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VIOLENCE . Humans, as individuals and as groups, have the potential to be violent. Physical violence is disruptive and damaging to other individuals and groups because it conflicts with some of their basic rights. Individuals try to protect themselves from injury, and societies try to channel and curb violence both through symbolic action and through concrete counterviolence. Individuals and groups, on the other hand, may feel the necessity to resort to physical violence, while ritualization and symbolism may make violent acts easier to perform.

Religion is the most powerful symbolic system humans have developed. Throughout history, religion and violence have been in close contact. The detailed history of this contact still has to be written, although there is no lack of research on individual epochs and episodes, often stimulated by contemporary events. Recent examples include the surge in religiously motivated violence during the 1990s, reflected in the destruction of Yugoslavia or the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Both the actors on the ground and commentators from the outside understood these conflicts as religious confrontations, at least in part. During the same period, the rapid spread of religious fundamentalism, Christian as well as Islamic, led to further reflection on the relationship between religion and violence. The trauma of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., which were quickly interpreted as religious as well as political phenomena, provoked yet another body of studies. On the other hand, general studies of the relationship between religion and violence are rare, and they often appear to be somewhat one-sided. Religion is usually perceived either from the perspective of those institutionalized monotheist religions that dominate the contemporary world, or from a secular position. Since even general research has grown out of actual necessities in most cases, relatively little attention has been given to the place of violence within polytheistic religious systems.


Earlier philosophical reflection treated violence within the wider context of ethics or anthropology. Ethological research, in which Konrad Lorenz's investigation of aggression as a basic biological drive was the perhaps most influential theory in the mid-twentieth century (Lorenz, 1959), was a later field for the study of violence. In the early twenty-first century, however, research on societal and political violence has been carried out primarily in the area of conflict and peace studies. These disciplines evolved as a response to World War IIthe Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) being founded in 1959 and the Journal for Peace Research in 1961and gained momentum during the Vietnam War. The origin of these fields of study in actual political events accounts for their perspective. Researchers in these areas are interested in the political and social conditions under which collective violence originates as well as finding ways to counteract collective violence. They challenge Lorenz's assumption that violence is a biological given of the human condition. Most of these researchers, however, regard religion as relevant only as a social or political variable, and often overlook the consequences of the possibility that it might be an anthropological constant (Burkert, 1996).

As a heuristic approachthat is, one intended to stimulate explorationthe topic of religion and violence can be subdivided into three different questions: (1) religion can be used to legitimate and condone or even to stimulate and incite to violencethis is the most common view, and examples range from the role of priests in warfare to religious riots and wars; (2) violence, both direct and symbolic, through rituals, narrations and images, can be seen as inherent to religion; (3) religion can be a healing force after violence has been committed, as part of its function to create or restore social cohesion.


In current research, violence is understood in several different ways. In common speech, violence usually refers to physical force directed against another human being in order to inflict bodily harm or, in extreme cases, death. This narrow use of the term is easily extended to include physical violence against other living beings and material objects. Violence may be a spontaneous emotional reaction to a provocation; premeditated; or institutionalized and ritualized, as in the violence associated with warfare, torture, or punishment. In conflict research, the term tends to be used in an even wider sense. Johan Galtung, the founder of peace studies, introduced the concept of structural violence as a supplement to direct (physical) violence. Structural violence refers to the coercion inherent in societal structures that is used without the agreement of the victims and against their interests, such as the exploitation of workers in capitalistic economies or the exclusion of foreigners from a state. Its effectiveness relies on the threat and plausibility of direct violence (Galtung, 1969).

A third type of violence is cultural violence, which is structural violence of such long duration that it is embedded in and protected by cultural institutions. Religious violence, or the violence inherent in the three institutionalized monotheistic religions of the West, is the most obvious example of cultural violence (Galtung, 1990). The contrast between direct and structural violence is useful because it demonstrates that direct violence is not necessarily an aberration but a direct consequence of structural violence, and thus of social developments and institutions. This connection has consequences for those who wish to combat violence. Cultural violence, on the other hand, might appear as a simple extension of structural violence to a specific content; it might be seen as inherent in such cultural institutions as those associated with religions. The consequences for the question of religion and violence, however, have to be explored in considerably greater depth than has been done hitherto (Galtung, 19971998). As to the social conditions under which direct collective violence is likely to develop, studies converge to show that such violence is likely to occur when "political power is centralized, non-democratic, and highly dependent on one's group membership, be it race, ethnicity, religion, or some cultural division" (Rummel, 1997, p. 170). This summary suggests that religion, not only in its monotheistic variants, is one among several possible triggers for violence, but fails to explore the question as to whether there is a privileged connection between the two.

Religion in the service of violence

Every society is committed to the use of direct violence, if only to defend itself against outside and inside enemies. In developed societies, however, the state usually claims a monopoly on the use of violence. Violence inside the state is regulated by its laws and structured by its justice system, violence against other states by concepts of warfare, among which the Roman notion of the bellum iustum, or just war, had the most important transhistorical consequences. In polytheistic systems, both law and warfare are protected by such specific deities as the Greek Zeus, the guardian of justice inside society, and Athena, the goddess of properly conducted defensive wars of the city-state of Athens. Monotheist systems place both areas under the tutelage and protection of their respective gods. This divine protection finds expression in the rituals surrounding both the performance of justice and warfare. War often was constructed as a time outside of society's normal order and taking place outside civic space; rituals opened and ended this period, such as the Spartan sacrifices to Artemis Agrotera, "Wild Artemis," before a battle, or the many rituals of integration performed for returning warriors (Parker, 2000). Religion thus marks the borders of war's confined territory. This role of religion was rarely contested in the name of a nonviolent and pacifist theology, as in the Buddhist concept of ahisā. As long as early Christianity remained at the margins of the state, it was mostly a pacifist faith, following the nonviolent teachings of the New Testament (Swift, 1979). This attitude changed, however, when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official faith. Christian leaders were then confronted with the necessity of violence related to warfare. The prosecution of war was left to the laity but was legitimated from Scripture, albeit under very clearly stated conditions (e.g., Augustine of Hippo [354430], Letter 189). Unlike Christianity, Judaism and Islam never had a tradition of nonviolence; war thus presented many fewer theological problems. Nevertheless, in these religions too war needed sanction and regulation. Islam in particular developed the concept of jihād (literally, "the exercise of faith"), the just defense of the faith (Colpe, 1994; Lewis, 2003).

Despite these restrictions on open violence, Christian and to a lesser extent Muslim history is full of religious wars, most conspicuously the crusades that also turned against Orthodox Christian Byzantium and the European wars of religion that followed the Reformation, such as the Thirty Years' War of 16181648. The development of explicitly religious wars changes the relationship between religion and violence: religion now is the very source of violence, at least in the reading of the actors themselves. It has always been easy to find political and economical motives for these religious wars, in contrast to the indigenous understanding of them. The key problem then has been to assess the extent and sincerity of the combatants' religious motivations. To some extent, the answer has always been determined by axiomatic choices.

In the past, historiography tended to emphasize "rational" political and economical motives. More recently, however, indigenous insistence on religious motives has been taken more seriously: religion has come to be seen as more than just a thin veil hiding more important motivations (Holt, 1993). This reevaluation of motives is true also for the riots that accompanied religious practice before the rise of monotheist systems. When two neighboring villages in Roman Egypt fought each other over the killing of a sacred animal (Plutarch, On Isis 72; Dio Cassius 42.34; Juvenal, Satire 15), or when the killing of a sacred cat by a Roman soldier triggered riots (Diodorus Siculus 1.83.8), later scholars often pointed to rival political and economic ambitions, tensions created by the presence of foreign armies in Egypt, or popular impressions that local traditions were threatened. But in all cases, the native discourse as well as the discourse of the Roman administrators and commentators was religious. The same was true of the riots against the early Christians that triggered such major persecutions as the one in Lyons in 177 ce. The objections against the Christians were usually couched in the language of sacrifice and perverted sexuality; economic problems entered only marginally, as when Paul threatened the prosperous business of the Ephesian silversmiths (Acts 19).

But it was not until Natalie Zemon Davis published a seminal paper in 1973 on religious riots in early modern France that historians were compelled to take religion seriously as a motive for violence. With the establishment of the secularized state, matters became more complicated. Research on religious violence in nineteenth-century France has shown that as a consequence of the French Revolution, "the boundary between religious, social and political violence was extremely porous" (Ford, 1998, p. 105). Anticlerical riots in the name of a secularized state against the Catholic Church confused the distinction between political and religious violence more than the riots against Roman occupiers that were triggered by the killing of a sacred animal. In the latter case, violence was used against foreigners who were seen to violate the norms of the indigenous religion. In the former case, violence resulted from the political desire to curb the influence of a religious institution.

Violence as intrinsic to religion

The key question in this debate is whether religion as such contains violence or whether it is only associated with it. The answers given by various scholars range from agreement to fierce denial, but the question may be too simplistic. Many religions contain rituals, stories, and representations that are directly violent. The pantheon of a polytheistic religion usually contains one or several violent divinities; these are often connected with the irrational violence of warfare, such as Ares in Greece or Erra in Mesopotamia. But these gods represent a violence kept at a distance and with which humans are uncomfortable. Civic cults of Ares are extremely rare, and gods as well as humans are said to hate him (Iliad 5.889). The myth of Erra describes his rule as only short-lived and characterized by senseless destruction that necessitates the reconstruction of Babylon (Maschinist and Sasson, 1985). These divinities define a world in which war is a bitter necessity that should be as infrequent as possible.

Other stories, however, place violence at the foundation of the present-day cosmic order. Marduk, the god of Babylon, creates the world from the body of his opponent Tiamat and human beings from the blood of her closest ally, while in Greek mythology Zeus fights the Titans and the monster Typhon before he can establish his rule (Trumpf, 1959). In one possible reading of the New Testament, the Christian God must let his son die as a victim of human violence in order to found the new messianic world order. Order can be created only through the destruction of its antecedents and its enemies. This order is also precarious because these hostile forces are still active and must be kept at bay. Thus protective violence is always necessary; for example, the Indian goddess Durgā is a powerful demon killer who protects the world "every time when demons create danger" (Devīmāhātmya 11.55).

Animal and human sacrifice

The notion of protective violence leads to the practice of animal sacrifice, a rite that is widespread in agricultural cultures. The victims are usually domesticated animals. The performers often regard the killing of animals as unproblematic because it prepares them for a common meal with the gods. Moreover, meat is a staple food in these cultures. Ritualization and mythologization explain and legitimate the public slaughter of animals, as does the ritualization of hunting and warfare. The very fact of ritualization, however, might point to the existence of a latent problem, in that the ritual and the discourse about it must give some kind of meaning to the killing. Sometimes, the indigenous discourse about animal sacrifice and its practice point to the awareness of the problem. In some Polynesian cultures, the victima pigis never killed and sometimes never eaten by its owner because it is considered "a brother of humans." The complex ritual behavior allows the owner of a pig, however, to also eat pork (Lanternari, 1976, pp. 298303).

In Indo-European sacrificial ideology, the stories talk about the killing of a human being (Lincoln, 1991, pp. 167175). Thus the problem of killing interferes with the necessity of eating to the point that animal sacrifice is altogether abolished. This abolition leads to vegetarianism, as with the Pythagoreans in Greece or the Buddhists and Jains in India. In these instances, animals are regarded as too closely related to humans to be killed. But with the exception of Buddhism, the rejection of animal sacrifice remained an option only for individuals, and could be given up again (e.g., Findley, 1987).

Human sacrifice as the ultimate form of sacrificial violence exists at least in the discourse about sacrifice, even in societies in which actual human sacrifice is unattested. Greek and Roman myths, for example, establish some violent rituals on a past history of human sacrifice that the present and less cruel rite replaced. Stories that legitimate direct violence against others (Christians, Jews, Gnostics, religious reformers, political rebels) typically accuse them of practicing child sacrifice and even cannibalism. Accusations of Satanism in the 1980s and 1990s adopted the same strategy to trigger (and, presumably, legitimate) judicial violence in private relationships (Frankfurter, 2005). In other societies (Celts, Aztecs), human sacrifice is attested with varying explanations of the practice. In some cases, the foundational violence is taken more seriously and avoided by exchanging an animal for a human victim (Lincoln, 1991, pp. 176207).

Not all modern theories of animal sacrifice pay attention to its inherent violence. The two best-known theories that address the problem, Burkert's and Girard's, were both published in 1972; their connection with the wider cultural interest in violence seems obvious. Although their theories assume different origins for animal sacrifice (hunting rituals in Burkert's case, scapegoat rituals in Girard's), they both arrive at similar conclusions regarding the function of sacrificial violencenamely that the ritualized killing of a living being channels the group's innate violence and renders it harmless. Violence is inherent in the religious act because violence as a threat is innate in humans, and religion offers a symbolized way to domesticate and defuse it. In the meantime, other scholars have challenged some of the premises of these constructions (Hamerton-Kelly, 1987), and the debate continues. The main thrust of this group of theories is that religion does not contain or breed violence, but is rather a powerful instrument to counteract it.

The problems surrounding questions of violence in the major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are more intricate and more controversial. Contemporary critics underscore the fact that the two main characteristics of monotheistic faiths, revelation and universalism, make them by their very nature potentially violent. Revelation can lead to conflicts with those who contest this revealed truth, and universalism can lead to missionary expansion (Galtung, 1997; Assmann, 2002). These consequences, however, are not inevitable; the certainty of revealed truth generates conflicts only when the claim of another truth becomes threatening to one or both parties. Early Christianity collided with the Roman religious system when its refusal of sacrifice to the emperor was seen as a threat to the divine protection of the empire (Fox, 1986, pp. 452455). The Roman Catholic Church came into conflict with such other Christian groups as the Montanists, or with pagan diviners (Fögen, 1993) whose rituals or beliefs challenged its monopoly of truth.

In all cases, the situation is more complex than a simple conflict between religious systems. Modern analysts perceive political and economical reasons for outbreaks of violence as well as a conflict of personalities; the Montanist claim of charismatic prophecy, for example, challenged the established hierarchy of the church (Trevett, 1996). But again, when indigenous actors give religious motivations for violent behavior, they should be taken at their word. The religious motivations of the Islamic terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, were intended to be taken seriously, as were the claims of Mormon fundamentalists who killed "recalcitrant" wives (Krakauer, 2003). Although Islam has a tradition of avoiding religious conflicts with non-Muslims, Islamic fundamentalism as it developed in early twentieth-century Egypt expressed its resistance to Western values in a religious key (Ali, 2002), as did Western fundamentalism with respect to the modernization of society.

Religious imagery and violence

A key role is often attributed to the religious imaginary of narrations and images. All societies possess traditional (or even sacred) stories about the violent acts of their gods, demons, heroes, or ancestors. Many of these tales value these acts positively and regard them as a necessity, as in foundation myths or stories about defense against spiritual or human enemies. Even when violence is perpetrated by others against members of one's own group, the result can be turned into a positive statement, as in the narratives of Christ's crucifixion or the deaths of Christian, Jewish, or Muslim martyrs. Another type of positive narrative of violence is found in apocalyptic visions from the Jewish-Christian Book of Enoch, which was composed in the second century bce, to the contemporary series of "Left Behind" novels that are popular among American Christian fundamentalists in the early twenty-first century. In apocalyptic visions, violence serves as a deterrent from sin or as a tool of mission and conversion. In martyrologies, the stories (whose recitation was part of the liturgy of the early Church) encouraged their audiences to withstand the violence of persecution in order to preserve the faith. Stories, however, can always be reenacted; violent stories can, under certain circumstances, generate real violence (Lüdemann, 1997; Ellens, 2004, vol. 1). The texts do not always function as directly as they did during the French wars of religion, however, when executions and mutilations reproduced the details related in apocalyptic narratives (Crouzet, 1990).

The early Christians sometimes provoked the Roman authorities in order to suffer martyrdom in a sort of passive violence. In a theologically highly contested move, contemporary Palestinian suicide bombers turned active violence against their enemies and themselves in order to become martyrs. The investigators of persons suspected of witchcraft in early modern Europe projected their own concepts of demonic behavior on their victims in order to legitimate their own punitive violence (Frankfurter, 2005). The reasons for this "dark side" of religion are complex, but a major factor appears to be the tradition of reading sacred books in order to find models for religiously (and thus ethically) correct action. This pattern of reading is central to Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious education. To deny that some of the stories taken as models encourage violence, or even to point out that the sacred books contain at least as many stories that inculcate nonviolence, compassion, and love, serves only an apologetic function. The researcher seeks to analyze why certain epochs, circumstances and charismatic personalities preferred one type of story or the other, and why certain epochs and circumstances actualized the dormant potential of the religious imaginary. It is instructive to see how one of the most violent symbolic systems, Tantrism, is serving in its Himalayan version as the most powerful spiritual guide to total ascetic calm (Huntington and Bangdel, 2003), while Bengali Tantrism served as an ideological source for political violence during the struggle for Indian independence, its goddess Kalī coming to represent Mother India as a violent rebel (Urban, 2003, pp. 73133).

Religion and the End of Violence

Religion plays a vital but relatively unexplored role in the aftermath of violence. On one level, rituals mark the end of such periods of violence as warfare. Cathartic rituals and rituals of thanksgiving reintegrate the returning warriors into the fabric of peaceful society; the ringing of church bells and modern peace celebration liturgies also preserve this religious symbolism.

On another level, religion is used to heal the wounds caused by a violent conflict. In early nineteenth-century France, Catholic missionaries kept the memory of the horrors of the reign of terror alive by staging processions that retraced the way to the guillotine of prominent victims. The declared aim of these ritual processions was to remember the violent acts and, through confession, to expiate them. According to Catholic teaching, forgiveness and expiation are possible only after penitence, and penitence presupposes memory of the sinful deed, even if this remembrance contradicted the official policy of oubli, forgetting, as practiced by the Restoration monarchy (Kroen, 1998). After the violent civil wars in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, both the official Catholic Church and the country's indigenous religions were concerned with healing; because, in an indigenous reading, the violence had unleashed the demons of the murdered, Catholic exorcists and traditional diviners and spirit mediums stepped in (Ranger, 1992, pp. 705706). The extraordinary situations that prevailed in both nineteenth-century France and twentieth-century Zimbabwe after a period of unusually high levels of violence generated new rituals within the matrix of traditional ritualism. The same dynamics are visible elsewhere; for example, Andean peasant communities readapted "new discourses and practices according to community memory about ancient practices" after the violence of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) insurrection (Gamarra, 2000, p. 286). It appears that most communities can deal with "ordinary" levels and forms of violence with the help of their traditional symbolic systems. On the other hand, extraordinary violence, especially the violence generated by prolonged periods of intensive or brutal civil war, demands adaptations of the symbolic language that gives meaning to violence.

See Also

Apocalypse, overview article; Martyrdom; New Religious Movements, article on New Religious Movements and Violence; Nonviolence; Sacrifice; War and Warriors, overview article.


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