From the Mailbox – “Religious Murder”

Posted by on February 5, 2011 in From The Mailbox | 1 comment

This was a question sent to me via my mailbox. If you have any suggestions, questions or comments, you can leave your own here.

dougreardon asks: Do you think religion has decreased or increased homicide rates in their respective cultures?

I did a little bit of research, and while all of the information seems to be biased toward one outcome or another (as statistics invariably are), the trend for the highest rates of reported violent crimes in the world seems to come frome the USA. Note the words “reported violent crimes” here. The USA is an increasingly litigous country, so the reports of violent crimes are probably higher there partially because of this, but the culture of the USA is also very different from, say, Australia for example. There is a focus on the right to bear arms in the USA that doesn’t exist in Australia, so access to deadly weapons is easier.

The USA ransk as one of the most openly religious countries in the world. Does this correlation mean anything?

Reported violent crimes are one thing, but what these numbers fail to take into consideration is the rates of unreported violent crimes, and I;m thinking mostly about in Islamic regimes such as Afghanistan. I canlt find any information on this offhand, because, well, the rates are unreported, so how can we know about them, how common they are and to whom they happen?

Of course it’s never just black and white. If someone wants to draw a correlation between religion and homicide, this can be done, by manipulating figures. This is what statisticians do. I’m sure I could draw a correlation between fixed gear bike ownership and the vegetarianism if I wanted to, but it doesn’t make it necessarily true.

Certainly, however, the most religious people seem to me to be the most willing to defend their faith with violence, and also the most likely to use divinity as an excuse to wage war upon others. What might start out as an invasion to procure fuel can in the end be called a message from God, as we have seen in the 2 Gulf wars. Religion is also a very potent tool to stir emotions among those who may not otherwise be motivated to act. Once a person has been told and convinced that an action is the will of God, the more likely they are to act “in the name of God”.

This site gives some interesting snapshots of Violent Death Rates among different populations. I’m not sure of its accuracy or its source, but it will at least get you thinking. One thing it does point out is the disproportionate death rates in Africa and South America, both highly poor (compared to the SUA and Europe), and highly religious. The one statement that drew my attention at that website was;

“It’s possible these nations would be quite violent no matter what their national religion happened to be.”

Who knows, if things were different, would they be different? Probably, but in what ways it is impossible to say.

I guess the real question is “Are religious people more likely to kill?” The answer to that is “No, the likelihood is the same as in non-religious people.” The other question to ask then is “Are religious people more likely to kill and do it in the name of their religion?” And of course the answer here is a resounding “Yes.” I would conjecture, though, that it’s not the answer we have to worry about here, rather that the question is not quite right.

Violence is a human characteristic. It’s in us just as love and desire is. The question should not be “Do people do bad things in the name of religion?” The question should be “Are religions bad because they manipulate strong feelings in people, enough that they are willing to kill and die?”

I’m not really sure what the answer is here, I can’t seem to come to a conclusion to a question that, on the outset, seems quite straightforward. So, in my opinion only, I’d say that religion is responsible for a lot of death over the centuries, but that I wouldn’t blame it solely for the homicides in their cultures. I would say a combination of factors is to blame, including poverty and education.

Don’t forget, if you want me to answer your question, or have a topic you’d like to see me cover on the blog, send me a message here. And stay tuned for more “From the Mailbox” coming soon to this blog!

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1 Comment

  1. Most religious beliefs contain an element of an ‘afterlife’. If you don’t believe that death is the ‘end’ then how much easier is it take a life from someone? It’s like the difference between stealing the last 10 dollars from a pensioner or stealing 10 dollars from Bill Gates. While both are wrong I don’t think anyone would doubt the greater ‘immorality’ of stealing from the pensioner, rather than from Bill Gates to whom the loss would be unnoticeable.

    Additionally, if you believe that ultimate ‘judgement’ comes from your deity you are ultimately absolving yourself of your own responsibility, something best summed up by the reported statement of Arnaud, the Cistercian abbot-commander during the Catholic crusade against the Cathars in 1209 – “Kill them all, the Lord will recognise his own.”

    While religious belief is indeed a powerful motivator many other things are also powerful motivators that can ultimately lead to bloodshed. However, the addition of the religiously inspired elements noted above, remove all inhibitions and exacerbate situations which are already highly charged.

    It should come as no surprise therefore to note that many of the worst atrocities, even in relatively recent times, were committed under the guise of ‘divine will’. From Hitler’s use of the Catholic church, and his belief in his own ‘god given’ destiny, to Stalin’s manipulation of the Russian people’s belief in the ‘demigod’ status of the Tsars he ousted, time and again we see theologies based upon ‘religious’ principles being zealously used to massacre people in their millions. Even today in countries like North Korea we see pseudo-religious, god-like claims being attributed to Kim Il-sung and his descendants in order to control a credulous population.

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