WHILE six out of every ten people think that faith teachings are essentially peaceful, seven out of ten believe that most of the wars in world history were caused by religions, a new survey for the think tank Theos suggests.
Nearly half (47 per cent) think that the world would be a more peaceful place if no one was religious, but only eight per cent believe that religions are inherently violent, and 81 per cent agreed that religious extremists, not religions themselves, are violent.
Almost two-thirds think that most religious violence is really about other things, such as politics, socio-economic issues, or Western foreign policy. That rose to nearly three-quarters of minority religious respondents among the 2042 British adults interviewed by ComRes.
In a foreword to the report, Killing in the Name of God, Theos’s research director, Nick Spencer, says: “It is about the people — some of them extremely nasty — who claim to follow a religion and use it for violent ends; and the economic, political, and nationalist causes with which it is often inextricably linked.
“This is emphatically not to say that religion in itself — its practices, loyalties, scriptures, and even ethics — has nothing to do with violence. Whatever else this survey tells us, it does not tell us that people think this whole religion and violence issue is really about something else. They don’t.
“Rather, the polling about ‘religion and violence’ is complex and unclear in part because people recognise that ‘religion and violence’ is invariably about ‘religion and violence and. . .’ when the ‘and’ is followed by issues of loyalty, ethics, ethnicity, politics, textual interpretation, geography, economics, or any other number of factors.”
In a commentary published with the survey, Canon Robin Gill, Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent, says that if there is confusion, it is probably because the relationship between religion and violence is confusing. He acknowledges that there is a problem to be addressed, and looks at what he considers to be the heart of the issue — the specific religious texts that are hijacked to legitimise violence — and argues that, read correctly, they can be “defused”.
He says that any potential rise in religious violence “pales into insignificance” when compared with the numbers killed in state, civil, and ethnic wars over recent decades, and that some of the most brutal and homicidal political leaders in the 20th century were avowedly anti-religious. Yet religiously inspired violence, such as 9/11 and subsequent Islamist killings and torture, is “deeply shocking and does need to be addressed seriously”.
Canon Gill notes that the holy scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other faiths have texts that appear to justify violence, but argues that “by reading these texts in context, a more peaceful (consistent with the rest of the scriptures) and representative message is discernible.
“Jews and Christians have long contextualised some of the more violent verses in Deuteronomy and the Gospels. Some Muslim scholars are also now attempting to do something similar, especially with the ninth chapter of the Qur’an, which appears especially to motivate some Islamist extremists to act violently.”
He calls for a “new ecumenism”, based on mutual understanding rather than doctrinal agreement, between leaders of the three Abrahamic faiths. “While some theologians have already begun this task, at a local level, rabbis, imams, and priests/ministers have also increasingly witnessed together against acts of religiously inspired violence.
“In addition, theologians and religious leaders are beginning to work together on ethical issues, acknowledging their differences and also searching for points of convergence, in such a way that further defuses the risk of religiously inspired violence.”