Religion and Violence: A Conceptual, Evolutionary, and Data-Driven Approach (Cover Article).

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at

For a recent broadcast of Real Time with Bill Maher, the impish host arranged a brief “debate” between neuroscientist and popular religion critic, Sam Harris, and movie actor Ben Affleck(1).  The timely topic for consideration, of course, was Muslim violence.  The exchange warmed up quickly.  Harris pronounced Islam “the mother-lode of bad ideas” and Affleck scorned his opponent’s attitude as “gross” and “racist.”  Sound-bites duly served, the discussion ended almost as soon as it began.

But the Harris-Affleck affair wasn’t a complete waste of electricity.  If nothing else, it exposed a gaping intellectual void in the dialogue over the relationship between religion and hostility.  Unfortunately, this debate has been long-dominated by extreme or undisciplined claims on both sides.  Some suggest, for example, that all organized violence is religiously inspired at some level, while others insist that all religion is entirely benevolent when practiced “correctly.”  These arguments are plainly meritless and compel no response.

Nor can I credit the proposition that religion is often or ever the sole cause of violence.  Organized aggression—whether war, Crusade, Inquisition, lesser jihad, slavery, or terrorism, for instance—typically derives in some measure from greed or political machination.  Similarly, individual violence—honor killing, suicide bombing, genital mutilation, and faith healing, to name a few—usually results from jealousy, bigotry, ideology, or psychopathology in addition to religion.

Some social scientists have argued that religious belligerence ensues from simple prejudice, defined as judgment in the absence of accurate information.  Here, the customary prescription includes education and exposure to a broader diversity of religious tradition.  But as Rodney Stark, co-director at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, recently observed, “it is mostly true beliefs about one another’s religion that separates the major faiths.”(2)  Muslims deny Christ’s divinity, for example, and Christians reject Muhammad’s claim as successor to Moses and Jesus.  As such, Stark reasons, education is unnecessary and “increased contact might well result in increased hostility.”

religious violence

Religion Misunderstood?

More interesting, on the other hand, are a collection of perspectives that both diminish and subordinate the role of religion in violent contexts to that of mere pretense or veneer.  In other words, these writers contend that religion is seldom, if ever, the original or primary cause of aggression.  Rather, they suggest, the sacred serves only as an efficient means of either motivating or justifying what should otherwise be recognized as purely secular violence.

Such is the latest appraisal of Karen Armstrong, ex-Catholic nun and easily the twenty-first century’s most prolific popular historian of religion.  In rapid response to Harris’s televised vilification of Islam, Armstrong enlisted the popular press.  During an inexplicable interview with Salon, she echoed Affleck’s hyperbole, equating Harris’s criticism of Islam to Nazi anti-Semitism.(3)  Such comparisons are absurd, of course, because condemnation of an idea is categorically different from denigration of an entire population, or any member thereof.

But more to the point, Armstrong argued that the very idea of “religious violence” is flawed for two reasons.  First, ancient religion was inseparable from the state and, as such, no aspect of pre-modern life—including organized violence—could have been divided from either the state or religion.  Second, she continued, “all our motivation is always mixed.”  Thus, modern suicide bombing and Muslim terrorism, for example, are more personal and political, according to Armstrong, than religious.

The point was developed further in Fields of Blood, Armstrong’s new history of religious violence:

Until the modern period, religion permeated all aspects of life, including politics and warfare … because people wanted to endow everything with significance. Every state ideology was religious … [and thus every] successful empire has claimed that it had a divine mission; that its enemies were evil …. And because these states and empires were all created and maintained by force, religion has been [wrongly] implicated in their violence.(4)

To the contrary, says the author, religion has consistently stood against aggression.  The Priestly authors of the Hebrew Bible, for instance, believed that warriors were contaminated by violence, “even if the campaign had been endorsed by God.”  Similarly, the medieval Peace and Truce of God graciously “outlawed violence from Wednesday to Sunday.”  And in the past, Sunni Muslims were “loath to call their coreligionists ‘apostates,’ because they believed that God alone knew … a person’s heart.”

So both the ancient and modern problems, Armstrong contends, are not in religion per se, “but in the violence embedded in our human nature and the nature of the state.”  Thus, the “xenophobic theology of the Deuteronomists developed when the Kingdom of Judah faced political annihilation,” and the Muslim practices of al-jihad al-asghar and takfir (the process of declaring someone an apostate or unbeliever) were resuscitated “largely as a result of political tension arising from Western imperialism (associated with Christianity) and the Palestinian problem.”

Some of Armstrong’s claims are no doubt true, but far less relevant than she apparently imagines.  For example, that religion was conjoined with the state did not render it ineffectual in terms of bellicosity—perhaps quite the opposite, as we will soon see.  In other cases, the author’s claims are logically flawed.  For instance, an older version of a tradition is not more “authentic” than its successors simply by virtue of its age.  Also, that violence results from manifold causes does not negate or even diminish the accountability of any contributing influence, including religion.

Ultimately, Armstrong misrepresents the issue entirely by setting up her true intellectual adversaries as conveniently feeble straw men.  “It is simply not true,” she postures, “that ‘religion’ is always aggressive.”  Agreed, but no serious person has ever made that accusation.  If the author’s primary argument is that every (or any) religion isn’t always violent, I can’t help but conclude she wasted a great deal of time and energy supporting it.

Nevertheless, Armstrong’s most recent commentary reminds us that religion generally, and all major religious traditions collectively, are a well-mixed bag.  Indeed, both Buddhism and Jainism were at least founded on the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence.  And, yes, the sacred regularly intertwines with politics and government, sometimes to a degree rendering it indistinguishable from the state itself.  Finally, hostility in the name of religion, whether perpetrated by a state, group, or individual, is frequently motivated by a host of factors in addition to faith.  However, that religion is so often employed as a pretense or veneer to inspire people to violence only tends to confirm its hazardous nature.

A More Methodical Approach.

To more astutely characterize the relationship between religion and violence, and to distinguish between differentially aggressive traditions, we need to apply a more disciplined and less biased method.  Cultural anthropologist David Eller proposes a comprehensive model of violence consisting of five contributing dimensions or conditions that, together, predict the source’s propensity to expand both the scope and scale of hostility(5).  These dimensions include group integration, identity, institutions, interests, and ideology.

Eller applies his model to religion as follows: First, religion is clearly a group venture featuring “exclusionary membership,”  “collective ideas,” and “the leadership principle, with attendant expectations of conformity if not strict obedience”—often to superhuman authorities deserving of special deference.  Second, sacred traditions offer both personal and collective identities to their adherents that stimulate moods, motivations, and “most critically, actions.”

Next, most faiths provide institutions, perhaps involving creeds, codes of conduct, rituals, and hierarchical offices which at some point, according to Eller, can render the religion indistinguishable from government.  Fourth, all religions aspire to fulfill certain interests.  Most crucially, they seek to preserve and perpetuate the group along with its doctrines and behavioral norms.  The attainment of ultimate good or evil (heaven or hell, for example), the discouragement or punishment of “dissent or deviance,” proselytization and conversion, and opposition to non-believers might be included as well.

Finally, “religion may be the ultimate ideology,” the author avers, “since its framework is so totally external (i.e., supernaturally ordained or given), its rules and standards so obligatory, its bonds so unbreakable, and its legitimation so absolute.”  For Eller, the “supernatural premise” is critical:

This provides the most effective possible legitimation for what we are ordered or ordained to do: it makes the group, its identity, its institutions, its interests, and its particular ideology good and right … by definition. Therefore, if it is in the identity or the institutions or the interests or the ideology of a religion to be violent, that too is good and right, even righteous.

Arguably, the author surmises, “no other social force observed in history can meet those conditions as well as religion.”  And when a given tradition satisfies multiple conditions, “violence becomes not only likely but comparatively minor in the light of greater religious truths.”

Confronting the question at hand, then, and with Armstrong’s historical observations and Eller’s generalized model of violence in mind, I propose a somewhat familiar, though perhaps distinctively limited two-part hypothesis describing potential relationships between religion and aggression.

First, I do not contend that religion is ever the sole, original, or even primary cause of bellicosity.  Such might be the case in any given instance, but for the purpose of determining generally whether faith plays a meaningful role in violence, we need only ask whether the religion is a sine qua non (without which not), or “cause-in-fact,” of the conflict.  Second, although all religions can and often do stimulate a variety of both positive and negative behaviors, clearly not all faiths are identical in their inherent inclination toward hostility.  Indeed, there should be little question that the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all satisfied each of Eller’s conditions with exceptional profusion.  Accordingly, I propose that the Abrahamic monotheisms are either uniquely adapted to the task or otherwise especially capable of inspiring violence from both their followers and non-followers.

Causation, Briefly.

Determining whether a violent act would have occurred absent religious belief can be difficult, to say the least.  Even so, it is insufficient to simply note, as some critics of religion often do, that the Bible prescribes death for a variety of objectively mundane offenses, including adultery (Leviticus 20:10) and taking the Lord’s name in vain (Leviticus 24:16).  And to merely remind us, for example, that Deuteronomy 13:7-11 commands the devoted to stone to death all who attempt to “divert you from Yahweh your God,” or that Qur’an 9:73 instructs prophets of Islam to “make war” on unbelievers, provides precious little evidence upon which to base an indictment of religious conviction.

Sam Harris’s vague declaration, “As man believes, so will he act,” seems entirely plausible, of course, but is also highly presumptive given the fact that humans are known to frequently hold two or more conflicting beliefs simultaneously.(6)  Nor can we casually assume that every suicide bomber or terrorist has taken inspiration from holy authority—even if he or she is a religious extremist.

On the other hand, there is substantial merit in Harris’s criticism of those faithful who, regardless of the circumstances, “tend to argue that it is not faith itself but man’s baser nature that inspires such violence.”  Again, there can be more than one cause-in-fact for any outcome, especially in the psychologically knotty context of human aggression.  Further, when an aggressor confesses religious inspiration, we should accept him at his word.

So when we are made aware, for example, that one of Francisco Pizarro’s companions, whose fellow soldiers brutalized the Peruvian town of Cajamarca in 1532, had written back to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (a.k.a. King Charles I of Spain), recounting that “for the glory of God … they have conquered and brought to our holy Catholic Faith so vast a number of heathens, aided by His holy guidance,” we should concede the rather evident possibility that the Spaniards slaughtered or forcibly converted these natives at least in part because of their religion.(7)

Monotheism Conceptually.

Eller denies that all religion is “inherently” violent.  Nonetheless, he recognizes monotheism’s tendency toward a dualistic, good versus evil, attitude that not only “builds conflict into the very fabric of the cosmic system” by crafting two “irrevocably antagonistic” domains “with the ever-present potential for actual conflict and violence,” but also “breeds and demands a fervor of belief that makes persecution seem necessary and valuable.”

Stark agrees.  Committed to a “doctrine of exclusive religious truth,” he writes, particularistic traditions “always contain the potential for dangerous conflicts because theological disagreements seem inevitable.”  Innovative heresy naturally arises from the religious person’s desire to comprehend scripture thought to be inspired by the all-powerful and “one true god.”  As such, Stark finds, “the decisive factor governing religious hatred and conflict is whether, and to what degree, religious disagreement—pluralism, if you will—is tolerated.”(8)

Indeed, many modern-era writers before me have distinguished monotheism as an exceptionally belligerent force.  Sigmund Freud, for example, argued in 1939 that “religious intolerance was inevitably born with the belief in one God.”(9)  More recently, Jungian psychologist, James Hillman, concurred: “Because a monotheistic psychology must be dedicated to unity, its psychopathology is intolerance of difference.”(10)  Even Karen Armstrong agreed when writing in her late fifties.  Of the faiths of Abraham, she reflected, “all three have developed a pattern of holy war and violence that is remarkably similar and which seems to surface from some deep compulsion inherent in this tradition of monotheism, the worship of only one God.”(11)

Author Jonathan Kirsch, however, addressed the issue directly in 2004, comparing the relative bellicosity of polytheistic and monotheistic traditions.  Noting the early dominance of the former over the latter, Kirsch described their most profound dissimilarity:

[F]atefully, monotheism turned out to inspire a ferocity and even a fanaticism that are mostly absent from polytheism. At the heart of polytheism is an open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice, a willingness to entertain the idea that there are many gods and many ways to worship them. At the heart of monotheism, by contrast, is the sure conviction that only a single god exists, a tendency to regard one’s own rituals and practices as the only proper way to worship the one true god.(12)

Former professor of religion, Edward Meltzer, adds that for the monotheist, “all divine volition must have one source, and this entails the attribution of violent and vengeful actions to one and the same deity and makes them an indelible part of the divine persona.”  Meanwhile, polytheists “have the flexibility of compartmentalizing the divine” and to “place responsibility for … repugnant actions on certain deities, and thus to marginalize them.”(13)

For Kirsch, the Biblical tale of the golden calf reveals an exceptional belligerence in the faiths of Abraham.  After convincing a pitiless and indiscriminate Yahweh not to obliterate every Israelite for worshiping the false idol, Moses nonetheless organizes a “death squad” to murder the 3000 men and women (to “slay brother, neighbor, and kin,” according to Exodus 32:27) who actually betrayed their strangely jealous god.

In the Pentateuch and elsewhere, Kirsch elaborates, “the Bible can be read as a bitter song of despair as sung by the disappointed prophets of Yahweh who tried but failed to call their fellow Israelites to worship of the True God.”  “Fatefully,” the author continues, the prophets—like their wrathful deity—“are roused to a fierce, relentless and punishing anger toward any man or woman who they find to be insufficiently faithful.”

This ultimate and non-negotiable “exclusivism” of worship and belief, Kirsch concludes, comprises the “core value of monotheism.”  And “the most militant monotheists—Jews, Christians and Muslims alike—embrace the belief that God demands the blood of the nonbeliever” because the foulest of sins is not lust, greed, rape, or even murder, but “rather the offering of worship to gods and goddesses other than the True God.”

Indeed, the historical plight of these faiths’ Holy City seems to bear credible testimony to Kirsch’s rendering.  As Biblical archeologist Eric Cline observed a decade ago, Jerusalem has suffered 118 separate conflicts in the past four millennia.  It has been “completely destroyed twice, besieged twenty-three times, attacked an additional fifty-two times, and captured and recaptured forty-four times.”  The city has endured twenty revolts and “at least five separate periods of violent terrorist attacks during the past century.”  Ironically, the “Holy Sanctuary” has changed hands peacefully only twice during the last four thousand years.(14)

For anthropologist Hector Avalos, Jerusalem figures prominently in this discussion as a religiously-defined “scarce resource.”  Of course many social scientists have attributed hostility to competition over limited resources.  Avalos, however, argues that the Abrahamic faiths have created from whole cloth four categories of scarce resource that render them especially prone to the inducement of recurrent and often shocking acts of violence.(15)

Sacred spaces and divinely inspired or otherwise authoritative scriptures comprise the author’s first and second categories.  Such spaces and scriptures are scarce because only certain people will ever receive access to or be ordained with the power to control or interpret them.  Group privilege and salvation constitute Avalos’ third and fourth categories, neither of which will be conferred on a person, consistent with religious tradition, except under extraordinary circumstances.  Obviously, all such resources are related and, in many ways, interdependent.

To emphasize the point, Regina Schwartz, director of the Chicago Institute for Religion, Ethics, and Violence, employs the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.  In the book of Genesis, the first brothers offer dissimilar sacrifices to God, who favors Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s.  And so the gifting is transformed into a competition for God’s blessing, apparently a commodity in very limited supply.  Denied God’s approval—and now God’s preference—Cain murders Abel in a jealous rage.  Here, Schwartz finds, “monotheism is depicted as endorsing exclusion and intolerance,” and the scarce resource of “divine favor” as “inspiring deadly rivalries.”(16)

In the religious milieu, Avalos argues, scarcity is markedly more tragic and immoral because the alleged existence of these resources is ultimately unverifiable and, according to empirical standards, not scarce at all.  Even so, for religionists the stakes are not only real, but as high as one could possibly imagine.  Control over such resources, after all, determines everlasting bliss or torment for both one’s self and all others.  Assuming belief, at least in the context of scarce resource theory, indeed—what’s not to fight, perhaps even kill or die for?

The Evolution of Monotheism.

The God of Abraham was created not only in the image of man, says professor of psychiatry, Hector Garcia, but far more revealingly in the images of alpha-male humans and their non-human primate forebears.  It is no accident (and certainly no indication of credibility), Garcia continues, that the majority of all religionists worship a god who is “fearsome and male,” who “demands reckoning” and “rains fury upon His enemies and slaughters the unfaithful,” and who is portrayed in the holy texts as “policing the sex lives of His subordinates and obsessing over sexual infidelity.”(17)

No more an accident, that is, than the evolutionary process of natural selection and differential reproduction.  Why would an eternal, non-material, and all-powerful divinity like Yahweh, Allah, or Christ, Garcia asks, preoccupy himself with “what are ultimately very human, and very apelike” concerns?  That such a god would need to assert and maintain dominance by threat or physical aggression, for example, or to use violence “to obtain evolutionary rewards such as food, territory, and sex,” seems unfathomable.

Until, that is, one comes to recognize the Abrahamic gods as the highest-ranking alpha-male apes of all time.  In that light, these divinities “reflect the essential concerns of our primate evolutionary past—namely, securing and maintaining power, and using that power to exercise control over material and reproductive resources.”  In other words, to help them cope during a particularly brutal era, the male authors of the Abrahamic texts fashioned a god “intuitive to their evolved psychology,” and, as history demonstrates, “with devastating consequences.”

Rules of reciprocity govern the social lives of non-human primates (which scientists routinely study as surrogates for the ancestors of modern humans).  When fights break out among chimpanzees, for instance, those who have previously received help from the victim are much more likely than others to answer his calls.  And apes that are called but fail to respond are far more likely to be ignored or even attacked rather than helped if and when they plead for assistance during future altercations.  Dominant males also rely on alliances to maintain rank and will punish subordinates that so much as groom or share food with their rivals.  In fact, many researchers calculate that the most common intra-society cause of ape aggression is the perceived infraction of social rules—many of which administer reciprocity and maintain alliances.

Like their primate ancestors, men have long sought alliances with their dominant alpha-gods.  Extreme examples abound in our sacred texts.  In Genesis 22:1-19, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, his own son, demonstrates his unflinching submissiveness to God, who “reciprocates in decidedly evolutionary terms,” according to Garcia, by offering Abraham and his descendants the ultimate ally in war.  Similarly, In Judges 11:30-56, Jephthah sacrifices his daughter as “burnt offering” to Yahweh for help in battle against the Ammonites.

But gods have rivals too; and strangely—except from an evolutionary perspective—so do omnipotent gods.  Created by dominant men, these divinities are expressly jealous.  And like their primate forebears, they build and enforce alliances with their followers against all divine rivals.  As Exodus 22.20 warns, “He who sacrifices to any god, except to the LORD only, he shall be utterly destroyed.”  But as an earthly extension of loyalty, God requires action as well.  Muslims, for example, are expected to “fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness.” (Sura 9:123).

Thus, monotheism not only establishes in- and out-groups with evolutionary efficiency, it also intensifies and legitimizes them.  The founding texts are capable of removing all compassion from the equation (“thine eye shall have no pity on them” [Deut. 7:16]), thus leaving all manner of brutality permissible (“strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them” [Sura 8:12]).  The first Crusade offers just one bloody case in point.  Accounts of the Christian attack on Jerusalem in 1099 document the slaughter of nearly 70,000 Muslims.  The faithful reportedly burned the Jews, raped the women, and dashing their babies’ wailing heads against posts.  As a campaign waged against a religiously-defined “other,” this assault was considered unequivocally righteous.

As a second, more sexually-oriented, illustration of the alpha-God parable, Garcia offers Catholic Spain’s late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century conquest of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico.  Here, the incursion didn’t end with the violent acquisition of territory.  In striking resemblance to the behaviors of dominant male non-human primates, Christian occupiers emasculated their native male rivals, cloistered their women, and appropriated their mating opportunities.

The Spaniards began, of course, by claiming the natives’ territory in the name of Christ and God.  They destroyed their prisoners’ religious buildings and icons and, as many male animals do, marked their newly pilfered grounds.  Catholic iconography was erected while the most powerful medicine men were persecuted and killed.  Conquistador and governor of the New Mexico province, Juan de Onate, neutralized all capable men over the age of twenty-five by hacking away one of their feet.(18)

Meanwhile, the Franciscan friars were tasked with their captives’ spiritual conquest.  To install themselves as earthly dominant males, the friars undermined the existing male rank structure through public humiliation.  Native sons were forced to watch helplessly as the Franciscans literally seized, twisted, and in some cases tore away their fathers’ penises and testicles, rendering them both socially submissive and sexually impotent.  “Indian men were to sexually acquiesce to Christ, the dominant male archetype,” says Garcia, “and the Franciscans exercised extreme brutality to accomplish such subservience, to include attacking genitalia in the style of male apes and monkeys.”

The friars hoarded the native women in cloisters, thus acquiring exclusive sexual access—which was sometimes but not always voluntary.  Inquisitorial court logs documented numerous incidences of violence which were seldom if ever prosecuted.  One example involved Fray Nicolas Hidalgo of the Taos Pueblo who fathered a native woman’s child after strangling her husband and violating her.  Another friar, Luis Martinez, was accused of raping a native girl, cutting her throat, and burying her body under his cell.  In these brutal but, to primatologists, eerily familiar cases, Garcia writes, “we can easily spy male evolutionary paradigms grinding their way across the Conquista—the sexual domination of men, the sexual acquisition of females, and differential reproduction among despotic men—all strongly within a religious context.”

But the most unnerving evolutionary strategy among male animals—especially apes and monkeys, is infanticide.  Typically only males attempt it, and often after toppling other males from power.  The reproductive advantage is unmistakable.  Killing another male’s offspring eliminates the killer’s (and his male progeny’s) future competition for females.  In many species, the practice also sends the offended mother immediately into estrus, providing the killer with additional reproductive access.  Perhaps counterintuitively, the mothers also have much to gain by mating with their infants’ slayers because infanticidal males are genetically more likely to produce infanticidal, and thus more evolutionarily fit offspring.

Unfortunately, this disturbing pattern is replicated in modern humans.  As Garcia notes, the number of child homicides committed by stepfathers and boyfriends is substantially higher—in some instances, up to one-hundred times higher—than those committed by biological fathers.  And we know that genetics are involved in this pattern because it occurs across cultures and geographic regions, including the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.

Perhaps unsurprisingly at this point, the evolutionary strategy of infanticide is also reflected in religion.  In the Bible, for example, God orders his followers to “kill every male among the little ones” along with “every woman who has known man lying with him.” (Numbers 31:17-18)  The virgins, of course, are to be enslaved for sexual amusement.  Also, in his prophesy against Babylon, God declares that the doomed city’s “infants will be dashed to pieces” as their parents look on. (Isaiah 13-16)  This time, the hapless infants’ mothers will be “violated” as well.

It is no mere coincidence, Garcia argues, that mostly men have claimed to know what God wants.  Dominant human males have inherited their most basic desires from our primate ancestors.  Interestingly, their omnipotent and immortal God is frequently portrayed as possessing identical earthly cravings.  He demands territory and access to women, for example.  And from an objective perspective, this God’s desires serve only to justify the ambitions of the most powerful men.

As natural history would predict, human males have relentlessly pursued—and continue to pursue—the monopolization of territorial and sexual resources through “fear, submission, and unquestioning obeisance.”  The alpha-God expects and accepts no less.  Most regrettably, however, “men have claimed this dominant male god’s backing while perpetrating unspeakable cruelties—including rape, homicide, infanticide, and even genocide.”

Modern Islam.

Sam Harris believes we are at war with Islam.  “It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists,” he argues.  “We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran, and further elaborated in the literature of the hadith.”  “A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation,” Harris portends, “is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do.”(19)

Incendiary rhetoric aside, and given what we know about monotheism generally, is Harris naïve to emphasize Islamic violence?  After all, Western history is saturated with exclusively Christian bloodshed.  Pope Innocent III’s thirteenth-century crusade against the French Cathars, for example, may have ended a million lives.  The French Religious Wars of the sixteenth-century between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots left around three million slain, and the seventeenth-century Thirty Years War waged by French and Spanish Catholics against Protestant Germans and Scandinavians annihilated perhaps 7.5 million.

Islamic scholar and apostate, Ibn Warraq, doesn’t think so.  Westerners tend to mistakenly differentiate between Islam and “Islamic fundamentalism,” he explains.  The two are actually one in the same, he says, because Islamic cultures continue to receive their Qur’an and hadith literally.  Such societies will remain hostile to democratic ideals, Warraq advises, until they permit a “rigorous self-criticism that eschews comforting delusions of a … Golden Age of total Muslim victory in all spheres; the separation of religion and state; and secularism.”(20)

Likely entailed in this hypothetical transformation would be a religious schism the magnitude of which would resemble the Christian Reformation in its tendency to wrest scriptural control and interpretation from the clutch of religious and political elites and into the hands of commoners.  Only then can a meaningful Enlightenment toward secularism follow.  And as author Lee Harris has opined, “with the advent of universal secular education, undertaken by the state, the goal was to create whole populations that refrained from solving their conflicts through an appeal to violence.”(21)

In the contemporary West, Rodney Stark concurs, “religious wars seldom involve bloodshed, being primarily conducted in the courts and legislative bodies.”(22)  In the United States, for example, anti-abortion terrorism might be the only exception.  But such is clearly not the case in many Muslim nations, where religious battles continue and are now “mainly fought by civilian volunteers.”  In fact, data recently collected by Stark appears to support Sam Harris’s critique rather robustly.

Consulting a variety of worldwide sources, Stark assembled a list of all religious atrocities that occurred during 2012.(23)  In order to qualify, each attack had to be religiously motivated and result in at least one fatality.  Attacks committed by government forces were excluded.  In the process, Stark’s team “became deeply concerned that nearly all of the cases we were finding involved Muslim attackers, and the rest were Buddhists.”  In the end, they discovered only three Christian assaults—all “reprisals for Muslim attacks on Christians.”

808 religiously motivated homicides were found in the reports.  A total of 5026 persons died—3774 Muslims, 1045 Christians, 110 Buddhists, 23 Jews, 21 Hindus, and 53 seculars.  Most were killed with explosives or firearms but, disturbingly, twenty-four percent died from beatings or torture perpetrated not by deranged individuals, but rather by “organized groups.”  In fact, Stark details, many reports “tell of gouged out eyes, of tongues torn out and testicles crushed, of rapes and beatings, all done prior to victims being burned to death, stoned, or slowly cut to pieces.”

Table 1:  Incidents of Religious Atrocities by Nation (2012).

Nation Number of Incidents
Pakistan 267
Iraq 119
Nigeria 106
Thailand 52
Syria 44
Afghanistan 27
Yemen 22
India 20
Lebanon 20
Egypt 15
Somalia 14
Myanmar 11
Kenya 9
Russia 7
Sudan 7
Iran 6
Israel 6
Mali 6
Indonesia 5
Philippines 5
China 4
France 4
Libya 4
Palestinian 4
Algeria 2
Bangladesh 2
Belgium 2
Germany 2
Jordan 2
Macedonia 2
Saudi Arabia 2
Bahrain 1
Bulgaria 1
Kosovo 1
South Africa 1
Sri Lanka 1
Sweden 1
Tajikistan 1
Tanzania 1
Turkey 1
Uganda 1

As Table 1 shows, present-day religious terrorism almost always occurs within Islam.  Seventy percent of the atrocities took place in Muslim countries, and seventy-five percent of the victims were Muslims slaughtered by other Muslims, often the result of majority Sunni killing Shi’ah (the majority only in Iran and Iraq).  Pakistan (80 percent Sunni) ranked first in 2012, likely due to its chronically weak central government and the contributions of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Christians accounted for twenty percent (159) of all documented victims.  Eleven percent of those (17) were killed in Pakistan, but nearly half (79) were slain in Nigeria, often by Muslim members of Boko Haram, often translated from the Hausa language as “Western education is forbidden.”  Formally known as the Congregation and People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad, Boko Haram was founded in 2002 to impose Muslim rule on 170 million Nigerians, nearly half of which are Christian.  Some estimate that Boko Haram jihadists—funded in part by Saudi Arabia—have slaughtered more than 10,000 people in the last decade.

Such attacks are indisputably perpetrated by few among many Muslims.  But whether the Muslim world condemns religious extremism, even religious violence, is another question.  According to Stark, “it is incorrect to claim that the support of religious terrorism in the Islamic world is only among small, unrepresentative cells of extremists.”  In fact, recent polling data tends to demonstrate “more widespread public support than many have believed.”

Shari’a, the religious law and moral code of Islam, is considered infallible because it derives from the Qur’an, tracks the examples of Muhammad, and is thought to have been given by Allah.  It controls everything from politics and economics to prayer, sex, hygiene, and diet.  The expressed goal of all militant Muslim groups, Stark argues, is to establish Shari’a everywhere in the world.

Table 2:  Percent of Muslims Who Think . . .

  Shari’a must be the ONLY source of legislation Shari’a must be a source of legislation Total
Saudi Arabia 72% 27% 99%
Qatar 70% 29% 99%
Yemen 67% 31% 98%
Egypt 67% 31% 98%
Afghanistan 67% 28% 95%
Pakistan 65% 28% 93%
Jordan 64% 35% 99%
Bangladesh 61% 33% 94%
United Arab Emirates 57% 40% 97%
Palestinian Territories 52% 44% 96%
Iraq 49% 45% 94%
Libya 49% 44% 93%
Kuwait 46% 52% 98%
Morocco 41% 55% 96%
Algeria 37% 52% 89%
Syria 29% 57% 86%
Tunisia 24% 67% 91%
Iran 14% 70% 84%

Gallup World Polls from 2007 and 2008 show that nearly all Muslims in Muslim countries want Shari’a to play some role in government.(24)  As Table 2 illustrates, the degree of desired implementation varies from nation to nation.  Strikingly, however, a clear majority in ten Muslim countries—and a two-thirds supermajority in five—want Shari’a to be the exclusive source of legislation.

In 2013, an Egyptian criminal court sentenced Nadia Mohamed Ali and her seven children to fifteen years imprisonment for apostasy.  One could argue, however, that Nadia got off easy because in Egypt the decision to leave Islam is punishable by death.  In fact, death is the mandatory sentence for apostasy in both Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.  But do such laws garner support from Muslims in general?

That same year, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life asked citizens in twelve Islamic nations whether they supported the death penalty for apostasy.(25)  Their responses are reflected in Table 3.  In Egypt, eighty-eight percent of Nadia’s fellow residents would have approved of her and her children’s executions, as would a majority of Jordanians, Afghans, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Dijboutians, and Malaysians.

Table 3:  Death Penalty for People Who Leave the Muslim Religion?

Percent of Muslims Who Favor the Death Penalty for Apostasy
Egypt 88%
Jordan 83%
Afghanistan 79%
Pakistan 75%
Palestinian Territories 62%
Djibouti 62%
Malaysia 58%
Bangladesh 43%
Iraq 41%
Tunisia 18%
Lebanon 17%
Turkey 8%

But from a western perspective, so-called “honor” killing ranks among the most incomprehensible of Muslim customs.  Stark details four truly mindboggling cases:  In one, a young lady was strangled by her own family for the “offense” of being raped by her cousins.  In the other three, girls who eloped, acquired a cell phone, or merely wore slacks that day were hung or beaten to death.  From 2012 alone, Stark isolated seventy-eight reported honor killings, forty-five of which were committed in Pakistan.

Many protest that simple domestic violence is often misclassified as honor killing.  But, again, Pew survey data seems to suggest otherwise.(25)  Table 4 shows the percentage of Muslims in eleven countries who believe it is often or sometimes justified to kill a woman for adultery or premarital sex in order to protect her family’s honor.  Thankfully, only in Pakistan and Iraq do a majority (sixty percent) agree.  But in all other Muslim nations polled, a substantial minority—including forty-one percent in Jordan, Lebanon, and Pakistan—appear to approve of these horrific murders as well as their governments’ documented reluctance to prosecute them.

Table 4:  Is it justified for family members to end a woman’s life who engages in premarital sex or adultery in order to protect the family’s honor?

Percent of Muslims Who Responded Sometimes/Often Justified
Afghanistan* 60%
Iraq* 60%
Jordan 41%
Lebanon 41%
Pakistan 41%
Egypt 38%
Palestinian Territories 37%
Bangladesh 36%
Tunisia 28%
Turkey 18%
Morocco 11%

*In these countries, the question was modified to: “Some people think that if a woman brings dishonor to her family it is justified for family members to end her life in order to protect the family’s honor . . .”

Stark also cites a report from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.(27)  In 2012 alone, according to that organization, 913 Pakistani females were honor killed—604 following accusations of illicit sexual affairs, and 191 after marriages unapproved by their families.  Six Christian and seven Hindu women were included.

Monotheism Tamed?

Islam is not universally violent, of course.  The same polls, for example, show that few if any British and German Muslims and only five percent of French Muslims agree that honor killing is morally acceptable.  But the data from Islamic nations tend first, to support the proposition that Abrahamic monotheism is uniquely adapted to inspire violence, and second, to demonstrate that the belief in one god continues to fulfill this exceptionally vicious legacy.  It is no accident, for example, that nearly all Muslims in these countries are particularists, believing that “Islam is the one true faith leading to eternal life.”(28)

On the other hand, Westerners ought not to conclude from these polls that the perils of monotheism are confined to the geographic regions surrounding North Africa and the Middle East.  Even in the distant United States, for example, children continue to die needlessly because their Christian parents reject science-based medicine in favor of “prayer healing.”(29)  Enduring tragedies of this ilk would seem unimaginable in the absence of religious devotion to an allegedly all-powerful, ultra-dominant god.


(1)  Real Time with Bill Maher: Ben Affleck, Sam Harris and Bill Maher Debate Radical Islam (HBO). 2014. (posted October 6, 2014).

(2)  Stark, R. and K. Corcoran. 2014. Religious Hostility: A Global Assessment of Hatred and Terror. Waco, TX: ISR Books.

(3)  Schulson, M. 2014. Karen Armstrong on Sam Harris and Bill Maher. (posted November 23, 2014).

(4)  Armstrong, Karen. 2014. Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. NY: Knopf.

(5)  Eller, Jack David. 2010. Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence across Culture and History. NY: Prometheus.

(6)  Harris, S. 2005. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. NY: W.W. Norton.

(7)  Diamond, J. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. NY: W.W. Norton.

(8)  Stark, R., and K. Corcoran. 2014. Religious Hostility.

(9)  Freud, S. 1967. Moses and Monotheism. NY: Vintage.

(10)  Hillman, J. 2005. A Terrible Love of War. NY: Penguin.

(11)  Armstrong, Karen. 2001. Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World. NY: Anchor Books.

(12)  Kirsch, J. 2004. God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism. NY: Viking Compass.

(13) Meltzer, E. 2004. “Violence, Prejudice, and Religion: A Reflection on the Ancient Near East,” in The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Volume 2: Religion, Psychology, and Violence), ed. J. Harold Ellens. Westport, CT: Praeger.

(14)  Cline, E.H. 2004. Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel. U. of Mich. Press 2004.

(15)  Avalos, H. 2005. Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

(16)  Schwartz, R. 2006. “Holy Terror,” in The Just War and Jihad: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, & Islam, ed. R.J. Hoffman. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

(17)  Garcia, H. 2015. Alpha God: The Psychology of Religious Violence and Oppression. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

(18)  Guitierrez, R. 1991. When Jesus Came the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality and Power in Mexico, 1500-1846. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

(19)  Harris, S. The End of Faith.

(20)  Warraq, Ibn. 2003. Why I Am Not a Muslim. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

(21)  Harris, L. 2007. The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West. NY: Basic Books.

(22)  Stark, R., and K. Corcoran. 2014. Religious Hostility.

(23)  Stark’s sources included, the Political Instability Task Force Worldwide Atrocities Data Set, Tel Aviv University’s annual report on worldwide anti-Semitic incidents, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s annual report for 2013, and the U.S. State Department’s International Freedom Report, 2013.

(24)  The Gallup World Poll studies have surveyed at least one thousand adults in each of 160 countries (having about 97 percent of the world’s population) every year since 2005.

(25)   The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society. 2013. (posted April 30, 2013) and

(26)  Ibid.

(27)  State of Human Rights in Pakistan in 2012. Islamabad, Pakistan, May 4, 2013.

(28)  Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, The World’s Muslims: Religion Politics and Society. (Washington, DC, 2013).

(29)  Hall, H. 2013. Faith Healing: Religious Freedom vs. Child Protection. (posted November 19, 2013).


7 thoughts on “Religion and Violence: A Conceptual, Evolutionary, and Data-Driven Approach (Cover Article).

  1. F. Binkham, PhD.

    Disciplined explanation of the distinct cause of religious violence. The texts and the monotheistic gods themselves have been the most likely contributors to violence since their creation. No, not the only causes. But recent events continue to reveal religion’s tragic effects on human history. Nice article.


  2. Bakhari

    I can’t imagine that militant Muslims are going to appreciate this as much as I do. The author might want to keep an eye out for trouble.


  3. Ryan P.

    Although recent and continuing events seem to support Krause’s argument, no can argue that secular entities have not committed much violence as well. The question is whether religious violence is worse. My suspicion is that it is, but I can’t say why for sure. Perhaps Krause is right that a supposed monolithic god and its word provides exceptional inspiration for violence. And maybe it explains why religious violence never seems to end, while violent secular entities never last more than few years at most.


  4. Tom

    I don’t see how any ideology could possibly provide as much inspiration for anything, including violence, as an all-powerful god with no rivals. And, yes, monotheistic religious violence by its very nature must be perpetual, or as enduring as the religion itself. The fact of different means of observing the religion or interpreting the scriptures is irrelevant to this particular issue because monotheism always carries that potential for extreme and long-lasting violence. And that’s the real problem, not that some people are interpreting the religion “incorrectly,” as some argue.



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