical lens, contributors intimate with the religious traditions provide intricate perspectives on the various ways in which each religious tradition is linked with violence. In addition to these nine chapters, other traditions are touched on in later sections of the volume. (See, for instance, the discussion of Mesoamerican religion in Chapter 11, “Sacrifice/Human Sacrifice in Religious Traditions” by Davíd Carrasco.)

The essay on Hindu traditions, by Veena Das, sets out the complex dynamic of religious attitude and violent practice as represented in the history of Indian ideology and poetics, focusing on ambivalent nuances in reports of animal (and human) sacrifice and in gendered violence. The essay on Bhuddist traditions, by Michael Jerryson, explores the paradox of irenic abstractions about Buddhist nonviolence versus culturally embedded customs prescribing acts of coercion and self-immolation, represented within Buddhist texts and social realities. By looking at the exception to the rule, Jerryson isolates key doctrinal passages that allow for violence and connects them to physical manifestations. The Sikh tradition is placed by Cynthia Keppley Mahmood within the context of the shifting sands of India’s religious history; she describes the reverence for certain Sikh gurus as being associated with martyrdom and violence and relates this history of religious violence to the militant drive for a Sikh homeland—Khalistan—in recent decades. In (p. 5) exploring the theme of religious violence in the Jewish tradition, Ron E. Hassner and Gideon Aran begin with divergences among ethnic Jews with regards to identity and scriptural adherence and then explore the way that violence is portrayed in biblical prescriptions and stories, as well as in postbiblical history and interpretation; they also cover the extracanonical books and Talmud and the legacy of violence in Jewish mysticism and messianism. In covering the diversity within the Christian tradition, Lloyd Steffen probes the multilayered Christian imagination with regards to violence, from the tradition’s inception in political executions and apocalyptic dreams, through the intertwining of Christianity with political empires, wars, and crusades to its internal struggles over heresy, slavery, missionary zeal, just war, and social justice. In examining the role of violence in Islam, Bruce Lawrence contrasts Islam in 611 with the Islam associated with terrorism on 9/11. He summarizes a complex trajectory of defiant moralism as well as ethical compromise, from Islam’s revolutionary roots in human rights through its early rules for how to and when to wage war, through the eventual (post-Mohammed) establishment of jihad as an instrument of state, the crystallization of its rules in response to the Crusades, the founding of “gunpowder empires” such as the Ottoman, and finally Muslim responses to European colonization.

A wide range of African customs and legends are examined by Nathalie Wlodarczyk who shows, among other things, that African traditional religion provides notions of a thriving spirit world that offers “sacred warriors” ritualized protections and martial enhancements when defense of community is urgent. Among the variety of Pacific Island religious cultures described by Andrew Strathern and Pamela J. Stewart, notions of violence vary hugely—from physical harm to slights of honor to mystical assault—but, generally speaking, more hierarchical societies have tended to be supported by ritual and cosmological structures that may be harnessed for revenge and war. Discussing religion in China, Meir Shahar points out that the category of religion eludes traditional Chinese thinking; nonetheless, he summarizes the periods of harmony between official Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, pointing out also the historical reverence for martial gods and practices of religiously sanctioned human sacrifice and self-mortification.

Part II: Patterns and Themes

In the second section of the book, leading scholars in their fields write on fourteen topics related to religion and violence that frequently occur within religious traditions or that cut across religious diversity. Some of these are patternsactivities that reveal the religious dimensions of political violence, cosmic war, genocide, terrorism, torture, and abortion-related conflicts—that are found in the social histories of many religious traditions. Others are themes—concepts and practices more centrally related to religious ideas and conduct, such as the concepts (p. 6) of evil, just war, martyrdom, and sacrifice. Still other chapters may be regarded as discussing both patterns and themes; these include topics such as contested sites, self-mutilation, death rituals, and violent death.

Through careful historical examination and innovative analysis, each of these chapters provides thick descriptions for critical terms such as self-mutilation or torture and how they connect to the discussion of religion and violence. For instance, the label of martyr was glorified in early Christianity, then highly restricted and contextualized at the inception of Islam; but at the end of the twentieth and in the first decades of the twenty-first century, the idea of martyrdom has gained a certain political notoriety. The theme of sacrifice is regarded in most contemporary religious communities as a concept or a symbol, yet it has a history in actual practice, including cases of human sacrifice in religious ritual. Its appearance among early Greeks and Romans, northwestern African Dahomey, Chinese, Mesoamericans, and others demands a fuller examination. The comparisons made in these chapters are not intended to generalize or blur the lines between different religious traditions but rather to burrow beyond limited religious frameworks of a concept in order to excavate its deeper meaning. In some cases the chapters are comparative, such as those on evil and on the concept of violent death across religious traditions. Other chapters, such as those on martyrdom and genocide, focus on one particular culture to explore the various aspects of concepts and practices.

The chapters that make up this section move roughly from themes in the religious imagination to social acts and practices and, finally, to conceptions of death. The opening essay is James Aho’s treatment of the anthropodicies of evil, which he identifies as “horrifying and beguiling, terrifying and wonderful,” paradoxically tied to the sacred. Aho surveys evil’s causes, motives, and purposes as perceived in a range of traditions. Animal and human sacrifice—diverse theories about it, its geographical and historical range, and its various forms—are studied by Davíd Carrasco, who delves especially into the Aztec cosmovision behind large-scale human sacrifices and the sacrificial symbolism extending from the heavens to earth.

The theme of martyrdom is explored within Islamic history by David Cook, who identifies respect for martyrs in the earliest battles, wherein the shahid who died fighting selflessly to defend the faith was understood to ascend to heaven and to intervene there on behalf of the living. The label later was extended to victims of plague, defenders of markets, and warriors fighting invaders, and, with the development of explosive devices, perpetrators of the controversial “martyrdom operations” associated with suicidal activists. Of course suicide and killing innocents are proscribed by traditional Islamic jurispudence. Violence to one’s self, as in self-mutilation and starvation, is explored by Liz Wilson, who illustrates how these behaviors have been used as strategies for change across traditions.

Several of the chapters are about warfare and the contest between good and evil. This confrontation is often portrayed in images of the apocalypse, as described by Jamel Velji. Great battles between absolute good and absolute evil, temporal urgency, compelling authority in the form of prophets or texts, and, of course, millennial expectations are some of the features of apocalyptic visions of the end of history. (p. 7) The notion of divinely sanctioned warfare is explored with relation to the concept of cosmic war, described by Reza Aslan, who outlines ten of its common features and traces its origins to ancient Near Eastern spectacles of warrior gods who exercise cosmic commands on earthly battlefields and secure sacred spoils for humans.

An imagined confrontation of cosmic forces can justify not only warfare but the extermination of whole populations of people and their cultures. The violent imaginaries that informed reports and deeds of the 1994 Rwandan genocide are the focus of the essay on genocide written by Christopher C. Taylor. To the violent demise of President Habyarimana and his supporters, Taylor traces the perseverance of precolonial notions of a sacred king whose “wild sovereignty” and inability to promote the flow of imaana—a diffuse, fecundating fluid understood to nourish the social and natural world—earns him fateful sacrifice. Images of a cosmic war between good and evil can justify also acts of terrorism. In his chapter on this topic, Mark Juergensmeyer describes religious terrorism as “performance violence”—acts that are performed for the purpose of creating a public event. These acts present a dramatic scene into which observers are unwittingly drawn; they are compelled to enter into the perception of cosmic warfare imagined by those who perpetrate the acts. Based on his conversations with accused terrorists, Juergensmeyer shows that performance violence is designed not only to achieve tangible goals but also to theatrically enact and communicate an imagined reality. Religious justifications for and against torture are addressed by Karen L. King, who points to the torturous narratives at Christianity’s foundations, the notion of redemptive martyrdom, and the various ways in which Christian ideology has challenged as well as supported the torturous suffering of fellows and foes.

Other chapters deal with public conversations about violence and the religious arguments that allow or disallow it. The ethical justification for war is famously promoted by the concept of just war. John Kelsay outlines Western just war thinking, from Roman Cicero’s exhortations for honorable treatment of conquered populations to the United Nations’ trial of Slobodan Milosevic for crimes against humanity. Particularly within Christianity, Kelsay identifies traditional motivations for forcibly resisting anarchy and transgressions against public order, as well as for moral constraints on fighting and aggressive force. Abortion is a contentious public issue in the United States. After a glance at religious positions on abortion around the world, Julie Ingersoll surveys the thinking of the extreme end of the prolife movement in the United States, exploring its link with Christian reconstructionism, its use of violent and nonviolent strategies of resistance, and its identification of abortion with genocide and sin.

Public space and the impact of globalization are emergent themes in the conversation about religion and violence. Ron E. Hassner explores the conflicts over contested religious sites by communities invested in their integrity and for whom partition is abhorrent. States mistakenly overlook the complex forces at play in these contests, such as cultural memory and iconic identity, the felt presence of spiritual powers, and the expectation of sanctuary for fugitives. Monica Toft analyzes the resurgence of both religion and religious violence over the last decades, (p. 8) locating that resurgence at the intersection of local politics and three trends: modernization, democratization, and globalization.

The section’s final chapters are about death. Susumu Shimazono and Margo Kitts outline the rituals related to death and burial, such as corpse treatments, conceptions of death, and the etiquette of remembrance from ancient times to the present, highlighting the nexus of cultural themes that emerge at the site of burial. Finally, Margo Kitts explores the peculiar obsession of world religions with violent death, under three rubrics: when death is perceived as primordially wrong, when violent death is seen as cosmically right, and when violent death, particularly in the form of suicide, is enshrined as martyrdom.

Part III: Analytic Approaches

The third section provides insights into analytic approaches from specific disciplinary fields. The authors of the chapters represent six different academic disciplines in which scholars have wrestled with explanations of and treatments for religiously motivated violence: sociology, anthropology, psychology, literature, theology, and political science.

The chapters in this section have two objectives. On the one hand, they are attempts to provide an overview of the way that the aspect of religion and violence has been conceived as a field of studies within each discipline and how it has evolved. The sociological tradition of studies in religion and violence, for instance, reaches back to such important nineteenth-century theorists as Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx. Anthropological studies of this subject go back to the nineteenth-century theorist William Robertson Smith and the early twentieth-century scholar Bronislav Malinowski. Theological and literary analyses date back even earlier.

On the other hand, the chapters provide an opportunity for the authors to develop analytic approaches that they think are particularly appropriate to the disciplinary perspective from which they approach the topic. For this reason, the discussions are critical analyses of the studies of religion and violence in the various disciplinary areas.

In some cases, the authors reach across disciplinary boundaries to incorporate ideas from scholars from other fields, such as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz or the literary theorist René Girard. Although guided by their fields of study, theorists of religion and violence connect well beyond their methodological homes. It is fair to say that, except within the interdisciplinary field of religious studies, typically scholars in particular disciplines are not brought into conversation with one another. They are here. Through short, concise summations of key theorists and their advances, this section provides a theoretical blueprint of interdisciplinary academic discourses on religion and violence.

The chapter from a sociological perspective, by John R. Hall, is qualitative in its analysis and draws on the tradition of reflective social thought. Hall combines (p. 9) insights from sociological case studies, comparative structural studies, and the humanities. After caveats about the interwoven categories of religion, violence, nation, and ethnic community, Hall explores the formations and circumstances that shape violent expressions of religion, particularly among apocalyptic groups, and suggests that understanding multitiered social processes is intrinsic to understanding the complex interplay of religion and violence. Anthropologists Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern succinctly outline a variety of anthropological approaches to religion from the work of Émile Durkheim through the contemporary cognitive theory of mind, exploring the culturally vast interplay of imagination with, for instance, divinatory processes that legitimate war, witch hunting, and revenge and with cosmic postulates that sanctify the imposition of suffering on others and on oneself.

In the chapter from a psychological perspective, James W. Jones disavows a singular perspective on the psychology of religion and violence, surveying studies that focus on individual psychology, social influences, psychodynamics, and trauma (as well as the lack of it) as expository models for understanding why some individuals are drawn to religious terrorism and others not. From the perspective of political science, Daniel Philpott surveys a variety of potential relationships between state and religion and degrees of accepted theological autonomy to account for two forms of religious violence: communal conflict and terrorism. He concludes that religious violence is least likely to originate—though it will sometimes operate—in settings of consensual, institutional independence, as found most commonly in religion-friendly liberal democracies.

A range of literary approaches are offered by Margo Kitts, who surveys theories that attempt to explain how and why violence pervades foundational religious texts, as well as the imaginative dynamics that emerge from those texts and shape acts of violence. Christian theological approaches are summarized by Charles Kimball, who traces the early Christian cult from its pacific origins through its nationalization and militarization with Constantine, Charlemagne, and the Crusades. He also addresses internal movements that complexly administered and mitigated violence, such as the Inquisition, internal church discipline, religious wars, just war thinking, monasticism, and what has been called the just peacemaking paradigm. Christian theological perspectives on violence resonate with other theological perspectives such as Jewish and Islamic, which are covered in the handbook’s first section.

Part IV: New Directions

This fourth section is a platform for describing new models for the study of religion and violence and for addressing new directions in the established approaches. A group of innovative scholars considers new directions in which the field is moving and offers novel analytic approaches. Some have taken as their task a consideration (p. 10) of the relationship of religion to violence in general. Others focus on particular components of religion and violence—such as religious conflicts within cities. Still others search for causation, attempting to produce an explanation for the phenomena of religious violence. Together the chapters in this section point to productive new possibilities in the study of religion and violence that will illuminate not only this specific topic but the range of ways in which religious culture interacts with other social phenomena.

The first chapter in this section takes an enduring theme in the study of religion and violence, sacrifice, and focuses on religious practices in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean. Walter Burkert shows that religion is perpetrated in the arena of death, that is, in the killings we call sacrifice. Such sacrificial killings—highly circumscribed by taboos, ritual prescriptions, and ceremonial significance—initiated all major collective institutions and decisions in ancient societies, accompanied often by a feast on the victim’s flesh. Why should killing animals for food become a religious act? To explore this question, Burkert ponders studies of empathy across species. He deduces, among other insights, that religious sacrifice harbors the truth of the “struggle for existence,” while creating an optimistic superworld that displaces it.

The next chapter shifts the focus from the ritual act of sacrifice as a concentrated locus of violence to the grand scenarios of violence as envisaged by war. Saskia Sassen sees some cities as ascendant theaters for asymmetric war—war between a conventional army and armed insurgents—and examines the instructive elements, both variable and contradictory, within the contemporary conflicts in Mumbai and Gaza. She describes the shift from an epoch dominated by secularizing forces to one in which organized religions are structurally part of cities in their global modernity. Warfare is also a part of one of the most important aspects of religious thinking—apocalypse—explored by Michael A. Sells, who compares contemporary militant apocalypticism in its American Christian (Dispensationalist) and Middle Eastern Islamic versions. Sunni Salafi illustrations are drawn from Saudi Arabia’s Safar al-Hawali and American Ali al-Timimi, whereas Shi’a illustrations stem broadly from Twelver traditions and American speculation about them. Each of these apocalyptic dreams anticipates messianic triumph, although the Salafi and Christian versions are more emphatic in portraying the religious other as evil, human peace efforts as demonic, and war as total, global, and culminating in the annihilation of everyone other than the faithful.

Philosopher Hent de Vries reflects on the deconstruction of religion and religious violence from the perspective of Jacques Derrida’s thought. Based on Derrida’s “Violence et m é taphysique” (1961−1962) and his reflection on wars of religion waged by finger and thumb (that is, mediatized, so less localized and predictable than ever before), de Vries observes that war and violence cannot be expunged from global politics and global religions, which are capable of astonishing evil masked by enlightened and universalistic intentions. On a similar theme, David Frankfurter contemplates the myriad religious suspicions of an evil that warrants preemptive purging—from witch burnings to ethnic cleansing. He sees prurient (p. 11) fascination and righteous revulsion with sinister conspiracies and stories of predatorial monstrosities as emboldening crowds as well as the charismatic authorities who instigate violent remedies to quell that evil.

Wolfgang Palaver focuses on the mimetic theory of René Girard in analyzing foundational myths of violence. Palaver sees Girard’s notion of the scapegoating mechanism, whereby a substitute victim absorbs the mimetic animosities of the entire group and thereby promotes peace, as applicable to the disturbing tendency to direct violence toward exogenous groups. Hector Avalos also sees violence as being endemic to the religious imagination, though he argues that this is due to scarcity, not competition. Avalos claims that all religions tend to create artificial shortages of supernatural blessings or beings and thereby promote violence.

The next chapters in this section also focus on the nature of religion in order to understand the phenomenon of religious violence. Candace S. Alcorta and Richard Sosis explain why, from an evolutionary perspective, the same religions that can at times inspire joy, love, and awe can also involve terror, pain, self-mutilation, deprivation, violence, and feelings of revulsion. Examining ritual communication and costly signaling theory, they show how emotionally powerful and highly memorable experiences—such as rites of passages—can trigger autonomic and neuroendocrinal changes in individuals and bonding experiences in groups. The chapter by Harvey Whitehouse and Brian McQuinn also looks at religious ritual in relationship to social conflict, as based on Whitehouse’s theory of divergent modes of religiosity and ritual. In the chapter in this volume, they contrast the social dynamics of contemporary rebel groups engaging in high-frequency, low-arousal rituals (the doctrinal mode) with groups bonded tightly by traumatic ritual ordeals (the imagistic mode), such as high-arousal and emotionally costly initiation rites. The latter tend to intensify cohesion and tolerance within groups while heightening hostility and intolerance toward outgroups.

The final chapter in this section looks at a recent shift in the social sciences and humanities that enables scholars to better understand the religious dimensions of social pheonoma such as acts of terrorism and violence. Mark Juergensmeyer and Mona Kanwal Sheikh observe that there is a “sociotheological turn” in contemporary scholarship that encourages social scientists to take stock of the religious justifications for social action and for theologians and scholars of religious studies to be more aware of the social significance of spiritual ideas and practices. Focusing on “epistemic worldviews” as the appropriate subject for sociotheological analysis, the authors outline useful guidelines for research, such as undertaking interviews and case studies with an empathetic awareness that allows for the emergence of relational knowledge.


The images and acts of destruction described in all four sections of this book can be collectively described as religious violence, though it is clear that there are many ways of interpreting that phrase. In some cases the ideas related to violence are (p. 12) rooted in the basic beliefs of the tradition; in other cases, they and the practices associated with them are not narrowly theological. Aside from ritual sacrifice, real acts of violence are seldom intrinsic to any specific religious experience—wars are often justified in the name of religion, for instance, when the primary purpose is to extend political power. Yet, because violence in both real and symbolic forms is found in all religious traditions, it can be regarded as a feature of the religious imagination. Almost every major tradition, for example, has some notion of sacrifice and some notion of cosmic war, a grand moral struggle that underlies all reality and can be used to justify acts of real warfare.

Thus the study of religious violence and the religious dimensions of violent situations do much to shed light on the intrinsic nature of religion. The chapters that make up this volume are intended to provide a guide to the emerging field of studies in religion and violence, but they will also be useful in understanding religion in all of its complexity, its myriad social, psychological, and theological forms.