Religious Freedom and Violence: Competing Perspectives

November 3, 3014

Many religious believers in America are feeling besieged, and not without reason. At least five trends are coinciding:

  1.  Federal policy regarding employers’ rights, including the Obamacare employer's mandate to provide contraception to employees.
  2. Actual and threatened restrictions on religious groups’ ability to maintain their historic practices and governance structures in higher education.
  3. Arguments from prominent law professors to the effect that religion should have no special status in law.
  4. Bestselling “new atheist” authors such as Richard DawkinsDaniel DennettSam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
  5. Demographic trends, including the growing number of “nones,” or Americans with no religious affiliation, particularly among the young.

Setting aside the question of the merit or virtue of any of these trends, the fact that all five are present at once probably means something larger is going on. What is that something?

It surely is complicated, but let me speculate and offer one possible reason why America now, as concerns “organized religion”—the phrase now emits a pejorative odor—sometimes feels like France circa 1790, when “freethinkers” who had been writing and networking for decades found themselves finally holding power and did not hesitate to use it.

That reason, seen most clearly in Harris and Hitchens, is that many people now associate religion with violence. Indeed, many believe that traditional religion causes violence. And let me speculate further that that belief is in part a result of the jihadist terrorism that continues to plague so much of the world. As Dawkins put it a few days after 9/11: “To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.”

Dawkins’s thesis may be crude—belief in an afterlife makes it rational for people to fly airplanes into buildings, whereas no belief in an afterlife renders such acts irrational—but enjoys a kind of plausibility, in part because jihadists themselves justify their actions with appeals to Islamic texts. The thesis is not limited to jihadists, however, but is loosely applied to all who subscribe to traditional revealed religions. The thesis colors the way many Americans are thinking about past, present, and future. The Crusades and the Inquisition happened long ago, and this generation is not the first to grapple with them. But this generation is elevating these historical events to the point that their shadow obscures the historical role of religion in making peace, promoting justice, spreading liberty, and fostering prosperity.

This forum, then, is not about religious liberty per se, but is about what we might call the Dawkins thesis that may be enabling today’s challenges to religious liberty. Does this claim stand up to logical and empirical scrutiny? Is it possible to give categorical assent or dissent to the thesis? That is, might religion sometimes help cause violence and sometimes hinder or even block it? Are atheism and agnosticism innocent of violence?

This piece was originally written for the Religious Freedom Project's Cornerstone blog. 
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