Faith and Violence

From the SoFiA Bulletin (Upwey, Vic.)*, October 2011: 6 & 7. *ed. & co-ordinator, Scott McKenzie,

Melbourne atheist and columnist for The Age, Dick Gross, has a useful take on the question of whether faith leads to violence. In his view there are three “malign” factors, any of which can contribute to a tendency to violence.

The first is extreme evangelicalism. The risk here is that the end (i.e. expanding the faith) may be seen in the eyes of the faithful as so imperative and desirable as to justify extreme means.

Factor two is the circumstance in which a faith coincides with “unfortunate socio-political factors” such as ethnic tension, nationalism, war and poverty. I would call this the tribalism factor, and it’s clear to see everywhere from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan.

The third malign factor is a lack of checks and balances and opportunities for debate. This is evident, for instance, in theocracies like Iran.

To some extent, of course, all three factors are evident within our own society. Thus for factor one we have the basic dishonesty of the Queensland’s Scripture Union in claiming its school chaplains aren’t interested in converting students to the faith; factor two (tribalism and the exclusive and forthright assertion of group identity) is surely behind Hillsong, the Exclusive Brethren and Scientology; and factor three is at work within many religious groups from churches to sects where devotees are discouraged from entertaining non-approved ideas and exploring beyond the approved canon. An example of this last is the peremptory sacking of Toowoomba’s erstwhile Catholic bishop for daring to suggest that the issue of female clergy (among others) might even be considered.

Even within our own communities, then, we have reason to be vigilant to limit the extreme and/or violent potential of faith. However, it doesn’t stop with faith. Atheism, too — as Gross points out — has fallen foul of all three malign factors, as is evidenced by Pol Pot, Maoist China and other terrible régimes. Some might argue that run­away political correctness has become a small-scale example of this malign infection in some secular aspects of Australian society.

Dick Gross does us a favour, I think. His three factors are helpful criteria in assessing movements of all kinds which have an interest in exercising influence and promoting themselves.

Dick Gross’s article “A Muslim, a Christian and an atheist walk into a pub” can be found at