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in religion is not a new phenomenon but rather has played a large part
throughout history and has been the cause of some of the most violent and
horrific bloodsheds. Take, as just one example, the Crusades, which took place
between 1096 and 1291 and have been described as “bloody, violent and often
conflict. The Crusades, a religious war against Muslims by Christians,
attempting to reclaim ‘The Holy Empire’, highlight “the extraordinary power of
ideas, that take hold of people’s minds and drive them to commit acts of great
sacrifice and love on the one hand, but also acts of great barbarity and hate
on the other.”2
Indeed, the power of ideas is arguably at the core of all religious violence,
as it is through the development of these thoughts that ideas are brought out from
the intellect into reality, expressed through individual’s emotion and
identity. Thus, in order to gauge a greater understanding into this field, we
need to examine both of these concepts.

Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the reader hears how God created the
world and “made humankind in his image”3
and yet almost immediately afterwards the reader is met with the words “God
regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with
One could quite rightly question how humankind, made in the perfect image of
the God of classical theism, managed to so quickly bring evil into a ‘perfect
creation’. Since this turning point “people have killed in the name of the God
of life, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the
God of love and practised cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.”5 More
recently, since the religiously motivated attack on the Twin Towers in
September 2001, events like this have not been diminishing. There has been a
marked rise in the systematic persecution of Christians in many parts of the
world with Christians making up only 4% of the Middle Eastern population, down
from 20% a century ago. In Syria, a report released by Open Doors, Served and
Middle East Concern, reports that the Christian population has been halved from
its 2011 population of 2 million6.
Similar patterns can be seen in Egypt, “where 5 million Copts live in fear”7,
Iraq, where the ISIS programme of “beheading and butchering Christians”8
has seen a population of 1.5 million Christians in 2001 fall to 400,000, and
finally Sudan, where since 1984 “an estimated 1.5 million Christians have been
killed by the Arab Muslim militia Janjaweed.”9
It’s not just Christians facing acts of religiously motivated violence; Muslims
are also facing persecution in China, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and
Uzbekistan. Indeed, Muslims form the majority of ISIS’s victims with half of
terrorist attacks and 60% of fatalities occurring in Iraq, Afghanistan and
Pakistan between 2004 and 2013, all of which have predominantly Muslim
populations. For Jewish people, antisemitism is back on the rise with “a survey
published by the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Human Rights,
published in November 2013, showing that a third of European Jews were
contemplating leaving”10
and a number actually leaving Hungary, Belgium, France, Holland, Norway and
Sweden. Numerous examples can also be found in the Eastern religions as well.

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these figures in mind, it is no wonder that people are questioning how it is
that religions, which are founded on love and peace, can “turn ordinary
non-psychopathic people into cold blooded murderers of schoolchildren, aid
workers, journalists and people at prayer.”11
Indeed, in our increasingly secular society, there is a growing cry that
through the abolition of religion we will restore the world to peace. While,
arguably this is unfounded, evidenced by research carried out by Charles
Phillips and Alan Axelrod in their book ‘Encyclopaedia of Wars’, where they
looked into 1800 different conflicts, revealed that less than 10% involved
religion. That being said, one cannot deny the statistics highlighting the
increase in religious violence and thus one has to question where this stems
from. I pose that its source is twofold and through the examination of human
emotion and identity we may be able to shed some more light on the origins of
religious violence.

considering where religious violence stems from, one cannot separate it from
human emotion. Emotion, an “instinctive feeling as opposed to reason”12,
plays a prominent part in the human life. 
Indeed, religious texts leave no doubt about this prominence emphasising
the importance of emotion in religious day to day life. In the Qur’an we hear
“Believers are those who, when God is mentioned, feel a tremor in their hearts,
and when they hear His signs rehearsed, find their faith strengthened, and put
their trust in the Lord, “13
highlighting the importance of not just reading the texts but really ‘feeling’
them too. Indeed, the same can be found in the Bible; “If I speak in the
tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a
clanging cymbal.”14
In other words, emotion is crucial for a complete embodiment of faith.  

emotions being a prominent part in the life of a human being “the field of
emotion is less a body of knowledge than a jungle of unexamined assumptions,
observations, and theories.”15Shame,
an emotion described as a “painful feeling of humiliation or distress, caused
by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour” is thought of as being one
of the key emotions that leads to violence. Scholars argue that while shame can
in fact prevent violence, when unacknowledged, repressed or disguised, it is a
major cause of aggression.16
The notion of shame as a prevalent emotion is highlighted from early on in the
Old Testament. Although not specifically termed as shame, “it is implied in the
story of Adam and Eve”17,
when having eaten fruit from the tree from which they had been forbidden to
even touch, upon hearing the footsteps of God walking in the Garden “they hid
themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees.”18
This event illustrates how shame is likely to play a prominent role in human
history and furthermore that shame can arise from self- consciousness. Another
example of shame playing a portentous role in the Old Testament can be found in
Job. Here, “the protagonist does not suffer in silence under God’s wrath”19
but rather questions the justice of his circumstance, presenting the first
moment in which the human social order is challenged. “Job’s confrontation with
God is a stirring toward freedom from rigid compliance to the status quo, just
as the birth of self- consciousness created the potential for freedom.”20
Indeed, it is this challenge to social order and potential for freedom that
marks some of the foundations of religious extremism. Expression of thought and
emotion, which stems from this potential for freedom, is generally a “response
to some sort of destabilisation.”21
This destabilisation in turn provides the foundation for religious violence to
occur, as the unresolved shame and consequent destabilisation results in
revenge being sought. For example in 2004 Christians massacred 630 Muslims in
Yelwa, Nigeria, and forced Muslim girls to eat forbidden foods and raped them.
This stemmed from a dispute over who owned the fertile land in the Plateau
State in Nigeria, which in 2001 saw the start of more violent conflict, as the
Muslims attacked the Christians, killing 1000 people. Thus, it becomes clear
that one of the primary motives for the 2004 attack was a feeling of
humiliation, that their religion had been left to feel subordinate and
subjected to insult and shame. Over time, this group feeling of shame
manifested itself into a desire for revenge and thus the seed for this act of
religious violence was born.

is another emotion which can inform us about where religious violence stems
from. If we take it as a verb, we understand honour to be the fulfilment of an
obligation and keeping one’s promises. In religion one is constantly making promises
to keep their respective Gods word and act in accordance with their laws. Take
for example in Judaism, where they promise not to eat any Trief (non- kosher)
food, in order that they uphold the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures. In turn, one
is rewarded with a reciprocal promise of an afterlife and glory. It is the
merit making opportunity, founded in the emotional desire to honour their God
that instils the perfect climate for religious violence to take place, as one
develops “investment and commitment with a sense of divine and everlasting
In the Hadith, the Muslim book of scriptures, (the major source of guidance
apart from the Qur’an), there is an outline of the numerous rewards that would
await anyone who gives his life for God, who die as martyrs for their religion.
These include a promise of the sparing of all pain in the martyr’s death, the
ability to guarantee entry into paradise for seventy relatives, the annulment
of all sin and marriage to seventy-two women.23
Thus, in return for their honour of Allah and living their lives in accordance
with their scripture, they are rewarded with greater things in paradise. It
therefore becomes clear where the justification comes from in carrying out acts
of religious violence and how an emotion can lead to extreme actions.

As a
human race there is a unifying characteristic of altruism present. This
seemingly goes against the other dominant evolutionary characteristic of
natural selection as altruistic actions, putting others before themselves, tend
to see that person die younger and therefore not pass on their genes. Thus, in
accordance with evolutionary laws we would expect that the characteristic of
altruism would have died out by now. 
Darwin, in his book ‘The Descent of Man’ wrote “There can be no doubt
that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in high degree the
spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, were always
ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good would
be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.”24
In other words, we are inherently social animals and thus survive within groups
and it is the dominant groups which survive natural selection. This highlights
how altruism and natural selection need not be mutually exclusive
characteristics of the human identity. The potential to do evil is arguably
because of “our inclination to act well towards others… which tends to be
confined to those with whom we share a common identity,”25 a
trait very prominently seen in religion, where there is a call to be
compassionate and charitable towards others. Meanwhile outside of their fellow
believers and potential fellow believers, they can be “brutal and pitiless”26
as people of other faiths are deemed to be heretics. This is where the survival
of the fittest characteristic comes into play, as each group competes to not
only survive but survive as the sovereign group/ religion. Therefore, it is
arguably not the religion itself but rather this characteristic of pack
mentality that leads one to commit acts of violence. Religion only enters the
equation because “it is the most powerful force ever devised for the creation
and maintenance of large-scale groups, by solving the problem of trust between
Indeed, arguably religious violence in many cases, has very little to do with
religion but rather to do with the identity of a group and secular reasons such
as territory and power. And yet all attempts to abolish identity, as imagined
by Zechariah in the Bible, who prophesised that “The Lord will become king over
all the world. On that day the Lord will be one, and his name will be one,”28
have failed. Durkheim, in his book ‘Suicide’ posits that a loss of moral code
will result in an increased number of suicides. This is because humans, as
inherently social animals, cannot face the thought of isolation and thus
“vulnerable individuals will choose death rather than life. Research into
suicide bombers and Jihadists since the 2001 Twin Tower bombings, has
highlighted that in most cases the individuals are not driven by religious
extremism, nor do they have any notable psychopathic traits but rather they are
driven by the “emptiness, meaningless, materialism and narcissism of the
contemporary West.”29
This idea is further emphasised by Eric Hoffer and Scott Atran, who have shown
that “individuals join radical movements to alleviate the isolation of the
lonely crowd and become, however briefly, part of an immense community engaged
in something larger than the self.”30
Therefore, we have a clear example of how one’s identity can heavily influence
their actions, which are often expressed in the form of religious violence, as here
 they are able to re-find some sort of
meaning and identity within society, which the increasingly secular Western
world cannot provide.

absolutism is a characteristic of human identity, which leads to religious
violence. Religious absolutism is a “distorted, non-constructive and irrational
thought that the truth, moral or aesthetic values are absolute, universal, set
and unchangeable.”31
Every religion has its own set of convictions and believers possess an absolute
loyalty to their own and exclude the views of others. It is this individual’s
undoubtable confidence that results in religious violence, as people are unable
to see beyond their own beliefs. It is arguably a fundamental reading of
religious texts that is the most dangerous and can be the cause of religious
violence. This is because they begin to fear democracy and freedom of speech on
the grounds that it may override their own beliefs and teachings. In turn this
leads to a desire to see a world dominated solely by their society, a
uniformity of identity, and a consequent hostility to anyone not willing to
give over their lives for their religion. In order to eradicate religious
violence, one would need to rid the world of intolerance and hatred between
different religions and rather adopt the altruistic mind set, which is seen so
prominently within religions, between religions as well. An absolutist stance
does not allow for this “freedom of conscience and respect for believers of all
and thus this particular characteristic of human identity can also lead to
religious violence.

conclusion, it is clear that both emotion and identity play a vital role in
religious violence. Both shape an individual and are at the heart of all the
decisions they make. By gaining a greater understanding of this field, one is
able to engage with the increasingly prevalent subject of religious violence at
a greater level. Shame and honour, whilst two very different emotions, have a
huge influence on people’s mind sets and are similar in their ability to drive
people to do good but also horrific crimes against humanity when repressed or
misconstrued. In terms of our identity, it is evident from past attempts that
society will never adopt one singular identity, despite claims that it is
potentially this very notion that is at the cause of most events. This is
illustrated by the development of religious violence, in particular suicide
bombers and jihadists, with no psychological profile, alongside the development
of an increasingly disparate and secular society, highlighting the correlation
between these two developments. Whilst the field of emotion and identity “still
remain one of the cloudiest regions of human thought”33,
the little we do know about them, give a huge insight into the causes of one of
the most prevalent issues the western world is having to face in this age.




1 Staff, ‘The Crusades’, (A+E Networks, 2010)
Accessed 05/01/17

Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Harvard University,, video, ‘The
Crusades’, (A+E Networks, 2010)
 Accessed 05/01/18

Genesis 1:27

Genesis 6:6

Sacks J, Not in God’s Name, (Great
Britain: Hodder, 2015) p.3.

Roughly half of Iraqi, Syrian Christians have fled since 2011, Article,
Accessed 06/01/18

J, Not in God’s Name, (Great Britain:
Hodder, 2015) p.6.

J, Not in God’s Name, (Great Britain:
Hodder, 2015) p.6.

J, Not in God’s Name, (Great Britain:
Hodder, 2015) p.6.

J, Not in God’s Name, (Great Britain:
Hodder, 2015) p.8.

11 Sacks
J, Not in God’s Name, (Great Britain:
Hodder, 2015) p.9.

Henry Watson Fowler & Francis George Fowler, The Concise Oxford Dictionary, (United Kingdom: Oxford University
Press, 1911), p.315.

Qur’an 8:2

14 1
Corinthians 13:1

Scheff. J & Retzinger. S, Emotions
and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts, (iuniverse, 2001)

Scheff. J & Retzinger. S, Emotions
and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts, (iuniverse, 2001)


Scheff. J & Retzinger. S, Emotions
and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts, (iuniverse, 2001)

Genesis 3:8

Scheff. J & Retzinger. S, Emotions
and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts, (iuniverse, 2001)

Scheff. J & Retzinger. S, Emotions
and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts, (iuniverse, 2001)

21 Susan
Raine, Body, Emotion and Violence: An
analysis of Palestinian suicide bombing and Martyrdom, (Edmonton Alberta:
ProQuest Dissertation Publishing, 2010), file:///C:/Users/Poppy%20Metherell/AppData/Local/Packages/Microsoft.MicrosoftEdge_8wekyb3d8bbwe/TempState/Downloads/Body,_Emotion_and_Violence_An.pdf
Accessed: 18.12.17, p.114

Raine, Body, Emotion and Violence: An
analysis of Palestinian suicide bombing and Martyrdom,(Edmonton Alberta:
ProQuest Dissertation Publishing, 2010), file:///C:/Users/Poppy%20Metherell/AppData/Local/Packages/Microsoft.MicrosoftEdge_8wekyb3d8bbwe/TempState/Downloads/Body,_Emotion_and_Violence_An.pdf
Accessed: 18.12.17, p.119

23 Susan
Raine , Body, Emotion and Violence: An
analysis of Palestinian suicide bombing and Martyrdom,(Edmonton Alberta:
ProQuest Dissertation Publishing, 2010), file:///C:/Users/Poppy%20Metherell/AppData/Local/Packages/Microsoft.MicrosoftEdge_8wekyb3d8bbwe/TempState/Downloads/Body,_Emotion_and_Violence_An.pdf
Accessed: 18.12.17, p.129

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man,
Vol. I, (London: John Murray, 1871), p.163.

25 Sacks
J, Not in God’s Name, (Great Britain:
Hodder, 2015) p.31.

Sacks J, Not in God’s Name, (Great
Britain: Hodder, 2015) p.31.

27 Sacks
J, Not in God’s Name, (Great Britain:
Hodder, 2015) p.39.

Zechariah 14:1

29 Sacks
J, Not in God’s Name, (Great Britain:
Hodder, 2015) p.42.

30 Sacks
J, Not in God’s Name, (Great Britain:
Hodder, 2015) p.42. ideas taken from Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the nature of mass movements, (Harper
and Row,  1951) and Scott Atran, Talking to the enemy, violent extremism,
sacred values, and what it means to be human, (London: Allen Lane, 2010)

31 Michelle
Roya Rad, What turns ordinary people into
religious extremists?, (Huffington Post, August 06 2013),
Accessed: 11/01/18

Saad Haffiz, Religious Absolutism, (The
Daily Times, May 9th 2015),
Accessed 18/12/17

Scheff. J & Retzinger. S, Emotions
and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts, (iuniverse, 2001)


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