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Illuminated manuscript drawing of the Siege of Jerusalem

Does Religion Cause Violence?

Behind the common question lies a morass of unclear thinking.

Miniature of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus, from f. 190 of Book of Hours, Use of Sarum . British Library, BL Egerton 2781 “Neville of Hornby Hours.”

Spring/Summer 2007

By William T. Cavanaugh

Everyone knows that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence. This story is part of the conventional wisdom of Western societies, and it underlies many of our institutions and policies, from limits on the public role of religion to efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East.

In this essay, I am going to challenge that conventional wisdom, but not in the ways it is usually challenged by people who identify themselves as religious. Such people will sometimes argue that the real motivation behind so-called religious violence is in fact economic and political, not religious. Others will argue that people who do violence are, by definition, not religious. The Crusader is not really a Christian, for example, because he doesn’t really understand the meaning of Christianity. I don’t think that either of these arguments works. In the first place, it is impossible to separate out religious from economic and political motives in such a way that religious motives are innocent of violence. How could one, for example, separate religion from politics in Islam, when Muslims themselves make no such separation? In the second place, it may be the case that the Crusader has misappropriated the true message of Christ, but one cannot therefore excuse Christianity of all responsibility. Christianity is not primarily a set of doctrines, but a lived historical experience embodied and shaped by the empirically observable actions of Christians. So I have no intention of excusing Christianity or Islam or any other faith system from careful analysis. Given certain conditions, Christianity, Islam, and other faiths can and do contribute to violence.

But what is implied in the conventional wisdom that religion is prone to violence is that Christianity, Islam, and other faiths are more inclined toward violence than ideologies and institutions that are identified as “secular.” It is this story that I will challenge here. I will do so in two steps. First, I will show that the division of ideologies and institutions into the categories “religious” and “secular” is an arbitrary and incoherent division. When we examine academic arguments that religion causes violence, we find that what does or does not count as religion is based on subjective and indefensible assumptions. As a result certain kinds of violence are condemned, and others are ignored. Second, I ask, “If the idea that there is something called ‘religion’ that is more violent than so-called ‘secular’ phenomena is so incoherent, why is the idea so pervasive?” The answer, I think, is that we in the West find it comforting and ideologically useful. The myth of religious violence helps create a blind spot about the violence of the putatively secular nation-state. We like to believe that the liberal state arose to make peace between warring religious factions. Today, the Western liberal state is charged with the burden of creating peace in the face of the cruel religious fanaticism of the Muslim world. The myth of religious violence promotes a dichotomy between us in the secular West who are rational and peacemaking, and them , the hordes of violent religious fanatics in the Muslim world. Their violence is religious, and therefore irrational and divisive. Our violence, on the other hand, is rational, peacemaking, and necessary. Regrettably, we find ourselves forced to bomb them into the higher rationality.

The Incoherence of the Argument

The English-speaking academic world has been inundated—especially since September 11, 2001—by books and articles attempting to explain why religion has a peculiar tendency toward violence. They come from authors in many different fields: sociology, political science, religious studies, history, theology. I don’t have time here to analyze each argument in depth, but I will examine a variety of examples—taken from some of the most prominent books on the subject—of what they all have in common: an inability to find a convincing way to separate religious violence from secular violence.

Charles Kimball’s book When Religion Becomes Evil begins with the following claim: “It is somewhat trite, but nevertheless sadly true, to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.” 1 Kimball apparently considers this claim too trite to need proving, for he makes no attempt to reinforce it with evidence. If one were to try to prove it, one would need a concept of religion that would be at least theoretically separable from other institutional forces over the course of history. Kimball does not identify those rival institutional forces, but an obvious contender might be political institutions: tribes, empires, kingdoms, fiefs, states, and so on. The problem is that religion was not considered something separable from such political institutions until the modern era, and then primarily in the West. What sense could be made of separating out Egyptian or Roman “religion” from the Egyptian or Roman “state”? Is Aztec “politics” to blame for their bloody human sacrifices, or is Aztec “religion” to blame? As Wilfred Cantwell Smith showed in his landmark 1962 book, The Meaning and End of Religion , “religion” as a discrete category of human activity separable from “culture,” “politics,” and other areas of life is an invention of the modern West. In the course of a detailed historical study of the concept “religion,” Smith was compelled to conclude that in premodern Europe there was no significant concept equivalent to what we think of as “religion,” and furthermore there is no “closely equivalent concept in any culture that has not been influenced by the modern West.” 2 Since Smith’s book, Russell McCutcheon, Richard King, Derek Peterson, and a host of other scholars have demonstrated how European colonial bureaucrats invented the concept of religion in the course of categorizing non-Western colonized cultures as irrational and antimodern. 3

Now that we do have a separate concept of “religion,” though, is the concept a coherent one? Jonathan Z. Smith writes: “Religion is solely the creation of the scholar’s study . . . . Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy.” 4 Brian C. Wilson says that the inability to define religion is “almost an article of methodological dogma” in the field of religious studies. 5 Timothy Fitzgerald argues that there is no coherent concept of religion; the term should be regarded as a form of mystification and scrapped. 6 We have one group of scholars convinced that religion causes violence, and another group of scholars which does not think that there is such a thing as “religion,” except as an intellectual construct of highly dubious value.

The former group carries on as if the latter did not exist. Kimball is one of the few who acknowledges the problem, but he dismisses it as merely semantic. Describing how flustered his students become when he asks them to write a definition of “religion,” Kimball asserts, “Clearly these bright students know what religion is”; they just have trouble defining it. After all, Kimball assures us, “Religion is a central feature of human life. We all see many indications of it every day, and we all know it when we see it.” 7 When an academic says such a thing, you should react as you would when a used car salesman says, “Everybody knows this is a good car.” The fact is that we don’t all know it when we see it. A survey of religious studies literature finds totems, witchcraft, the rights of man, Marxism, liberalism, Japanese tea ceremonies, nationalism, sports, free market ideology, and a host of other institutions and practices treated under the rubric “religion.” 8 If one tries to limit the definition of religion to belief in God or gods, then certain belief systems that are usually called “religions” are eliminated, such as Theravada Buddhism and Confucianism. If the definition is expanded to include such belief systems, then all sorts of practices, including many that are usually labeled “secular,” fall under the definition of religion. Many institutions and ideologies that do not explicitly refer to God or gods function in the same way as those that do. The case for nationalism as a religion, for example, has been made repeatedly from Carlton Hayes’s 1960 classic Nationalism: A Religion to more recent works by Peter van der Veer, Talal Asad, Carolyn Marvin, and others. 9 Carolyn Marvin argues that “nationalism is the most powerful religion in the United States.” 10

At this point I can imagine an objection being raised that goes like this: “So the concept of religion has some fuzzy edges. So does every concept. We might not be able to nail down, once and for all and in all cases, what a ‘culture’ is, or what qualifies as ‘politics,’ for example, but nevertheless the concepts remain useful. All may not agree on the periphery of these concepts, but sufficient agreement on the center of such concepts makes them practical and functional. Most people know that ‘religion’ includes Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and the major ‘world religions.’ Whether or not Buddhism or Confucianism fits is a boundary dispute best left up to scholars who make their living splitting hairs.”

This appears to be a commonsense response, but it misses the point rather completely. In the first place, when some scholars question whether the category of religion is useful at all, it is more than a boundary dispute. There are some who do not believe there is a center. In the second place, and much more significantly, the problem with the “religion and violence” arguments is not that their working definitions of religion are too fuzzy. The problem is precisely the opposite. Their implicit definitions of religion are unjustifiably clear about what does and does not qualify as a religion. Certain belief systems, like Islam, are condemned, while certain others, like nationalism, are arbitrarily ignored.

This becomes most apparent when the authors in question attempt to explain why religion is so prone to violence. Although theories vary, we can sort them into three categories: religion is absolutist, religion is divisive, and religion is irrational. Many authors appeal to more than one of these arguments. In the face of evidence that so-called secular ideologies and institutions can be just as absolutist, divisive, or irrational, these authors tend to erect an arbitrary barrier between “secular” and “religious” ideologies and institutions, and ignore the former.

Consider the case of the preeminent historian Martin Marty. In a book on public religion, Politics, Religion, and the Common Good , Marty argues that religion has a particular tendency to be divisive and therefore violent. When it comes to defining what “religion” means, however, Marty lists 17 different definitions of religion, then begs off giving his own definition, since, he says, “[s]cholars will never agree on the definition of religion.” Instead, Marty gives a list of five “features” that mark a religion. He then proceeds to show how “politics” displays all five of the same features. Religion focuses our ultimate concern, and so does politics. Religion builds community, and so does politics. Religion appeals to myth and symbol, and politics “mimics” this appeal in devotion to the flag, war memorials, and so on. Religion uses rites and ceremonies, such as circumcision and baptism, and “[p]olitics also depends on rites and ceremonies,” even in avowedly secular nations. Religion requires followers to behave in certain ways, and “[p]olitics and governments also demand certain behaviors.” In offering five defining features of “religion,” and showing how “politics” fits all five, he is trying to show how closely intertwined religion and politics are, but he ends up demolishing any theoretical basis for separating the two. Nevertheless, he continues on to warn of the dangers of religion, while ignoring the violent tendencies of supposedly “secular” politics. For example, Marty cites the many cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses who were attacked, beaten, tarred, castrated, and imprisoned in the United States in the 1940s because they believed that followers of Jesus Christ should not salute a flag. One would think that he would draw the obvious conclusion that zealous nationalism can cause violence. Instead, Marty concludes: “it became obvious that religion, which can pose ‘us’ versus ‘them’ . . . carries risks and can be perceived by others as dangerous. Religion can cause all kinds of trouble in the public arena.” 11 For Marty, “religion” refers not to the ritual vowing of allegiance to a flag, but only to the Jehovah’s Witnesses refusal to do so.

As you can see, we need not rely only on McCutcheon, Smith, King, Fitzgerald, and the rest to show us that the religious/secular dichotomy is incoherent. Religion-and-violence theorists inevitably undermine their own distinctions. Take, for example, sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer’s book Terror in the Mind of God , perhaps the most widely influential academic book on religion and violence. According to Juergensmeyer, religion exacerbates the tendency to divide people into friends and enemies, good and evil, us and them, by ratcheting divisions up to a cosmic level. “What makes religious violence particularly savage and relentless” is that it puts worldly conflicts in a “larger than life” context of “cosmic war.” Secular political conflicts—that is, “more rational” conflicts, such as those over land—are of a fundamentally different character than those in which the stakes have been raised by religious absolutism to cosmic proportions. Religious violence differs from secular violence in that it is symbolic, absolutist, and unrestrained by historical time. 12

However, keeping the notion of cosmic war separate from secular political war is impossible on Juergensmeyer’s own terms. Juergensmeyer undermines this distinction in the course of his own analysis. For example, what he says about cosmic war is virtually indistinguishable from what he says about war in general:

Looking closely at the notion of war, one is confronted with the idea of dichotomous opposition on an absolute scale. . . . War suggests an all-or-nothing struggle against an enemy whom one assumes to be determined to destroy. No compromise is deemed possible. The very existence of the opponent is a threat, and until the enemy is either crushed or contained, one’s own existence cannot be secure. What is striking about a martial attitude is the certainty of one’s position and the willingness to defend it, or impose it on others, to the end. Such certitude on the part of one side may be regarded as noble by those whose sympathies lie with it and dangerous by those who do not. But either way it is not rational. 13

War provides an excuse not to compromise. In other words, “War provides a reason to be violent. This is true even if the worldly issues at heart in the dispute do not seem to warrant such a ferocious position.” The division between mundane secular war and cosmic war vanishes as fast as it was constructed. According to Juergensmeyer, war itself is a “worldview”; indeed, “The concept of war provides cosmology, history, and eschatology and offers the reins of political control.” “Like the rituals provided by religious traditions, warfare is a participatory drama that exemplifies—and thus explains—the most profound aspects of life.” Here, war itself is a kind of religious practice.

At times Juergensmeyer admits the difficulty of separating religious violence from mere political violence. “Much of what I have said about religious terrorism in this book may be applied to other forms of political violence—especially those that are ideological and ethnic in nature.” 14 In Juergensmeyer’s earlier book, The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State , he writes: “Secular nationalism, like religion, embraces what one scholar calls ‘a doctrine of destiny.’ One can take this way of looking at secular nationalism a step further and state flatly . . . that secular nationalism is ‘a religion.’ “ 15 These are important concessions. If true, however, they subvert the entire basis of his argument, which is the sharp divide between religious and secular violence.

Other theorists of religion and violence make similar admissions. Kimball, for example, says in passing that “blind religious zealotry is similar to unfettered nationalism,” and, indeed, nationalism would seem to fit—at times—all five of Kimball’s “warning signs” for when religion turns evil: absolute truth claims, blind obedience, establishment of ideal times, ends justifying means, and the declaration of holy war. The last one would seem to preclude secular ideologies, but as Kimball himself points out, the United States regularly invokes a “cosmic dualism” in its war on terror. 16 Political theorist Bhikhu Parekh similarly undermines his own point in his article on religious violence. According to Parekh,

Although religion can make a valuable contribution to political life, it can also be a pernicious influence, as liberals rightly highlight. It is often absolutist, self-righteous, arrogant, dogmatic, and impatient of compromise. It arouses powerful and sometimes irrational impulses and can easily destabilize society, cause political havoc, and create a veritable hell on earth. . . . It often breeds intolerance of other religions as well as of internal dissent, and has a propensity towards violence. 17

Parekh does not define religion, but assumes the validity of the religious/secular distinction. Nevertheless, he admits that “several secular ideologies, such as some varieties of Marxism, conservatism, and even liberalism have a quasi-religious orientation and form, and conversely formally religious languages sometimes have a secular content, so that the dividing line between a secular and a religious language is sometimes difficult to draw.” 18 If this is true, where does it leave his searing indictment of the dangers peculiarly inherent to religion? Powerful irrational impulses are popping up all over, including in liberalism itself, forcing the creation of the category “quasi-religious” to try somehow to corral them all back under the heading of “religion.” But if liberalism—which is based on the distinction between religion and the secular—is itself a kind of religion, then the religious/secular distinction crumbles into a heap of contradictions.

For some religion-and-violence theorists, the contradictions are resolved by openly expanding the definition of “religion” to include ideologies and practices that are usually called “secular.” In his book Why People Do Bad Things in the Name of Religion , religious studies scholar Richard Wentz blames violence on absolutism. People create absolutes out of fear of their own limitations. Absolutes are projections of a fictional limited self, and people react with violence when others do not accept them. Religion has a peculiar tendency toward absolutism, says Wentz, but he casts a very wide net when considering religion. Wentz believes that religiousness is an inescapable universal human characteristic displayed even by those who reject what is called “organized religion.” Faith in technology, secular humanism, consumerism, football fanaticism, and a host of other worldviews can be counted as religions, too. Wentz is compelled to conclude, rather lamely, “Perhaps all of us do bad things in the name of (or as a representative of) religion.” 19

Wentz should be commended for his consistency in not trying to erect an artificial division between “religious” and “secular” types of absolutism. The price of consistency, however, is that he evacuates his own argument of explanatory force or usefulness. The word “religion” in the title of his book— Why People Do Bad Things in the Name of Religion —ends up meaning anything people do that gives their lives order and meaning. A more economical title for his book would have been Why People Do Bad Things . The term “religion” is so broad that it serves no useful analytical purpose.

At this point, the religion-and-violence theorist might try to salvage the argument by saying something like this: “Surely secular ideologies such as nationalism can get out of hand, but religion has a much greater tendency toward fanaticism because the object of its truth claims is absolute in ways that secular claims are not. The capitalist knows that money is just a human creation, the liberal democrat is modest about what can be known beyond human experience, the nationalist knows that a country is made of land and mortal people, but the religious believer puts faith in a god or gods or at least a transcendent reality that lays claim to absolute validity. It is this absolutism that makes obedience blind and causes the believer to subjugate all means to a transcendent end.”

The problem with this argument is that what counts as “absolute” is decided a priori and is immune to empirical testing. It is based on theological descriptions of beliefs and not on observation of the believers’ behavior. Of course Christian orthodoxy would make the theological claim that God is absolute in a way that nothing else is. The problem is that humans are constantly tempted toward idolatry, to putting what is merely relative in the place of God. It is not enough, therefore, to claim that worship of God is absolutist. The real question is, what god is actually being worshiped?

But surely, the objection might go, nobody really thinks the flag or the nation or money or sports idols are their “gods”—that is just a metaphor. However, the question is not simply one of belief, but of behavior. If a person claims to believe in the Christian God but never gets off the couch on Sunday morning and spends the rest of the week in obsessive pursuit of profit in the bond market, then what is “absolute” in that person’s life in a functional sense is probably not the Christian God. Matthew 6:24 personifies Mammon as a rival god, not in the conviction that such a divine being really exists, but from the empirical observation that people have a tendency to treat all sorts of things as absolutes.

Suppose we apply an empirical test to the question of absolutism. “Absolute” is itself a vague term, but in the “religion and violence” arguments it appears to indicate the tendency to take something so seriously that violence results. The most relevant empirically testable definition of “absolute,” then, would be “that for which one is willing to kill.” This test has the advantage of covering behavior, and not simply what one claims to believe. Now let us ask the following two questions: What percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christians would be willing to kill for their Christian faith? What percentage would be willing to kill for their country? Whether we attempt to answer these questions by survey or by observing American Christians’ behavior in wartime, it seems clear that, at least among American Christians, the nation-state is subject to far more absolutist fervor than Christianity. For most American Christians, even public evangelization is considered to be in poor taste, and yet most endorse organized slaughter on behalf of the nation as sometimes necessary and often laudable. In other countries or other traditions the results of this test might be very different. The point is that such empirical testing is of far more usefulness than general theories about the violence of “religion.”

We must conclude that there is no coherent way to isolate “religious” ideologies with a peculiar tendency toward violence from their tamer “secular” counterparts. So-called secular ideologies and institutions like nationalism and liberalism can be just as absolutist, divisive, and irrational as so-called religion. People kill for all sorts of things. An adequate approach to the problem would be resolutely empirical: under what conditions do certain beliefs and practices—jihad, the “invisible hand” of the market, the sacrificial atonement of Christ, the role of the United States as worldwide liberator—turn violent? The point is not simply that “secular” violence should be given equal attention to “religious” violence. The point is that the distinction between “secular” and “religious” violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and should be avoided altogether.

What Is the Argument For?

If the conventional wisdom that religion causes violence is so incoherent, why is it so prevalent? I believe it is because we in the West find it useful. In domestic politics, it serves to silence representatives of certain kinds of faiths in the public sphere. The story is told repeatedly that the liberal state has learned to tame the dangerous divisiveness of contending religious beliefs by reducing them to essentially private affairs. In foreign policy, the conventional wisdom helps reinforce and justify Western attitudes and policies toward the non-Western world, especially Muslims, whose primary point of difference with the West is their stubborn refusal to tame religious passions in the public sphere. “We in the West long ago learned the sobering lessons of religious warfare and have moved toward secularization. The liberal nation-state is essentially a peacemaker. Now we only seek to share the blessings of peace with the Muslim world. Regrettably, because of their stubborn fanaticism, it is sometimes necessary to bomb them into liberal democracy.” In other words, the myth of religious violence establishes a reassuring dichotomy between their violence—which is absolutist, divisive, and irrational—and our violence—which is modest, unitive, and rational.

The myth of religious violence marks the “clash of civilizations” worldview that attributes Muslims’ animosity toward the West to their inability to learn the lessons of history and remove the baneful influence of religion from politics. Mark Juergensmeyer, for example, sets up a “new Cold War” pitting the “resurgence of parochial identities” over against “the secular West.” “Like the old Cold War, the confrontation between these new forms of culture-based politics and the secular state is global in its scope, binary in its opposition, occasionally violent, and essentially a difference of ideologies.” Although he tries to avoid demonizing “religious nationalists,” Juergensmeyer sees them as essentially “anti-modern.” The particular ferocity of religious nationalism comes from the “special relationship between religion and violence.” The question then becomes “whether religious nationalism can be made compatible with secular nationalism’s great virtues: tolerance, respect for human rights, and freedom of expression.” Given the war between “reason and religion,” however, Juergensmeyer is not optimistic; “there is ultimately no satisfactory compromise on an ideological level between religious and secular nationalism.” 20

Despite its incoherence, the idea that religion is prone to violence thus enforces a binary opposition between “the secular West” and a religious Other who is essentially irrational and violent. The conflict becomes explicable in terms of the essential qualities of the two opponents, not in terms of actual historical encounters. So, for example, Juergensmeyer attempts to explain the animosity of the religious Other toward America:

Why is America the enemy? This question is hard for observers of international politics to answer, and harder still for ordinary Americans to fathom. Many have watched with horror as their compatriots and symbols of their country have been destroyed by people whom they do not know, from cultures they can scarcely identify on a global atlas, and for reasons that do not seem readily apparent. 21

Nevertheless, Juergensmeyer is able to come up with four reasons “from the frames of reference” of America’s enemies. First, America often finds itself cast as a “secondary enemy.” “In its role as trading partner and political ally, America has a vested interest in shoring up the stability of regimes around the world. This has often put the United States in the unhappy position of being a defender and promoter of secular governments regarded by their religious opponents as primary foes.” Juergensmeyer cites as an example the case of Iran, where “America was tarred by its association with the shah.” The second reason often given is that America is the main source of “modern culture,” which includes cultural products that others regard as immoral. Third, corporations that trade internationally tend to be based in the United States. Fourth and finally, the fear of globalization has led to a “paranoid vision of American leaders’ global designs.”

Juergensmeyer acknowledges, “Like all stereotypes, each of these characterizations holds a certain amount of truth.” The fall of the Soviet Union has left the United States as the only military superpower, and therefore “an easy target for blame when people have felt that their lives were going askew or were being controlled by forces they could not readily see. Yet, to dislike America is one thing; to regard it as a cosmic enemy is quite another.” The main problem, according to Juergensmeyer, is “satanization,” that is, taking a simple opponent and casting it as a superhuman enemy in a cosmic war. Osama bin Laden, for example, had inflated America into a “mythic monster.” 22

The problem with Juergensmeyer’s analysis is not just its sanitized account of colonial history, where the United States just happens to find itself associated with bad people. The problem is that history is subordinated to an essentialist account of “religion” in which the religious Others cannot seem to deal rationally with world events. They employ guilt by association. They have paranoid visions of globalization. They stereotype, and blame easy targets, when their lives are disrupted by forces they do not understand. They blow simple oppositions up into cosmic proportions. Understanding Muslim hostility toward America therefore does not require careful scrutiny of America’s historical dealings with the Muslim world. Rather, Juergensmeyer turns our attention to the tendency of such “religious” actors to misunderstand such historical events, to blow them out of proportion. Understanding Iranian Shi’ite militancy does not seem to require careful examination of U.S. support for overthrowing Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and for the shah’s 26-year reign of terror that was to follow. Instead, Juergensmeyer puzzles over why “religious” actors project such mundane things as torture and coups and oil trading into factors in a cosmic war. Juergensmeyer’s analysis is comforting for us in the West because it creates a blind spot regarding our own history of violence. It calls attention to anticolonial violence, labeled “religious,” and calls attention away from colonial violence, labeled “secular.”

The argument that religion is prone to violence is a significant component in the construction of an opposition between “the West and the rest,” as Samuel Huntington puts it. 23 Huntington’s famous thesis about the “clash of civilizations” was first put forward by Bernard Lewis in an article entitled “The Roots of Muslim Rage”: “It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reactions of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.” 24 As in Juergensmeyer, actual historical issues and policies and events are transcended by a consideration of the irrationality of the Muslim response to the West. The West is a monolithic reality representing modernity, which necessarily includes secularity and rationality, while the Muslim world is an equally monolithic reality which is ancient, that is, lagging behind modernity, because of its essentially religious and irrational character. This opposition of rational and irrational, secular and religious, Western and Muslim is not simply descriptive, but helps to create the opposition that it purports to describe. As Roxanne Euben writes in her study of Islamic fundamentalism, this opposition is part of a larger Enlightenment narrative in which defining reason requires its irrational other:

[E]mbedded in the Enlightenment’s (re-)definition and elevation of reason is the creation and subjection of an irrational counterpart: along with the emergence of reason as both the instrument and essence of human achievement, the irrational came to be defined primarily in opposition to what such thinkers saw as the truths of their own distinctive historical epoch. If they were the voices of modernity, freedom, liberation, happiness, reason, nobility, and even natural passion, the irrational was all that came before: tyranny, servility to dogma, self-abnegation, superstition, and false religion. Thus the irrational came to mean the domination of religion in the historical period that preceded it. 25

The problem with grafting Islamic fundamentalism into this narrative, according to Euben, is that it is incapable of understanding the appeal of fundamentalism on its own terms. It dismisses rather than explains. 26 It also exacerbates the enmity that it purports to describe. As Emran Qureshi and Michael Sells put it, “Those who proclaim such a clash of civilizations, speaking for the West or for Islam, exhibit the characteristics of fundamentalism: the assumption of a static essence, knowable immediately, of each civilization, the ability to ignore history and tradition, and the desire to lead the ideological battle on behalf of one of the clashing civilizations.” 27

In other words, the opposition of “religious” violence to “secular” peaceableness can lend itself to the justification of violence. In the book Terror and Liberalism, The New Republic contributing editor Paul Berman’s call for a “liberal war of liberation” to be “fought around the world” is based on the contrast between liberalism and what he calls the “mad” ideology of Islamism. 28 Similarly, Andrew Sullivan, in a New York Times Magazine article entitled “This Is a Religious War,” justifies war against radical Islam on epistemological grounds. He labels it a “religious war,” but not in the sense of Islam versus Christianity and Judaism. It is, rather, radical Islam versus Western-style “individual faith and pluralism.” The problem with the Islamic world seems to be too much public faith, a loyalty to an absolute that excludes accommodation to other realities: “If faith is that strong, and it dictates a choice between action or eternal damnation, then violence can easily be justified.” 29

At root, the problem is epistemological. According to Sullivan, it took Western Christians centuries of bloody “religious wars” to realize “the futility of fighting to the death over something beyond human understanding and so immune to any definitive resolution.” The problem with religion is that authoritative truth is simply not available to us mortals in any form that will produce consensus rather than division. Locke, therefore, emerges as Sullivan’s hero, for it was Locke who recognized the limits of human understanding of revelation and enshrined those limits in a political theory. Locke and the founding fathers saved us from the curse of killing in the name of religion. “What the founders and Locke were saying was that the ultimate claims of religion should simply not be allowed to interfere with political and religious freedom.” 30

In theory, we have the opposition of a cruel fanaticism with a modest and peaceloving tolerance. However, Sullivan’s epistemological modesty applies only to the command of God and not to the absolute superiority of our political and cultural system over theirs. According to Sullivan, “We are fighting for the universal principles of our Constitution.” Universal knowledge is available to us after all, and it underwrites the “epic battle” we are currently waging against fundamentalisms of all kinds. Sullivan is willing to gird himself with the language of a warrior and underwrite U.S. military adventures in the Middle East in the name of his secular faith. Sullivan entitles his piece “This Is a Religious War,” though the irony seems to elude him. On the surface, the myth of religious violence establishes a dichotomy between our peaceloving secular reasonableness and their irrational religious fanaticism. Under the surface often lies an absolute “religious” devotion to the American vision of a hegemonic liberalism that underwrites the necessity of using violence to impose this vision on the Muslim other.

Sam Harris’s book about the violence of religion, The End of Faith , dramatically illustrates this double standard. Harris condemns the irrational religious torture of witches, but provides his own argument for torturing terrorists. Harris’s book is charged with the conviction that the secular West cannot reason with Muslims, but must deal with them by force. In a chapter entitled “The Problem with Islam,” Harris writes: “In our dialogue with the Muslim world, we are confronted by people who hold beliefs for which there is no rational justification and which therefore cannot even be discussed, and yet these are the very beliefs that underlie many of the demands they are likely to make upon us.” This is especially a problem if such people gain access to nuclear weapons. “There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. . . . In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.” Muslims then would likely misinterpret this act of “self-defense” as a genocidal crusade, thus plunging the world into nuclear holocaust. “All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns.”

In other words, if we have to slaughter millions through a nuclear first strike, it will be the fault of the Muslims and their crazy religious beliefs. Before we get to that point, Harris continues, we must encourage civil society in Islamic countries, but we cannot trust them to vote it in. “It seems all but certain that some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary to bridge the gap. But benignity is the key—and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both. While this may seem an exceedingly arrogant doctrine to espouse, it appears we have no alternatives.” 31

Harris’s book is a particularly blunt version of this type of justification for neocolonial intervention, but he is by no means isolated. His book is enthusiastically endorsed by such academic superstars as Alan Dershowitz, Richard Dawkins, and Peter Singer. Indeed, Harris’s logic is little different in practice from the Bush Doctrine, which says that America has access to liberal values that are “right and true for every person, in every society,” that we must use our power to promote such values “on every continent,” and that America will take preemptive military action if necessary to promote such values. 32 Today, the U.S. military is attempting, through the massive use of violence, to liberate Iraq from religious violence. It is an inherently contradictory effort, and its every failure will be attributed in part to the pernicious influence of religion and its tendency toward violence. If we really wish to understand its failure, however, we will need to question the very myth of religious violence on which such military adventures depend.

  • Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), 1.
  • Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (Macmillan, 1962), 19.
  • See, for example, Russell McCutcheon, Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia (Oxford University Press, 1997); Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India, and ‘The Mystic East’ (Routledge, 1999); The Invention of Religion: Rethinking Belief in Politics and History , ed. Derek Peterson and Darren Walhof (Rutgers University Press, 2003).
  • Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University of Chicago Press, 1982), xi.
  • Brian C. Wilson, “From the Lexical to the Polythetic: A Brief History of the Definition of Religion,” in What Is Religion? Origins, Definitions, and Explanations (Brill, 1998).
  • Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies (Oxford University Press, 2000).
  • Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil , 15.
  • See Fitzgerald, Ideology of Religious Studies , 17.
  • Carlton Hayes, Nationalism: A Religion (Macmillan, 1960); Peter van der Veer, “The Moral State: Religion, Nation, and Empire in Victorian Britain and British India,” in Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia , ed. Peter van der Veer and Hartmut Lehmann (Princeton University Press, 1999), 3-9; Talal Asad, “Religion, Nation-state, Secularism,” in Nation and Religion , 178-91; Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag (Cambridge University Press, 1999).
  • Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle, “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64, no. 4 (Winter 1996): 768.
  • Martin Marty, with Jonathan Moore, Politics, Religion, and the Common Good: Advancing a Distinctly American Conversation About Religion’s Role in Our Shared Life (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000), 25-26, 10-14, 24.
  • Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (University of California Press, 2000), 146, 153, 154, 217.
  • Ibid., 148-49.
  • Ibid., 149, 155, 217.
  • Mark Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (University of California Press, 1993), 15.
  • Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil , 38, 36.
  • Bhikhu Parekh, “The Voice of Religion in Political Discourse,” in Religion, Politics, and Peace , ed. Leroy Rouner (University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), 72.
  • Richard E. Wentz, Why People Do Bad Things in the Name of Religion (Mercer University Press, 1993), 37.
  • Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War? 1-2, 5, 8, 201.
  • Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God , 179.
  • Ibid., 180, 181, 182.
  • Samuel Huntington, “If Not Civilizations, What?” Foreign Affairs 72 (November/December 1993): 192.
  • Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” Atlantic Monthly , September 1990, 60.
  • Roxanne L. Euben, Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism (Princeton University Press, 1999), 34.
  • Ibid., 14–15.
  • “Introduction: Constructing the Muslim Enemy,” in The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy , ed. Emran Qureshi and Michael A. Sells (Columbia University Press, 2003), 28-29.
  • Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (W. W. Norton, 2003), 191, 182. Berman takes issue with Huntington’s “clash” thesis, saying that only Islamists see the conflict in such epic terms. “They also looked upon every new event around the world as a stage in Judaism’s cosmic struggle against Islam. Their ideology was mad. In wars between liberalism and totalitarianism, the totalitarian picture of the war is always mad.”
  • Andrew Sullivan, “This Is a Religious War,” New York Times Magazine , October 7, 2001, 44, 47.
  • Ibid., 46-47, 53.
  • Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (W. W. Norton, 2004), 87-92, 192-99, 128-29, 151.
  • The National Security Strategy of the United States of America , September 2002, prologue and p. 15.

William T. Cavanaugh is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism . This essay was presented earlier this year as part of a Lenten series sponsored by Harvard’s Memorial Church and Episcopal chaplaincy.

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The cause of violence is a lack of respect for other persons’ individual rights. Religion is just another of the myriad excuses used to justify bad behavior.

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essay on religion in relation to violence

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You are here, christianity and violence.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center it was not unusual to hear that the attack “changed everything.” “Everything” is certainly an exaggeration, but 9/11, as the terrorist attack is sometimes called, did change a good many things, including our relation to religion. For the attack, in which more than 3,000 lives were lost and the economic life of the nation was disrupted in a major way, was in part motivated by religion. 

Religion, we were led to conclude, is alive and well today, and is a force not only in private but also in the public lives of people around the globe.

The contemporary resurgence of religion seems to go hand in hand with the resurgence of religiously legitimized violence…. Hence, the argument goes, it is necessary to weaken, neutralize, or outright eliminate religion as a factor in public life.

This is not what the mainstream sociologists of the 20 th century, who followed in the footsteps of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emil Durkheim, were predicting. Instead of slowly withering away or lodging itself quietly into the privacy of worshipers’ hearts, religion has emerged as an important player on the national and international scenes. It is too early to tell how permanent this resurgence of religion will be. The processes of secularization may well continue, though likely not in the older sense of an overall decline of religious observance, but rather in the newer sense of the diminishing influence of religion in contemporary societies. Nevertheless, religion is presently alive and well on the public scene.

In many people’s minds, the reassertion of religion as a political factor has not been for the good. It seems that the gods have mainly terror on their minds, as the title of Mark Jurgensmeyer’s book on the global rise of religious violence suggests. 1 Among the intellectual elite in the Western cultural milieu the contemporary coupling of religion and violence feeds most decisively on the memories of the wars that plagued Europe from the 1560s to the 1650s, in which religion was “the burning motivation, the one that inspired fanatical devotion and the most vicious hatred.” 2 It was these wars that contributed a great deal to the emergence of secularizing modernity. As did key Enlightenment figures, many contemporaries see religion as a pernicious social ill that needs aggressive treatment rather than a medicine from which cure is expected. Did not the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attack appeal to religion as the primary motivating force for their act? In the recent war in the Balkans, did not the Serbs fight for the land on which the holy sites of their religion stood? Is not difference between Catholicism and Protestantism at the heart of the civil war in Northern Ireland? Is not religion a major factor in clashes in India? The contemporary resurgence of religion seems to go hand in hand with the resurgence of religiously legitimized violence—at least in the public perception. Hence, the argument goes, it is necessary to weaken, neutralize, or outright eliminate religion as a factor in public life.

In this essay I will contest the claim that the Christian faith, as one of the major world religions, predominantly fosters violence, and argue that it should be seen as a contributor to more peaceful social environments. This may seem a bold claim. Lest I be misunderstood, let me clarify my thesis. I will not argue that the Christian faith was not and does not continue to be employed to foster violence. Obviously, such an argument cannot be plausibly made. Not only have Christians committed atrocities and engaged in less egregious forms of violence during the course of their long history, but they have also drawn on religious convictions to justify them. Moreover, there are elements in the Christian faith, which, when taken in isolation or when excessively foregrounded, can plausibly be used to legitimize violence. Second, I will not argue that Christianity has been historically less associated with violence than other major religions. I am not sure whether this is or is not the case, and I am not sure how one would go about deciding the issue. 

What I will argue is that at least when it comes to Christianity the cure against religiously induced and legitimized violence is almost exactly the opposite of what an important intellectual current in the West since the Enlightenment has been suggesting. The cure is not less religion, but, in a carefully qualified sense, more religion. I don’t mean, of course, that the cure against violence lies in increased religious zeal; blind religious zeal is at the heart of the problem. Instead, it lies in stronger and more intelligent commitment to the faith as faith. In terms of how Christian faith is conceived, my thesis is this: The more we reduce Christian faith to vague religiosity which serves primarily to energize, heal, and give meaning to the business of life whose content is shaped by factors other than faith (such as national or economic interests), the worse off we will be. Inversely, the more the Christian faith matters to its adherents as faith and the more they practice it as an ongoing tradition with strong ties to its origins and with clear cognitive and moral content, the better off we will be. “Thin” but zealous practice of the Christian faith is likely to foster violence; “thick” and committed practice will help generate and sustain a culture of peace. 3 This thesis amounts to the claim that approaching the issue of religion and violence by looking at the quantity of religious commitment—more religion, more violence, less religion, less violence—is unsophisticated and mistaken. The most relevant factor is, rather, the quality of religious commitments within a given religious tradition.

I will support the above thesis by countering some influential arguments about the violent character of Christianity. This is only half of what I would need to do to make my thesis plausible, a negative half. The other, positive half would be to show that at Christianity’s heart, and not just at its margins, lie important resources for creating and sustaining a culture of peace. 4 In the past, scholars have argued in a variety of ways that the Christian faith fosters violence. In a representative way I will engage two arguments which, in my estimation, go to the heart of the matter.

Some scholars, like Regina Schwartz in her book The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism , argue for the Christian faith’s complicity in violence by pointing to the fact that, along with Judaism and Islam, Christianity is a monotheistic religion and therefore, Schwartz argues, an exclusive and violent religion. “Whether as singleness (this God against the others) or totality (this is all the God there is), monotheism abhors, reviles, rejects, and ejects whatever it defines as outside its compass.” 5 Given that the belief in one God “forges identity antithetically,” it issues in a mistaken notion of identity (“we are ‘us’ because we are not ‘them’”) and contributes to violent practice (“we can remain ‘us’ only if we obliterate ‘them’”).

This argument should be taken seriously. And yet it is not clear that an affirmation of divine oneness as such leads to violence. Does not the monotheistic claim to universal truth work also against the tendency to divide people into “us” and “them”? If one accepts the belief in one God, in an important sense everybody is “in,” and everybody is “in” precisely on the same terms. True, “being in on the same terms” may feel like violence if you don’t want to be “in” or you want to be “in” on different terms. But take monotheism away, and the division and violence between “us” and “them” hardly disappears, and if “us” or “them” are religious, they each will appeal to their good to wage war. This is in fact what happens whether religion is monotheistic or tribal. In a polytheistic context violence may reassert itself with even more force, because it will necessarily be justified by locally legitimized or arbitrary preferences, against which, in the absence of a divinity that overarches the parties, there now can be no higher court of appeal. Even if monotheism is taken vaguely and abstractly as belief in one God without further qualification, it is not clear that it is likely to generate more violence than polytheism or atheism.

None of the monotheist religions espouses such vague and abstract monotheism, however. Specifically Christian monotheism contains a further important pressure against violence, especially violence caused by self-enclosed and exclusive identities of the type criticized by Schwartz. For Christian monotheism is of a Trinitarian kind. What difference does Trinitarianism make? 6 One of the socially most important aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity concerns notions of identity. To believe that the one God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is to believe that the identity of the Father, for instance, cannot be understood apart from the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father’s identity is from the start defined by the Son and the Spirit, and therefore it is not undifferentiated and self-enclosed. One cannot say without qualification that the Father is not the Son or the Spirit because to be the Father means to have the Son and the Spirit present in one. The same holds true, of course, of the Son and the Spirit in relation to the Father and one another.

Moreover, the divine persons as non-self-enclosed identities are understood by the Christian tradition to form a perfect communion of love. The persons give themselves to each other and receive themselves from each other in love. None has to wrest anything from others, none has to impose anything on others, and none needs to secure himself from the incursions of others. Far from being a life of violence, the life of the divine being is characterized by mutually uncoerced and welcomed generosity.

It would be difficult to argue that such monotheism fosters violence. Instead, it grounds peace here and now in the “transcendental” realm, in the love and peacefulness of the divine being. The argument for inherent violence of Christianity’s monotheism works only if one illegitimately reduces the “thick” religious description of God to naked oneness and then postulates such abstract oneness to be of decisive social significance. I do not dispute that such reduction in fact happens within the Christian community. I do contend, however, that this is a sign that the Christian faith has not been taken seriously enough, rather than that it is inherently violent.

So far I have argued that Christian faith may generate violence in its “thin” but not in its “thick” form—when a “thick” character of divine being’s differentiated and complex identity is reduced to an undifferentiated “One.” But what about the argument that some very “thick” and “concrete” Christian convictions generate violence? Central here are the convictions about the world’s creation and redemption.

It is a basic Christian claim that God created the world. In her influential book Sexism and God-Talk, Rosemary Radford Ruether starts with the observation that in the Hebrew Bible, the creator is like an artisan working on material outside his own nature. God does so, she argues, by “a combination of male seminal and cultural power (word-act) that shapes it ‘from above’.” 7 In such an account, creation is a result of an imposition of form on formless matter from outside by an alien force. Hence creation is an act of violence.

So what is wrong with this account of creation? Everything—almost. Even if we assume that creation is best described as “forming” pre-existing mate- rial, one would have to argue that this material is “something,” and that it is a specific kind of some- thing, which deserves respect. But it is not clear at all that chaos, which according to this account of creation God formed, is a “something.” And if the chaos were a “something,” why would it not be something analogous to a boulder from which an artisan can fashion a sculpture? For all the sparks flying off his chisel, Michelangelo working on David can hardly be described as perpetrating violence. For he activity of “forming” to do violence, the entity that is formed must possess an integrity of its own that demands respect. If someone were to smash Michelangelo’s David into pieces, this would be an act of violence.

On the whole, however, the Christian tradition has not understood creation as “forming.” Instead, it has underscored that God the creator is not a demiurge working on pre-existing matter; God created ex nihilo , out of nothing. The consequences of this understanding of creation for its putative violent character are significant. As Rowan Williams puts it in On Christian Theology, when we say that God creates we do not mean that God “imposes a definition” but that God “creates an identity.” He continues, “Prior to God’s word there is nothing to impose on.” 8 From this it follows that creation is not exercise of an alien power over something and therefore not an act of violence.

Creation, then, is not a violent act. Indeed, one may even argue that short of having a doctrine of creation, relationships between entities in the world, especially human beings, will be necessarily violent. If identities are not created, then boundaries between identities must be emerging out of interchanges between these entities. And these interchanges themselves must be described as violent, since boundaries, precisely because they are always contested, must be described as arbitrary from a vantage point that transcends either of the contesting entities. Given scarce resources, boundaries will always be the products of power struggles, even if those power struggles take the form of negotiations. Moreover, no appeals for arbitration between the contending parties can be made to something which ultimately stands outside the power struggle.


If creation is not a violent act, Christian convictions about creation do not generate violence—provided, of course, that they are not stripped of their specific texture and reduced to the formula “x imposes order upon y.” But what about the new creation ? What about God’s activity to redeem creation from consequences of sin? Clearly, the new creation is not creatio ex nihilo (out of nothing), but creatio ex vetere (out of old creation), and that “old” and “sinful” creation does possess an integrity of its own (even if it is an integrity in tension with its true character), and can and does assert its will over against God. In redeeming the world, God intervenes into the existing sinful world in order to transform it into a world of perfect love. Is this intervention not violent and does it therefore not generate violence on the part of human beings?

The most radical critique of redemptive divine engagement as violent and violence inducing comes from post-structuralist thinkers. For them, any determinacy of the goal to be achieved by divine trans- formation of this world and any specificity about the agent of transformation already breeds violence. On their account, for what needs to come, in contrast to what is, not to be violent, it must always remain completely other and cannot be expressed as “onto-theological or teleoeschatological program or design.” 9 Any and every Messiah is problematic because by necessity he would exclude something or someone. Hence the only acceptable goal of desirable change is “absolute hospitality,” a posture of welcoming the stranger without any preconditions, just as the only acceptable engagement to achieve it is “radical and interminable, infinite…critique.” 10

“Absolute hospitality” seems generous and peaceful, until one remembers that unrepentant perpetrators and their unhealed victims would then have to sit around the same table and share a common home without adequate attention to the violation that has taken place. The idea ends up too close for comfort to the Nietzschean affirmation of life, in which a sacred “yes” is pronounced to all that is and “But thus I willed it” is said of all that was, with all the small and large horrors of history.11 Absolute hospitality would in no way amount to absence of violence. To the contrary, it would enthrone violence precisely under the guise of non-violence because it would leave the violators unchanged and the consequences of violence unremedied. Hospitality can be absolute only once the world has been made into a world of love in which each person would be hospitable to all. In the world of injustice, deception, and violence, hospitality can be only conditional—even if the will to hospitality and the offer of hospitality remain unconditional.

Transformation of the world of violence into a world of love cannot take place by means of absolute hospitality. It takes radical change, and not just an act of indiscriminate acceptance, for the world to be made into a world of love. The Christian tradition has tied this change with the coming of the Messiah, the crucified and the resurrected One, whose appearance in glory is still awaited. Is this messianic intervention violent? Does it sanction human violence? The answer is easy when it comes to the Messiah’s first coming. Jesus Christ did not come into the world in order to conquer evildoers through an act of violence, but to die for them in self-giving love and thereby reconcile them to God. The outstretched arms of the suffering body on the cross define the whole of Christ’s mission. He condemned the sin of humanity by taking it upon himself; and by bearing it, he freed humanity from its power and restored their communion with God. Though suffering on the cross is not all Christ did, the cross represents the decisive criterion for how all his work is to be understood. Does the belief in the Crucified generate violence? Beginning at least with Constantine’s conversion, the followers of the Crucified have perpetrated gruesome acts of violence under the sign of the cross. Over the centuries, the seasons of Lent and Holy Week were for the Jews a time of fear and trepidation; Christians have perpetrated some of the worst pogroms as they remembered the crucifixion of Christ for which they blamed the Jews. Muslims too associate the cross with violence; crusaders’ rampages were undertaken under the sign of the cross.

However, an unbiased reading of the story of Jesus Christ gives no warrant for such perpetration of violence. The account of his death in 1 Peter sums up the witness of the whole New Testament well: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness” (2:21-24). If there is a danger in the story of the cross in relation to violence, it is the danger that it might teach simply to acquiesce to being mistreated by others, not the danger of inciting one to mistreat others. Whenever violence was perpetrated in the name of the cross, the cross was depleted of its “thick” meaning within the larger story of Jesus Christ and “thinned” down to a symbol of religious belonging and power—and the blood of those who did not belong flowed as Christians transmuted themselves from would-be followers of the Crucified to imitators of those who crucified him.

Finally, what about the Messiah who is still to come in glory? He will come with grace for his fol- lowers. But does not the book of Revelation portray him as a Rider on a white horse whose “eyes are like a flame of fire,” whose robe was “dipped in blood,” from whose “mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down nations” and who is coming to “tread in the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (19:11-16)? Some New Testament scholars have attempted to re-interpret the Rider so as to make him fit the generally non-violent stance of the New Testament. What is right about such efforts is that in Revelation the martyrs are the true victors so that, paradoxically, the “Beast’s” victory over them is their victory over the “Beast.” In this they mirror Jesus Christ, the slaughtered Lamb, who conquered his enemies precisely by his sacrificial death. 12

Yet, the Rider is not simply the Lamb; he is the Lamb in his function as the final judge. But why is the final judgment necessary? Without it, we would have to presume that all human beings, no matter how deeply steeped in evil they are, will either eventually succumb to the lure of God’s love or, if they don’t, willingly embrace not only the evil they do but the destructive impact of evil upon their own lives. This belief is not much more than a modern superstition, borne out of inability to look without flinching into the “heart of darkness.” True, evil is self-contradictory and, if unchecked, is bound to self-destruct. But evildoers are so much “better” as evildoers, the better they are at knowing how to keep making themselves thrive while wreaking havoc on others. No doubt, goodness can and does overcome evil. But the power of evil rests in great part in the fact that the more one does evil the thicker the shield becomes that protects the evil from being overcome by good. The book of Revelation rightly refuses to operate with the belief that all evil will either be over- come by good or self-destruct. It therefore counts with the possibility of divine violence against the persistent and unrepentant evildoer. Those who refuse redemption from violence to love by the means of love will be, of necessity, excluded from the world of love.

How should we understand this possible divine violence? In the context of the whole Christian faith, it is best described as symbolic portrayal of the final exclusion of everything that refuses to be redeemed by God’s suffering love. Will God finally exclude some human beings? Not necessarily. I called the divine “violence” “possible.” For it is predicated on human refusal to be made into a loving person and therefore to be admitted into the world of love. Will some people refuse? I hope not—and the Bible along with the best of the Christian tradition has never affirmed with certainty that some will refuse and therefore be excluded. 

It is possible (though not necessary) that the coming about of the new creation will require divine violence of exclusion of what is contrary to the world of perfect love. The crucial question for our purposes is whether this possible divine violence at the end of history sanctions actual human violence in the middle of it? The response that resounds throughout the New Testament, including the book of Revelation, is a loud and persistent “No!” Though imitating God is the height of human holiness, there are things which only God may do. One of them is to deploy violence. Christians are manifestly not to gather under the banner of the Rider on the white horse, but to take up their crosses and follow the Crucified. If they were to do otherwise, once again, they would be involved in “thinning” out a “thick” element of faith and making a mischievous use of it. They would be arrogating for themselves what God has reserved only for himself, to transpose the divine action from the end-time to a time in which God explicitly refrains from deploying violence in order to make repentance possible, and, finally, to transmute a possibility of violence into an actuality. “Thick” reading of Christian eschatological convictions will not sanction human violence; to the contrary, it will resist it.

Let me underscore one more time that my point in this lecture is not that the Christian faith has not been used to legitimize violence, or that there are no elements in the Christian faith on which such uses plausibly build. It was rather that neither the character of the Christian faith (it being a religion of a monotheist type) nor some of its most fundamental convictions (such as that God created the world and is engaged in redeeming it) are violence inducing. The Christian faith is misused when it is employed to underwrite violence.

How does such misuse happen and how should we prevent it? If we strip Christian convictions of their original and historic cognitive and moral content and reduce faith to a cultural resource endowed with a diffuse aura of the sacred, we are likely to get religiously legitimized and inspired violence in situations of conflict. If we nurture people in historic Christian convictions that are rooted in its sacred texts, we will likely get militants for peace, if anything. This, I think, is a result not only of a careful examination of the inner logic of Christian convictions; it is also borne by a careful look at actual Christian practice. As R. Scott Appleby has argued in his book The Ambivalence of the Sacred, on the basis of case studies, contrary to a widespread misconception, religious people play a positive role in the world of human conflicts and contribute to peace not when they “moderate their religion or marginalize their deeply held, vividly symbolized, and often highly particular beliefs,” but rather “when they remain religious actors.” 13

Miroslav Volf is Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. His recent books include  Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996) and After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (1998), both winners of Christianity Today book awards. A member of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the Evangelical Church in Croatia, Professor Volf was involved for a decade in international ecumenical dialogues. A native of Croatia, he regularly teaches and lectures in Central and Eastern Europe. 

1  Mark Jurgensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

2  R. Scott Appleby,  The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion,Violence, and Reconciliation  (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999) 2.

3  The best way to explain my use of “thick” and “thin” is to compare it with usage by others. Clifford Geertz has made popular the use of the contrasting pair “thick” and “thin” ( Interpretation of Cultures  [New York: Basic Books, 1974] 3–30). In his book  Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad  (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), Michael Walzer has introduced an altered sense of “thick” and “thin” as he applied them  to moral argument. “Thin” for me is, for instance, when the words “under God” on the Pledge of Allegiance are drained of specific religious content so that they become more a cultural tradition than a theological assertion; “thick” is when “God” in the said phrase refers to the God of Jesus Christ or to Allah or to Jahwe, which would make the phrase unconstitutional under the “no establishment” clause. I am concerned to show how “thinning” of religious practice opens religious convictions to be misused to legitimize violence because it strips away precisely what in “thick” religious faith guards against such misuse, whereas Walzer is concerned to show that morality is “thick” from the beginning and that the “thin” morality as universal always resides within the “thick” as particular (Walzer, 4).

4  See my  Exclusion and Embrace  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).

5  Regina Schwartz,  The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism  (Chicago: The University of Chicago  Press, 1997) 63.

6  For the following see Miroslav Volf, “ ‘The Trinity is Our Social Program’: The Doctrine of the Trinity and the  Shape of Social Engagement,”  Modern Theology  14:3 (July 1998): 403-23.

7  Rosemary Radford Ruether,  Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology  (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983) 77.

8  Rowan Williams,  On Christian Theology  (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000) 68.

9  Jacques Derrida,  Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International , trans.  Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994) 75.

10  Derrida,  Spectres of Marx , 90.

11  See Friedrich Nietzsche,  Thus Spoke Zarathustra , in  The Portable Nietzsche , trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York:  Penguin Books, 1954) 139, 253.

12  See Richard Bauckham,  The Theology of the Book of Revelation  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)  74, 90.

13  Appleby,  Ambivalence of the Sacred , 16.

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  • v.45(2); Mar-Apr 2023
  • PMC10154014

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The role of religiosity and spirituality in interpersonal violence: a systematic review and meta-analysis

Juliane piasseschi de bernardin gonçalves.

1 Departamento de Psiquiatria, Instituto de Psiquiatria, Faculdade de Medicina, Universidade de São Paulo (USP), São Paulo, SP, Brazil

Giancarlo Lucchetti

2 Departamento de Medicina, Faculdade de Medicina, Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora, Juiz de Fora, MG, Brazil

Everton de Oliveira Maraldi

3 Programa de Pós-Graduação em Estudos Religiosos, Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, São Paulo, SP, Brazil

4 Instituto D'Or de Pesquisa e Ensino, São Paulo, SP, Brazil

Paulo Eduardo Lahoz Fernandez

5 Departamento de Neurologia, Hospital Sírio-Libanês, São Paulo, SP, Brazil

Paulo Rossi Menezes

6 Departamento de Medicina Preventiva, Faculdade de Medicina, USP, São Paulo, SP, Brazil

Homero Vallada

7 Department of Molecular Medicine and Surgery, Center for Molecular Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden


Religiosity and spirituality (R/S) have been negatively associated with several mental health problems, including delinquency. The study aimed to investigate the relationship between R/S and interpersonal violence using a systematic review.

We conducted a descriptive systematic review followed by meta-analyses using seven different databases. We included observational studies that assessed the relationship between R/S and different types of interpersonal violence (physical and sexual aggression and domestic violence).

A total of 16,599 articles were screened in the databases and, after applying the eligibility criteria, 67 were included in the systematic review and 43 were included in the meta-analysis. The results showed that higher levels of R/S were significantly associated with decreased physical and sexual aggression, but not domestic violence. All selected studies evidenced sufficient methodological quality, with 26.8% being cohort studies. In the subanalyses, the role of R/S was more prevalent among adolescents.


There is an inverse relationship between R/S and physical and sexual aggression, suggesting a protective role. However, these results were not observed for domestic violence. Healthcare professionals and managers should be aware of their patients’ beliefs when investigating interpersonal violence to create tailored interventions for reducing violent behavior.


According to the World Health Organization, violence is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide among people aged 15-44 years, with approximately 1.3 million deaths registered annually. 1 Non-fatal violence, such as assaults or physical, sexual, and/or psychological abuse is also very common, and its effects on survivors include mental health problems, such as higher levels of depression, 2 post-traumatic stress disorder, increased anxiety and self-harming. 3 It also causes physical health complications, including poor maternal and fetal outcomes for women, 4 high-risk sexual behavior, and substance abuse. 5 The consequences are more serious when traumatic experiences occur during childhood, showing a later association with illicit substance use, 6 personality disorders and mental problems, 7 and risky sexual behavior and criminal behavior. 8 , 9

Thus, the adverse effects of violence should be considered a global mental health crisis with long-term social and economic consequences 10 , 11 for which it is increasingly necessary to formulate control strategies. 12 According to the DSM-5, multidimensional treatments incorporating cultural aspects should be considered when addressing the consequences of violence, 11 i.e., understanding how people react to and interpret violence within their cultural context is a crucial factor in managing the consequences of violent acts.

Religiosity is the belief and practice of the doctrinal foundations of religion, 13 while spirituality refers to a personal quest for the understanding of existential issues, which may not necessarily be linked to a particular religion. 13 Spirituality can also be defined as the way people find meaning and purpose in life, and experience a connection with others and whatever they may define as sacred. 14

Studies have shown that religiosity/spirituality (R/S) is correlated with enhanced psychological well-being, satisfaction, happiness, and lower depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress symptomatology. 13 , 15 , 16 Consistent with these recommendations, spiritual and religious beliefs have been widely used as complementary treatments for mental health rehabilitation regarding depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide, yielding promising results. 13 , 16

Moreover, R/S plays a protective role against violence and delinquency, deterring crime regardless of the type. 17 , 18 For instance, nationally representative studies of adolescents and youth in the USA found fewer fights, gang fights, shootings, and stabbings among religious participants. 19 - 21 Similarly, it has been reported that people with higher levels of R/S perpetrate fewer violent acts toward intimate partners, 22 are less involved in risky sexual behavior, 23 and more strongly condemn victimless crimes. 24

The role of religion in deterring criminal behavior can be explained by belief in supernatural punishment/rewards (e.g., “I will not go to heaven if I harm others”), 25 socialization, 26 , 27 social support, 28 and the encouragement of healthy behaviors and attitudes. 29 The theory of social control proposes that for families, religious institutions act as educators and help construct normative beliefs that promote greater assistance, commitment, and involvement with society. 28 Moreover, the rational choice theory suggests that religious individuals create self-impositions that increase the probability of feeling guilty about harmful attitudes and behavior, which reduces their expression toward others. 30 Additionally, religious individuals usually associate with others who have similar beliefs, which positively reinforces and enhances morality. 26 , 29

Nevertheless, the influence of R/S can move in different and even opposite directions within the same disease or condition. 31 For instance, negative religious coping (e.g., “God is punishing me”) and religious fundamentalism may encourage violence. Saroglou 32 published a meta-analytical review on the relationship between R/S and personality. The findings showed that intrinsic religiosity was positively associated with religious maturity and openness, while religious fundamentalism was negatively associated with openness.

To our knowledge, four systematic reviews have demonstrated a consistent, robust relationship between higher R/S and decreased delinquency and/or crime. 17 , 18 , 31 , 33 However, most scales and validated instruments designed to assess delinquency entail illegal conduct, such as vandalism, propriety destruction, the sale and/or possession of drugs and weapons, and police detention, and violence may not necessarily be associated with delinquent acts. These constructs should be addressed separately. Therefore, there remains a paucity of reviews assessing R/S and interpersonal violence.

Thus, we aimed to fill this gap by investigating the relationship between R/S and interpersonal violence, including domestic violence, and physical and sexual aggression. By evaluating the real impact of R/S on interpersonal violence, our findings may help the design and implementation of preventive strategies to improve public health.

Study design and protocol registration

This systematic review and meta-analysis followed PRISMA guidelines. 34 The protocol was registered in PROSPERO 35 and is fully available on the National Institute for Health Research – Health Technology Assessment website ( https://www.crd.york.ac.uk/prospero/display_record.php?ID=CRD42018080979 ).

Eligibility criteria

Inclusion criteria.

The main outcome in this review was any physically violent and/or aggressive act perpetrated against another person, i.e., interpersonal violence. According to the World Health Organization, interpersonal violence involves “violence between individuals, subdivided into family and intimate partner violence and community violence. The former category includes child maltreatment; intimate partner violence; and elder abuse, while the latter is broken down into acquaintance and stranger violence and includes youth violence; assault by strangers; violence related to property crimes; and violence in workplaces and other institutions.” 36

Exclusion criteria

Articles assessing violence against property, risk behavior for violence, moral aspects of crime, or crime recidivism were excluded. We also excluded delinquency scales that assessed items of violence along with other criminal behaviors, such as the sale and/or possession of drugs, robbery, vandalism, and property crimes.

Concerning methodology, only studies that were published in peer-reviewed international indexed databases were included, since this type of article has more appropriate and robust scientific evidence. Additionally, manuscripts in languages other than English, Portuguese, or Spanish were excluded.

The PI(E)CO strategy for observational studies

The PICO components for our study were: Patients – general population who committed acts of interpersonal violence, regardless of sex, age, socioeconomic status or nationality; Exposure – individuals with high levels of R/S; Comparison – individuals with low levels of R/S. Outcomes – interpersonal violence outcomes (i.e., domestic violence and physical and sexual aggression).

Type of studies

Since our review investigated whether a relationship exists between R/S and interpersonal violence, only observational studies were assessed. These included: cohort, cross-sectional, and case-control studies.

Type of participants

We included studies investigating individuals who committed any type of violence against other individuals, with no restrictions regarding age, sex, previous history of criminal activity, or setting (e.g., individuals in prisons or reformatories).

Information sources

Seven different databases were used to search for and select publications regarding violent behavior and R/S from inception to November 11, 2020: Sociological Abstracts, Applied Social Sciences abstracts (ASSIA), National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS), PsycINFO, Scopus, PubMed, and Web of Science. Only publications in English, Spanish, or Portuguese were included. EndNote X4 software was used to search for and select the articles.

Search strategy

A Boolean expression was used to optimize the search for relevant studies according to the main objectives of the review. Pilot experiments were conducted within the databases to ensure the accuracy of the expression. The final version was: (spirit* OR religi* OR faith OR god) AND (violence OR violent behavior OR aggressive behavior OR deviant behavior OR delinquency OR delinquent behavior). The expressions developed for each database are listed in Supplementary Material S1 , available online only.

Study selection phases

Article exclusion was performed by two independent reviewers in three phases.

Articles were assessed by title and abstract. Studies were excluded if they used a methodology not reported in the inclusion criteria. Studies were also excluded if they were considered irrelevant to the main theme (i.e., studies on terrorism, political violence, substance abuse, survivors of violence, suicide, genocide, and historical perspectives).

Full texts were obtained through online databases or via email request to the corresponding author and were subsequently read in full by the researchers. Articles that investigated types of interpersonal violence associated with any delinquency outcomes, or assessed attitudes toward violence and the tolerance of violence and/or crime were excluded. Furthermore, articles that assessed R/S combined with other independent variables, such as social support and happiness, were also excluded.

Some articles were excluded due to insufficient statistical data. We contacted the author via email if an article provided insufficient information to allow for inclusion in the meta-analysis. If we received no response after 10 emails, or if they still provided inadequate information, their studies were excluded from further analyses. Additionally, studies assessing the same outcomes and samples in different publications were excluded, including those on homicide and violent acts perpetrated in counties, cities, and/or countries where the researchers used population stratification.

Data collection process

The data were extracted by one researcher (JG), and included articles from Phase 1 were cross-coded by a second independent researcher (PL). Those included in Phase 3 were cross-coded by a different researcher (EM). Discrepancies were resolved by consensus.

We extracted the following data from the selected articles: authors, year of publication, study design, representativeness of the population, sample size, type of population, sex, age group of participants, and country in which the study was conducted.

Violence was classified into similar types of violent acts: physical aggression (fighting, attacking, assaulting), domestic violence (harming family members, such as children and spouse/partner), and sexual aggression (rape, forced sex). We then described the assessed outcome. R/S type was divided into organizational (i.e., religious affiliation, worship service attendance), non-organizational (i.e., private activities and behaviors such as prayer and reading, listening to, or watching religious content), intrinsic (i.e., commitment, any variable that included importance of religion, regardless of the other items assessed), and spirituality (i.e., spiritual well-being, spiritual intelligence). We then described the assessed outcome for each R/S type. Finally, we defined the results of each outcome as a protective or risk factor when the articles showed a significant or non-significant association with interpersonal violence, respectively.

Risk of bias in individual studies

Since there is no gold standard for quality assessment of observational studies, 37 we used a critical appraisal tool 38 to assess the risk of bias ( Supplementary Material S2 , available online only). The tool consists of 14 key components of epidemiological or observational studies used by the National Institutes of Health for cohort studies. However, because four items (6, 7, 10, and 13) did not apply to cross-sectional studies, a total of 10 items were used to assess the quality of this specific type of methodological design.

The instrument allows five possible responses for each item: yes, no, cannot determine, not applicable, and not reported. To rate the quality score, we attributed one point for each yes response. We then summed the points of each study and calculated an average. This value served as a cut-off point. Cross-sectional and cohort designs were calculated separately.

Studies scoring above the cut-off were considered to have sufficient methodological quality. The cut-off was determined using the mean of all studies included in this systematic review. To analyze the type of R/S measures used for interpersonal violence outcomes, we classified the eighth item of the scale more conservatively: “For exposures that can vary in amount or level, did the study examine different levels of the exposure as related to the outcome (e.g., categories of exposure, or exposure measured as a continuous variable)?” We only attributed a yes response if the authors used a previously published valid instrument, rather than single items.

Summary measures

The effect size was determined using the unadjusted Pearson correlation coefficient ( r ) with a 95%CI.

In articles that provided unstandardized beta coefficients, we used them to indicate the effect size. When an article presented the results as an odds ratio (OR), we used a logarithmic formula (ln (OR)/1.81) to convert it to effect size, as validated in a previous study. 39 We requested unstandardized coefficients from authors who presented their results in standardized coefficients. Those who did not respond to our email, did not provide sufficient information, or could not be contacted were excluded from the final meta-analysis. Similarly, articles that only described the association between violence and religiosity using descriptive analyses were excluded.

ProMeta 3.0 (Internovi, Cesena FC, Italy) was used to convert the OR and Cohen’s d into r .

Meta-analysis: synthesis of results and risk of bias across studies

OpenMeta software was used to perform the meta-analysis. 40 Due to the high heterogeneity ( I 2 ), the random effect statistic was selected, and sensitivity analysis consisted of stratifying the studies in different subgroup analyses. 41 We aimed to determine whether the magnitude of the results was influenced by: 1) the interpersonal violence outcome (single item/combined items), 2) religiosity (organizational/non-organizational/intrinsic), 3) age (< 19/> 19 years), 4) the methodology (cross-sectional/longitudinal), 5) the representativeness of the sample (yes/no), and 6) study quality (lower/higher score).

Additionally, a random-effects meta-regression was performed to explore potential differences in the subgroup analyses (Q statistics). By nominating a reference subgroup, the p-value can indicate whether there is a statistically significant difference among the groups. 41 Meta-regression coefficients and 95%CI were reported, and p-values < 0.05 were considered significant.

Study selection

Figure 1 is a flow diagram of the article selection process. The initial search yielded 16,599 articles. In Phase 1, we excluded 16,392 articles, of which 3,984 were duplicates, 11,825 did not meet the inclusion criteria, and 583 had heterogeneous study designs. The 207 articles included in Phase 2 were then read in detail, after which 140 were excluded for not assessing interpersonal violence as a separate outcome from other delinquency and crime variables (122), assessed R/S combined with other independent variables such as social support (10), or assessed the occurrence of violence in countries and cities, rather than among individuals (8).

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Of the 67 articles included in Phase 3, the data of 18 were insufficient for inclusion in the meta-analysis. When we attempted to contact these authors, eight could not be reached, six no longer had access to the data, and four did not respond with the information requested. Another six studies were excluded due to reporting only descriptive statistics, stratifying the results by groups (i.e., high vs low religiosity groups), or for sharing the same sample and outcome. Ultimately, 43 studies were included in the final meta-analysis.

Study characteristics and results of individual studies

Table 1 presents the characteristics of the 67 included articles. The publication dates varied between 1985 and 2020, and 56.7% were published in the last decade (2011 to 2020). The studies were from the following regions: North America (76.1%), Asia (10.4%), South and Central America (5.9%), Europe (5.9%), Oceania (2.9%), and the Middle East (1.4%).

ADV = Domestic Violence Questionnaire; BMMRS = Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/Spirituality; BPAQ = Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire; BPAQ = Buss-Perry Aggression Questionnaire; CAS = Children’s Aggression Scale; CRC = Religious Coping Scale; CTS = Conflict Tactics Scale; CTSPC = Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scale; CTSPC = Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scales; DUREL = Duke University Religion Index; FMS = Faith Maturity Scale; ISS = Intrinsic Spirituality Scale; M-CTS = Modified Conflict Tactics Scale; NR = not reported; NS = non-significant; RAS = Relational Aggression Scale; RCI = Religious Commitment Inventory; RCRQ = Richardson Conflict Response Questionnaire; RLI = Religious Life Inventory; ROS = Religious Orientation Scale; RPQ = Reactive-Proactive Aggression Questionnaire; SAI = Spiritual Assessment Inventory; SAV-S = Sexual Aggression and Victimization Scale; SCSORF = Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire; SES = Sexual Experiences Survey; SIS = Spiritual Intelligence Scale; SRQ = Self-Regulation Questionnaire; STS = Spiritual Transcendence Scale; SVAWS = Severity of Violence Against Women Scale; SWBS = Spiritual Well - Being Scale; W1, W2, W3 = Wave 1, 2, and 3.

Regarding study design, 50 (73.2%) studies were cross-sectional and 17 (26.8%) were longitudinal. A total of 44.8% of the studies evaluated a probability representative sample. The total sample consisted of 269,910 individuals. Regarding outcomes, physical aggression was the most frequently assessed type (83.6% of the articles), followed by domestic violence and sexual aggression (10.4% each). The most frequently investigated R/S type was intrinsic (43.75%), followed by non-organizational (26.25%), organizational (21.25%), and spirituality (8.75%).

A total of 101 outcomes were assessed in the studies: R/S had a significant protective role in 55.4% and the results were non-significant in 38.6%. Six studies found that religious individuals had a significant risk of perpetrating violent acts (5.9% of the sample), of which two analyzed the negative outcomes of religiosity (introjected religious self-regulation and disorganized religiosity). Five of these studies assessed domestic violence, and one examined physical aggression.

Risk of study bias

The risk of study bias is presented in Table 2 . The mean quality assessment score for cross-sectional studies was 7.42 (SD, 1.29), with 88% exceeding the cutoff point. The mean score for cohort studies was 11 (SD = 1.28), with only 65% exceeding the cutoff. There was at least one unreported response in 80% of the items in cross-sectional studies, while this occurred in only 28.6% of the cohort studies.

NA = not applicable; NR = not reported.

Population recruitment and the inclusion and exclusion criteria (item 4) were similar between design types, with 14% non-reported in the cross-sectional studies and 0% in the cohort studies. Regarding the assessment of exposure levels (item 8), 20 studies (30%) used validated religious/spiritual scales. Validated instruments were used in 38% of the cross-sectional studies but in only 6% of the cohort studies. There was a high score for item 9, which assessed the clarity of the definitions and the reliability of the exposure variables: 48 (96%) for cross-sectional studies and 14 (82.4%) for cohort studies. Outcome assessor blinding was reported in 30% of the cross-sectional studies and in 23.5% of the cohort studies.

Two specific questions for cohort methodology determined whether the exposure of interest was assessed before the outcome (item 6) and whether there was a sufficient timeframe between waves (item 7). Both items were reported by all authors. In 47.1% of the articles, R/S variables were assessed several times during the study period, and only 17.6% of the studies reported dropout rates > 20%.

Synthesis of the results and risk of bias across studies

Of the 67 included studies, 24 were excluded from the meta-analysis. We contacted the authors of 18 of these studies for additional database information. Eight of these authors could not be reached, six no longer had access to the data, and four responded without providing the necessary information. We excluded three articles that analyzed separate age or religious groups and did not present the results for the total sample, in addition to two others that only provided descriptive analyses. The same religious and interpersonal violence outcomes were assessed using the same sample in two different publications, so we excluded one.

The remaining 43 studies were divided into three groups according to violence outcomes: physical aggression, domestic violence, and sexual aggression. Since some articles assessed more than one violence outcome, including more than one type of religious/spiritual variable, the data were overlapped in the analysis, which resulted in more comparison groups than studies for each outcome.

Sex was not included in the subgroup analyses because the results of most articles were presented as mixed groups of men and women, making it impossible to stratify the samples. Moreover, the subgroup analyses could not be performed by country, since 71.6% of the studies were conducted in the United States.

Physical aggression

The physical aggression analyses included 33 studies and 80 comparisons, totaling 1,221,897 individuals ( Figure S1 , available as online-only supplementary material). Higher levels of R/S were significantly associated with lower physical aggression (r = -0.12, 95%CI = -0.137 to -0.095). Due to the high heterogeneity ( I 2 = 99.16%, p < 0.001), subgroup analyses were performed ( Table 3 ).

Bold type denotes significant statistical difference.

Ref = reference category.

All investigated subgroups showed statistically significant results with small effect sizes. However, the heterogeneity did not decrease in any of these analyses. Organizational and intrinsic religiosity had similar effect sizes (r = -0.15, 95%CI = -0.20 to -0.09; r = -0.14, 95%CI = -0.19 to -0.10, respectively), and non-organizational religiosity showed a lower effect size than the other two types (r = -0.07, 95%CI = -0.09 to -0.0.5). However, religiosity outcomes for the meta-regression analyses were not significant.

Domestic violence

The domestic violence subanalysis included eight studies and 23 comparisons, resulting in an overall sample of 23,137 individuals. Although less intimate partner violence was not associated with higher levels of R/S (r = -0.05, 95%CI = -0.200 to 0.099) ( Figure S2 , available as online-only supplementary material), there was significant heterogeneity among the studies ( I 2 = 99.70%, p < 0.001). Subgroup analyses, however, revealed a significant association among adolescents (r = -0.11, 95%CI = -0.189 to -0.038), with a heterogeneity of 78.99% (p < 0.005). Although no significant results were found for articles published until 2009 (r = 0.060, 95%CI = -0.062 to 0.182, p = 0.334) or after 2009 (r = – 0.152, 95%CI = -0.368 to 0.064, p = 0.168), there was a significant difference between older and newer articles of the meta-regression (p = 0.020).

Sexual aggression

Regarding sexual aggression, we analyzed four studies and carried out eight comparisons, totaling 6,025 individuals. There was a significant negative association between sexual aggression and higher R/S, although the effect size was smaller than that of physical aggression (r = -0.05, 95%CI = -0.077 to -0.021) ( Figure S3 , available as online-only supplementary material). Heterogeneity in this outcome was low and non-significant ( I 2 = 13.55%, p = 0.324). All authors used combined items as their interpersonal violence outcome. Most studies assessed intrinsic/spiritual variables (seven of eight comparisons) and investigated adolescents (six of eight comparisons). No significant difference was found between the studies in the subgroup analysis.

The results of this systematic review and meta-analysis support the proposition that R/S plays a significant protective role against physical and sexual aggression. Nevertheless, R/S was only associated with less domestic violence among adolescents.

Previous meta-analyses investigating the involvement of religion in delinquency have found a consistently inverse relationship, 17 , 18 which corroborates our findings. However, these meta-analyses focused on delinquent acts and criminal behavior, rather than exclusively violent acts against others. To our knowledge, this is the first systematic review and meta-analysis to explore the impact of R/S on different aspects of interpersonal violence.

Interestingly, our findings had different effect sizes for different aspects of interpersonal violence. Specifically, it was higher for physical than for sexual aggression and was non-significant for domestic violence outcomes. Previous studies have found that R/S has a larger effect size for victimless crimes (such as tax evasion, 105 - 107 the selling and consumption of illegal substances, 18 and robbery and vandalism 43 , 90 ) than for crimes involving victims. 18 According to our findings, it seems that the impact of R/S differs depending on the type of interpersonal violence, which could be explained by the complexity involved in domestic and sexual aggression, including barriers to reporting such crimes. 108

Regarding physical aggression, all subgroup analyses (age, study design, representativeness) were significant, consistently showing that R/S plays a protective role against physical aggression. These findings have strong implications for health care professionals and managers. While no differences were found in religious subgroup analysis in the meta-regression, the effect sizes varied for organizational and intrinsic religiosity vs. non-organizational religiosity. The effect of organizational religiosity can be explained by the social control theory, which contends that the notion of divine punishment/reward combined with the social support of a formal religion can prevent believers from committing crimes. 25 , 26 The concept of intrinsic religiosity involves the notion of self-control and the rational choice of healthy behaviors and attitudes 27 , 29 as a result of internal reasoning and self-awareness. However, private non-organizational religiosity seems to have little preventive effect against acts of physical violence. This could be explained by the fact that, even though listening to religious music, reading sacred texts, and praying reduce undesirable symptoms, 15 they may be insufficient in some contexts, and thus may not help prevent violence. This is also consistent with sociopsychological and evolutionary theories linking religiosity to prosociality (including variables such as social bonding, social support, and social monitoring). 109 , 110

Although sexual aggression had a lower effect size than physical aggression, the subgroup analyses also indicated that R/S played a consistently protective role. Notably, this violence outcome showed the lowest heterogeneity, suggesting that these findings are related to intrinsic religiosity among adolescents. Since adolescents are at greater risk of sexual aggression, 1 more studies have been published involving this specific population. 111 Regarding intrinsic religiosity, this finding reinforces the aforementioned theories about self-control and rational choice. 27 , 29

In contrast, the domestic violence meta-analysis showed no association with R/S variables, except among adolescents. This could be attributed to the fact that interpersonal violence is a complex multidimensional concept involving a number of causes. 112 Thus, R/S may not prevent domestic violence due to overlapping influence from the cultural background. 113 There are some explanations for such findings in the literature. First, some cultures and religions can be permissive or tolerant towards domestic violence 114 , 115 in an effort to minimize the disruption of family units. Previous studies have supported this hypothesis, showing that fear of separation or ostracization may cause women to remain in unhealthy relationships. 116 , 117 Second, in some cases, clergy may advise victims to resign themselves to the situation, rather than report it to the police, thus perpetuating the cycle of violence. 118 Third, studies in Eastern cultures have found that both men and women agree that men can beat their partner if she refuses sex or retaliates during a fight. 119 Similarly, in Western cultures, approval of corporal punishment for disciplining children is also common among religious conservatives. 118

Despite these explanations, it should be pointed out that greater awareness about domestic violence has been achieved in recent decades, 119 including the harmful effects of violence on mental health, which may interfere with the relationship between religiosity and domestic violence. This was observed in the meta-regression, since newer articles on this topic showed a trend toward significance for R/S as a protective factor (r = -0.152), unlike older articles (r = 0.060).

In five studies, domestic violence was the only outcome in which religiosity was a risk factor for violence. Three of them found religiosity to be a risk factor when assessing negative variables, such as religious incompatibility, 67 disorganized religiosity, 81 and introjected religious self-regulation. 71 Previous research indicates that negative religious coping is associated with higher levels of depression, anxiety, and alcohol and drug consumption. 120 , 121 Since the studies that investigated physical and sexual aggression did not assess negative religiosity, we cannot conclude that the risk is associated with domestic violence alone. Future studies should conduct a more detailed investigation of the role of negative religious coping and violence.

Notably, in the subanalyses, the results were only significant for all types of violence among adolescents. This is consistent with the current literature, which indicates that R/S plays a protective role against delinquency in this age group. 17 , 18 , 31 , 33 A meta-analysis by Baier et al. 18 showed that religiosity had a deterrent effect on delinquency among adolescents, which was moderated by the year of data collection, sample size, and the proportion of Whites in the sample. Similarly, Kelly et al. 17 found a small-to-moderate average effect size between religiosity and delinquency, with similar results for church attendance. However, even though they explored heterogeneity through moderators, they found no significant difference among funded studies, sample type, and sample location.

Despite this promising evidence, the heterogeneity was significant in our analysis of both physical aggression and domestic violence, even after stratifying by subgroup. A previous meta-analysis 17 also found high heterogeneity regarding religiosity and interpersonal violence outcomes, which was attributed to possible interference by different mediators. 41 Nevertheless, there was low heterogeneity regarding sexual aggression outcomes in our sample because of three important subgroup similarities: it involved the fewest studies and comparisons, the outcomes were assessed through combined items/validated scales, and most studies investigated intrinsic religiosity and adolescent participants. These facts may have yielded more appropriate results.

The assessment of R/S variables showed a similar trend. Although several valid instruments have been developed to measure various constructs of both violent behavior 122 , 123 and R/S outcomes, 13 , 124 we found that they were infrequently used in the included studies, especially those with longitudinal designs. Hence, the consistent use of reliable and valid instruments is needed to elucidate this relationship, especially considering its clinical implications for public health. 31

Concerning the studies’ methodological quality, the mean scores were good for both the cross-sectional and cohort designs. However, grouping separate constructs of R/S within the same variable, such as worship service attendance, salience, and beliefs, can produce invalid results, especially in cross-sectional studies. 125 Furthermore, reported outcome assessor blinding was less than 30% in both designs. The authors rarely declared whether the individual performing the assessment was aware of the exposure status of the participants. This methodological parameter must be prepared in advance when designing a study and is easily manageable due to its simplicity.

Clinical implications

The evidence that R/S plays a protective role against interpersonal violence has clinical implications, both for health care professionals and health managers. Several studies have examined whether, why, and how physicians approach religion and spiritual topics with their patients in clinical practice. 126 - 128 While this may significantly influence physical and mental health, physicians seldom address R/S and the beliefs of their patients, except among terminally ill patients. 126 The most cited barriers are that this topic falls outside their scope of practice, they lack appropriate training, and that there are time constraints. 126 - 127

Nevertheless, the impact of R/S is present throughout life. 13 R/S can impact human health both positively and negatively. 129 Therefore, strategies and adequate instruments for approaching R/S in clinical practice safely and reliably have been developed in recent years. 128 , 130 , 131 Considering the patient’s history of R/S and its impact can provide physicians with helpful and tailored preventive strategies. This can reinforce positive religious coping or transform negative religious perspectives into a more constructive condition. Health managers should thus be aware of these findings and train their staff to address these issues in clinical practice.

For example, a previous qualitative study on women incarcerated for murdering their domestic abusers 114 included individuals either raised in a home without religion or in an extremely religious home with rigid and aggressive moral conduct based on a punitive concept of God. It seems that traumatic episodes linked to religious issues are difficult to recover from. Health professionals should address these issues in a patient-centered, individualized, and nonjudgmental approach. The authors proposed an intervention based on spirituality (moral values, faith, and transcendence) to alleviate the convicts’ mental suffering. Despite negative prior religious experiences, participants transitioned from negative to positive religious strategies.

Understanding the patients’ religious/spiritual background can provide insight into how it relates to their present. Evidence shows that parental religiosity impacts the mental and physical health and behavior of adolescents, both positively and negatively. 132 - 134 The family religious environment may thus hinder or encourage child development.

Clinical trials designed to prevent interpersonal violence through R/S have ethical limitations. However, some authors are exploring R/S interventions to reduce violence and misconduct in male prisons. 135 - 137 The results have shown improvement in personal conduct, less fighting, and improved mental health outcomes for those who converted to a religious affiliation. More research is necessary to elucidate the actual long-term impacts on mental health and behavior. Nevertheless, such programs have already been implemented in institutions that can benefit from simple and low-cost interventions.

Future research

Most studies included in this review did not assess R/S as a central explanatory variable. Johnson et al. 31 conducted the first systematic review regarding religiosity and delinquency, finding that although most studies examined religiosity as a central variable, they also investigated only one or two other dimensions of religiosity, mainly worship service attendance and the reported importance of religion.

The cohort studies assessing R/S and violence were designed to investigate nationally representative samples, including several other measures and outcomes during an interview assessment. Therefore, R/S was not previously predicted as an outcome that could impact violence: it was simply addressed as another variable. Future studies on R/S and violence should be designed to clarify this relationship using appropriate instruments for both dependent and independent variables. 138 Even if the researchers choose to assess single questions, they must avoid summing all points in the same score when analyzing the data.

To explore the mechanisms of action of the preventive function of religiosity, future cohort studies should be specifically designed to address the impact of R/S on violence and clarify possible moderators during follow-up research. Furthermore, clinical trials for individuals who exhibit violent traits can help provide insight into whether R/S interventions can help improve rehabilitation by diminishing violent impulses. 139 , 140 Finally, qualitative studies should also be considered as an avenue for understanding the role of R/S in human nature and how it can help improve behavior.


Although 16,599 articles were screened in seven different health science and sociology databases, other relevant studies may have been overlooked. Moreover, we found no studies in languages other than Portuguese, English, and Spanish, but, again, articles in other languages may have been missed.

In addition, although we were able to carry out subgroup analyses, these were limited to age group, sex, measurements of violence, and R/S outcomes. The heterogeneity among studies was relevant, especially regarding the dependent and independent variables.

In conclusion, this meta-analysis found a significant negative association between R/S and physical and sexual aggression. Although R/S showed no effect on domestic violence, the subgroup analysis showed a significant negative association among adolescents. These findings have significant implications for health care professionals worldwide.

The authors report no conflicts of interest.


This study received financial support from Instituto Homero Pinto Vallada (IHPV), São Paulo, Brazil.

JPBG received financial support from the Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES). GL and HV received financial support from the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq).

How to cite this article: Gonçalves JPB, Lucchetti G, Maraldi EO, Fernandez PEL, Menezes PR, Vallada H. The role of religiosity and spirituality in interpersonal violence: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Braz J Psychiatry. 2023;45:162-181. http://doi.org/10.47626/1516-4446-2022-2832

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Morality as Fuel for Violence? Disentangling the Role of Religion in Violent Conflict

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Past research finds contradictory evidence suggesting that religion both reduces and increases violent conflict. We argue that morality is an important hub mechanism that can help us understand this disputed relationship. Moreover, to reconcile this, as well as the factors underlying religion’s impact on increased violence (i.e., belief versus practice), we draw on Virtuous Violence Theory and newly synthesize it with research on both moral cognition and social identity. We suggest that the combined effect of moral cognition and social identity may substantially increase violence beyond what either facilitates alone. We test our claims using multilevel analysis of data from the World Values Survey and find a nuanced effect of religion on people’s beliefs about violence. Specifically, religious individuals were less likely to condone violence while religious countries were more likely to. This combination of theoretical and empirical work helps disentangle the interwoven nature of mo...

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essay on religion in relation to violence

Religion and Violence

What is religious violence? How much violence is about religion - and is religious violence inevitable? Prof. John Wolffe explores these questions here.

Religious violence: Introduction

In recent decades there have been many events that seem to link religion and violence – for example, the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland in the later twentieth century, the 9/11 attacks of 2001, the activities of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and recurrent communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in India. It is also likely that the situations that engender such violence will persist, and new ones may arise in the future. 

A key question though is how far is such violence really about religion? This article and video explore this problem, suggesting some ways in which we can look at particular situations of violent conflict to reach a balanced view of the role of religion. Such thinking is important for our times if we are to avoid stereotyped generalisations such as ‘religion causes violence’ or defensive claims such as ‘my religion does not sanction violence’. 

Learning Outcomes

After exploring the topics in this article and video, you should be able to:

  • Think critically about claims that religion was (or was not) the cause of a particular act of violence
  • Understand that religious attitudes to violence are complex and varied  

Being literate about religion and violence

In the video below, I discuss the connections between religion and violence – with the Northern Ireland case particularly in mind – and show how religious identities are often intertwined with other cultural, political, social and economic factors. The video emphasises the need to find a ‘middle way’ in understanding complex situations and, while acknowledging that religion may well still be a relevant factor, not just assume a simple link between religion and violence.

Testing the role of religion in violence

You’ll now explore the issues further, thinking in particular about how the balanced ‘middle way’ I propose in the video can be purused. The following six considerations are ones to bear in mind when looking at the role of religion in any particular situation.

1. Recognise that religion is pervasive but mixed up with other issues .

Religion may be a more conspicuous in some cases than in others, but should never be discounted. Conflict situations are prone to draw out fundamental beliefs that may lie dormant in peacetime. For example, the long-running Israel-Palestine conflict, initially arose from the territorial and refugee issues that accompanied the formation of the state of Israel in 1947. Yet in recent decades, it has increasingly acquired a religious dimension. 

On the other hand, religion cannot be easily separated out as a factor from other forces in culture and society. When historians analyse the so-called ‘wars of religion’ in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, they highlight a range of economic and political factors alongside the religious ones.  The persistent violence in contemporary Afghanistan is fuelled as much by tribalism and the drug trade as by religion. Hence judgements about the role of religion in causation are complex ones. 

2. Bear in mind that religious labels are often misleading . 

It can sometimes be a convenient shorthand to use religious labels for the two sides in a particular conflict: for example ‘Catholic’ v ‘Protestant’ in Northern Ireland, ‘Christian’ v ‘Muslim’ in Nigeria, ‘Sunni’ v ‘Shi’a’ in Iraq, ‘Buddhist’ v ‘Hindu’ in Sri Lanka.  The use of such labels, should not, however, be taken as implying that religious difference in itself is necessarily a primary cause of the conflict in question. Many other factors may be at work, such as national and cultural tensions, and economic challenges and inequalities.  We should avoid using religion to explain too much.

3. Do not assume clear-cut links between texts, beliefs and actions . 

All major religions have texts and traditions that justify or even require violence under certain circumstances and conditions, but these are carefully circumscribed in practice. For example, the Old Testament book of Joshua (chapter 6, verse 21) states that after the Israelites captured Jericho, they ‘destroyed with the sword every living thing in it’, but mainstream Christians and Jews would see that text in its historical context and not as a justification for genocide in later times.  Both Islam and Sikhism originally emerged in contexts of conflict, where believers were both exposed to violence and had to use it in self-defence. If a present-day adherent resorts to violent action, it may sometimes be in spite of rather than because of his or her religious beliefs. And when a religious sanction for violent action is claimed, it may well arise from an eccentric rather than mainstream interpretation of the tradition. For example, the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik claimed to be ‘100 per cent Christian’, but the overwhelming majority of Christians would disown the ideology that he used to legitimise his killing of 77 people in July 2011.  

The Shaolin Temple in China belongs to the Chan [Zen] Buddhist tradition and has been strongly associated with martial arts.

For example, the starting point for Christians is just war theory, which sanctions violence to defend innocent life and uphold justice and essential moral principles. It was on this basis that, for example, Britain went to war with Germany in 1914 as a result of the latter’s violation of Belgian neutrality. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, wrote of an ‘assured conviction’ that ‘for men who desire to maintain the paramount obligation of fidelity to plighted word, and the duty of defending weaker nations against violence and wrong, no possible course was open but that which our country has taken.’   Such principles can also be used to justify violent opposition to oppressive regimes, as in the decision of the leading Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to support the planned assassination of Hitler, and in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. However, because Christians take their inspiration from Jesus, who suffered crucifixion rather than retaliate against his oppressors, there is also a strong tradition that willing acceptance of death, as subsequently exemplified by Bonhoeffer, is a more appropriate response to aggression than violent defensive action.  Moreover, the most effective and inspirational Christian opponents of apartheid – notably Trevor Huddleston, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela after his release from prison – adopted non-violent methods. For Muslims the starting point is jihad, the struggle to maintain and promote the faith, which can also be entirely peaceful, but sanctions violence as a last resort, when it is believed that this is the only way that Islam can be secured. 

The entrance gate and railway tracks leading to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

5. Religious violence should be considered alongside secular and state-sponsored violence.  

Historically, some of the most extreme cases of violence were perpetrated by avowedly secular regimes, notably the French revolutionaries of the Terror of 1793–4, when tens of thousands of people were either executed or murdered, and in Stalin’s Soviet Union, where the death toll is estimated in the tens of millions. Historians differ in the extent to which they judge the Christian churches of sharing responsibility for the Nazi Holocaust of European Jewry, but their failing is usually perceived to have been one of passivity rather than active complicity. It is, however, when religion and nationalism become aligned that the potential for violence is greatest, all the more so when that alignment is fostered by a state for its own political purposes, as it did in Franco’s dictatorship in Spain (1936–75), which claimed the support of the Roman Catholic Church.

Rev Harold Good (left) and Father Alec Reid acted as witnesses for the decommissioning of IRA weapons.

6. Bear in mind that books and articles are more likely to report violence than peacebuilding. 

Both historians and journalists tend to highlight violence because it grabs attention and demands explanation, whereas patient peacebuilding work of its very nature is much less visible, precisely because its success lies in preventing overt conflict. In order to develop a balanced perspective, look out for the ‘good news’ stories about religion as well as the ‘bad news’ ones. For example, Christians, Jews and Muslims are all active in peacebuilding initiatives in the Middle East. Although the institutional churches in Northern Ireland struggled to transcend community divisions, individual Christian leaders, such as the Catholic Alec Reid and the Methodist Harold Good who oversaw the decommissioning of paramilitary arsenals, played crucial roles in the peace process. Contemporary Muslim leaders who advocate violence are liable to receive more exposure in the Western media than moderates such as Ahmed El-Tayeb, the influential Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (Cairo), who condemns ISIS, opposes the Muslim Brotherhood, advocates peaceful coexistence with Egypt’s Coptic Christians, and has warm relations with Pope Francis. 

Much ‘religious’ violence, like violence of any kind, is rooted in misunderstanding and fear of people who seem different, giving rise to the impulse to strike first so as not to be caught unawares. Hence everyone has a responsibility to cultivate and promote a basic religious literacy that accepts and understands people as they are and does not, for example, see a terrorist hiding beneath every burqa or suspect every Catholic priest of being a paedophile. Such hostile stereotyping risks making those who are the objects of it feel vulnerable and can even provoke the very violence its proponents claim to be wanting to avoid.

Several lit candles against a dark, black background.

It is also important to explore the other side of the coin, that is the successful coexistence of diverse religious groups in peaceful tolerant societies. There is a widespread perception that such arrangements are rare and have only become possible in the recent past. However, there are historic examples, such as India under the sixteenth-century Mughal emperor Akbar or the American state of Rhode Island, founded in the seventeenth century on principles of religious toleration.

[1] Andrew Berwick (pseudonym of Anders B. Breivik), A European Declaration of Independence (London: self-published 2011), p. 1393.

[2] Quoted G.K.A. Bell, Randall Davidson (2 vols, London: Oxford University Press, 1935), ii.742.

Over to you

  • Discuss : Religion is implicated in many different wars. What is the best way to understand this?
  • Can you think of other examples of religions working for reconciliation and peace?
  • Research some examples of historical context where religion played a role in both violence and in promoting toleration. You could consider the extent to which one or more of the ‘Points for Consideration’ is relevant to your example. 
  • A good place to start for researching the role religion has in promoting toleration and contributing to violence is the website of the recent research project Religious Toleration and Peace .
  • You can learn more about this is another Open Learn short course ‘ Young People and Religion: Creative Learning with History ’. 

Further reading

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (London: The Bodley Head, 2014).

Clinton Bennett, In Search of Solutions: The Problem of Religion and Conflict (London: Equinox, 2008).  

John D. Brewer, Gareth I. Higgins and Francis Teeney, Religion, Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).  

Gladys Ganiel, Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).  

Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts and Michael Jerryson, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).  

John Wolffe and Gavin Moorhead, Religion, Security and Global Uncertainties (Milton Keynes: Open University, 2014), downloadable from http://www.open.ac.uk/arts/research/religion-martyrdom-global-uncertainties/ .  

John Wolffe, ‘Is “religious” violence really religious?’ in Alberto Melloni and Francesca Cadeddu, eds, Religious Literacy, Law and History: Perspectives on European Pluralist Societies (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019), pp. 120-6 is an expanded and more fully referenced version of material in this course.

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Religious-Related Abuse in the Family

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  • Barbara Simonič 1 ,
  • Tina Rahne Mandelj 1 &
  • Rachel Novsak 2  

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Religion provides directives for positive moral action and the promotion of human welfare; but religious beliefs can also foster and justify abusive behavior in the context of family life and child rearing. Parents, who are emotionally distraught and cannot control their responses to their child’s needs or misbehavior, might wield religious ideas to intimidate and control their children. In our paper we set forth two fundamental types of religion-related emotional abuse and discuss the complex role that religion can play in perpetuating abusive family relationships. We address the emotional aspects of religion-related abuse and also its transgenerational transfer. We present a case illustration focusing on how such abuse leads to dysfunctional patterns of behavior in family relationships and disruptions in emotion regulation processes. Applying a Relational Family Therapy model, we consider select therapeutic implications for addressing and overcoming religious abuse and restoring functional emotion regulation processes in families.

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Simonič, B., Mandelj, T.R. & Novsak, R. Religious-Related Abuse in the Family. J Fam Viol 28 , 339–349 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-013-9508-y

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Article Contents

1. introduction, 2. methodology, 3. findings and discussion, 4. conclusion, the role of religion in domestic violence and abuse in uk muslim communities.

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Rahmanara Chowdhury, The Role of Religion in Domestic Violence and Abuse in UK Muslim Communities, Oxford Journal of Law and Religion , 2023;, rwad008, https://doi.org/10.1093/ojlr/rwad008

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Existing research on the role of faith in the aftermath of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) often fails to adequately situate the role played by religion throughout the DVA trajectory. This article draws on qualitative research conducted with 10 Muslim female survivors and 9 professionals providing support in DVA cases to investigate the nature, occurrence, and impact of DVA within Muslim religious communities. This article specifically explores the role of religion at four levels; individual psycho-social-spiritual level, the level of additional stakeholders, within the context of intersectionality, and at a macro-societal level. It is argued that religion and practice of faith plays a nuanced role at each of these levels. The research found that holistic approaches to faith resulted in faith manifesting as an empowering resource for DVA survivors. Reductionist and androcentric approaches to faith however resulted in the enabling and continuation of abuse and abusive structures. Findings indicate the need for service provision to provide tailored and culturally informed support to Muslim clients, particularly in relation to faith. The web model of DVA provides a structured framework through which this can be achieved.

Domestic violence and abuse (DVA) transcend all cultures regardless of belief, faith, or religion. 1 The added element of a faith or religious tradition, however, adds complexity to our understanding of the manifestations of DVA and related behaviours, with correlative implications for methods of interventions. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 defines domestic abuse as the behaviour of a person (‘A’) towards another person (‘B’) is ‘domestic abuse’ if—(i) A and B are each aged 16 or over and are personally connected to each other, and (ii) the behaviour is abusive. 2 Abusive behaviours are further defined as physical or sexual abuse; violent or threatening behaviour; controlling or coercive behaviour; economic abuse; psychological, emotional, or other abuse. The recognition of such behaviours as abusive stands regardless of frequency of occurrence. It has been argued that spiritual abuse has to date been omitted from DVA discourses. 3 Spiritual abuse in Muslim communities is an area that remains under development academically; however, more generally, it has been noted to include either direct or indirect use of scripture and positions of religious authority for coercive and controlling purposes. 4

This article will focus on the role of faith within DVA in UK Muslim communities. For the purposes of consistency, the religion of Islam will be referred to as Faith, with a Muslim defined as one who professes to be a Muslim. 5 This article is based upon ESRC-funded empirical research conducted with Muslim female DVA survivors and professionals working in the field. The research adopted a qualitative interpretative approach in order to ascertain how DVA manifested at a community level within UK Muslim communities. The central findings of the research resulted in the development of the web model of DVA, 6 a framework for working holistically with DVA cases. 7 The web model proposes four levels which require consideration when addressing DVA within UK Muslim communities. These are the individual psycho-social-spiritual level, stakeholders, intersectionality, and the macro-societal level. This article focuses on the role of religion within DVA across these four levels. The term survivors is used in relation to an individual who has left an abusive relationship. The term victim is adopted for those experiencing abusive relationships.

Present understanding of DVA within Muslim communities is two-fold. One approach consists of a theological emphasis on understanding the role of scripture within DVA. The second approach lies within the social sciences and focuses on the role of Faith, often within the recovery process, for survivors. This article therefore explores these two respective areas before an exposition of the development of the web model, followed by a detailed exploration of the role of Faith at the four levels of the web model of DVA. The term domestic violence and abuse is adopted here; however, synonyms within the literature are acknowledged as intimate partner violence, domestic violence, and coercive control. Whilst it is known that men can also be victims of DVA, 8 this research was primarily focused on female victims and males who perpetrate abuse.

A. Theological Perspectives to DVA in Muslim Communities

In this article, a theological lens is offered tentatively. The study of theology itself in relation to DVA is beyond the capacity and scope of this article. What is offered instead is a review of the body of work that exists in this area and the subsequent arguments as to specific scriptural passages, the patriarchal context behind translation of scripture and their subsequent negative influence on the perceived condoning of violence against women.

In light of this, it is firstly important to acknowledge that whilst there is a theological lens to consider, lived reality demonstrates varying levels of practice of the Faith itself. Within Arab cultures, categories of traditional (strongly practising), bicultural (moderately practising), acculturated (marginally practising), assimilated (non-practising), and recommitted (strongly practising) have been put forward. 9 These are all important considerations in framing the varied contextual understanding and application of theology across Muslim communities.

Men are supporters of wives because God has given some of them an advantage over others and because they spend of their wealth. So the ones (f) who are in accord with morality are the ones (f) who are morally obligated, the ones (f) who guard the unseen of what God has kept safe. But those (f) whose resistance you fear, then admonish them (f) and abandon them (f) in their sleeping place, then go away from them (f) and if they (f) obey you, surely look not for any way against them (f); truly God is Lofty, Great. 10

The controversy relates to the translated words ‘go away from them’. This translation is a departure from traditional translations where the words have been more commonly understood to mean ‘strike them’. It has been argued that patriarchal social structures within religious teachings give preferences towards translations which support the subordination of women. 11 In Baktiar’s translation, the justification for the use of the words ‘go away’ instead of ‘strike’ is put forward as being based upon the actions of the Prophet Muhammad. 12 In such discussions, there is an active movement away from the verb form of the Arabic word denoted as striking. Focus instead was placed upon the lived example of the Prophet Muhammad wherein violence more generally and violence against one’s spouse was intolerable. In-depth discourses relating to the tradition of interpretation within this area is beyond the scope of this article. However, such details can be ascertained from the work of Chaudhry 13 and Isgandarova. 14

Salahi 15 proposed that the common translation of the verse refutes the logical sequence of the verse itself for addressing marital conflict. He further pointed towards 17 potential meanings for the contentious word. Lending support to this are the guidelines in relation to pursuing divorce outlined in chapter 65 of the Qur’an. In respect of this Abugidieri 16 elucidates upon the extensive prohibition against abuse and oppression within the Qur’an. Dominant translations using the word ‘strike’ have however continued to prevail for the masses, leaving room for the perceived condoning of violence. The lack of DVA knowledge within the majority of the population including religious leaders has been proposed as contributing to this proliferation. 17 This has unsurprisingly led to numerous theological and academic discourses. 18 The feminist line of inquiry brings to the forefront the patriarchal nature of past societies and the resulting androcentric influence on subsequent translations, all of which were carried out by male authors. 19 ‘Strike’ is therefore considered as being interpreted within a historically and linguistically patriarchal context. Feminist readings of Islamic law outline the emergence of a new gender discourse concerning equality that is governed within an Islamic framework. 20 Further to androcentric discourses, this line of reading stresses the difference between fiqhi rulings and shari’ah rulings. Shari’ah rulings are stipulated as the sacred elements of the Islamic legal tradition which cannot be contested. 21 Fiqhi rulings are proposed as those formulated by humans based on contextual factors and thereby open to interpretation and development over time. Within this a necessity to challenge patriarchal interpretations at the level of fiqhi interpretations is asserted. 22 A call to revive the transcendental ideal that is stipulated within the Islamic tradition is called upon, one that is cognizant of the spiritual and moral framework in its holistic form. What is agreed upon, however, is that the verse in question relates to conflict resolution within a marital dispute. Yet DVA cannot be considered as falling under the spectrum of marital disputes. Furthermore, violence, even if sanctioned using existing translations negates the underlying foundational higher objectives of the Faith tradition itself. These have been identified as protection of faith, life, property, intellect, and lineage, 23 and can be summarized as the promotion of benefit for all and the prevention of harm for all. Alongside this, a proposed Qur’anic ethical framework stipulates the fundamental ethics required within marriages in the Islamic tradition. 24 Three levels are identified within this as human and family relations, marriage as a solemn bond, and three ethical pillars which sustain such a bond (embodying tranquility, affection, and compassion). Central to this framework are the concepts of each individual being responsible for the upholding of moral compass, unconditional recognition of equality of worth of both parties and the bond of marriage as one that prioritizes an active commitment to mutual well-being and care. Given these underlying Faith-informed principles, this contradiction in the use of the word ‘strike’ requires further challenge. Placed alongside the Qur’anic ethical framework for marriage, the notion of any form of violence or harmful conduct being sanctified within a marital context becomes untenable. Consequently, the relevance of this verse in DVA discourses requires further deliberation in light of the consensus that the verse relates to specific non-DVA circumstances. The very essence of DVA is the intent to harm and the continuity of harm, which accompanies that. Marital conflict resolution would contradict itself if the underlying intent was to deliberately harm.

Faith teachings, however, can and have been used as a tool in the DVA process. Four such teaching ‘concepts’ have been identified as preventing women from reporting the abuse and/or leaving the abusive relationship. 25 These include justifications for DVA using the Faith, victim blaming, reiteration of the religious need to exercise patience and finally, forgiveness towards those who perpetrate abuse. Victims were made to feel that to uphold such principles were the markers of a good Muslim wife. Central to this was the notion of not breaking up the family unit. Subsequently, blame and responsibility is placed upon the victim, with little accountability from the individual perpetrating abuse and causing the primary discord within the family. Within my own practitioner work, the use of chapter four, verse 34 of the Qur’an to justify DVA behaviours was not apparent. What was evident, however, was a conflation of ethnic cultural norms, particularly in relation to patriarchal gender role expectations. This will be explored further within the remainder of this article.

As a final point for consideration, the significant role of religious authority and the influence this has on DVA situations has been highlighted. 26 Imams, shari’ah councils (Muslim family advisory bodies), and mosques are recognized as holding a critical position in relation to matrimonial issues. 27 When mediation or conflict resolution fails at the level of the family, individuals often default to those with religious authority. The advice and guidance provided by these authorities is considered integral to the maintenance of Faith identity. The role of Shari’ah councils therefore must be given due consideration. Shari’ah councils have been identified as being both problematic in their treatment of female clients in particular, 28 whilst at the same time providing a vital service in meeting the religious needs of female clients which cannot be met through civil processes. 29 Al-Astewani 30 proposes that the shortcomings in the provision of Shari’ah councils as an alternative form of dispute resolution might be counteracted through the use of Muslim Arbitration Tribunals (MAT). The advantage of a MAT over a Shari’ah council includes the provision of scholars who are qualified in English law and religious law, all caseworkers being British thereby allowing for contextual understanding, and finally adequate female representation at all stages of tribunals. Whilst MATs afford better treatment to female clients in particular, care would still need to be exerted given that it is known that Family courts are often used as a means of continuation of DVA behaviours. 31 Ensuring this is not enabled across MATs therefore becomes critical.

B. Faith and DVA within the Social Sciences

The concept of Islam being embedded within the everyday has been identified as a psycho-social model of resilience. 32 Ter Haar posits the need to recognize religion as a resource within secular approaches and by implication, the necessity of developing policies through utilization of the resources inherent within communities. 33 From a psychological perspective, there is a growing body of work highlighting the need for supportive interventions for Muslim communities to be grounded within an Islamic cosmological framework in recognition of the protective elements integral to it. 34 A prerequisite to this is the conception of the human within Islamic theology and thereby Islamic epistemologies. 35

Qualitative research conducted with Black Muslim women in the USA identified that Faith played a supportive role within their recovery. 36 These included utilization of the Faith as a coping mechanism for DVA, help-seeking behaviours being rooted in obtaining support from religious leaders, use of scripture in relation to theological meaning making and development of deeper coping strategies, and spiritual cleansing through prayer and conversing with God in addition to physical cleansing. Finally, was actively engaging with the notion of a greater purpose in life. In line with the findings of Chowdhury and Winder, 37 the dual role of such support was highlighted. In some cases, the support facilitated positive contributions to coping with and addressing DVA. However, in other cases, when community members such as peers were involved, this at times had a detrimental impact on the DVA victim and furthermore, facilitated the continuation of the abuse. Examples included being told to exercise religious patience and stay in the relationship despite evidence of clear harm. At an individual level, both Oyewuwo 38 and Chowdhury and Winder highlight victims grappling with spiritual dilemmas surrounding exposing the faults of others and the internalized guilt felt in relation to this. Whilst deliberately exposing the personal faults of others would normally be frowned upon within a theological framework, the concept of covering harm done to others and thereby enabling further harm, presents an alternate theological situation. Given the overriding principle of causing no harm within the Islamic Faith, 39 such messages became misleading and exacerbated the trauma experienced through victim blaming. It has been argued that victim silencing occurs through social and structural failures, which leave victims socially trapped within abusive relationships. 40 When such silencing was coupled with the Faith, it created Faith-based conflict for victims.

The underlying theme of Faith being utilized as a resource which survivors could draw upon has been ascertained across numerous studies. 41 This has spanned across the recovery process, 42 as well as through the utilization of Faith-based resources such as scripture and hadeeth 43 and individuals holding positions of religious authority. 44 The need for Faith-informed supportive programmes which assist the recovery process have further been identified, 45 as has the desire for Faith-informed mental health and therapeutic support. 46 The potential for Faith-informed interventions to contribute towards radical change for both individuals and communities alike was alluded to. Within their model of the soul, Rothman and Coyle (2018) expounded upon the role of spiritual well-being as central to Muslim identity. It has been argued that balance can only be attained through holistic approaches to well-being, which by default require consideration of the spiritual nature of Muslim identity. 47 The underlying implication was the necessity for exploring DVA within a holistic framework for Muslim communities, inclusive of faith identities. Furthermore, research indicates barriers to seeking help exist in families, social networks, at the individual level and in relation to the provision of services. 48 This becomes all the more significant given the close network of connections evident within Muslim communities.

Related to this discussion, the literature demonstrates a pertinent issue surrounding the conflation of Faith tenets with ethnic cultural normative practices. The difficulty in distinguishing between ethnic cultural norms and Faith-based teachings have been found to result in the assumption that some harmful cultural norms have a legitimate basis within the Faith. 49 In patriarchal societies, where women were viewed as being under the ownership of their male relatives, this has been found to lead to various forms of abuse. 50 DVA contributing cultural expectations surrounding the role of women have been found within both Arab and South Asian cultures. 51 Such expectations have been linked to increased barriers in addressing DVA, the resulting social isolation and thereby potentially more than one person perpetrating abusive behaviours against the same victim. This concept has been labelled as multiple perpetrator domestic violence (MDV). 52 Whilst MDV has been linked to minority communities by virtue of lower socio-economic demography combined with state marginalization and traditional gender role expectations, the structure of close-knit communities also requires consideration within this.

Following their international study of violence against women and girls from Christian and Muslim backgrounds, Le Roux and Pertek make a series of recommendations as outlined below. 53

Utilise religious resources and actors.

Encompass the potential within religious experience.

Accommodate agency of religious female survivors.

Consider role of religion for those who perpetrate abuse.

Give precedence to religious literacy.

Develop hybrid and pragmatic approaches to working with religion.

Promote increased collaborations between the secular and religious.

Project dldl further endorses the significant role of clergy within Faith communities in an international context. 54 The critical role of Faith within addressing DVA is therefore apparent. It further affirms the potential of Faith identity embedded in Islamic epistemological frameworks 55 to act as a form of a psycho-social model of resilience. 56 This research builds upon previous research and further explores the applicability of the recommendations outlined above through the web model of DVA. 57 The role and practice of Faith in DVA within UK Muslim communities is explored across the four corresponding levels present within the web model of DVA. These levels pertain to the individual psycho-social-spiritual level, the level of stakeholders, intersectionality and finally the macro level. This research is situated within the psychology discipline.

It has been argued that in order to accurately understand communities, knowledge generation must commence from their points of reference. 58 For Muslim communities in particular, the need to understand the self within culturally relevant epistemological frameworks rather than exclusive secular paradigms has been advocated. 59 This research utilizes a qualitative approach, whereby interpretative phenomenological analysis is supported by verbatim quotations from participants. All identifying details have been removed. Within qualitative research, the goal of phenomenology has been identified as reaching the essence of lived experience. 60 This is described as being increasingly imperative for minority communities in order to gain an accurate reflection of that lived experience. 61

A. Participants

Two studies were conducted. Study one involved 10 Muslim female survivors of DVA and study two involved nine professionals working in a supportive capacity with DVA survivors, their families and those perpetrating abuse. Participant recruitment was carried out via convenient and snowballing sampling techniques, whereby multiple community contacts and DVA organizations were sent information about the research and asked to disseminate this further to their contacts. Smaller sample sizes within qualitative research have been argued as providing opportunities for deeper exploration of the data. 62 Purposive sampling allows for the representation of small groups for whom the research question is applicable and relevant. 63 Within this research, the samples were those who had direct experience of DVA or were directly involved in the care of DVA cases. These contrasting perspectives on the same issue facilitated richness within the data, whilst maintaining direct relevance to the research question.

Demographics of the participants can be viewed in Table 1 .

Participant demographics

Remained in relationship as abuse stopped.

Not Muslim.

Not applicable

B. Data Collection

Semi-structured interviews were conducted for both studies. Semi-structured interviews enable the provision of prompts by the researcher followed by space in which the participant can consider and contribute their experiences and expertise. 64 Interview schedules were developed in relation to the research question and further informed through existing literature. Questions for the survivors’ cohort focused on a brief overview of the DVA experience without going into detail of specific incidents, family reactions and attitudes to the DVA and victim, community reactions and attitudes to the DVA and victim, and what changes survivors felt were required at a community level. Questions for the professionals’ cohort encompassed DVA manifestations within Muslim communities, how these formed and their subsequent impacts, the role of faith and cultural norms observed within their professional practice, and suggestions professionals felt would support creating positive change at a community level.

Interviews were conducted both face-to-face and remotely online or via telephone. Remote interviews are known to broaden the research to a wider population base through increased accessibility. This is particularly important for sensitive topics or where individuals may not wish to speak in person. 65 Interviews are known to facilitate a natural flow of conversation and spontaneity, supporting a more accurate reflection of the participant expertise. 66 Informed consent was gained prior to all interviews commencing. Ethical approval was gained from Brunel University London Research Ethics Committee (reference 12519-MHR-Nov/2018-14813-2).

C. Analysis

Interviews were transcribed verbatim with all identifying details removed. An interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) approach was adopted in analysing the data within each study. IPA involves a double layer of hermeneutics whereby the researcher adds a layer of interpretative meaning upon the lived experience shared by the participant. 67 Findings from this for the individual studies will be made available in future outputs. Thereafter a multi-perspective IPA (MP-IPA) approach was adopted across both studies, allowing for the exploration of interconnections and trajectories of meaning across the two studies. 68 In gathering a number of perspectives, both the individual phenomenology and the related systems psychology are explored. 69 MP-IPA approaches thereby facilitate both an interpretative and critical lens to the data, for a more nuanced understanding. The combining of research paradigms is deemed to add authenticity, with potential to better reflect the research question. 70 Following on from the MP-IPA approach, the web model of DVA was developed (see note 54). Within this, DVA was understood to have manifestations and influencing factors at four levels. These included the individual psycho-social-spiritual level, the level of stakeholders, intersectionality and the macro level. Across the web model of DVA, numerous themes emerged over these four levels. One such line of inquiry related to the role of Faith within DVA is explored in this article.

Utilization of an insider positioning within this research to elicit understanding, whilst ensuring the participant frames of reference formed the baseline (refer note 11) were upheld. The process of phenomenology facilitates the understanding of shared commonalities across the lived reality for numerous individuals. 71 This approach presupposes the participant as the expert. 72 Within this, consideration was given to potential insider bias through vigilant reflective practice of data collection, analysis, and subsequent outputs. 73

Within all four levels of the web model of DVA Faith played a dual parallel role. A holistic approach to Faith at each of the levels resulted in Faith being utilized as a positive resource in addressing and navigating a way out of DVA. Holistic is defined as approaching the Faith in its entirety, devoid of binary approaches which often take a literal approach towards scripture. A reductionist and androcentric approach to Faith however led to creating spaces within which abuse could firstly occur, and secondly proliferate. Reductionism took place in the form of condensing the Faith down to a set of binary rules and regulations. Androcentric approaches saw males given preference within social structures in ways which were not always in line with Faith principles. The nuances in relation to the role of Faith within DVA in UK Muslim communities is explored below for each of the four levels of the web model of DVA.

A. Role of Faith at the Individual Psycho-Social-Spiritual Level

At the individual level, a holistic understanding and approach towards Faith became empowering to the individual experiencing DVA. When this was lacking, participants expressed the resulting negative consequences it had on shaping the DVA experience.

It was a misunderstood element of my own lack of knowledge and understanding of the deen ( Islam as a way of life ), that’s what it boils down to. The more, I, I now associate myself with educated Muslims, practicing Muslims, I realized subhan’Allah ( Glory be to God ) how Merciful Allah is, how easy the path of Islam is actually, we complicated it and that’s my shortcoming, it’s not the Faith. (Survivor 6)

Survivor 6 spoke about her own lack of knowledge in relation to Faith, which she felt led to added levels of difficulties and complications within the DVA experience. Gaining a deeper understanding of Faith and related tenets facilitated empowerment and religious autonomy. Similar observations have been put forward in relation to US Muslims whereby advocates raising DVA awareness utilized Faith-based resources as a positive tool in addressing DVA. 74 The importance of positive social connections within this was indicated as being significant. Balanced and informed voices within psychotherapeutic support have been raised as a critical element in supporting Muslim female survivors in making sense of their DVA experience, in line with their Faith tradition. 75

I was getting my comfort from the Qur’an, again because I started to read erm the chapter on Women and the chapter on Divorce, and that actually was again you know what helped me to, to even come to a decision, because actually culturally I was being told I was breaking up the family…that’s what I was being told culturally, you know if I walked away it was all my fault, but when I was reading the Qur’an it was telling me that you know it’s not ok to be abused. (Survivor 10)

Survivor 10 expanded on this, explaining that for her, going back to the sacred text of the Qur’an itself was what granted her freedom. Within this she was able to identify affirmations of abuse in all forms being wrong and unacceptable within a theological framework. This was in direct contrast to ethnic culturally informed messages she was receiving from family networks. A divergence between lived experience of the Faith and theological text was evident. Similar experiences have been reported by victims of sexual and/or spiritual abuse carried out by those holding positions of religious authority, 76 underlying the common factor of returning to Faith in its holistic sense, despite the trauma of abuse.

Very important, I think it ( Islamic resources ) meant a lot to me and I think actually (.) it was probably the one (.) consistent and strong thing that kept me going through the whole thing…because without that everything else was just (.) changing and shifting and the goal posts were always moving. (Survivor 2)

The importance of Faith resources in providing a stable framework from which victims and survivors could make sense of their experience was highlighted within the data. Survivor 2 explained that the very nature of DVA implied uncertainty and volatility. With goalposts continuously shifting, it became difficult for victims to make sense of the world they were enclosed within. Faith-based resources, however, became a stronghold that provided a stable direction out of the abuse, even if it took a while to get free of the abuse. Having sound resources allowed victims to see a way forward and to know that there was a way out, even if they were unable to access it immediately.

At the individual level, Faith became a hidden power that victims drew upon to get through the darkness of abuse. It further provided hope for the future, allowing individuals to know that abuse was not endorsed by the Faith and therefore they did not have to continue to live in this manner. Therefore, at the individual psycho-social-spiritual level, Faith was viewed as being positive and empowering. It facilitated the opportunity for victims to re-claim their religious rights of living a life free of abuse, with limited scope for this to be challenged. This however was conditional upon having access to and adopting a holistic understanding and approach to Faith.

B. Role of Faith at the Stakeholder Level

The findings clearly identified the active involvement of key additional individuals, referred to as stakeholders, in how DVA was experienced (see note 6). Faith became further intertwined within the DVA experience through such participation. Stakeholder categories identified within this research included the spouse, the immediate family of the victim and spouse, the extended family of the victim and spouse, and community leaders. The importance of individualizing stakeholder groups to each victim has been advocated 77 ; therefore, these categories are not considered exhaustive. Such stakeholders could potentially act in a beneficial and protective capacity for the victim, or in some cases could be detrimental to victims. Stakeholder groups who presented a negative impact on the DVA experience often did so due to a reductionist approach to Faith. This is exemplified in the following extract by survivor 9.

There was a huge like double standard, like ‘you’re married now, my family is your family, your family don’t matter anymore, your priority is with your husband and his family’, and I just saw that as so unfair and that’s not even from the teachings of Islam, like I know that’s not from the teachings of Islam. (Survivor 9)

Survivor 9 conveyed her acute awareness regarding the expectations being superimposed onto her. Whilst such expectations were portrayed as falling under the banner of her Faith tradition, she knew and understood them to be contrary to Faith teachings. However, such expectations were forced upon her, allowing for the creation of environments within which abusive practices could be upheld and coercive control could thrive. Critical within this was the divergence away from Faith principles, with preference given to ethnic cultural normative practices and androcentric gender role expectations. Such expectations are not uncommon within Muslim communities. 78 This was expressed as being imposed upon victims and thereby exacerbating the DVA experience. Implied within this was the idea of victims having their voices suppressed and their autonomy removed. This was further substantiated by professionals.

So I've come across a few where they have this idea that the, once you’ve got married you’re a daughter-in-law and so you're no longer part of the other, your family, and so you need to seek permission in order to go and visit them and you're not supposed to visit them very much. Erm, and yet their daughter, will be in and out all the time, of the family home, her home. And it’s, there's a lot of you know contradiction and double standards in the treatments. (Professional 1)

The ‘double standards’ in how daughter-in-laws were treated in comparison to daughters were raised. The implication was that marriage brought with it a set of unspoken expectations that were socially enforced through cultural customs and normative behaviours. Implied within this, was the presence of such norms contributing directly to DVA behaviours and the resulting pressures faced by DVA victims. Ironically, the same was not imposed on daughters, yet those daughters faced the possibility of having the very same expectations imposed upon them after marriage by another family. In contrast, Extract 6 demonstrates the potential power held within stakeholder voices.

So initially he’d ( Imam ) asked a few questions and then he said ‘if you’re unhappy then you don’t have to stay in the marriage at all, Islam does not, you know Islam does not say you need to stay in this marriage and erm, you know there are shari’ah councils ( family advisory bodies ) that will help you, there are people here that will help you to, to dissolve the marriage and you don’t have to stay with him’, and that gave me a lot of hope. (Survivor 2)

Survivor 2 spoke about how in consulting an Imam, he was able to advise her on her religious rights. This provided a level of religious validation that could not be sourced elsewhere. Therefore, the role of those with religious authority became imperative. It has been observed that Muslims will default to those with religious authority in family-related matters. 79 This may in part be related to the manner in which marriage ceremonies are conducted. Religious-only ceremonies necessitate intervention via religious legal recourse. 80 However, the significant desire to abide by theological boundaries was also evident. With Faith identity being central, having personal decisions grounded in a Faith framework gave a level of validity, which became difficult for other stakeholders to argue with. This was in contrast to advice by other Faith leaders where victims were told they needed to exercise patience and thereby remain in that relationship, despite this potentially putting their lives at risk. Such advice by those with religious authority, holding such positions of power, became detrimental. The data indicated that these individuals were often ill-informed in relation to DVA dynamics and furthermore, had a culturally informed approach to Faith, whether rooted in harmful social customs or ethnic normative behaviours. Either way, these contradicted holistic approaches to Faith tenets that were removed from androcentric approaches.

And he ( family member ) said, ‘you need to think very carefully’, he said ‘you’ve got a child, you know you have to think about what you want for your life and whether this is what you want for your life’ and he said ‘no one member of my family would hold it against you, we all know what he’s like and none of us would think ill of you if you ended the relationship, and I just want to put that out, out there’. (Survivor 4)

Evidence of a range of stakeholder categories was apparent, with some of these categories not necessarily confined to the social connections of just the victim. Survivor 4 spoke about the family of her abusive spouse having a private supportive conversation with her. Knowing that they understood the long-term reality of her situation and wanting her to have a positive future, presented fewer potential barriers to overcome in considering leaving abuse. Without adequate social and familial support, leaving DVA becomes a challenging and isolating process. 81 Extract 8 demonstrates positive voices speaking out, wanting alternative positive trajectories for victims. This indicated an awareness that whilst this was not always the case, some stakeholders were not afraid to break established norms and encourage and pursue change.

I remember when I left my partner last year my mum actually said to me ‘Don’t go back, I don’t want you to have the kind of life that I’ve had’. (Survivor 9)

Survivor 9 spoke about her mother actively encouraging her not to return to her abusive marriage. Her advice extended beyond culture and religion and directly spoke out against social norms stipulating females should put up with abuse. This was indicative of a level of awareness that abuse was not something females needed to tolerate and endure. Furthermore, given her own lived experiences she knew that change was possible and wanted that for her daughter. Stakeholders therefore played a significant role, whether in a protective or DVA contributory capacity. This is an important component requiring consideration within DVA in Muslim and by extension, other close-knit communities.

C. Role of Faith at the Level of Intersectionality

Intersectionality was originally posited as relating to race, gender, socio-economic status, sexuality, and disability within Black communities and the subsequent interactions, which lead to disparities in opportunities and life outcomes. 82 The role of intersectionality within DVA has gained increased traction. 83 Whilst intersectionality within the web model of DVA extends to all of the protected characteristics, three particular areas at the broader community level manifested as having a distinct impact. These were education and understanding in relation to DVA, ethnic cultural normative practices and Faith. There was a noticeable impact of these three areas interacting to shape the DVA experience and avenues for accessing support.

That for some people they go to an Imam or a shaykh and they get told just be patient, that’s classic, have sabr (patience) , that’s a classic one and then they go in an abusive relationship for the next thirty years, or erm they’re told oh just wait it out or it’ll get better. These things get taken so lightly that victims don’t get heard or people that are in difficult marriages just, that somebody, the imam or shaykh is so almost hell-bent on making sure the marriage survives, that they are so influential and persuasive in making those people stay together but not taking into consideration that these are two people that are, that are hurting, that are in pain, that are not happy. (Professional 2)

Professional 2 spoke of the power held by those in positions of religious authority, and the resulting impact on the lives of DVA victims. When that power was combined with ignorance in relation to the tangible levels of damage and unhappiness caused by DVA, it became a source of spiritual anguish and suffering. This is in line with Nowrin who found that whilst Imams were often sought out by Canadian Muslims to resolve DVA concerns, they were not always DVA cognizant and hence many advised religious patience, coping strategies and reconciliatory efforts that only exacerbated the DVA. 84 The inference was that for some people, they would never be able to leave the abuse due to the external pressures and expectations placed upon them from seemingly religious sources. This lack of adequate DVA education at the level of those with religious authority was reflected in a sample of American Muslims with very real detrimental consequences. 85 This lack of DVA literacy was further expanded upon by professional 7.

It is, it is, what we have in Islam is, sometimes Islam is misunderstood by people, even the people who practice, because what we tend to do, we inherit cultural practice, and then we grow up with it and then we think that’s Islamic. (Professional 7)

The notion that even within those who identified as Muslim, there were groups of people who had conflated the tenets of the Faith with their ethnic cultural normative traditions, was put forward throughout the data. This had significant consequences within DVA cases whereby oppressive practices that stemmed from cultural norms were in fact understood, absorbed, and passed down generations as being inherent to the Faith itself. This alluded to such phenomenon happening at a subconscious level and therefore whole communities potentially being unaware of a distinction between Faith and cultural normative practices. The result manifested in cases such as that demonstrated in Extract 9, where DVA victims were told they must remain in abusive relationships. Furthermore, a form of learned helplessness 86 was exhibited, whereby victims themselves believed that this was something they had no autonomy over.

For a long time I never really understood, I just thought that this is how marriages are and how marriages are supposed to be. (Survivor 9)

The lived impact of such subconsciously absorbed beliefs is demonstrated by survivor 9 who spoke of comprehending no alternatives. To her, abusive marriages were how marriages were inherently meant to be. Therefore, there was nothing to question in relation to the abuse, it was only her ability to cope that came into question. This had a significant detrimental impact on her mental health and well-being, with several survivors referring to symptoms relating to depression, anxiety, self-harming behaviours, and suicidal thoughts. Faith-informed therapeutic approaches to recovery have facilitated the questioning of such embedded beliefs within safe spaces, thereby allowing a more holistic understanding of healthy marital relationships within the Islamic framework. 87 This conflated knowledge, however, between the actual tenets of the Faith and ethnic cultural normative practices, governed how survivors navigated community contexts.

You know, there’s that other thing of you’re not allowed to speak of other people’s sins, like when you’re new to the religion there is so much of that stuff going around in your head, you’re thinking am I going to be at fault if I divulge this about the other person. (Survivor 4)

Survivor 4 spoke about the internalized guilt carried as a result of not fully understanding what was religiously acceptable to raise. Those who were new to the Faith were particularly vulnerable to not knowing what they could say and to whom. Being expected to uphold the highest of standards in personal integrity resulted in survivors being obstructed from voicing DVA concerns. Yet, in line with international trends, 88 the unacceptable standards in behaviour of those perpetrating abuse were not called into question. Instead, the survivors became the ones who were questioned in relation to integrity. Secondary victimization has been identified as underpinning global victim blaming attitudes. 89 For someone who sincerely wanted to practice and follow their Faith, this presented deeply troubling questions in relation to their religious identity and place within their Faith community. For some, such levels of community questioning were expressed as pushing them close to leaving the Faith altogether. Indeed, within the course of conducting the research, a group of females who had left the Faith due to their DVA experiences expressed an interest in taking part in the research. Ultimately, they decided not to participate; however, their voices are critical to understanding this area further. Where other research has focused on the positive aftermath of utilizing Faith as a resource for resilience and growth, 90 this is a significant area of future research. Corresponding to this, it is known that survivors of spiritual abuse (where religion has been conflated with the abuse or abuse has been inflicted by someone with religious authority) often move away from their Faith before returning after many difficult years. 91 A deeper understanding of this, therefore, becomes imperative.

Despite this, when survivors had access to individuals or social support with a holistic understanding of Faith coupled with an accurate understanding of DVA, this proved to be transformative to their experience.

Erm, but also I had a lot of supportive friends at work, so I worked in an Islamic school in ( city name ) and erm I had friends and colleagues who were very knowledgeable, erm I had access to a scholar who was also very knowledgeable. (Survivor 2)

Survivor 2 expressed what was echoed throughout the data. Informed social support played a critical role in providing safety and community-based resources which could be drawn upon when required. Balanced knowledge of Faith permitted survivors to have clarity of thought and validation to their rights as equal citizens within society and the family unit. The role of androcentric approaches in Faith-based knowledge generation and understanding has been concluded as contributing to dismissive attitudes towards women and the removal of compassion within marital relations. 92 This has been emphasized as being the very opposite of the tranquility and refuge considered to be foundational to marital and family life in Islam. Such approaches have further been outlined as far removed from the prophetic teachings of social justice and equity. Therefore, to have informed social support which validated the Faith-based rights of women to live free from abuse provided strength and a source of hope. Without this, there was an implication that some individuals may never have been able to leave the abusive situation or for others, their suffering would have been prolonged. Integral to this was the balance of accurate understanding of DVA alongside informed holistic theological perspectives. The combination of the two resulted in the conflict present within cultural normative practices becoming an obsolete consideration for victims. This is indicative of the potential resources held within intersectionality. Such nuanced understanding unlocks possibilities within DVA interventions, which may not have otherwise been considered.

D. Role of Faith at the Macro Level

At the final level, Faith being intertwined within macro societal structures played a significant role in how DVA was experienced at the individual level. This often filtered through communities collectively, before negatively impacting the individual at the core of the DVA experience. Considerations at the macro level were not always necessarily related to DVA. Often, they were more focused on the narratives surrounding Muslims and Islam and thereby having a ripple effect on Muslim communities and in turn, DVA experiences. Professional 4 spoke about the vilification of Muslim communities as a whole and the pressure this had on everyone including professionals like herself.

And then I think the representations of us, all the time . And even though if I never grew up seeing women from my background in the public eye, look at the world of the politics, of sport, of drama, we've got women who look like us at every level and in every profession. But what you hear and what you see all the time is the Shamima Begum’s, the Asian taxi, the Muslim taxi drivers. That's what you see and that's what you hear. I think that defensive position is quite a natural position. And I have to constantly pull myself out of that when I hear people criticizing Muslims or criticizing Islam. I have to go, do you know what? This actually isn't about me. This is about those people as individuals. And I, what I need to challenge is the whole community label. (Professional 4)

The idea of Muslims being portrayed in a negative and stereotypical manner at a national level was raised. This was despite the heterogeneous nature of Muslim communities, and the documented contributions made to broader society across the fields of education, welfare, poverty relief, and youth and female empowerment. 93 Fair representation was felt to be excluded from mainstream media and political narratives. Instead, all Muslims being harmfully profiled under the actions of a few were felt to dominate, such as the case of Shamima Begum and the depiction of Muslim Asian taxi drivers. This was indicative of all Muslims being labelled as one homogeneous group, with these two examples highlighting the stereotyped negative nature of such portrayals. Right-leaning print media have been found to consistently depict Muslims more negatively than Jews, and more frequently more negatively than Christians. 94 Similar profiling reports were expressed within research conducted with Muslim professionals who participated in society at a Government level. 95 The subsequent pressure felt by communities and professionals alike was raised. Professionals having to consciously engage with extricating their own individual identity from mainstream negative narratives was put forward. The underlying intimation was the challenges this presented for professionals and, therefore, what of the average Muslim citizen. Ansari denotes a similar experience as a Black Muslim male Chaplain working with Muslims in US prisons. 96 He raises the very real struggle faced by frontline practitioners, already marginalized through their own minority status, yet being responsible for the pastoral care and support of fellow marginalized community members. Professional 4 elaborated on being forced into a defensive position due to the ongoing nature of such narratives, with indications towards this being a regular occurrence. Social self-preservation theory posits that shame is felt when the social self becomes threatened. 97 Group and social identities are argued to contribute to concepts of selfhood. 98 In the need to distinguish personal identities, Lofland proposed that salient features were ascribed to groups collectively within social identification. 99 These factors accumulated to give rise to tangible negative outcomes for DVA survivors. With positive social self-being linked to the ability to access better life opportunities, the consequences expressed here were the detrimental effects upon service provision. This in turn impacted some of the most vulnerable in society as seen in the following extract.

That’s got to influence, you know I think there’s more prejudice now than erm than previously, certainly when I was at ( place name ) which was 2001, 2002, there just wasn’t that prejudice that there is now. [I: Mmm, so how does that then play out in your, in the cases you deal with?] Er well I think it plays in, in amongst the multi-agencies particularly, so you’ll have police who will be driving a real agenda about Channel panel, erm why are we not intervening, why are we not moving, really pushing our agenda, and trying to influence our intervention, erm and then a lot of fear in schools, from schools, there’s a lot of fear from other agencies. (Professional 5)

Services being pressured to conform to national security measures regardless of whether there was a tangible security concern, was raised as creating further divide within sectors such as education and welfare. Hargreaves refers to this as a form of state-sponsored anti-Muslim prejudice, 100 seen within the inception and delivery of Prevent. Qurashi concludes relations between UK Muslim communities and local authorities have become securitized, indicative of underlying islamophobia inherent within the Prevent agenda. 101 He argues that securitization has been deliberately embedded into policies and practices within macro-level structures, favouring white privilege and power, whilst containing the social needs and thereby social activism and movement of minority communities. Hargreaves further proposes that the relationship between British political structures and British Muslim communities is dominated by the subject of terrorism. Such reflections are not unsurprising given that the British Government itself acknowledges the very foundations of Prevent as being based upon the distortion of the Islamic Faith, 102 which disproportionately targets Muslims. 103

The idea of drivers at the macro level working in tandem to place pressure on parts of broader societal systems was highlighted as creating significant disparities for Muslim communities. A culture of fear and suspicion was raised as the consequence. Under a social curse phenomenon, the normal protective elements found within group identities and affiliations became harmful to all who were identified as belonging to that group. 104 This fear and suspicion has further been traced within political spectrums whereby Muslims working in Government expressed experiences of being viewed under a suspect lens. 105 Professional 5, who was not a Muslim, brought to light what other professionals alluded to but did not voice so directly. This indicated a level of hesitation internal to Muslim communities, whereby speaking out would potentially cast them further into the net of suspicion. 106 In spite of such negative associations superimposed onto Muslims and Islam, the need for culturally tailored services was advocated across the data. This was indicative of the strengths and resources held within Muslim traditions.

Well I think initially what we need to do is raise the profile and make sure that police and local authorities and health are recording, you know the faith of women who are survivors, and then ensuring that’s then feeding into how we commission our services. (Professional 5)

Participants indicated a level of disregard for Muslim communities within macro service provision. The need to incorporate cultural and religious sensitivities were not accounted for, given that demographic data were often not being collected. Without such data collection, service provision in line with Qurashi’s observations 107 had no need to incorporate the needs of minorities. In extension to this, measuring the potential effectiveness of culturally appropriate services thereby became irrelevant.

Erm I think it’s with Muslim clients and BME clients, they want somebody who they think is going to understand either their culture, or their faith or a combination of both. And very often with clients it’s about, with Muslim clients I think very often it’s because they want a counsellor who understands their religion but just as importantly understand the culture and ethnicity as well, so we can understand the relationship between the two. (Professional 2)

The contrasting need within communities however was evident. Both survivors and professionals reported the desire for services to encompass their cultural and religious background. Not necessarily to give them religio-specific advice however, having prior cultural understanding was deemed as reducing the burden on survivors to have to explain aspects of their identity before they could discuss the actual support required. This was further seen within research conducted by The Lantern Initiative relating to the accessing of mental health support by Muslim communities. Within a sample of 334 UK-based Muslims, 84 per cent reported that they wanted faith-informed counselling services available. 108 This demonstrates that whilst existing structures at the macro level had room for improvement, the nature of such improvements required direct input from the communities in question in order to understand and cater to their specific needs. Equally, this was indicative of this provision within services being attainable, despite the presence of existing barriers.

This article demonstrates the dual role of Faith within DVA in Muslim communities as derived through the web model of DVA. The web model of DVA provides a unique structured framework within which the role of Faith for each victim or survivor can be ascertained. This is envisaged as supporting practitioners in the field when working with clients. Furthermore, it will allow academics and policymakers to gain a better conceptual understanding of the nuanced role of Faith and thereby the resulting implications for academic and policy approaches to supporting victims of DVA.

In summary, where reductionist approaches to Faith teachings manifested, this became an intersectional harm, allowing for the occurrence and maintenance of DVA. Simultaneously, holistic approaches towards the Faith, inclusive of significant stakeholder categories such as those with religious authority, held potential to provide a tangible and supportive route out of the abuse. This was in terms of addressing DVA, preventing further abuse and creating awareness within communities. Faith literacy by all, including victims and survivors was critical to this. The role of Faith within DVA, therefore, is nuanced and needs to be considered at the four levels outlined within the web model of DVA. To do so otherwise would result in a limited understanding of DVA within Muslim communities and thereby potentially compound the harms of DVA. On a practice level, services that proactively engage with the resources held within communities will be better placed to understand and cater to nuanced needs. The web model of DVA facilitates a structured approach as to how the utilization of Faith in the addressing and prevention of DVA within Muslim communities can be achieved at four crucial levels. By having this structured framework, services would not necessarily need to have all the answers themselves. They could utilize the web model to identify and draw upon the resources already present within the various levels identified in the web model of DVA, whilst ensuring it is individualized to each client. This would enable recognition and meeting of the nuanced individual needs of DVA survivors.

The delicate balance between ethnic cultural norms and Faith-based teachings are a normative plurality seen within the lives of ordinary Muslims. Furthermore, they manifest within the lives of Muslim professionals working in this sector. This can often remain unrecognized within broader society, including within the provision of services. Whilst such a conflation can lead to the exacerbation of DVA, equally the protective role of Faith is markedly evident throughout. Recognition of this nuance is critical in the provision of support within DVA in Muslim communities and has been advocated by wider literature. 109 The presence of parallel protective elements and DVA contributors at each of the four levels amplifies the need for consideration of these nuances in order to provide victims and survivors with meaningful routes out of the abuse and towards their recovery. The role of education and awareness of these parallel roles in preventative work thereby also becomes pronounced. Within this, there is scope for the work of Mir Hosseini 110 in advocating an epistemological framework rooted in Islamic frameworks to elicit a deeper understanding within communities and professionals alike. This would facilitate change utilizing a bottom-up approach. Extending from this is the proposed Qur’anic ethics of marriage model. 111 Where this ethics model is established as the norm within communities, this makes the feasibility of questioning DVA behaviours much more accessible and approachable. Thereby contributing to preventative mechanisms.

Under this umbrella, the recommendations made by Le Roux and Pertek 112 are therefore advocated. However, exclusive reliance on those with religious authority is cautioned. The web model demonstrates that there are additional stakeholders and elements within the macro level which could also be drawn upon. These are also indicated within the recommendations of Le Roux and Pertek. The manifestations of psycho-social resilience via the Islamic Faith were evident. Rather than resilience being grounded in the concept of achieving despite adversity, 113 resilience here manifested as the utilization of protective elements already present within the Islamic Faith and Islamic epistemological frameworks. This was in line with the concept of spiritual intelligence whereby utilization of higher-level Faith-based resources contributed towards well-being and resilience. 114 In light of this, the recommendations outlined by Le Roux and Pertek become pertinent, as do the findings of ter Haar. Where current narratives outlined Faith as potentially harmful and an object of suspicion, the growing body of research demonstrates the need to place Faith as an integral component within the prevention and addressing of DVA, further to its active role in supporting recovery. The web model of DVA provides a comprehensive structured manner in which this can be achieved for each individual.

This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (reference ES/P000649/1).

Conflict of interest: The author declares her positionality as a Muslim female and thereby an insider to the research topic and communities in question. Questions surrounding potential scope for bias and the need for insider research have been addressed in the methodology section.

The author wishes to thank all the participants who gave their time and valuable contributions to this research.

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Violence in Religion essay


Violencein Religion

Fromancient times, the teachings of all religions have been at theforefront in the call of humankind liberation. Religious systems,doctrines, and beliefs were structured to promote peace, love, andunity among its believers and those neighboring them. Actions ofhatred and violence were condemned by the religious leaders and anyperpetrators were cursed and banned from the religious community.Religious rules and laws were passed from one generation to another,either orally or on written manuscripts to prevent the eruption ofviolence. However, the situation has changed greatly over the years.In fact recently, religious sects are at the forefront participatingin and aiding violence activities. Radical groups sprout on religiousroots and religious systems have adopted extreme approaches toinfluence and stamp their beliefs to others. Similarly, attackslinked to certain religion with different ideologies are rising at analarming rate. In this paper, I will critically look at violence inreligion, empirical evidence of such acts, warrant explanations onthe evidence, challenges faced when trying to curb the issue, and theway forward if we were to face out the issue in the future.

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Violencein religion is a two side affair on one side the religious systemsare the subjects while on the other side they are the objects ofviolent acts. Violence in religion comprises of actions that aretriggered or in reaction to certain beliefs, doctrines, and religioustexts (Robert, 1987). In most cases, these actions targetreligious-affiliated institutions, people, and even objectstherefore, violence in religion does not only occur when religiousgroups attack other religious sects or secular groups. The attackscarried by secular individuals and groups to religious ones are alsounder this bracket. All forms of violence are cultural processes(Tokuno, 2004). They are contextual making them very complex, and sois religion violence. The processes of oversimplifying certainreligious ideas in conjunction to violence have resulted inmisinformed opinion and exaggeration on why people have resorted toviolence acts within religion. This has led to the notion of theindividual blame on violent acts rather than collectiveresponsibility when they arise. It is, however, clear that violencein religion is carried out under the large umbrella of conflictingideological ideas and is the main cause of social, political, andeconomic instability in the contemporary society.

EmpiricalEvidence and Warranted Explanations

Violencein religion cannot go unnoticed the term may be considered harsh andunpleasant among religious scholars since from time immemorialreligions have opposed forces of violence for a peaceful existence.Religions were involved in negotiations and reconciliation processes.However, from the scriptures of sacred texts of world`s religions, itis evident that the stories of peace and love come in line with thoseof violence and war (Terrence, 2004). Like in Christianity,Israelites attack their neighbors in order to conquer them and expandtheir territories. Islamic also talk of the holy war Jihad in orderto spread it among the non-believers. This is a clear indication thatevidence on religion violence can be traced from ancient times.

Inthe contemporary society, the situation is even worse one of theevident features is the religion sponsored terrorism. I will drawspecific evidence from Islamic-linked terrorism. Islamic terrorismincorporates terror attacks carried out by Islamic sects or personswho confess to Islamic ideologies (Robert, 2005). In most cases,these groups are opportunistic citing the Quran and interpreting thescriptures in their favor. The number of attacks was initially highin Middle East states but in recent past, the attacks are a threatglobally hitting African, European, and Asian countries.

Thebasic ideology behind Islamic terrorism is Wahhabis (Sharma, 2016).According to the ideology, it is justified to go to war against everyperson who has different ideas from you. The ideology has led toextreme groups like Taliban, AL Qaeda, and Al Shabab, which have beeninvolved in fatal attacks. This ideology is, however, opposed by amajority of Muslims who are against the intolerant Wahhabi. It is,therefore, as a result of such conflicting interests that theseradicalized militant group not only attack non-Muslims but alsofellow Muslims who do not align to Wahhabi. In India, this ideologyhas been spread under the tag of Deobandi and it is held responsiblefor the violent attacks against the tolerant Sufi Muslims.

Themilitant groups have gone an extra mile to create a transnationalideology in order to gain fame and support within the Islamic world.It points western world as the real enemies of the Islamic world.They view every move in the western world as an act of war againstIslam. Islamists have always judged daily happenings as the historicstruggle that has been there between them and Christians (Talal,2003). Osama Bin Laden, who was the leader of Al Qaeda terror group,points out the Western world as aggressive and justifies his moves asdefensive. Defensive Jihadist has always painted the terrorists asvictims rather than the real aggressors. It, therefore, calls forIslamic groups to stand out violently and liberate themselves fromvictimization. It is on this basis that the groups have fiercelyfought western countries and Israel`s policies all over the world.They have also extended the attacks on allies of western countries inAfrica and Asia.

TheUnited States of America army colonel Dale C., once argued that theideology basis on Islamic is the foundation of Al Qaeda and othermilitant groups (Robert, 1987). He goes on to describe the ideologyas a collective package of violent Islamic ideas. In a summary whichhe calls Qutbism, he points out that Islam has moved away from thetrue religion teachings. He urges Islamic believers to take apersonal move to read and interpret the Quran on their own ratherthan relying on scholars.

Historicrivalry between Indians and Muslims has also been attributed todeadly attacks from the Islamic terrorists (Sharma, 2016). In fact,India tops the list of the countries that have been hit most byIslamic attacks as per the data collected by the United States ofAmerica Defense department.

Immoralsecularization is also another justification of terror attacks onwestern countries (Gabel, 2005). Islamic groups condemn westerncountries for the secularization wave that has spread globally. Theyassert that the freedom of speech in their countries have resulted tosocial vices like homosexuality, lesbianism, drug abuse, and evenchild pornography. Islamist militants have also warranted theirattacks under this umbrella in the pretext of conserving the moralsof the society and prevent western forces from invading their regionsand spreading immoral behavior.

Challengesfaced in the move to curb

Violencein religion has become a thorn to both national and internationalsecurity this has led to interfaith workshops, seminars, andconferences in the quest to address the issue.

Thefirst major challenge is the collection of data from the believers onthe ground about conflicting issues that have always led to violence(Talal, 2003). During the data collection process, even mereselection of adequate researchers is not easy as many people think. The tension and the actual eruption of religious violence are themajor tasks to be examined in almost all the societies. However,researchers encounter rejections and disappointments in the field.For instance in 2003, the interviewees in Iraq were not willing togive out information making it difficult to conduct any successfulinterview on interfaith conflict within the region (Robert, 2005).They argued that there is no good reason to discuss the relationsbetween the faiths and peace. Such responses have slowed down themove towards solving the problems.

Misinterpretationof holy texts has also posed a major challenge when it comes tobringing violence in religion under control (Gabel, 2005). Manybelievers like in the case of Christians fail to identify the impactstranslation had on original texts. It is clear that certain words inthe holy texts were corrupted in order to fit into the linguisticcontexts of the secondary languages. It is, therefore, necessary tokeep a critical mind and think of related meaning rather than theliteral meaning. A literal interpretation of the holy texts like theQuran and the Bible has been the source of conflicts and religiousviolence. Both the Quran and the Bible talk of peace and war it isan individual’s responsibility to choose what is right.

Theattempt to exclude secular from religious violence has posed a greatchallenge and slowed down tackling of violence in religion (Gabel,2005). Scholars have found it illogical to differentiate the two asseparate entities. When does one become secular violence and whendoes it become religious?

Anotherreason behind the slow move towards solving the problem is thesuperiority complex among the religions. Christian scholars andbelievers view Christianity as the prestigious and superior religionover other religions. Muslims have the same feeling on the otherhand. The pride among the faithful has made it impossible for them tosit and come up with measures that will lead to a win-win situationfor both sides. In the case of a scheduled meeting, every partymember comes along with a percentage of conditions that MUST beadhered to by the other party. This makes it impossible to reach aconsensus since each party has very rigid terms and is not open todiscussion.

Inconclusion, it is clear from the above argument that violence inreligion is a reality. Scholars have learned that such violence hasled to a lot of suffering to mankind in the contemporary world. Thesesufferings can range from acts of suicidal killings, hijackings,kidnappings and execute, sexual molestation, psychological torture tointernet hacking. To curb the menace it is, therefore, necessary forthe interfaith religious leaders to put aside denominationaldifferences and iron out everything. It is also necessary for thesociety to be emancipated on the need to look at the wider commongoal of religion which is liberation of mankind rather than focusingon minor differences that will cause conflicts and violence.

Avalos,H. (2005). Fightingwords: The origin of religious violence .New York. Prometheus books press.

Gabel,P. (2005). Plotto kill God: Secularization .Chicago. University of Chicago press.

Robert,G. (1987). Violentorigins .Stanford. Stanford university press.

Robert,P. (2005). Dyingto win : Thestrategic logic of suicide terrorism .Chicago. University of Chicago press.

Sharma,V. (2016). Secularismand religious violence in Hinduism and Islam .Economic weekly. 51(18:190-21).

Talal,S. (2003). Formationsof the secular : Christianity,Islam and modernity .Stanford. Stanford University press.

Terence,F. (2004). God and violence in the Old Testament: Word and World .NewYork: Harper Perennial.

Tokuno,K. (2004). ‘’ Isreligious violent inevitable?’’ . Journalfor scientific study of religion. 43(3:291).


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