Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


The (usually intentional) use of harmful force; studies involving religion include examinations of international religious violence (e.g., Indian and Pakistani tensions), violence between groups and society (e.g., the Sikh nationalist movement), violence among groups (e.g., Protestants versus Catholics in Northern Ireland), violence among members (e.g., members' murders of other Jonestown followers), and violence against self (e.g., religious suicide).

Because religion provides reputedly divine justification for activities, history is replete with examples of groups or members invoking the supernatural to sanctify their violent actions (e.g., abortion clinic bombings). While some explanations focus upon the pathogenic nature of the participants, others address the social contexts in which violence occurs.

A number of studies examine the processes by which some groups demonize and dehumanize nonmembers in a manner that facilitates violence. In extreme cases, demonization and dehumanization can lead to acts of religious terrorism (i.e., Islamic fundamentalist sectarianism fostering the World Trade Center bombing). Additional studies examine how various religions use violence, force, and coercion to control or punish their own members (including children) through extreme hardships, corporal punishment, injury, or death. During periods of tension, violence often increases as class, ethnic, and nationalist loyalties interweave with religion.

On the level of imagery and meaning, many religiously related symbols highlight violent tendencies in various traditions. Patriarchal symbols, myths, and teachings, for example, facilitate gender imbalances that often translate into male violence against women. Sacrificail imagery (as in Christianity) has led to religious models for personal and collective acts of martyrdom and self-violence. Christian scriptures also formed the basis for anti-Semitic violence. Likewise, apocalyptic and messianic imagery involving divine judgments of evil translate into messianically violent tendencies in some traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and folk Buddhism.

Violent religious persecution is likely to occur either when the state is unable to control rising tensions among competing groups (e.g., in the former Yugoslavia) or when the state itself feels offended or threatened by religiously motivated behavior (e.g., the Iranian attacks against Baha'is).

Stephen A. Kent


M. Barkun, Religion and the Racist Right (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995)

D. A. Blanchard and T. J. Prewitt, Religious Violence and Abortion (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993)

R. Cartwright and S. Kent, "Social Control in Alternative Religions," Sociological Analysis 53(1992):345-361

N. Cohn, Pursuit of the Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976)

L. Collins and D. LaPierre, Freedom at Midnight (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975)

A. J. Droge and J. D. Tabor, A Noble Death (San Francisco: Harper, 1992)

S. Ganguly, The Origins of War in South Asia (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1986)

R. Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977)

P. Greven, Spare the Child (New York: Knopf, 1991)

J. H. Hall, Gone from the Promised Land (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1987)

D. Hiro, Holy Wars (New York: Routledge, 1989)

A. L. Horton and J. A. Williamson (eds.), Abuse and Religion (Toronto: Lexington, 1988)

R. Kapur, Sikh Separatism (London: Allen & Unwin, 1986)

K. Levi (ed.), Violence and Religious Commitment (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982)

D. L. Overmyer, Folk Buddhist Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976)

R. Wallis, "Sex, Violence, and Religion," Update 7, 4(1983):3-11.

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