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Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence, by Hector Avalos

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Fighting Words: The Origins Of Religious

Fighting Words: The Origins Of Religious Violence, by Hector Avalos

Most religions depict themselves as forces for peace and harmony; in reality, most religions have been intimately involved in some of the worst violence that humanity has ever experienced. How and why does this contradiction exist? It’s true that religions preach peace overtly, but perhaps there is something going on in the background which people don’t notice consciously.

Title: Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence
Author: Hector Avalos
Publisher: Prometheus Books
ISBN: 1591022843

• Offers a new way to look at religion and religious violence

• Explanation doesn’t seem to fit all situations

• Analysis of the causes of religious violence
• Argues that religions create false scarcities and this induces people to fight

Book Review

To better understand religious violence, it would make sense to take a step back and examine the nature of violence generally. There is no a priori reason to think that the causes of religious violence must be fundamentally different in nature from the causes of violence in other contexts. If we can understand violence itself, then maybe we’ll have the key to understanding how religions that preach peace can descend into violence.

This is what Hector Avalos does in Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence. He reviews the history of explanations of violence, going all the way back to antiquity, and finds that the best predictor of violence tends to be scarcity.

People are more likely to fight, and to fight more brutally, when some scarce resource is at stake. Usually the resource is genuine (food, water, land), but sometimes it’s not — and this is where religion comes into play.

According to Avalos, religions create scarce resources where no scarcity really exists, and this induces people to fight over them. A religion might preach peace, love, and harmony, but once it establishes a textual canon or sacred site which only some have privileged access to, it also establishes an illusory “scarcity” which eventually causes people to fight. Avalos doesn’t argue that this is the intent of religious leaders, but it’s an inevitable outgrowth of what they are doing — and one which they themselves probably aren’t quite aware of.

Avalos’ argument makes a lot of intuitive sense. Insofar as scarcity is a genuine incitement to violence, then the creation of new scarcities — even if they are not real — will plausibly lead to violence at some point. When we are discussing things like sacred sites, texts, times, etc., Avalos’ argument is strongest. Yet when it comes to the ultimate scarcity created by religions, salvation, I’m not sure how well it holds up.

Religions create a scarcity out of salvation by teaching that being saved requires certain actions or beliefs which not everyone will end up accepting. Thus, unlike things such as air, salvation doesn’t extend to everyone equally. Unlike sacred places, though, rival groups don’t necessarily fight in order to acquire control of it. It’s true that rival groups within a religion fight over what will qualify as orthodoxy (and this may fit with Avalos’ theory), but what about religions that launch wars in order to convert people?

Scarcity incites people to fight in order to gain access to and/or control over a resource for their own benefit. Usually, this involves restricting or denying access to outsiders. With salvation, though, the goal of religion is to extend access as widely as possible. The terms on which salvation is offered may be restricted, but the goal is still the widest distribution possible. Thus, people have been forced to adopt a religion on pain of death. There is no parallel to this when it comes to physically scarce resources: no one is forced to accept scarce water or food on pain of death.

Fighting Words: The Origins Of Religious

Fighting Words: The Origins Of Religious Violence, by Hector Avalos

Avalos’ book provides a very interesting way of approaching and thinking about religious violence; because of this, it might also offer ways to defuse religious violence. If we can get people to stop thinking of sacred sites like Jerusalem in terms of “scarcity” that needs to be controlled for one group’s benefit, then perhaps the emotional urges to resort to violence may be lessened. Such changes will require a significant theological shift, but they are not impossible.

At the same time, though, I don’t think it explains all religious violence. Aside from the fact that there are certainly factors beside scarcity at work, I think that religious scarcity may not play any sort of role at all in some forms of religious violence. I don’t think that it helps us understand forced conversions, wars launched to spread a religion, or brutality based on the religious notion that some people are inferior and deserve to die.

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