Every religion produces violent extremists; the question is why

Contributing columnistMay 15, 2010 

In a USA Today opinion piece on April 19, a scholar of religion pointed out that while Americans tend to associate religious violence with Muslim extremists, Christianity, too, is blighted with a history of beheadings, lynchings and other terroristic acts.

Philip Jenkins, who holds joint academic appointments at Penn State University and Baylor University, recounted the story of a Christian mob that stormed the house of a religious leader it considered heretical, beheaded him and then paraded his head in the streets. This happened in A.D. 511 in what now is called Istanbul.

It wasn't an isolated event, Jenkins noted, and he told other, similar anecdotes. He wasn't condemning Christianity, he said; Christianity generally does much good.

But "given the appropriate social and political circumstances, given a sufficiently weak state mechanism, any religion can be used to justify savagery and extremism," Jenkins wrote.

The sad thing is he is correct.

Almost all the major faiths and many minor ones have committed reprehensible acts in the name of God. I agree that given the wrong confluence of events, any faith is apt to veer into violence again.

After reading Jenkins' essay, I ruminated on what leads people to decide it's God's will that they beat, banish or bomb those they consider infidels. I searched the Internet and found several academic explorations of the subject.

The observations that follow aren't original with me. But these are the points I find most relevant if we want to comprehend why certain people who hope to please God turn brutish.

First, religious violence nearly always springs from fundamentalism.

I grew up among, and have spent much of my life worshiping with, Christian fundamentalists. I respect and love them.

I can tell you absolutely that the vast majority of Christian fundamentalists are no more prone to mayhem than your garden-variety agnostics, and might be less so, because they take literally the biblical commandments to forgive their enemies, to turn the other cheek. They believe their eternal destination hinges on their willingness to follow Jesus' peaceable teachings.

I don't know as much about Islamic, Jewish or Hindu fundamentalists, but I'd imagine the preponderance of them aren't violent, either.

No, the vast majority of fundamentalists aren't killers. Yet virtually all religiously motivated killers are fundamentalists. You don't see Unitarians strapping on suicide bombs.

By definition, fundamentalists assume they possess a holy book (the Bible, the Quran, the Torah) given to them and their group directly and unchangeably by God. They believe they're commanded to obey its strict rules. They believe their sect enjoys a special relationship with God that others don't have.

All these presumptions might be considered archaic or smug by the larger secular world, but none, in and of itself, is particularly dangerous.

Danger arises when fundamentalism becomes inflamed by other forces, including poverty, persecution or politics.

Mainly, though, fundamentalist violence stems from fear. That holds true whether the violence is perpetrated by dogmatic individuals, splinter groups such as Mormon polygamists or theocratic governments led by the medieval church or Middle Eastern Islamists.

Sometimes this fear results from a genuine calamity — civil war, an economic depression, a massive earthquake, a breakdown of the social order.

Other times, a demagogic leader identifies false threats or exaggerates comparatively minor ones. The devil is out to destroy God's people, he says, and then he personifies the devil in the form of secular humanists or lukewarm fellow believers or Hollywood or the West or abortion doctors or the media or the IRS or gay people or Jews or President Barack Obama.

Whatever its source or its object, this fear creates, as one scholar has written, the paradoxical sense among the faithful that they are omnipotent — they're God's chosen seed, guardians of his holy text — and yet they're victims facing extinction.

Their resentment and paranoia multiply. They retreat into their group's secret enclaves, become ever more isolated and misinformed. When they do venture out in public, they take to wearing special clothes or observing unusual rituals that set them apart. They might grab bullhorns and stand on sidewalks denouncing their fellow citizens.

This becomes a self- fulfilling prophecy: The more they shun or disdain outsiders, the more those outsiders really do loathe them — which reinforces their feelings of estrangement. They see their values as being mocked, their way of life as endangered, their God as blasphemed.

Eventually, they lash out. To them, it's both self-defense and defense of God.

Believers of a moderate bent have long debated various ways to prevent all this from happening to their literal-minded brothers and sisters. There doesn't seem to be any sure method, because every approach carries its own unintended blowback.

As far as I can see, the best strategy is to patiently, doggedly engage those inclined toward extremes. It might prove a bit harder — not impossible, but a bit harder even for the righteously indignant — to murder people they know well, who have listened to them endlessly and treated them kindly.

Paul Prather, pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, has a new book, A Memory of Firelight: Selected Columns From the Lexington Herald-Leader. E-mail him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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