Religion, Violence, and Cognition

…it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

Religion, Violence, and Cognition: Why We May Have to Think More Broadly About Violence-Enabling Mechanisms

By Kevin Whitesides, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 21 November, 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Brian Victoria on Zen Buddhist Terrorism (19 November, 2012).

In his RSP podcast interview, Dr. Brian Victoria provides a great deal of food for thought on both the relationships between religion and violence and why it is important for scholars of religion to understand these realms in a subtle and nuanced way, especially in light of the remarkably un-nuanced manner in which these topics are typically treated in mainstream and popular media sources.  However, rather than provide a detailed response to the interview, I prefer to simply riff off of some of the issues that came up during the podcast bringing an emphasis of my own on the relationship between violence-enabling mechanisms within religion and human cognition more generally.

One interesting thread that Dr. Victoria developed during the interview is the contextuality of doctrinal hermeneutics, that the very same doctrines which can be interpreted in ways which promote or enable what he referred to as the ‘bright side’ of religion (social welfare, psychological well-being, in-group cohesion, etc.), when interpreted from within a different socio-cultural context, can be utilized as a means to motivate religiously-inspired violence.  A religious admonition toward ‘non-harm’ (ahimsa) in Buddhism or ‘Hinduism’ can be used to promote pacifist renunciants in one context and righteous warriors in another.  In that sense, those who aspire to the goal of eliminating or significantly decreasing religious violence have a monumental task on their hands.  It is not a matter of simply locating the particular types of religious doctrine which enable violence and attempting to remove them (were that possible or desirable), leaving a nice, pure altruistic essence in their absence.  It is the human interpretive capacity (as well as the capacity to act in correspondence with those interpretative beliefs) which is the underlying factor.  The concept or doctrine which is being interpreted is a secondary or incidental component to that more basic cognitive capacity for interpretive justification.  The concept of jihad in Islam can be used as a potent symbol for the inner struggle of personal, social, and spiritual development or it can be a potent symbol for catalyzing violent action in a physical struggle with an outside force.  The particular interpretation which is utilized at any given time will largely be a result of the unique contextual factors which guide and constrain the interpretation and, thus, do not result from any inherent feature of Islam.

Further, as scholars of religion, with an occasionally myopic eye toward our subject matter, it is important that we remember that it is not solely or even primarily the realm of ‘religion’ in which these kinds of interpretive gymnastics occur.  The same cognitive-interpretive mechanisms which allow different religious individuals or groups to interpret the same doctrines or beliefs in different ways, depending on the larger socio-cultural contexts in which they are embedded, are indeed active cognitive components in our daily lives.  Humans, generally, tend to have a variety of self-serving cognitive biases which allow us to interpret situations in ways that support our own conscious and unconscious goals, where, were we faced with the same situation given a different context, we might interpret the situation very differently to serve different contextual goals.  One example of such an interpretive twist that many people may be able to identify with upon reflection (there will be exceptions) can be found in the difference in experience between driving a car and being a pedestrian.  Many people may have had the experience, as a pedestrian, of getting frustrated with drivers for failing to give them the right of way to walk.  Similarly, the very same people, while driving a car, may get frustrated with pedestrians for not giving them right of way to drive.  The relevant issue here is very much aside from the legal consideration of which party is legitimated by the culture as actually having a ‘right of way’.  What is important here is that as a pedestrian we get annoyed with drivers and as a driver we get annoyed with pedestrians.  In other words, given the same exact circumstance, the interaction between a pedestrian and a car, which role you happen to be in at any given time may very well influence how you interpret the situation.  There will, of course, be exceptions to any such generalization (as is the nature of statistical significance), but my hope here is to provide an example that can begin to help us wrap our head around the context-driven aspect of interpretation, and to begin to realize that this is not a feature that is unique to religion or to instantiations of religious violence.  It is something that we all typically engage in on a daily basis.  Our contexts influence how we interpret nearly everything.  The stakes just aren’t always as high as they are when it comes to violence.  Personally, I don’t find it shocking to consider that religious beliefs can (but need not) enable violence and can be used to justify violence as a positive action.  On the contrary, I would actually find it incredibly shocking if the same interpretive lenses that we use to make nearly all of our decisions in life were not also utilized in the face of issues of such large stake as choosing when and for what reasons to participate in war and violent behavior.  In making those choices, both consciously and unconsciously, the values that we hold highest (religious or otherwise) will always be utilized among our primary means for justifying our positions and behaviors.

Making a point to similar effect, Prof. Jay Demerath has also suggested, in an earlier RSP podcast, that we cannot, as some are wont to do, simply assume that we can eliminate religion and thus eliminate the problem of violence.  Demerath calls our attention to a continuum of attributions of ‘sacredness’ among which we find both the religious sacred and the secular sacred.  Now, given how highly loaded and contested the term ‘sacred’ is in our discipline, we may choose not to use that particular word.  However, there is a more important point which Prof. Demerath is making which we should be careful not to lose in debating the merits of various terminologies (perhaps Ann Taves’ continuum model of ‘things deemed special’ [Taves 2009] could provide a less contested and more social-scientifically acceptable alternative framework).  The point is that the very same cognitive, hermeneutic enabling mechanisms that exist within ‘the religious’ can also be found in the so-called secular.  Whereas my own example of pedestrians vs. drivers is fairly mundane and would typically not qualify as involving something ‘sacred’ under any typical secular or religious banner, Dr. Victoria mentions nationalism (he also refers to ‘tribalism’) as an example of a potential secular enabling mechanism for violence, in which a group or nation is ‘sacralized’ or deemed special.

What is important to notice here is that, in such an approach, we do not posit a sui generis essence to ‘religion’ in which it is viewed as some reified thing which in itself is the enabling mechanism.  Instead, we can recognize that, as far as cognitive enabling mechanisms for violence are concerned, religious enablers only represent a particular range on a much wider spectrum of potential sources of hermeneutic support for violent action.  In our disciplinary emphasis on ‘religion’, as a specialized object of study within culture, we must be careful to refrain from suggesting that there is a unique type of ‘religious cognition’ which is distinct from other human cognitive processes (a reversion to a sui generis approach), when what we are actually dealing with are the same basic cognitive processes but applied to an issue involving religion instead of an issue involving traffic.  We might even suggest that it could be more conceptually misleading to talk about ‘religious violence’ than it would be to talk about ‘violence involving religion’.  Whereas the former can appear to refer to a distinct category, the latter phrasing implicitly reminds us that human violence is the broader category and that sometimes religious considerations can be involved in that, among others.

One further linked reflection is a position which, in the interview, Dr. Victoria associates with Christopher Hitchens: that the will to violence is inherent in religious belief.  I don’t know Hitchens’ work intimately enough to corroborate that this is not a straw-man recapitulation of his views, but even if it is not, it is still a sentiment that is to be encountered in some (‘New’?) atheistic rhetoric and is worth briefly considering.  The claim that the will to violence is an inherent aspect of religion seems to parallel the cognitive fallacy which social psychologists refer to as the ‘fundamental attribution error’ (FAE).  The FAE is a well-established cognitive bias of which all of us are guilty at various times (likely on a daily basis).  This cognitive ‘error’ has to do with how we characterize other people, and it occurs when we observe another person’s behavior and attribute that behavior to them as if it were an inherent feature of their personality, part of their fundamental disposition, rather than a response to a particular contextual situation.  Alternatively, in addition to the FAE, we also typically enact a ‘self-serving bias’ in which we much more easily recognize our own behaviors to be contextually influenced.  So, there is a general human tendency to attribute the behavior of others to an inherent aspect of their personality, while at the same time we have a similar-but-opposite tendency to recognize how our own behavior is affected by circumstance.

By analogy (at minimum), we can see a tendency among some atheists, in the face of religious violence, to assume that it is “religion” which is to blame, when what we are really dealing with is not a behavior that is an inherent feature of religion, but a behavior which becomes enabled and justified by a concept which happens, in some circumstances, to be a religious belief.  A football match may, given suitable enabling circumstances, result in fan riots, but most of us do not consider that rioting is an inherent aspect of football.  We know that it is something that erupts in certain contexts given certain social and cultural animosities and disputes.  There may be a minority of football fans for whom rioting is a fundamental feature of their relationship to the game and that minority may have a major influence on the ways that the public perceives football, but we know that they do not represent the essence of the fan-base, even when media attention becomes predominantly focused on them.  Demonstrating both the FAE and the self-serving bias, many atheists find violence involving religion to reflect a fundamentally violent nature to religion and, yet, when faced with examples of secular or non-religious violence, the same individuals will be much more likely to note the contextual factors which resulted in that violence and will be clear that the contextual factors mitigate us from considering violence an inherent part of atheism.

Again, as above, we find that such an attribution of inherent violence-enabling qualities to ‘religion’ ignores the problematisation of ‘essentialist’ definitions of religion which scholars have made such efforts to attempt to overcome.  There is even a sense in which Dr. Victoria, himself appears to fall into a very similar trap: early in the interview he says that “we make a great error if we think that this problem is unique to any single faith… it is, in a sense, built into all major religious traditions.”  He, then, later states that he differs from “someone like Christopher Hitchens” who “believes that the inclination to violence is built into religion itself; and my position is that, no…it has been used that way by the tribe and nation.”  This appears to be an inconsistency on Victoria’s part.  He himself initially refers to the inclination to violence as “built into” “all major religious traditions” but, also, later suggests that it is wrong to believe that “the inclination to violence is built into religion itself.”  I get the impression, however, that he is, rather, playing the role of a cynical optimist, suggesting that religion up to the present has tended to have recourse to doctrinal hermeneutics as a way of  justifying violence but that it need not necessarily do so in the future.  If Victoria is indeed imagining a possible but as-yet-unrealized religion without recourse to doctrinal violence enabling mechanisms, I applaud his optimism, but find it unlikely that our basic human cognitive capacities to justify our goals will be superseded anytime soon.  Even in the absence of religious enablers, humans will still find interpretive means to justify violent actions.

About the Author:

roundtable discussions.


Taves, Ann. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

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