Religion: so much violence, so little reason
Religion is the most powerful and pervasive force on earth. It transcends language, ethnicity and country. More wars have been waged, more people killed, and more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than any other force in history.
There are, according to one estimate, more than 50 religious conflicts in the world today. The most publicised include Muslims versus Jews in Palestine, Islamists Boko Haram in Nigeria enforcing Shari'a law on Christians and moderate Muslims, and ISIS, a rebel Islamic group imposing political and military authority on Muslims in Iraq and Syria.
Defining religion has always been a problem, because not all religions have the same characteristics. Some have a god (or gods), some don't; some gods created things, others did not. Some religions carry a language of heaven and hell, some don't. Clearly, religion does not have an essence, a single distinguishing quality, and we might be better served to think of its components.
Religion itself is neither good nor bad, neither peaceful nor violent. Like all human institutions, it is, in the end, a human thing - as flawed and paradoxical as we humans are. With human influence, it takes on different functions. It may provide contentment to church sisters and brothers at their place of worship. It may insinuate itself into the mundane: the food we eat (pork is banned for Jews, Muslims and Seventh-day Adventists, Christians), and practices (fasting and feasting).
It may even show up after we sneeze (God bless you!). It may be harmful to foreskins (circumcision) and vaginas (female genital mutilation). It may instigate cruelty to animals as practised by celebrants of the Serpent Handling Pentecostal Church in Appalachia, USA, whose members seem eager to enter the pearly gates at short notice: "Behold I give you power to tread on serpents ... and nothing shall by any means hurt you." (Luke 10:19). Others blow themselves up with a busload of innocent people knowing that a bevy of brown-eyed virgins await them in Allah's garden.
Why is religion often associated with conflict and violence? Religion links individuals to a greater whole, into identity groups, us versus them. For conflict to arise, a group may have a claim. The claim may be its goodness, morality, land (a West Bank settler in Palestine will die to defend his piece of sacred ancestral land), or absolute truth. This truth has to be believed, not necessarily understood, not logical and even irrational.
For example, a statue can be a spirit, a wafer - a bit of flesh, wine - blood; or, "my god is the right god, or the only god". If they believe they are absolutely right, the potential to compromise with other groups is greatly reduced. If the ultimate good or truth is so important, there is no sacrifice too great to make on its behalf.
Religious truth claims can have harmful consequences. Judaeo-Christian scripture mentions that believers "not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18), and many have taken the order seriously. More people have died from witchcraft accusations than from witchcraft. The Jews were blamed for the death of Jesus and called 'Christ killers', notwithstanding the fact that it was the Romans who conducted the crucifixion.
Since then, Jews have borne the brunt of discrimination and persecution, the most horrific being Hitler's Nazi Holocaust. The belief that the Bible is the verbally inspired word of God has led to the justification of slavery, discrimination against women and homosexuals. Terms like 'holy war', 'just war' and 'blood sacrifice' virtually cry out for violence. Shakespeare's poignant observation is apt: "even the devil can cite scriptures for his purpose".
In the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, Muslims affirm that only a minority of Muslims are religious fanatics. I believe them. But it is still Islam. A religion nonetheless. And like most religions, it is based on beliefs that can be interpreted in many ways - peaceful or a potential for inciting violence.
What you believe defines your vision of the world and how you behave. Religious beliefs based on faith (belief without evidence) have inspired individuals and communities in pursuit of higher values and absolute truth. Faith is the mother of hatred, and whenever people define their moral qualities in such terms, i.e., through religion, it often inspires violence. Would the world be better off without religion? Undoubtedly.