Does Religion Promote Dissension and Conflict?

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It can, and sometimes does, but so does politics, ideology, race, and gender.  Atheists often caricature religion as the most corrosive force on earth, but as Alister McGrath points out, this is sociologically and historically naive.

Suppose [Richard] Dawkins’s dream were to come true, and religion were to disappear.  Would that end the divisions within humanity and the violence that ensues from them?  Certainly not.  Such divisions are ultimately social constructs which reflect the fundamental sociological need for communities to self-define and identify those who are “in” and those who are “out,” those who are “friends,” and those who are “foes.”

. . . . A series of significant binary oppositions are held to have shaped Western thought—such as “male-female” and “white-black.”  Binary opposition leads to the construction of the category of “the other”—the devalued half of a binary opposition—when applied to groups of people.  Group identity is often fostered by defining “the other”—as, for example, in Nazi Germany with its opposition “Aryan-Jew.”

. . . . The simplistic belief that the elimination of religion would lead to the ending of violence, social tension or discrimination is thus sociologically naive.  It fails to take account of the way in which human beings create values and norms, and make sense of their identity and their surroundings.  If religion were to cease to exist, other social demarcators would emerge as decisive . . . [As they did, for example, during the French Revolution and in the Soviet Union.]

Michael Shermer, president of the Skeptics Society, has made the significant point that religions were implicated in some human tragedies such as holy wars.  While rightly castigating these—a criticism which I gladly endorse—Shermer goes on to emphasize that there is clearly a significant positive side to religion:

“For every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go unreported . . . . Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.”

— Alister McGrath, “Is Religion Evil,” God is Great, God is Good (IVP, 2009), 129-131.

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9 thoughts on “Does Religion Promote Dissension and Conflict?

  1. This is Hannah Bevills, Editor for Christian.com which is a social network made specifically for Christians, by Christians, to directly fulfill Christian’s needs. We embarked on this endeavor to offer the ENTIRE christian community an outlet to join together as one (no matter denomination) and better spread the good word of Christianity. Christian.com has many great features aside from the obvious like christian TV, prayer request or even find a church/receive advice. We have emailed you because we have interest in collaborating with you and your blog to help us spread the good word. I look forward to an email regarding the matter, Thanks!

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  2. Hi mythicsushi,

    Thanks for your comment (and sorry for the delayed response). I think that’s right — as we look at history we see divisions and violence resulting from racial, political, and class differences, to name a few. I guess the real enemy is extremism, which can occur in any of these realms, including religion.

    Some have suggested that because of this, religious people should only have a minimal confidence in their beliefs — maybe a 50 percent chance of one’s beliefs being correct, or the like. But through history and today, it’s often a strong commitment to religious beliefs that motivates people to give to the poor, help their neighbor, and work to end social ills.

    In my own experience, I think I would be much less virtuous if I had significant doubts that my faith were true. I not only learn the difference between virtue and vice from my faith, but I’m more motivated to be virtuous because of it.

    Take care,
    Chris

    • Being good because if you don’t you get fried for eternity.

      Being good because you think it is the best way to live your life and that there is no after life.

      I know which I think is the more morale.

      Cheers,

      Psi

      • Psi this is the position of every world religion other than Christianity. All world religions are based on the premise of “do” while the foundation of Christianity is what Jesus has already “done”. You can not earn your way in to heaven as salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

      • Hi Psi,
        I hope the summer is treating you well. Kurt makes a good point. Christianity doesn’t teach salvation by good works, but by faith in Christ’s death as our substitute. He took our sin, but also imputed His moral perfection to us, so that we could be reconciled with God. Since whatever we do with our lives on earth will have consequences for eternity, the existence of an afterlife makes our actions in this lifetime even more important and significant. The end will only be the beginning.
        Take care,
        Chris

  3. I agree with this. Any “social construct” could cause the same ills that religion does.

    That being said, there is something about believing that God is on your side that seems to give people absolute certainty that isn’t found as much in other institutions.

    It would seem that religion is the only force that would drive someone to do something that leads to a reward in the afterlife. There are, of course, many people that would take positive actions in that context, but the same reasoning could apply to an evil action, such as the 9/11 attacks.

  4. Thanks, Paul. He makes some great points there, doesn’t he? His example of the Soviet persecution of the church is a good illustration of how atheism is just as liable to cause violence as religion–if not more.

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