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Flannagan and Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary Chapter 20: “Does Religion Cause Violence?”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by Mark Foreman

With Chapter 20, F&C enter the fourth part of their book, which both expands the discussion of the OT God and explores a number of related questions concerning theism and violence.  In this chapter they take on the general question of the relationship of religion to violence.  A number of writers suggest that there is an inherent relationship between religion and violence such that religion will inevitably lead to violent acts.  Charles Kimball declares in his book When Religion Becomes Evil that “religion has caused more violence than any other ‘institutional force in human history’” (259).  Mark Jurgensmeyer states that “religion is violent by its very nature because it tends to ‘absolutize and to project images of cosmic war’” (259). In her book, The Curse of Cain, Regina Schwartz claims it is not just religion, but monotheistic religion in particular, that leaves violence in its wake. Belief in one God is an exclusivistic claim creating outsiders who “will be ostracized, abhorred, even obliterated because they fail to acknowledge ‘the one true God’. Monotheism inevitably leads to an us-versus-them mind-set” (259-260). Instead of religion, these authors endorse the employment of the “enlightenment values” of tolerance, diversity, and pluralism.  These authors suggest that abandoning one’s religious commitments and adopting enlightenment values will significantly reduce the amount of violence in the world.  F&C spend this chapter examining and refuting these charges against religion.

They begin their exploration by examining the meaning of the concepts of “religion” and “enlightenment values.”  One irony they recognize at the outset is that “the pro-enlightenment advocates and/or ‘religion’ attackers are not even clear on what ‘religion’ is” (260).  Because there is little widespread commonality between traditional religions, F&C suggest “we would be wise to think in terms of an all-encompassing ‘worldview’ or ‘philosophy of life’ instead of the misused and abused term ‘religion’” (261). Such a worldview would be marked by three characteristics: comprehensiveness, incapable of abandonment (as it shapes the identity of the self), and of central importance.  Religions certainly fall into this concept but so do many secular worldviews such as humanism, post-modernism, and Marxism.  A second irony noted by F&C is that “political visions – even allegedly secular ones – often take on strongly ‘religious’ overtones” (262). Political leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, and Kim Jung II have been practically deified by many of their followers. “The line between the religious and the secular is quite clearly irrelevant when it comes to the phenomena of exalting dictators” (262). A final irony is that “secular ideologies can readily compete with the most fanatical and dangerous elements found within traditional religion” (262). F&C raise the question, “Why single out religion?”  Numerous examples can be drawn from political and secular instances of violence and war and they list several examples of totalitarian societies, many of which had completely abandoned religion.

F&C apply these three ironies in their examination of the “religious wars” of 16th and 17th century Europe and ask the question, did the enlightenment make a difference?  To begin with, they point out that, with the onset of the enlightenment, the political power of the church was replaced by that of the state.  The 20th century shows that violence and tyranny can be just as, if not more, prevalent in the name of nationalism and atheism (witness the holocaust, and the atrocities of Stalin and Pol Pot, just to name a few).  Second, “the ‘religious wars’ were in fact not predictably divided along doctrinal lines, but rather political ones” (264). F&C list a number of examples of the so-called religious wars of the 16th century. Third, the supposed “enlightenment values” that are often touted by today’s critics of religion were not nearly as enlightened as they are often promoted to be.  For example, many “enlightened” thinkers supported slavery while it was mostly the Christian church that opposed it.  David Hume referred to those who believe in miracles as “ignorant and barbarous” peoples – an obvious reference to non-white religious people.  Third, rather than opposing violence in general, many of these modern enlightened thinkers (including the new atheists) advocate violence against traditional religionists. Sam Harris advocates a nuclear strike against Islamic fundamentalists while Christopher Hitchens advocate beating and killing the “enemies of civilization” (religious persons).

F&C go on to point out that not all religions are the same and that they should not be lumped together and treated as if they are.  There are religions that have done much good for society and some that have been harmful.  They argue that Christianity falls into the former group on the basis of three lines of evidence.  First, many scholars, including some atheists, have documented the benefits that Christianity has brought into the world.  They quote at length from Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, and the Time magazine correspondent David Aikman, among others, who praise many of the humanitarian accomplishments done in the name of the Christian faith.  Progress in the west has been attributed to the Protestant work ethic by a number of scholars.  Second, Christian faith has not only elevated the west, but has made a significant impact in non-western nations as well.  Robert Woodberry performed a study of the impact of western missionaries and shows how they were responsible for “the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, volunteer organizations, most major colonial reforms . . . and the codification of legal protections for nonwhites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (268-269). Third, F&C point out that any attempt to attribute these gains to other sources, such as Greek ideals or the enlightenment, is inadequate.

In the final sections of this chapter, F&C take on the particular criticism by Regina Schwartz that somehow monotheism or the biblical account of the curse of Cain are ultimately responsible for much of the violence in the world.  They ask first why one should think that God’s oneness has anything to do with violence?  Besides the fact that Yahweh is often described as compassionate and patient, there is nothing about oneness that automatically sets up an “us-or-them” mentality.  Second, there are plenty of examples of violent polytheistic religious tribes as well as non-religious groups responsible for much violence.  Finally, even if monotheism could be held partially responsible for certain wrongs, it should not be considered the sole factor.  As far as the curse of Cain, Schwartz does not take a number of factors into account in her criticism of the story from Genesis.  First, Cain wasn’t so much chosen by God to be cursed as he himself chose to disobey and dishonor God.  He was given opportunities to alter his course and chose not to do so.  Second, the same opportunities were given to Jacob and Esau.  God did not play favorites.  Third, God’s election of Israel as the chosen people, rightly understood, was nothing that they could brag about – it is made clear in scripture that they were not chosen because of some superiority on their part.  Fourth, Schwartz fails to distinguish between the non-elect and the anti-elect.  Most nations were of the former category and Israel was allowed to engage in cordial relations with them.  It was only three nations (Amalekites, Canaanites, and Midianites) that they were to have nothing to do with.

F&C close this chapter with a reference to William Cavanagh’s observation that “the notion that religion causes violence is one of the most prevalent myths in the West” (274).  Such a charge is simplistic at best and misguided and misleading at worst.

Find the other chapter summaries here.


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