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Book review: Religious Hatred and Human Conflict: Psychodynamic approaches to insight and intervention by Andrew Floyer Acland

28 March 2024

Andrew Brown reviews a study of hatred that arises out of religion

IT’S a commonplace among secularists that religious hatred is worse than any other sort. By this they mean the hatred practised by believers rather than hatred directed towards believers: when Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris denounce Islam as evil and incompatible with civilisation, this is treated as a moment of enlightenment. When some Bible Belt preacher does the same, that’s proof of the loathsomeness of all religion. Yet, it is still possible that the secularists have a point, and that there are aspects to religious practice and experience which make for a distinctively virulent form of hatred, one peculiarly resistant to calm reasoning and, because of this, specially effective politically.

This is the question examined in Religious Hatred and Human Conflict by Andrew Floyer Acland, an experienced mediator. He worked for Robert Runcie, but has also had widespread experience of religious hatred outside the Anglican Communion.

In terms that must resonate with anyone involved with the schism over homosexuality, he writes: “True religious hatred — the hatred that demands the elimination of Others because they are believed to threaten the integrity or purity of the faith — is essentially a psychological problem, not a problem of unmet needs or unwanted differences. So, dialogue alone, even well-mediated dialogue, is unlikely to transform religious hatred though it may contain and possibly mitigate it to some extent. You cannot argue or negotiate people out of behaviour they have felt or believed their way into.”

He is most interested in the psychological rather than the sociological aspects of religion. Sociology cannot be reduced to psychology, any more than chemistry can be reduced to physics, but sociological realities must, none the less, be compatible with psychological ones, just as in chemistry nothing is possible that would violate the laws of physics.

The trouble is that we have a much clearer understanding of the laws of inanimate nature than we have of our own, which seems to shift around us as we move. There isn’t a single science of psychology: there are only contending schools of interpretation of data that are themselves contested. Dr Floyer Acland seems a sure-footed guide through some of these quagmires. He rejects the claim that what may be seen in them is only a will-o’-the-wisp. Where secularists believe that what makes religion dangerous is its falsehood, he sees that what makes religion dangerous is its elements of unarguable truth. One is given a glimpse of perfection, followed by a crushing knowledge of how far short we fall. Clearly, someone must be blamed or punished for this imperfection.

This is not a book that proposes any easy answers; in fact, the chief message may be that there are none, and that the elimination, or even the management, of religious hatred demands a change of heart among the haters. But I am not sure for whom this is meant to be news. The book started life as a Ph.D. thesis, and has not grown sufficiently far from this root to flower into an easy read. This is a shame, because he has read widely and thought deeply about these matters, and there is obviously practical experience in the background of his conclusions.

Andrew Brown is a writer and journalist. Read his latest Press column here.

Religious Hatred and Human Conflict: Psychodynamic approaches to insight and intervention
Andrew Floyer Acland
Routledge £35.99
Church House Bookshop £32.39

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