Pundits, policymakers, and preachers have long debated whether religion causes violence. The debate became increasingly urgent—and increasingly focused on Islam and national security—after the horrors of September 11th and the nearly 1,600 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes that followed. Less than a week after the attacks, then-President George W. Bush sought to put out the fire by proclaiming that “true” religions—including Islam—are inherently peaceful.
This only fed the flames.
With the rise of the Islamic State (or ISIS), this fire has become a veritable blaze. Just days before the November 2015 Paris attacks by ISIS sympathizers, Foreign Policy published a series of opinion pieces by outspoken experts on whether Islam is a religion of peace. Similar arguments abound. Often, after discussing scriptural warrants for violence or historical precedent for holy war within and between various traditions, authors from Richard Dawkins to Karen Armstrong reframe the question as: Is religion itself good or evil? This question is flawed.
Religion is neither good nor evil. Religions define good and evil. More precisely, religious communities (read: people, not abstract nouns) define good and evil, reaching into the depths of their traditions to make meaning in a seemingly chaotic world.
Culturally bound religious communities define good and evil based on how contemporary threats and opportunities inform communal readings of an inherited religious tradition. In other words, sacred beliefs and prescribed behaviors, often retrieved from scriptures and an inherited tradition of interpretation, are informed by the mundane personal experiences of specific communities of belonging.
“Religion is neither good nor evil. Religions define good and evil. More precisely, religious communities (read: people, not abstract nouns) define good and evil, reaching into the depths of their traditions to make meaning in a seemingly chaotic world.”
In an article reflecting on the rise of ISIS, scholar Ziya Meral calls for policymakers to focus not on whether Islam is good or evil, peaceful or violent, but on the questions of theodicy that motivate acts of great violence. Meral writes, “The first question [for those who commit violence] is…a moral reading of the universe through personal experience, and the finding that it is corrupt, chaotic, and unfair.” Religious individuals who commit acts of violence in the name of religion do so to order the world, to demarcate the boundaries between right and wrong, practicing what Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks terms “altruistic evil.”
Of course, altruism does not necessarily lead to violence. Sacks explains that the order and meaning provided by religion can just as easily encourage reconciliation and a commitment to the “dignity of difference.” Religions, he argues, “offer meaning, direction, a code of conduct and a set of rules for the moral and spiritual life in ways that the free-market, liberal democratic West does not.” This code of conduct, a response to the evil already present in society, can motivate religious communities to prophetically and peacefully call for justice. Anyone interested in conflict mediation must first understand the political, economic, social, psychological, and religious factors that would motivate individuals to choose theologies grounded in reconciliation over those that perpetuate violence.
“Religious individuals who commit acts of violence in the name of religion do so to order the world, to demarcate the boundaries between right and wrong, practicing what Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks terms “altruistic evil.”
Peacebuilders must also understand that the creation of common, religious definitions of right and wrong can develop strong, transnational feelings of kinship and cooperation. Researchers Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges, for example, write that “Sacred values, like devotion to God or a collective cause, signal group identity and operate as moral imperatives that inspire non-rational exertions independent of likely outcomes.” Too often polemicists focus on how these powerful bonds can exacerbate conflict. For them, sacred values can only inhibit conflict resolution by making negotiation and compromise difficult. They cite researcher Susanna Pearce, who provides evidence that religion can indeed intensify and lengthen conflict by legitimating violence and affecting the willingness to make personal and ideological sacrifice.
However, Atran, Ginges, Pearce and many of their colleagues also point out that religious communities can and do effectively draw on sacred values and bonds to resolve conflict and create the conditions for a more lasting peace. In the book Disruptive Religion: The Force of Faith in Social Movement Activism, Christian Smith masterfully lays out the various reasons why religious communities so often successfully advocate for social justice issues, including but not limited to “organizational resources, shared identity, normative motivational systems, [and] public legitimacy.” For empirical evidence of the constructive potential of religion, peacebuilders need only look at the best practices of organizations like Religions for Peace and the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers, which, as leaders within the Global Covenant movement, affirm that though members of each religious tradition may disagree about the source and causes of violence, religious actors have profound resources to protect their communities, beliefs, and heritage.
So what does this mean for the foreign policy of nation-states, especially the United States? In August 2013 the U.S. State Department officially launched the Office of Religion and Global Affairs (S/RGA), whose mission is to advise the Secretary of State, posts, and bureaus on issues related to religion. Given its growing status within the department, S/RGA should move U.S. foreign policy away from a reactive instrumentalization of religious communities to “counter violent extremism” toward positive, proactive partnerships with religious actors to strengthen community resilience. To change the State Department culture that views religion—especially Islam—as often the problem and never the solution, S/RGA will have to convince the Foreign Service Institute to develop new training programs to develop diplomats’ religious literacy and make better use of existing educational resources developed by the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations and civil society. Perhaps most important, policymakers must recognize that religious communities, not governments, are often best equipped (and more constitutionally able) to undertake the delicate work of defining good and evil in a way that promotes reconciliation and peacebuilding within their own tradition.
Acknowledgment: With thanks to Chris Stackaruck, co-founder and director of Neighborly Faith, for talking through elements of this piece, especially the differentiation between personal and inherited experiences.
Image: A painting from 1616 by Dutch artist Pieter Lastman depicting an angel of God preventing Abraham from sacrificing his son, Isaac.
Ben Marcus is a Research Fellow with the Religious Freedom Center (Newseum Institute) and Coordinator for Global Covenant Partners. He has developed religious literacy programs for universities, U.S. government agencies, and private foundations, and recently served as executive editor of the 2015 White Paper on Religion and Conflict Mitigation for the U.S. State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group. Ben earned an MTS as a Presidential Scholar at Harvard Divinity School and an AB at Brown University. He currently lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.