Tag Archives: religious violence

Part 3 – 1979

This is part 3 of my blog series based on the lecture of Dr. Martin Marty.  His lecture was titled, “Religion and Violence and the global searches for peace.”  He gave this lecture at Wesley United Methodist Church in Urbana.  Part 1 was called, “Why talk about it?”.  Part 2 was called, “What is religious violence?”

There are certain years that just hold a certain amount of power.  People recognize them as turning points.  American history has a few, like 1492, 1776, 1849, 1865, 1929, 1941, and 1963 (in order, Columbus landing in the “new” world, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the California gold rush, the end of the Civil War, the stock market crash, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the assassination of JFK).  On lists like this, few outside of Pittsburgh would include 1979 (the Pirates win the World Series to the soundtrack of “We Are Family).

Yet one event in 1979 began a new era of religion and violence.  After decades of feeling as if the last war to be waged was the one against godless Communism, America was introduced to a new enemy that had their very own god.

The Iranian Revolution sent shockwaves across the world.  Until 1979, there was a general concept in society that, by and large, religion was becoming less and less important.  This was actually seen as a trend since the Enlightenment.  When science and logic ushered in the modern era, most thinkers believed that religion – and all the violence that came with it – was going to slowly die.  The theory of secularization was that society would grow in secularization, and religious fervor and phanaticism would lose its influence.

The Iranian revolution proved the theory of secularization wrong.  In fact, it proved that the exact opposite was actually taking place.  While secularization coninued through much of the world, the result was not the deadening of the extremes, but a push toward the extremes.  Secularization took people out of the middle-of-the-road religion.  Mainstream churches started to die, moderation became a sign of weakness.

At the same time, the extremes started to close rank.  They drew their lines, and more clearly defined themselves.  Taking up the name “Fundamentalists,” they made lists of what is the right way of believing and acting, and anyone outside these definitions were deemed “non-believers,” or “heathen,” or “infidels.”  This was not unique to any one religion.  Fundamentalism took hold in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. 

So instead of dulling the edges, secularization actually sharpened them.  This created a turbulent environment across the world.  In the United States, this battle was fought largely in the 1960s during battles over race and sexuality.  While some would argue that the Civil Rights Movement and the sexual revolution had nothing to do with Religion, I would beg to differ.  Both of these issues were deeply rooted in religion, the image of God, interpretation of the Bible, a sense of the holy, and the nature of humankind.

In Iran, it culminated in the rise of Islamic fascism.  The revolution showed that religious phanatacism was, in fact, an important aspect of geo-politics and national security.

According to Marty, most experts in national security in the 60s and 70s were interested in Communismand the nuclear arms race.  Religious skirmishes in places like Ireland, Bosnia, and even the Middle East, were seen as regional affairs that had little affect on United States national security. According to Dr. Marty, 1979 was the year that the CIA “got religion.”


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Part 2 – What is religious violence?

This is part 2 of my blog series based on the lecture of Dr. Martin Marty.  His lecture was titled, “Religion and Violence and the global searches for peace.”  He gave this lecture at Wesley United Methodist Church in Urbana.  Part 1 was called, “Why talk about it?”

This post is titled “What is religious violence?” This sounds like an obvious question, so the answer seems similarly obvious.  Religious violence is God-commanded and God-commended violence.  It happens when one person feels divinely ordained to inflict physical harm another person.  There are certainly types of violence that are not physical, but for the case of Marty’s lecture (and hence this blog) we will remain in the physical realm.

So here are some things that it is not.  Religious violence is not:

  • limited to any one faith, culture or country.
  • new.
  • something that only evil people do.
  • justification for the elimination of religion (some would argue this point).

Despite this relatively obvious-sounding answer, many have pretty a narrow view of what is religious violence.  For those that watch cable news in the United States, the term religious violence conjures images of suicide bombers and militant islamists.

Yet a closer look at the history of the United States reveals more religious violence then most would be comfortable admitting.  There was  early colonialism, slavery, Civil War, imperialism, urban riots (often directed at new religious groups), and of course, “Manifest Destiny”  That is the idea that God ordained the United States to expand its borders to the Pacific Ocean.   It was real big back in the 19th century.  It was the impetus for the genocide of thousands of native peoples.  It was also largely behind the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War.

An important step in limiting religious violence is admitting our own role in it.  It is easy to point fingers to our headlines and call people evil.  It is more difficult to do a little introspection and confession.

You may be thinking at this point, “All of those things you listed happened a long time ago.”  And you would be right.  And that is why so many sociologists felt that religious violence was on its way out.  There was a feeling that religious violence was becoming more and more isolated.  It was being relegated to a few regional skirmishes that would simply sputter out.

Wars that ripped Europe apart over religious lines were a part of the middle ages, not the modern world.  Nationalism had replaced religious fervor as the justifiable reason to kill someone.  Enlightenment thinkers in the United States and Europe saw religious power as the root of many societal ills.  The separation of church and state was of vital importance to the founders of this country so to avoid the traps that had plagued Europe for centuries. The Enlightenment gave birth to liberal theology,  and in the United States the  social gospel emerged.  This movement built hospitals and schools.  It made prisons more humane, and reformed labor laws.  Religion became a domestic animal, used to make our lives a little better.

And this was the religious bubble that existed in America for most of the 20th century.  Reinhold Niebuhr called America a “gadget-filled paradise suspended in a hell of international insecurity.”

While Europe was continuing to move toward secular nationalism and imperialism, America remained in a state of ignorant bliss about what was going on around her.  Yes, we intervened in a few wars, but only did so grudgingly, and called the first one “The war to end all wars,” and called the second one “The Good War.”

There were some leaks  in the bubble along the way.  Korea, Vietnam, and Watergate eroded our Pollyanna worldview.  There were rumblings at home, and some thought the 60’s would see the birth of a revolution, but even it faded as the hippies started to grow up and get haircuts.

Then came 1979.


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Religion and Violence, Part 1 – Why talk about it?

Dr. Martin Marty

Dr. Martin Marty

Last week I went to a lecture by Dr. Martin Marty.  Marty is a church historian and vital social commentator.  His column in The Christian Century has been a treasured resource for thousands of clergy and lay people.  His lecture was entitled “Religion, Violence, and the Global Searches for Peace.”

This is going to be my first post (I’m not sure how many more I’ll do) about the lecture.  I want to blog about the lecture because I believe it is such an important topic.  I want to do a series of posts because the lecture was so rich with information.

Why is talking about religion and violence so important?

1. Old theories have been proven wrong.  An important part of modern thought was the idea of secularization.  There was a theory that people and societies were getting gradually less and less religious, and during that process, the fringe radical elements would grow duller.  The belief was that as science and logic was able to explain more of the mysteries that religion had explained, religion would just slowly fade away.  While this to a large part happened in Europe, much of the rest of the world did not follow the pattern of secularization.

According to Marty, the 1979 Iranian revolution was the first sign that instead of the dulling of religious fundamentalism that was predicted, there has been a sharpening.  The attacks of September 11 showed that America was not immune to this increased radicalism.

Religious violence is nothing new.  Just ask any neo-atheist or look in any newspaper.  You are going to find evidence of violence perpetrated in the name of God.  What is apparant now, however, is that the long pattern of religous violence that is a part of our world is proceeding along a similar line as opposed to slowly fading away as predicted.

2. It is much more dangerous.  Again, religious violence is nothing new, but for most of human history, if two opposing religious people wanted to kill each other over their land, food, ports, god, ideas, money, oil, etc., they would simply kill each other.  The rest of the world could easily turn a blind eye.  Likewise, if an individual felt “called by God” to harm people in any way, that individual was very limited as to the  effect he could have.  Not so any more.

With the advent of weapons of mass destruction, regional conflicts can have global ramifcations.  And the impetus of a few radical individuals can harm thousands.

At the same time, mass media and communications have shrunk the world in such a way that all the violence can be broadcast around the world within seconds.  Violence in the farthest corner of the world can strike fear into the hearts of billions.  It can also inspire other likeminded religious radicals.

These reaons, among others, are why it is so important to talk about religous violence now.  The only way we can even begin to work for peace is to understand the state in which we live.


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