Quantitative judgments do not apply.

In the wake of the last weeks Boston bombing and the ensuing madness, a conversation that I suppose cannot be avoided is underway in the blogging community. That of the suspect’s religion, Islam, and questions of religion and violence. This is a troubling conversation.

Troubling is the characterization of one religion as hosting greater violence than another. Or, better, comparison of the practitioners of the world’s religions, and their capacity to perform acts of violence within the guiding parameters of said religion. Essentially: what religion allows more killing and whose God provides the wiggle room. Sullivan acknowledges “all religion, including Christianity, is susceptible to the violence  associated with tribalism and fundamentalism,” which then leads to the question: which religion is susceptible to the most?

That’s basically the discussion. So Andrew Sullivan writes:

What distinguishes Islam is that its founder practiced violence, whereas Jesus quite obviously favored the exact opposite – nonviolence to the point of accepting one’s own death. Unlike Christianity, but like Judaism, Islam also claims sacred land, and, along with extremist forms of Judaism, the divine right to repel intruders from it. Religion is dangerous enough. A religion founded by a violent figure, with territorial claims, and whose values are at direct odds with modernity is extra-dangerous.

That seems reasonable. Then Rod Dreher writes:

When a Christian murders, as many have done, sometimes with church sanction, he acts in direct contravention of Christ’s example and command. When a Muslim murders, he sometimes carries out Muhammad’s command, which is to say, Allah’s.
Now, it must be said that not all Muslims are bound to be murderers. That would be cruel and foolish, and demonstrably untrue. But it is also true that the Quran contains a number of verses ordering the Islamic faithful to commit violence against unbelievers… the existence of these verses, and the extremely high regard Islam has for its holy book, makes it harder to come against those who wish to kill in the name of Islam.

Makes sense. Then Noah Millman writes:

I’m just saying that there are perfectly logical arguments that can be made that completely reverse the Christian apologetic claim that because Jesus preached non-violence and Muhammad (like Moses) led an army, therefore Christian civilization is inherently less-violent than Muslim (or Jewish?) civilization. Obviously, if you’re a Christian, you’ll find a Christian apologetic argument congenial. But that doesn’t mean it has analytical value.

All three of these are thoughtful and none of is wrong, really. I read each and I think they all have valid and important points about the comparative cultural violence of the world’s religions.

I question the value, though, of the endeavor itself.  I long for a broad cultural discussion among our leading public intellectuals when there is no need for compartmentalized justifications for terrible acts of violence in the name of religion. Muslim killers should not be compared to Christian murderers to deepen our understanding of anything about Muhamed or Christ. And, like to like, murder should not be compared to murder to see which comes out the worse. Tragedy to tragedy is a meaningless comparison, be it one of Muslim violence to Christian violence, or Jewish to Christian to Muslim to who cares. The same holds for disasters, Katrina to the Tsunami, one oil spill compared to another, oh who got it worse? You’re loss is nothing compared to mine; my God only allows killing in a ‘just war’, not murder like yours.  However else one might categorize loss, it is loss that is the point.

I am reminded here of a time, years ago, that I got in a stupid blog-argument that started with me being a smart-ass and ended in a debate comparing the violence of the followers of Marx throughout history to the violence of the followers of Christ. My point (if I remember correctly) was that the abuse that led to countless millions of deaths, be it in Marx’s name or Christ’s, is beyond justification. ‘Killing in the name of’ is just killing, regardless of the name. I was told at the time that, basically, I was making a false comparison, and Marxists had killed more people than Christians at a ratio of 350:1. I have no idea if that’s true. But it always reminds me of how impossible it is to comprehend the loss of humans to violence, and how little value there is in trying to compare it to another experience.  None of those countless millions represented in that ratio means as much to me as the one woman I cared about and who was shot dead. Her murder bears no comparison to another in the endless quest to turn loss into statistics.

As a defense for a religion, ‘we’ve killed less than they have’ could not be more stomach-turning.

I have always recoiled from quantifying violence. Violence is unquantifiable. We use numbers and categories in such occasions as we always do, to  seek the manner in which we can understand one tragedy against another for our own analytic purposes, turning a necessarily distant  eye to our past. That’s important, and worth our time. Knowledge of our history can help us avoid repeating it.

But in some debates, I have learned, there is little value. Which religion’s followers sanction, support, or commit greater acts of violence is one of them. There is moral value in simply rejecting violence. Full stop.

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2 responses to “Quantitative judgments do not apply.

  1. I’m interested in, in what circumstances does religion create more peaceful people, more caring and compassionate people. This feels like a rejection of religion (as statistical comparisons) in favor of a universal truth (in your view, the moral value of rejecting violence) without religious example. But how does one get to this “universal truth”, if it is in fact a universal truth. Do people need moral, even religious, role models and examples, to help guide their lives? Or are you arguing that moral truths are self-evident? The debate, about what religion has been more violent (statistically), is harmful in that it is misleading. People stop asking “why” and rely on stats, as if the truth is in the stats will make their point self-evident. I’m not sure declaring a universal truth helps without leading people to why.

    • Hi JZ. I’m not really sure I understand your question, but I’ll address some of the ideas I find in it.
      In all kinds of instances does religion make more caring and compassionate people. And this is what, to me, religion should be doing. And all religions are doing.
      My point here is not a rejection of religion, but that our time and efforts are better spent acknowledging loss and rejecting violence than coupling religion and violence in a way that will lead, inevitably, to more violence.
      I’m saying, I don’t think there is any intellectual capacity to compare the horror that is killing people with other acts of horror. .
      also, I’m declaring no universal truths. I’m just working out how I understand the world. Universal truth is a term that does more harm than good. Do what you can to make the world better living in the time and place that we do. Applying truth universally only makes that task more difficult, in my limited, temporary, and local view.

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