Religious Violence vs. Secular Violence

Image of the aftermath of a 2021 suicide bombing in Baghdad, Iraq that killed 32 people (source)

Less than a week ago (as of writing this), we had the twenty-first anniversary of the 9/11/2001 attacks that collapsed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, and sent four planes worth of people to their deaths, in addition to those killed in the buildings (2,996 people killed in total). Just over a year ago, the U.S. finally abandoned its occupation and nation-building project in Afghanistan, a misguided enterprise that resulted from the 9/11 attacks two decades earlier. As the image above shows, violence has not yet ended in Iraq, either – a country that had no ties to al-Qaeda, nor possessed any “weapons of mass destruction”, even though those were the casus belli for the U.S. invasion. The violence perpetrated by the 9/11 terrorists is said by some to be religiously motivated, a sort of clash of civilizations, while others say it’s political (as a result of U.S. involvement in the Middle East, it’s support for Israel, and it’s cozy relationship with the Saudi government). The violence perpetrated by the U.S. in 76 different countries (as of 2018) is said by some to be anywhere between a necessary evil and noble. Others argue that it’s imperialist, racist, Islamophobic, and/or no different than what the 9/11 terrorists did. How can we parse these different views?

This article is inspired by the following video:

According the Watson Institute report in 2018 (from Brown University’s Cost of War project), the deaths as a result of the U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq are summed up in the following table:

Those numbers, of course, have only gone up in the last four years. A liberal French think tank, the Foundation for Political Innovation, says the following about deaths caused by terrorist attacks between 1979 and 2019:

…we can establish that between 1979 and 2019, at least 33,769 Islamist terrorist attacks took place worldwide. They caused the deaths of at least 167,096 people. We can also say that Islamist terrorist attacks account for 18.8% of all attacks worldwide, but that they are responsible for 39.1% of the lives lost due to terrorism; or that, during the years studied, there has been an intensification of this violence and that the deadliest period is the most recent: from 2013 onwards, in our opinion, Islam has become the main cause (63.4%) of deaths due to terrorism in the world. We identify and quantify operating methods and targets. The vision of the phenomenon improves, the image becomes clearer. In this way, we show that the majority of the victims of Islamist terrorism are Muslims (91.2%).

Other sources give different numbers (I highly recommend checking out this website), but are generally in the same ballpark. The point, though, is that more people have died as a result of the war on terrorism in the last two decades than have died from terrorism in the last four decades.

In the video that inspired this post, host Michael Burns discusses how the west justifies its own foreign policy violence by saying that ours is rational and in the name high-minded ideals like freedom and human rights. We in the west, however, accuse terrorist violence as being sectarian, irrational, and/or evil. Indeed, people like Sam Harris argue that Islamic terrorism is particularly dangerous since, having an eschatological/soteriological view of their violence, Islamic terrorists will be willing to go to any length to carry out their backward, iron-aged project. As such, the west in perfectly justified in taking extreme measures to combat Islamic terrorism.

Sam Harris discusses the religious vs. political motivations of Islam with Dan Carlin

We in the west see our own violence as rational because we (A) do not specifically target civilians/non-combatants (although many die from collateral damage or from screw-ups), while terrorists are willing to kill women, children, and just any random people who might be around when they commit an act of terrorism; (B) we are restrained in our use of warfare (it would be easy for the U.S. to just wipe Afghanistan off the map, but we don’t; and, the argument goes, the terrorists would not hesitate to wipe the U.S. off the map if they had the capability); and (C) we spread high-minded ideas like freedom, equality, and human rights for women and minorities, while the terrorists spread fear, subjugation, and intolerance, all in the name of a violent, backward death cult.

The video that inspired this post quotes William T. Cavanaugh in saying:

We must conclude that there is no coherent way to isolate “religious” ideologies with a peculiar tendency toward violence from their tamer “secular” counterparts. So-called secular ideologies and institutions like nationalism and liberalism can be just as absolutist, divisive, and irrational as so-called religion. People kill for all sorts of things. … The point is not simply that “secular” violence should be given equal attention to “religious” violence. The point is that the distinction between “secular” and “religious” violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and should be avoided altogether.

I think this somewhat misrepresents people like Sam Harris, who don’t argue that religion causes violence, but that it can be easily used as a justification for violence (i.e., the Steven Weinberg quote: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”). People who believe in an afterlife, and that committing violence here on earth will earn them greater rewards in the afterlife, are going to be more willing to commit terrible atrocities. Dan Carlin, in the video above, points out that the Imperial Japanese in World War 2 were willing to commit atrocities for what was largely a secular cause (the mixture of religion and politics in Imperial Japan is complicated, but the soldiers willing to commit atrocities and even give their own life were not necessarily expecting a great reward in the afterlife for it). We could point to other secular regimes as well: Nazi Germany; the Soviet Union; Communist China, Cambodia, Vietnam, and North Korea; and even going back to the Mongols.

It’s interesting, too, that it’s not uncommon for people to call secular ideologies a religion as a pejorative:

This does seem to indicate that there is a sense in which something being a religion makes it more frightening or pernicious than if it it were just a secular ideology. As seen in the above video, there is even a sense of saying that “those people (the woke/Marxist types) don’t think like you and me. They have an alien, otherworldly, and distorted way of understanding the world that is completely incompatible with our sensible, rational way of thinking.”

To me, this line of thinking gets at the heart of why accusing something of being a religion makes it seem scarier and more dangerous: religious thinking shapes (or warps) the very foundations of the way we think and behave. It obligates us with dogmas, narratives, goals, and methods that are (irrationally) justified by recourse to something greater than ourselves, something that is absolute and therefore can brook no opposition or disagreement. Secular ideologies, on the other hand, are thought to deal with concrete, scientific facts that must be measured against an objective world about which everyone can agree upon; anyone who doesn’t agree with the hard, scientific facts is either mistaken (have interpreted the data incorrectly), ignorant (don’t know about the data), stupid (are incapable of understanding the data), or cynically pushing some kind of agenda (they may or may not know about or understand the data, but it doesn’t matter to them because they have an ulterior motive to ignore it).

So, is it really the case that the violence perpetrated by the U.S. war on terrorism isn’t significantly different than the violence perpetrated by Islamic terrorists? Is Cavanaugh right in saying that the distinction between religious and secular violence “…is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and should be avoided altogether.”? A lot of what this comes down to is how we even define religion. As discussed above, people levy the accusations of ideologies being religions quite freely. People can, and do, allege that liberalism (in the broad sense, not the sense of liberalism in the U.S. as a label for left-of-center to far-left ideologies) is a religion, or that capitalism is a religion.

Yet, on the other hand, there is a sort of “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it” aspect to religious violence. To say, for instance, that a suicide bomber blowing up a Mosque (or even just a public space) is no different than even something like a drone strike just seems off the mark, even if one couldn’t put into words as to why this is so. But, it’s also ridiculous to say that we in the west, because of our rational enlightenment values, would never do anything so atrocious as suicide bombing. That would be ignoring human nature, and that everyone is capable of committing atrocities. The men in the Einsatzgruppen, or in Unit 731, came from what we would broadly consider to be rational, scientific, enlightened, western(ized) nations.

The legal definition of religion given by Ben Clements is:

religion can be defined as a comprehensive belief system that addresses the fundamental questions of human existence, such as the meaning of life and death, man’s role in the universe, and the nature of good and evil, and that gives rise to duties of conscience.

If we put this more discursively, we can see how something like liberalism fits the bill:

  1. Comprehensive belief system – all people are equal and have natural rights
  2. Addresses fundamental questions of human existence, including:
    1. The meaning of life – to pursue one’s own happiness as they understand it
    2. Man’s role in the universe – to make the world better for the future than it was for the past
    3. The nature of good – the pleasure principle
    4. The nature of evil – bigotry, inequality, oppression, subjugation, authoritarianism (in other words, anything that prevents a person from pursuing their own happiness as they understand it)
  3. Duties of conscience – behaving lawfully, respectfully, with dignity and civility; respecting private property; doing productive work; doing one’s “fair share” (e.g., paying taxes or performing civic duties)

The point in this exercise isn’t to prove that liberalism is a religion, but to show that religion is a slippery enough term that we could just about call anything a religion when we start trying to come up with necessary and sufficient conditions for something to be a religion. Perhaps, then, the distinction ought to be between the eschatological/soteriological and the worldly/humanistic? There is obviously crossover with these – religions are often involved in worldly/humanistic charitable pursuits. But one could perhaps see the eschatological/soteriological as a sort of de re while the worldly/humanistic as a sort of de dicto, of the proposition “I want to do what is good.” The former has a specific idea of what the good is (it is doctrinal) while the latter has a notion of good based on the pleasure principle, or something similar.

What makes this kind of distinction useful is that an ideology that takes the de re maximization of the good is motivated by what pleases a non-human higher being while an ideology that takes the de dicto maximization of the good is motivated by what brings the most pleasure to the most humans. In the former case, suffering caused against other humans is justified, so long as it pleases the higher being, and any increase in pleasure in other humans is incidental. In the latter case, it is reducing the suffering and increasing the pleasure of humans that is the end in-itself (although, being de dicto, it is not necessarily any particular humans, but some subset of humans or humanity in general).

Given this adjustment to the distinction between the secular and the religious, we might then ask about the difference between the violence with de re or de dicto motivations. I think we could refer back to the kind of argument people like Sam Harris makes. The de re motivation is one that treats humans instrumentally, with the function being to please a higher power. As such, if killing people, causing harm to people, or otherwise treating them poorly (e.g., treating women or some minority group as second class citizens) is determined to be something that will please the higher power, then it is not only permissible, but morally good (perhaps even a moral duty), even if it brings a net reduction in human happiness and pleasure.

The de dicto motivation, however, is not automatically superior to the de re motivation. The problems of utilitarian ethics are well known. But even concrete examples show that it doesn’t always lead to good outcomes. Nazism is a de dicto motivation that cares for the happiness and well-being of the German people (likewise with Shōwa Statism and the Japanese people). Communism has a very “ends justify the means” way of attempting to bring about the greatest well-being for the most people, though their ends are misguided and their means are atrocious, but still de dicto nonetheless. And even if something like liberalism (a de dicto ideology if ever there was one) looks like rainbows and unicorns on paper, it still has many issues, not least of which is its vulnerability to corruption and abuse by the wealthy.

A problem that both the de re and de dicto ideologies have is that they are all universalist. In de re ideologies, universal adherence to the eschatological/soteriological beliefs is the only thing that will maximize the pleasure of the higher being, and so one must either spread the doctrine by persuasion or force, or else shun the heretics and infidels. As far as de dicto ideologies, for all its pluralistic multicultural rhetoric, liberalism is an evangelical ideology as well, since it views human rights as universally applied (and the absolutism of Fascism and Communism is pretty self-evident). Wokism, too, for all its talk of “diversity” and “inclusion” (and accusations from detractors of moral relativism) has a strict orthodoxy that makes its own universal claims (e.g., that sex and gender are social constructs; that power dynamics are the primary, or sole, organizing force within society).

There is, though, a difference between violence that seeks to increase the pleasure or well-being of (some subset of) people and violence done in the name of an unseen and unknowable higher power. To bring in some more Latin, we could call it the mens rea and the actus reus of the violence. The latter would be the actual acts of violence – drone strikes or suicide bombings or whatever – while the former is the motivation for committing the acts of violence – to please a higher power or to increase the pleasure and well-being of (some subset of) people. Certainly, the violence perpetrated by the U.S. war on terror, even if we take the high-minded rhetoric at face value, is not without blame. Suffering has been wrought on untold numbers of people, and all to make people in the U.S. marginally safer (probably more about psychological comfort than actual physical safety). But one does have to wonder how different things might be if, say, al-Qaeda got its hands on ICBMs with nuclear warheads: would they restrain themselves from causing extreme devastation on their enemies when they see the death of said enemies as being pleasing to their deity (and being much less concerned with their own safety)? One can really only speculate, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that nuclear weapons in the hands of al-Qaeda would be much worse for more people than nuclear weapons in the hands of people who abide by de dicto ideologies.

But, does having a de re ideology cause someone to commit violence? Not in general. It depends on the content of the de re ideology. Although the same could be said of de dicto ideologies (e.g., Fascism, Communism), I think that having the distinction is useful, contrary to what Cavanaugh thinks. Understanding the psychology and motivations behind violence is important when trying to predict how people will act.