How Religion Can Loose Humanity’s Violent Impulses

violence - religion as drugReligion is just one part of the lethal cocktail, but it is a powerful intoxicant.

The year 2015 opened to slaughter in the name of gods and–as has now become clear–will close that way.

Early in the year, in Paris, two Islamist brothers executed Charlie Hebdo cartoonists “in defense of the Prophet,” while an associate killed shoppers in a kosher grocery.  In Nigeria, Islamist members of Boko Haram massacred a town to cries of Allahu Akbar—Allah is the greatest!  Simultaneoussly, the United Nations released a report detailing the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in the Central African Republic by Christian militias, sometimes reciting Bible verses. On a more civilized note, Saudi Arabia began inflicting 1000 lashes on a jailed blasphemous blogger—to be doled out over 20 weeks so that he may survive to the end.

By fall, Paris was again the scene of a bloodbath, rivaled only by ongoing massacres at the hands of Islamists in the Middle East and Africa. Meanwhile in America, Christianist politicians systematically condemned Islam while inciting violence against Planned Parenthood and, by association, all women who seek to manage their own sexuality and childbearing. Their months of incitement bore fruit in the form of stochastic terrorism, defined as “the use of mass communications to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.  In short, remote-control murder by lone wolf.”

Is Religion to Blame?

In media outlets around the world, fierce debate has erupted over who or what is responsible.  Is monotheism inherently violent? Is religion an excuse or cover for other kinds of conflict? Are Western colonialism and warmongering in the root of the problem?  Do blasphemers make themselves targets? Is the very concept of blasphemy a form of coercion or violence that demands resistance?  Is killing in the name of gods a distortion of religion? Alternately, is it the real thing?

Each of these questions is best answered “yes, and” rather than “yes/no.”

With the possible exception of Buddhism, the world’s most powerful religions give wildly contradictory messages about violence.  The Christian Bible is full of exhortations to kindness, compassion, humility, mercy and justice.  It is also full of exhortations to stoning, burning, slavery, torture, and slaughter.  If the Bible were law, most people you know would qualify for the death penalty. The same can be said of the Quran.  The same can be said of the Torah. Believers who claim that Islam or Christianity or Judaism is a religion of peace are speaking a half-truth—and a naive falsehood.

The human inclination toward peacemaking or violence exists on a continuum. Happy, healthy people who are inherently inclined toward peacemaking focus on sacred texts and spiritual practices that encourage peace.  Those who are bitter, angry, fearful or prone to self-righteousness are attracted to texts that sanction violence and teachers who encourage the same. People along the middle of this continuum can be drawn in either direction by charismatic religious leaders who selectively focus on one or the other.

Each person’s individual violence risk is shaped by a host of factors: genetics, early learning, health, culture, social networks, life circumstances, and acute triggers. To blame any act of violence on religion alone is as silly as blaming an act of violence on guns or alcohol. But to deny that religion plays a role is as silly as denying that alcohol and guns play a role.  It is to pretend that religions are inert, that our deepest values and beliefs about reality and morality have no impact on our behavior.

From a psychological standpoint, religions often put a god’s name on impulses that have subconscious, pre-verbal roots. They elicit peak experiences like mystic euphoria, dominance, submission, love and joy. They claim credit for moral emotions  such as shame, guilt and empathy that incline us toward fair play and altruism, and they direct these emotions toward specific persons or activities. In a similar way, religions elicit and channel protective reactions like anger, disgust and fear, the emotions most likely to underlie violence.

Predictable Individual Reactions

A case from my own field, mental health, shows how religion can combine with other ingredients to produce a lethal brew. On November 5, 2009, Muslim US army psychiatrist, Nidal Malik Hasan, shot and killed thirteen of his fellow soldiers on the Fort Hood military base, injuring another thirty. From the ensuing swirl of conjecture and hype emerged the image of a man who was lonely, who couldn’t quite seem to win at love, and who was profoundly troubled by the horror stories brought home by his soldier clients. Do therapists experience vicarious trauma?  Absolutely. Does this trauma put their own mental health at risk?  Absolutely. Many of them deal with this risk by seeking professional consultation, asking for support from loving family and friends, and limiting the number of post-traumatic clients that they see.

It appears that Hasan made at least tentative attempts in several of these directions. But primarily he turned to forms of Islam that only deepened his sense of alienation and anger. In what must have been an anguishing conflict of loyalties, piety helped him to resolve the conflict in favor of co-religionists over compatriots. Ultimately, rage won out—righteous, sanctified rage—which came to matter more than any value he as a healer placed on his own life or the lives of his colleagues and clients.

The perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre grew up in an immigrant ghetto outside of Paris, a place steeped in patriarchy, bravado, and resentment—a  place more prone to foster bitterness than hope. They were orphaned young. Any path to assimilation was obstructed by both the racism of outsiders and their own sense of cultural and religious superiority, and they instead spent time in Yemen where they absorbed the jihadist aspirations of Al Qaeda.  Islam, in other words, probably contributed to their inability to merge into French culture and then sanctified and channeled their anger.  But there were many reasons that the jihadi mentality found fertile ground.

Complex Causation

I would argue that, like alcohol, religion disinhibits violence rather than causing it, and that it does so when other factors have created conditions favorable toward aggression. I might also argue that under better circumstances religion disinhibits generosity and compassion, increasing giving and helping behaviors. Religion often is centered around authority and text worship (aka “bibliolatry”). Because of this, it has the power to lower the threshold on any behavior sanctioned by either a sacred text or a trusted religious leader and is at its most powerful when one is echoed by the other.

Despite the fact that violence is endorsed repeatedly in their sacred texts, most Christians, Muslims and Jews never commit acts of violence in the service of their religion. Similarly, millions of people consume alcohol without insulting, hitting, kicking, stabbing or shooting anyone. Most of us are peaceful drinkers and peaceful believers. Yet, statistically we know that without alcohol assaults would be less common. So too, we all know that when suicide bombings happen, or blasphemers and apostates are condemned to die, or a rape victim is stoned to death, Islam is likely to be involved. And when we hear that an obstetrics doctor has been shot or a gay teen beaten and left for dead, or a U.S. president has announced a “crusade”, we know that Christianity was likely a part of the mix.

In general, as the gospel writer said, it is far easier to see the mote in our brother’s eye than the log in our own. American culture is bathed in Christianity, and even for most secular Americans, is easy to see Islam’s role in violence while missing the times when Christianity plays the same role. But the rest of the world doesn’t see us through our own rose colored glasses, and under a bare light bulb, American Christianity retains shadows of the inquisitor’s hood and implements of torture.

In recent years, the European and Australian press repeatedly have called attention to horrors being perpetrated in Africa thanks to American missionary dollars, a story that has been slow to get mainstream American press coverage.  As Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity spread across Nigeria and Congo, thousands of children are being beaten or burned or disfigured with acid after being condemned by Christian ministers as “witches.”   After all, the American missionaries teach that the Bible is the literally perfect word of God, and the Bible says, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18).  When children are condemned by pastors and priests, exposed in the name of Jesus by the Holy Spirit himself, parents abandon them and their villages drive them out.  The lucky ones find refuge in shelters.  (For photos click here.)

Meanwhile in Uganda, American Evangelicals have helped to advance prison terms and death penalties for African gays. The Family, an American Christian organization with members in congress helped to convert Uganda’s president to their form of politicized Christianity. American activists attended a conference in Uganda aimed at “wiping out” homosexuality. Within months, a bill had been introduced that would allow the death penalty for gays with AIDS and institute jail time for parents who fail to turn in their homosexual teens. Unrelated? No. But horrors such as these don’t seem to have abated the flow of salvific dollars, Bibles, and earnest missionaries eager for converts any more than suicide bombings have dried up support for madrassas.

Were the Fort Hood  and Charlie Hebdo or Paris murder sprees or Boko Haram massacres caused by Islam? Are the Central African or anti-abortion murder sprees caused by Christianity?  A yes answer is far too simple. But violence, tribalism, and mutually exclusive truth claims are built into in our sacred texts and traditions. As a consequence, religion around the world continues to disinhibit lethal violence at a horrendous rate. For us to vilify Muslims or Christians or any group of believers collectively is to engage in the familiar act of cowardice we call scapegoating. It means, ever and always, that we end up sacrificing innocents to appease our own fear, anger and thirst for vengeance. But for us to ignore the complicated role of religion in violence is a different kind of cowardice, one that has been indulged by peace-lovers among the faithful for far too long.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at

An earlier version of this article, written in response to the November 2009 Fort Hood shootings, was published at: 

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Musings & Rants: Christianity and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to How Religion Can Loose Humanity’s Violent Impulses

  1. At times in the past, Valerie, I’ve thought you’ve sometimes been too hard on religion, not acknowledged enough its good side (Dr. Jekyll;-).

    But this measured essay is informative, well-stated, and balanced.

    Much appreciated.


  2. Hi Valerie, Have you read Jose Saramago’s book Cain? If not, and if you would like a copy, let me know and I will drop it off at your house. It’s Saramago, with his lyrical writing, telling the old testament story with new twist. Louise Stonington

    Date: Fri, 16 Jan 2015 17:59:32 +0000 To:


  3. LRD says:

    Thank you for this. This expresses eloquently and more completely the instinctual feelings I have had about this. I am sharing with many friends.


  4. Rick Wilmot says:

    Valerie, in my opinion this is a home run; in fact a grand slam! I served as a Protestant Evangelical/Fundamentalist pastor for thirty-six years, and I think you are spot on regarding your assessment of the three Abrahamaic religions.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. gwpj says:

    Reblogged this on Musings by George Polley and commented:
    Looking at the subject of peace and the subject of religion and violence, Valerie Tarico’s article just arrived in my inbox. She does a far, far better job of writing about this subject that I would, so here are her thoughts on the matter.


  6. Excellent analysis, Valerie. Very refreshing to see something going beyond the knee-jerk Islam-blaming or religion-blaming. I am especially grateful for your compassionate explanation of the complex drivers behind some of these apparently unfathomable acts of violence.
    I have shared this with my friends.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on opinionatedintrovertblog and commented:
    Amidst all Islamophobia and the scapegoating of ordinary people of faith comes this insightful analysis of how religion, any religion, can bring out the best or worst in human nature.


  8. Tough subject in tough times. Thank you Valerie for a ray of well-studied and balanced ingredients of hope.


  9. tiffany267 says:

    Valerie, what can I say. As always you eloquently express criticism of religion’s dangers without treading into the place of condemning it (which is where I invariably go). And just as I started thinking to myself at the start of your blog post “But the violence in CAR hasn’t really ever been described as just religiously motivated, Christianity isn’t necessarily the major factor there” you proceed to explain that very point throughout the rest of the essay. Religion is a factor that must be included but cannot be singled out as the only cause of violence and violation of rights – after all it doesn’t exist in a vacuum and there are always other social and political factors at stake.

    But I must disagree with you about letting Buddhism off the hook. Like other faiths, Buddhism makes a point of trying to outwardly advocate peace and represent itself as such. But it outright calls for the abandonment of women and children, treating women as an Other that is never really addressed in a spiritual way. In a way similar to the Catholic Church, gifts to monks have been abused as a kind of bribe for salvation, exploiting the poor and vulnerable. It has been said that the Dalai Lama, in 1954, “presented Chairman Mao Tse Tung with a bouquet of poems that lavishly praised the Chinese leader ‘as the timely rain to nourish the land'”. Later, in 1982, he “granted several audiences to, and received a donation of more than $1 million from Shoko Asahara, leader of the Supreme Truth cult of Japan, and spreader of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway.” There are many other examples of being on board with violence and violation in Buddhism, but I rest my case.


  10. Mike Schermerhorn says:

    I also am sharing this with friends and activists of all persuasions. Thank you Valerie. This is one of the most thoughtful and I would argue non-inflammatory articles I’ve ever read on this subject. It explains how and why people of faith gravitate to some aspects of their religion as opposed to others.


  11. John says:

    It should be great if you could get your articles also in Spanish. I have many, many people in Latin America whom would love to read them. Look in the AARP’s website, you can do it just with a click. You would become very famous down south…


  12. Pingback: How Iron Age Literacy Spawned Modern Violent Extremism | The Age of Blasphemy

  13. Human says:

    Typo in title.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s