Books Review


By R. Joseph Hoffmann (ed.), Prometheus Books, New York. 2006. pp.299. Reviewed by: Mirza Asmer Beg

In this edited volume different scholars have questioned the basis of our understanding about the Abrahamic faiths. They have tried to understand as to how the conflicts in contemporary times have religious roots and whether the teachings of these faiths encourage violence, despite tall claims of being peaceful and inclusive.

Charles K. Bellinger argues that hitherto we have been involved in moralizing about violence. He says that philosophers like Kierkgaard, Voegelin and Girard have given us the philosophical tools to understand human motivations. He adds that we do not only need to denounce violence, rather we need to unveil the falseness of the way of thinking that justifies violence, for a warped cause. If such an approach is massified, Bellinger feels, that the atmosphere of human culture will change substantially. People from all faiths should take up a jihad against violence itself.

J. Harold Ellens argues that war is obscene., he says that the Just War Theory is a “tacit and obscene affirmation of massive violence, as well as a legitimation of its methods.”

However, he is not willing to apply this rationale to the Iraq war, which he says was “forced on us as the imperative evil expedient”.

R. Joseph Hoffmann studies the question of religious violence. He argues that we need to acknowledge the effect of historical thinking on theology. Expressions of religious violence to be understood properly have to be looked against the backdrop of specific religious culture from which they emerge. He finds violence as the defining element of social, religious and cultural development, as the enemy which must be overwhelmed.

Hector Avalos argues that most violence in the world is due to scarce resources, real or imagined and when religion causes violence , it is often because it has created new scarce resources. He argues that enscripturation, sacred  space, group privileging and salvation create scarce resources which are available to some and denied to others, leading to the creation of causes for violence. Presenting a critique of religious violence, he argues that lack of verifiability in religious belief differentiates ethically the violence attributed to religion from the violence attributed to non-religious factors. “ What exists is worth more than what does not exist”. Therefore, “ it would always be immoral to kill for some thing that does not exist”. He calls for undermining religion and such religious belief that can result in violence.

Bahar Davary maintains that monotheistic religions because of their uncompromising statement of faith have led to a legacy of intolerance towards those who do not adhere to these faiths. As regards Quran, he says that its interpretation has come to be viewed as the word of God. He questions as to how our understanding of the Quran, an understanding that is human and not divine, which evolves in time and space and is filtered through one’s cognitive universe, reveal absolute truth? (p. 199).He adds that we tend to adapt certain parts of the text, out of the whole, without regard for the whole, and this  is violence to the text itself. Any interpretation of the text that is not holistic, is violence to the text itself.

Robert B. Tapp  argues that the Abrahamic faiths employ and justify violence in their own respective ways, what we need today is to create a universal ethic couched in specific religious terminologies which may appeal to the believers. We also need to highlight the failures of violence as a means of change in the modern world and the successes of non-violence as an operational strategy.

Pauletta Otis claims that religion plays a crucial role both in provoking and preventing various forms of conflict and war. The combination of religious ideology and interests that employ religious factors in violence is becoming increasingly dangerous. He adds that it is high time that we made a critical study of the relationship between war and religion.

Regina M. Schwartz  says that in the name of God we become intolerant and kill our enemies and think we are right, however, our actions are more reflective of human intolerance and violence than the Will of God.

Joyce E. Salisbury argues that the justness or otherwise of wars can only be known after they are over, not before they begin. We cannot hope for just wars; we can only strive for peace.(p.214). He concludes that in this world the best option is to fight wars only when no option is left and then conduct them with the maximum possible integrity.

Carol Delaney  questions the Abrahamic story which is accepted by the three monotheistic religions, in which he is ready to sacrifice the life of his son on the command of God. He says that violence in this world would continue unless there is a general critique of the story of Abraham, and the effect it has on faith He criticizes this foundation story as inherently patriarchical, which leaves out women.

Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez studies some of the ways in which religion and violence are related and how religiously motivated terrorism has become so prevalent. He finds the seeds of violence in the conflict between secular and religious ideologies. He argues that old stereotypes govern our understanding of Islam and as a consequence we ignore its positive contributions and focus on the actions of the militant fringe. We tend to argue that Islamic terrorism is a symptom of a failed civilization and Muslims are out to destroy the more successful western civilization. Contemporary religious terrorism, he maintains, is global and endemic to our time.

Laura Purdy studies the Just War Theory of Vitoria and tries to see its relevance for the present world. She finds that recent wars, motivated in part by religious dogmatism, fail to meet the criteria for just wars.(p.272) What is required is retraint instead of bellicosity.

Towards the end, the book contains a protocol on religion warfare and violence in monotheistic religions, drafted by the committee for the scientific examination of religion, which met at Cornell University in 2004. A bibliography on religion and violence also finds place in this book.

In this book the different authors present new perspectives for religious leaders and scholars of religion. The way they have analysed the subject of religious violence and its basic causes , is really interesting and intellectually stimulating.

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