Beyond Gods and Monsters—Sculpting a New Norm of Loyalty

Painting by Bonifazxio de' Pitati | via WikiCommons

WAR, IT HAS BEEN SAID, is politics by other means; religion is politics by most means. When people go to war in the name of religion, religion should be analyzed politically. However, all too often when we are disturbed by violence carried out as religious acts, the public discourse bifurcates. Some say religion is the instigator, if not the problem itself. Others claim that monsters have acted in spite of and against the peaceful and responsible teachings of one of the world’s great religious traditions. These positions are equally flawed and necessitate a new framework, whether our goal is to complain, understand, or effect positive change.

We must begin by understanding what religion is beyond our common and established conceptions and shatter our hidebound association of religion as the “God of the Book” or an Abrahamic chauvinism. Moreover, the political nature of religious violence demands a sophisticated exploration of the role of institutions and individuals, as both can act seemingly against their own interests and are frequently torn between conflicting incentives and/or sanctions. Lastly, we must not forget the human element that is often sacrificed to the straw men of “crazy-Christians” and “murderous-Muslims.” This issue has unfortunately been mislabeled under “good and evil” and “belief and sanity,” rather than politics. Looking through a social science lens, we must shape a more progressive, binding norm of loyalty to humanity.

Politics is more than who is serving in office and how they got there. Political science concerns itself with the decisions individuals and institutions make regarding power, resources, authority, laws, and identity alongside other individuals and institutions. And while people typically think in terms of start/stop linear time, where we isolate events based on proximity and novelty, in political science we start by looking at the world through recurrent cycles of “political time”—at the more enduring trends as opposed to the barrage of scandal blasted at us by the news like context-deficient buckshot. When we think about religion and violence we need to look at the bigger picture to determine if we are being shocked by a fluke, or a greater trend. We must also realize the nature of norms and how they color our thinking regarding what we consider usual and expected, sometimes even without our conscious awareness or against our own better judgment.

By the manner in which they frame issues, norms have an injunctive quality steering our preferences at a core, visceral level. Imagine that I invite you to a picnic. It’s a typical spread: checkered blanket, wicker basket, assorted fruits and cheeses. I pull out a covered tray and offer you a serving of the main course, which is heirloom crickets sautéed in a red wine reduction on a bed of mixed greens. You more than likely feel a tinge of revulsion in your gut, instead of the eager appetite that would have spoken up had the selection been shrimp cocktail, the crickets of the sea. In this vein, the violation of religious and political norms can trigger a rather potent reaction. In the United States, we have a laundry list of norms shaping how we react to public discussions.

These norms are reflected in three major schools of political thought regarding religion and religiosity (intensity of religious experience or expression), and their place and influence in the public sphere. Political scientist Ahmet Kuru details these schools of thought in his 2009 book, Secularism and State Policies Toward Religion (Cambridge University Press). According to Kuru, philosophers Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls argued that deliberation in a democratic polity should be separate from religion and religious experience. (Rawls later permitted its inclusion in an “overlapping consensus” of social thought in the democratic process.) An earlier school of thought on religion and politics, the secularization theory of Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, saw religion as a waning social force in the face of modernization. Via a process called functional differentiation, all that was once provided by a religious institution acting as a one-stop shop would gradually be replaced by services of the modern age (e.g., psychotherapy, advanced medical care, and so on). Though we see a diminution of religiosity in a growing number of wealthy and highly educated nations, the United States serves as a prime example of how the secularization theory may be incomplete. (However, political scientists Pippa Norris and Ron Inglehart, coauthors of Sacred and Secular: Politics and Religion Worldwide, say that it is actually the insecurity caused by socioeconomic inequality that explains this counterexample).

In the atheist and humanist movements a good deal of the discussion is rooted in Durkheimian secularization. Religion is seen as a tribal vestige, a product of backward thought that is solved through education, modernity, and rational discourse. There is an application of moral rectitude concerning the denial of belief against the moral opprobrium of religious belief and affiliation. This unfortunately dismisses the human element. After all, there are many reasons why people are religious, including personal choice as well as lifelong cultural indoctrination. We are not talking about inanimate objects or cold, calculating machines but the messy, chaotic, and beautiful world of human beings. Concomitantly, when people discuss religious issues and anger begins to boil—especially when valid examples are presented that don’t quite fit ideal portraits of the world—it’s a strong hint that norms are jockeying us.

The question has now shifted from should religion be included in the political realm to how it should be included. Through economics and rational choice theory models, sociologist Rodney Stark and political scientist Anthony Gill developed the “religious markets” theory. Also called the theory of religious economy, it introduces the concept of “spiritual goods” (e.g., a pleasant afterlife) and considers how such inducements influence individuals to either stay with or leave a particular religious affiliation or community. This is what’s called a rational choice analysis.

Rational choice theory says that people have desires and strategize in order to meet those desires, making decisions to determine the most cost-effective way to achieve our goals. If individuals find that praying to a particular god meets their desired spiritual needs, that a particular member of the clergy is an effective facilitator of this exchange, and that a particular religious community will further satisfy their needs, they will be less likely to change churches or religions in general. A criticism of rational choice theory is the extent to which it can account for what actually shapes our needs and preferences to begin with.

Whereas secularization theory sees religion naturally receding from public importance, and religious market theory views participation as an act of individual choice and pure individual agency, there exists another school of thought that Kuru calls the “civilizational” approach. This approach leaves little to individual choice and says that religious affiliation and behavior are preordained by virtue of your birthplace. As Samuel Huntington put it in The Clash of Civilizations, by random chance you are either a member of the West or “the rest.” Though there has been a fair amount of functional differentiation (for example, in American Jesus, Stephen Prothero details how American pastors have taken on the role of counselors) and though there have been cyclical trends of religiosity, I offer that neither religious belief or affiliation, nor religiosity depend exclusively on an individual, rational calculus or upon involuntary cultural programming, but rather a mixture of both.

Our norms lead us to assume that religion is belief, and that there is a general uniformity to political leanings based upon sect-affiliation. Here are some examples of common sentiments in our culture: Catholics are against abortion; Pentecostals and Baptists believe that homosexuality is an abomination and resistance to gender-neutral marriage laws is a moral imperative; all Muslims will either murder or secretly harbor support for the killing of those who disrespect the man they consider to be God’s most important prophet; and within the pews or the rectories there aren’t deep and protracted struggles and growing pains that come with changing times. We share a sometimes tenuous social balance with those of competing or conflicting norms, but we owe it to the members of our human family to seek to understand our preconceptions. We also need to apply more rigor in seeking that understanding.


IN HIS 2004 bestseller, The End of Faith, Sam Harris cited Pew research asking those in Muslim-majority nations if suicide-bombings for Islam’s defense were ever justifiable. Harris was attempting to illustrate an inherent violent streak in Muslims that those of the Western, Christian experience would find peculiar and threatening. In doing so, he provided shock value but lacked context, failing to justify the small number of Muslim countries listed, let alone the percentage of

Muslims within each country. When the Protestant-majority Ghana (17 percent Muslim) is cited as an example of a country where a shocking 30 percent of those surveyed justify defending Islam by suicide bombing as opposed to Turkey, a 99.8 percent Muslim-majority country where only 13 percent of those surveyed support suicide bombing, we are faced with some questionable social science from a source that many in the secular community respect.

An important question to ask would have been why support for suicide bombing is the telltale indicator of predispositions for religious violence. Also, how does a repressive, oil-rentier authoritarian state affect the likelihood that its people will support violence? Or, what is the effect of a secular democracy (e.g., Turkey and Indonesia) on levels of religious violence? What is the effect of being a former British colony? (The rigid standardization demands of the British Empire for those formerly occupied removed any judicial discretion allowed by Islamic jurisprudence.) More importantly, why not analyze this issue with respect to Christians and Buddhists to determine if religious-protectorate violence isn’t merely a fluke of Muhammad’s flock?

When we refine our questions we see a different picture emerge, one that allows for individual diversity and adherence across a range of norms. In the 2005 and 2007 Baylor Religious Survey, Chris Bader and Paul Froese expanded sect-political orientation assumptions by adding the questions: “How engaged is God in the world?” and “How judgmental is God?” In America’s Four Gods (2010) a picture emerges where the assumed uniformity within one sect blurs substantially. We see that political orientation affects one’s views on how interactive and disapproving the divine is more than the name of their church does.

Instead of conceptualizing religion as adherence to the universal, monotheistic God of Abraham, we need to begin with an analysis of what religion is. If we are without a universally accepted definition for religion, that doesn’t mean we lack the means to operationalize “religion.” In making religion a useful term for discussion, we need to take a stab at drawing the boundaries between religion and its absence. We have to determine the acceptable and recognizable qualities of religion and what it does.




WHAT ARE the features common to religion? A primary candidate would be a belief in a god, or other supernatural creatures that we would otherwise recognize as gods. Yet, not every tradition that we would recognize as a religion would be eligible (e.g., Theravada Buddhism and Ethical Culture). There is a common quip in Reform Judaism that “you don’t have to believe in God to be a good Jew.” Therefore, a belief in a god or other supreme being will be an optional feature in our model.

There are two features however, that I would consider essential. One is a concept of and orientation toward the sacred. German theologian and scholar Rudolph Otto’s Idea of the Holy (first published in 1917) discusses the sacred as that which is set apart. In our human capacity to develop and enjoin ourselves to established meaning, there is a tendency to discern certain things as transcendent of the ordinary or as otherwise set apart. When the vicissitudes of life throw us off-kilter, having an unmoving and removed focal point provides reassurance and reference until our situation is more manageable. Additionally, there are certain ideas and objects that we find to be so important that they reserve a privileged and removed place amongst all other things. We consider these things to be pure, or sacred. Whether it is a relic or the capacity of an individual to reason, to be compassionate, or to create, human beings have a remarkable ability to cherish certain things above others. Our orientation to objects and concepts we consider pure, and the maintenance of said purity is deeply embedded in how we define ourselves and our place in the world.

We also define ourselves in relation to a moral community. The moral community is one that provides normative-socialization and reinforcement (as per Durkheim). We cannot have a religion of one, and as a social tradition, religion has components of ritual that bind us to a longer temporal thread stretching far back into the past. In his book Imagined Communities (1983), Benedict Anderson posited that the members of a nation imagine themselves at some fundamental level as equal to one another but as distinguished from those outside it. We are in-group social animals who would expect no less than this type of tribe orientation, but the surprising thing is how strong our feelings can be towards those beyond our neighborhoods and tiny towns, those who we will probably never meet. In the American experience we are often removed from the necessity of community obligations through our civil religion of individualism, however Anderson’s ideas can be applied to the idea of religious community.

So, in order for your worldview to be a religion, you may or may not believe in a god or other supernatural figure that intercedes to varying degrees, but you certainly have to have a sacred orientation to define yourself by and a moral community to adhere to.

If religion is more than just belief, and plays a more powerful role in sculpting, defining, and maintaining self-identity, we have more to consider in discussing the nexus of religion, politics, and violence. At this juncture, it’s also necessary to point out that there are authoritarian and democratic seams running through the world’s religious tapestry. Columbia University political scientist Alfred Stepan says that in this regard, religions are “multivocal.”


HAVING DEFINED the three components of religion as a sacred orientation, a moral community, and an (optional) theistic orientation, the next question beyond what religion is, is what religion brings to the table. Religion has positive normative aspects: bringing people together and connecting them (bridging norms), building in them a sense of mutual responsibility and interconnectedness (bonding norms), and establishing a set of social standards of behavior compelling them to do or not do something (binding norms). What’s good about religion is not exclusive to religion, but when religion does good it often does great. There is a social energy that produces positive effects and often a proactive, pay-it-forward kind of attitude. We call this social capital.

Yet, bad things can come out of religion as well. We have polarization, exclusivity, marginalization, and violence. Violence is the act of deliberately harming someone or something else regardless of vengeful motives or behavioral correction (e.g., spanking a child as punishment). Violence can be physical or emotional, and the factors that lead people to commit violent acts can be numerous. Religious violence is something quite visceral and potent, as it is community driven and sanctified.

Violence in the name of religion always relates to power and is often exercised in an effort to reset the order of things. In this regard it is always political.

Saying (as physicist and philosopher Victor Stenger did) that “Science flies you to the moon, but religion flies you into buildings,” avoids the underlying issues. We often hear the opposing claims that Islam is a) a violent religion that carries out condemnable acts of murder and b) a religion of peace that opposes violence (a difference that often plays out in Western media as New Atheists like Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins debate Islamic-apologists like Reza Aslan and, most recently, Ben Affleck). My response to both camps is a firm, “Yes, but not always.”

As a social scientist, I would like to know who is being violent and why. The “who” are actors and individuals and the “why” is a series of sources that either justify, remain neutral on, encourage, or demand certain violent acts. The actors are institutions—broader groups that socialize and maintain norms and have an enduring social longevity—acting against other institutions, or against individuals. We also have individuals (or small groups of them) acting against institutions or other individuals.

With the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks we see religious zealots screaming about the drawn image, shouting that their god is great, and shedding blood. The easy explanation is: “Islam is a violent religion and those who affiliate with it are predisposed or coerced into violent acts.” However, we’re also talking about people who came to that moment, sculpted by varying experiences to which they responded in a manner seen as reasonable and honorable to some, and to others (of course) insane.

We also have a terrorist organization (al-Qaeda) taking credit for the planning and execution of violence against the Charlie Hebdo satirists in order to reclaim the honor of their prophet. Two years ago, al-Qaeda announced they were going to target France for their military intervention in Mali and Algeria (lest we forget the Islamist attack in 2013 when nearly eight hundred hostages were taken at the oil field near Amenas, Algeria, at least forty of them killed). And so we’re seeing attacks on Western targets to effect broader international change; the magazine was a target both for challenging standards and because of its geographical location. Yet, there are multiple levels of religious culture, text, and doctrine that both countenance and prohibit the slaughtering of people.

Institutions provide incentives for membership by reinforcing identity, building social connections, and reaffirming and maintaining norms. They also provide legitimacy that gives religious institutions political power. Because it is easier to maintain social order and obedience through channels of established religious social norms, religious institutions often enter into mutually beneficial partnerships with political institutions. The church benefits by the state enforcing religious norms and reducing religious-market competition against other churches and religious institutions, and the state receives the legitimacy of moral authority through church sponsorship. Individuals (or small groups of them) do not have the enduring power of institutions and almost always lack their social and political power. Individuals generally act in accordance with the norms established by institutions, either under direct order or voluntarily as a result of norm internalization. When we look at both the actions of institutions and individuals, other questions arise: what is the level of planning or sincerity involved in the religious act of violence? Also, what is encouraging or prohibiting said violent acts?

The sources that promote or prohibit violence are religious institutions (churches, temples, mosques, and broader sects), political institutions (e.g., government and other political organizations), religious texts, culture, and society. Violence is a tool or reaction that is called for or rejected in various ways by these sources of authority. Institutions have different political considerations regarding their institutional health and longevity. Stand-alone text is often confusing and conflicting. And culture and society are always changing in relation to these other, interconnected sources. Simply saying that religion is violent or that religion strictly prohibits individual acts of violence is patently untrue. It must also be noted that the textual sources for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are rife with violence. Merely engaging in conversation with the God of Abraham can be a thoroughly violent affair, not to mention such acts as the genocide of the Flood, the call to intertribal slaughter, Jesus promoting the idea of thought crimes in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ blood sacrifice, Muhammad’s harsh reign and bloody conquest, the varying harsh punishments present in the respective texts, and, most importantly, a torturous and eternal hell.

This, however, is only a part of the story. It is much more honest to say that sometimes individuals and institutions carry out acts of religious violence, and that we need a way to explain these acts when they happen.

When religious institutions attack other religious institutions we get inter-sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. When political institutions attack individuals using religion we see people stoned for adultery. When they do so through textual justification, we see the exclusion of gays and lesbians from membership or leadership. When individuals (or small groups of them) attack institutions through the justification of religious or political institutions we see acts of terrorism to effect political change or to otherwise enact vengeance. Throw in some textual and socio-cultural justification and we have the recent Charlie Hebdo murders.

Individuals will also commit acts of violence against themselves, and, taken to the extreme, commit suicide. When someone takes his or her own life because of antagonistic religious pressure, for example a young transgendered person kills herself because of the socio-cultural norms perpetuated by repressive religious systems, there is a sense of anger with the self and those within the community who have caused harm. Martyrdom, on the other hand, is an act of violence against the self for the sake of the community. At least with respect to intention, suicide is a tragedy, but martyrdom is a community-renewing sacrifice.

Looking at religion and violence, we find that we need a new grammar of understanding. It is no longer a matter of whether religion inherently condones or condemns violence. The fact of the matter is that no one can escape religious violence. Whether it’s physical or emotional, we experience it, and we have a mutual interest and responsibility to inhibit it. Seeing the issue as multifaceted is a good starting place for a multivariate analysis of those who commit acts of religious violence and why they do it. When we realize who is performing these acts and why they are doing them, we’ll have a framework to actually tackle the problem. Ultimately, our goal should be to sculpt a new norm of loyalty not to gods or religious institutions, but to humanity itself. In doing so, we start a new dialogue that works toward new cooperation and understanding, and in the process shatters old norms that have caused so much separation, marginalization, and pain. Learning to look anew at what has long plagued us is the first step in this new cooperative venture.

Read all articles in this issue’s Paris Perspectives series.