You are viewing an archived page on our old website. Click here to visit our new website.

Home | Join/Donate | Current Voices | Liturgical Calendar | What's New | Affirmation | James Hitchcock's Column | Church Documents | Search

Religion and Violence

by James Hitchcock
March 6, 2002

Religious believers are accustomed to being accused as perpetrators of intolerance and violence, and there is enough truth to such charges to take them to heart. At the same time it should be recognized that what is called religious strife is usually only partly that. The "religious wars" of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were at least as much about politics, with, for example, Catholic France supporting German Protestants in order to weaken the Catholic German emperor. Today it would be extremely simplistic to think that religion is all that fuels the strife in Northern Ireland or the Near East.

However, religion does posses a peculiar potentiality for "extremism", because it has to do with extreme things. We might manage to compromise a boundary dispute, for example, but how can we compromise the will of God?

Critics cluck their tongues and note the contradiction whereby religion, which is supposed to be based on love, has the potential to turn into strife and hatred. The critics do not note the close parallel to the family, where love can so easily turn into hate.

But the dangers of strife and fanaticism come from the very nature of religion itself, which deals with ultimate things. In a sense people ought to be more ready to fight over religious dogma than over disputed territory, because religious dogma has to do with the highest and most important truths. (It requires some kind of divine revelation to teach us that we should not kill one another over religious dogma.)

The terrorism which manifested itself on September 11 has of course started a whole new round of alarmed warnings about the dangers of religious fanaticism, with some secularists professing to see no significant difference between Osama Bin Laden on the one hand and Jerry Falwell and the pro-life movement on the other. Thus, we are warned, the extirpation of all forms of religious intensity is what we must do to achieve social peace. In this secularist world, saying that one disapproves of homosexuality, for example, is equated with bombing the World Trade Center.

We can all agree on the need to end the kind of religion which does issue in violence and hatred. But, as the secularists point out, all real religion has that potential, in the same way that deep love between a man and a woman has the potential of leading to murderous jealousy. Thus many secularists in effect now call for an end to religion completely, something they have been predicting for a long time but which so far has not happened.

Why is there religion at all, of any kind? Ultimately the only satisfactory answer is that it enlightens people about the meaning of life, of how they should live their lives. Religion is what gives meaning to human existence. Therefore, it follows, to abandon religion would mean abandoning all hope of meaning, to which the secularist nods and says, "precisely!" The secularist position, which has a long history, is that the religious search for meaning is an illusion but that, even when successful, is a bad thing, because human beings should not be encouraged to think about ultimate realities.

American Pragmatism is perhaps the clearest example of this. It argues that we can choose moral positions, and orient ourselves in life, not by asking what is true or false but simply on the basis of what seems to work. We might claim, for example, that all human beings have worth and dignity but, if someone asks why this is so, we are not required to answer. It just is.

Although they seldom admit it, these secularists really are calling upon the human race to amputate itself spiritually, to suppress, quite consciously, the religious hungers which have been part of human existence since the beginning of time. They call on us deliberately to wall ourselves up within the empirical limits of our world and resolutely to ignore everything which does not fit. Whatever else might be said about such a view of existence, it is immeasurably drabber and shallower than what human beings have thought was real for these thousands of years.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

**Women for Faith & Family operates solely on your generous donations!

WFF is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Donations are tax deductible.

Columns copyright © 1995 - 2007 by James Hitchcock. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without permission. (Permission is granted to download articles for personal use only.)

Voices copyright © 1999-Present Women for Faith & Family. All rights reserved.


All material on this web site is copyrighted and may not be copied or reproduced without prior written permission from Women for Faith & Family,except as specified below.

Personal use
Permission is granted to download and/or print out articles for personal use only.

Brief quotations (ca 500 words) may be made from the material on this site, in accordance with the “fair use” provisions of copyright law, without prior permission. For these quotations proper attribution must be made of author and WFF + URL (i.e., “Women for Faith & Family –

Generally, all signed articles or graphics must also have the permission of the author. If a text does not have an author byline, Women for Faith & Family should be listed as the author. For example: Women for Faith & Family (St Louis: Women for Faith & Family, 2005 + URL)

Link to Women for Faith & Family web site.
Other web sites are welcome to establish links to or to individual pages within our site.

Back to top -- Home -- Back to James Hitchcock Column Index
Women for Faith & Family
PO Box 300411
St. Louis, MO 63130

314-863-8385 Phone -- 314-863-5858 Fax -- Email

You are viewing an archived page on our old website. Click here to visit our new website.