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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Religion and Violence

Frank and I started teaching a new class for our local Keese School using Karen Armstrong's Book: Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. Excellent class, excellent participation, excellent questions. I expect to learn a lot.

Armstrong's immediate intent is to defend religion and especially the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) from the recent attacks on them as causing violence. She demonstrates that while religions have often been used to promote violence by justifying war and sacralizing terror, they are not the cause. The cause she finds in human nature and in the development of the political economy of the state. She demonstrates this through a very thorough and scientific reconstruction of the history of violence.

She above all wants to contradict Islamophobia in our post 9-11 and ISIS world. She had written an excellent historical study of Islam (Islam: A Short History, 2000), and in this new book she clearly demonstrates that those who attack Muslims because they are Muslims (e.g. Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz) are woefully ignorant or malicious. She understands and presents the dark side of all religions that do not live up to their founding principles. But she attributes violence to the human competition for political and economic domination beginning with the turn to agriculture that developed civilizations with boundaries opposing outsiders and mechanisms to force the compliance of classes within.

There was violence among humans before the turn to agriculture and then the subsequent requirement for raw materials in the modern industrial state. But it was not the planned, institutionalized, total violence that came with the formation of the state, colonies, and empires.

But another view can be found in Bruce Wexler's study, The Brain and Culture. Using the experiments and conclusions of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, he shows the "close fit between internal neuropsychological structures created to conform with an individual's sensory and interpersonal environment at the times of development and the environment in which the adult individual later finds him or herself." And human beings alter their environment to fit their internal structures because of the distress they experience when their internal structures do not fit the external ones.

Culture is that environment structured through interpersonally created symbols. Culture is a weaving of expressions (memes) through language and other symbolic systems, including beliefs through religion, and attitudes in morality. An infant achieves a culture under the guidance of caregivers as the brain completes its development primarily in early childhood but becoming most established in the third decade of life.  Disparities in belief systems (including their expressions) create major distress that pushes those of one culture to make others act in ways that are consistent with their group.

Wexler argues that "differences in belief systems can themselves occasion intercultural violence, since concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental neurobiological imperative." He says: "people fight because of differences in religion and other beliefs; they fight to control the opportunity to create external structures that fit with their internal structures, and to prevent others from filling their environments with structures and stimulation that conflict with their internal structures."

Armstrong sees the origins of violence in the clash of political economies (not religions). Wexler finds the origins in the clash of cultures (including religions).  So are Armstrong using history and Wexler using neuroscience in disagreement? Not exactly I think.

Wexler in developing his explanation surveys the history of religious wars and evangelization, for example the link between the missionaries and the conquistadors in colonialism. And Armstrong assumes violence as a part of human nature. And while Wexler's analysis focuses on the potential for violence in the disparity between internal and external structures and Armstrong focuses on the potential for violence in changes in the political economy, Wexler assumes the relationship of culture to political economy and Armstrong assumes the relationship of the state to the culture it creates.

So their descriptions are compatible. As so are their prescriptions. Armstrong through her Charter of Compassion is working through the religions (cultures) to lift up their enlightened side and join together in a global spirituality (religion) that can be found in all world religions (cultures). Wexler is  suggesting the development of a global culture (linked with a global political economy) that admits of the diversity of cultures and states.

The big question for me for both of these experts is: can we humans transcend our history and our nature? Such transcendence seems to be the destination of both good science and good religion and, I would add, good politics. Perhaps this is a never-ending quest. But I think that it is possible through the fullness of thinking--which includes reflection, criticism, and mindfulness.  

Or another way of putting it is not getting stuck in our own negative bullshit.

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