The other day I witnessed an interesting debate ensue between two individuals, arguing about an all too common conversation topic: religion and violence. I think that the entire conversation mirrors a larger problem in many people’s understanding about religion in general. Before I weigh in on this debate, I wish to go through and delineate the two positions.
The first man started out by making a very pointed remark about the horrors of Islam. Islam, he said, is a religion that started through violence, spread through violence, and preaches violence. The other man, taken aback by this comment, immediately shouted back that historically, Christians have actually caused much more suffering and violence than Islam has ever had, therefore in reality Christianity is the more violent religion.
This conversation is a very good representation regarding the great misunderstanding in our society about religion in general. However, before I embark on that discussion, since I have spent all week dealing with psychological statistics and mathematical modeling, I felt the need to crunch some numbers.
In many religion and violence debates, often times many people throw out random scriptural verses to bolster whichever side they are arguing. People think that since they can find 1 or 2 violent sounding verses in the Qur’an they have officially “proven” that Islam is violent or that the Qur’an condones violence. Is this a reasonable way to go about this conversation? Let us find out below.
In this chart that I have made I have written each of the 3 Abrahamic religion’s main scripture and next to it I have written the number count of verses with violent themes.
Hebrew Bible – 1157
Christian Bible – 1157 (Hebrew Bible) + 163 (New Testament) = 1310
Qur’an – 532
By plain numbers alone it would seem that the Qur’an actually falls in last place on this list, while the Christian Bible comes in first for the most violent. However, it is never that easy! When we look at the total amount of verses in each of that book, and try to find what percent of each of these book are violent – the numbers come out very different
Hebrew Bible 1157/23145
Christian Bible 1310/(23145+7956) = 1310/31101
Qur’an 532/6616 (although counts vary by a few hundred depending on the scholar, I took one of the higher amounts)
Percentage wise this would come out to:
Hebrew Bible = 5%
Christian Bible= 4.2%
As one could see the results flip with the Qur’an having the highest percentage of violent verses in its scripture and the Christian Bible with the least.
At this point many people might conclude that one who gains his/her inspiration from the Qu’ran would be introduced to violet ideals more often. However, this is quite obviously not the case!
As people who study statistics know, numbers and percentages are only as meaningful as the things that they represent. In our numbers and percentages we were assuming that a verse being violent is a binary measure – either a) non-violent or b) violent. In actuality however, a verse displaying violent tendencies is not an all or nothing count. This brings us to a new question:
Does it even make sense to count the proportion of violent verses at all? Is there any way to objectively compare verses such as “Thou shalt not allow a witch to live. (Exodus 22:18)” – which lead to thousands upon thousands of deaths in the dark ages, to the verse “As for the thief, both male and female, cut off their hands. (Qur’an 5:33)” which has lead to much suffering in various Muslim countries? I don’t think so!
So to really answer this question we would need to make a scale of violence from, let’s say, 1-100 where 1 is very nice and peaceful and 100 is the most horrible verse in any of the scriptures. Still there would be much bias as different verses have been interpreted in different ways that could shift one’s opinion as to as to the inherent violence present in any individual verse.
If at this point you feel that this is just getting a bit ridiculous, then I have done my job! Truthfully, there is no way to objectively say that any of the monotheistic religions are more inherently violent than the others.
This does not mean, however, that people can say that at any specific point in history all three monotheistic religions preach the same amount of violence. The same way that one can not deny that for about 1,000 years, Christianity inspired millions of deaths, one cannot deny that modern day Islam is going though a crisis and is in need of a reformation, similar to the one that Judaism and Christianity have been going through for the last 200 years. This is a point that often times gets lost via one extreme or the other in conversations. People seem too scared or too politically correct to admit that there is a problem going on in modern day Islam. People think that saying such a statement makes one “Islamophobic” or racist in some way. The problem is, people lack the ability to understand nuance. Saying that Islam extremists are becoming more and more prevalent in our world, does not mean that one is saying that Islam is inherently violent. I do not believe that Christianity is a violent religion, but yet a few hundred years ago Christians were inspired by their scripture to carry out some of the worst acts in human history.
A religion is not a monolithic entity. Saying that all Muslims are responsible for ISIS (which trust me I have seen many try to do) would be the equivalent of holding every Jew from Reform to Orthodox responsible for the stabbing at the gay pride parade in Tel Aviv earlier this year. However, it would also be foolish to deny that the stabber, a Haradi Jew, was inspired by many statements both in the Torah and Talmudic literature. A religion is a very complex idea, which is almost never black and white when it comes to any issue.
Since I do not want this post to go on forever, I figured that I would divide it into two parts. In this first part I hope I did my job in explaining that when it comes to the world’s major religions it makes no sense to consider any one of them more violent than the other. In a future post, I hope to take an even further step back and tackle a larger question: Is it not messed up and horrible that there is even one verse in the Torah, New Testament, or Qur’an that condones violence? Are people like Richard Dawkins correct when they assert that religion is the root cause of most of the violence in the world?
Tune in soon….
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