Religion and Violence

I recently attended a lecture by James Carroll, writer of Constantine’s Sword and House of War, among other books. Carroll was ordained a Catholic priest, but left the priesthood to write, and has become critical of both religion and the military-industrial complex. He combined these issues in his lecture, which was generally about war, religion and violence.

I won’t try to summarize Carroll’s lecture, which was wide ranging and full of allusions, particularly with references to Civil War violence and its place in the American psyche, but I’ll try to reconstruct the thrust of his argument. Fundamentally, Carroll believes that religion promotes violence, partly through its inherent duality – non-believers are wrong – and partly through its emphasis on martyrdom. He posits that this religious conveyance of violence is demonstrated by what he calls “irrational escalation” of violence: when individuals or states keep attacking beyond a point where it makes any sense. The bombing campaigns of the late Vietnam War are an example for Carroll of violence which a participant – in this case the US – escalated past rationality. For Carroll, the irrationality of this violence is proof of its religious origin (I’ll ignore for the purposes of this post any counterarguments, such as the role of game theory in irrational violence).

Carroll then takes this concept of escalating violence and brings it forward into the nuclear age. For him, nuclear war is fundamentally different than conventional war. While the bombing of Vietnam generated horrific deaths, it didn’t actually threaten humankind. Nuclear war does. Thus Carroll states that irrational escalation of violence, which used to be just awful, is now unacceptable, because it could destroy the world. Add in the potential of non-state actors to acquire nuclear weapons or other WMDs, and Carroll sees that religion has a duty to actively renounce violence. There are interesting parallels here to Sam Harris’ arguments in The End of Faith.

Carroll’s talk was surprisingly moving, and he received a heartfelt ovation at the end. I think the emotionality was due not only to Carroll’s outstanding oratorical skills, but also to the tremendous import of what he was discussing. This was not your standard scholarly lecture on the nexus of religiosity and violence, but rather an impassioned call for organized religion to try to save the world. Carroll’s passion was contagious; he stood, utterly firm in his analysis and resultant convictions, and we were inspired to stand with him.

It is unclear to me whether Carroll would position himself as a fully Gandhi-style non-violenceinist (no, it’s not a word), but he is absolutely trying to move the world away from institutionalized violence, pushing religion to help with that movement. In face of a history of human savagery, Carroll still hopes to create change, viewing his hope as not a futile dream, but rather an essential political act. And for the 75 people who heard him speak, we were lucky enough to experience how we can be moved and inspired by a single man’s fierce hope.

Yet again, thanks to Septa for her input.

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One response to “Religion and Violence

  1. beautifully written piece. thank you.

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