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How to Teach About Nonviolence in a Violent World

Posted on: October 8, 2021

In this blog Jeffery D. Long, co-author of Violence in the World's Religions , looks at how lecturers should approach the issue of violence in religion in the classroom.

Religion, Violence, and Nonviolence: Challenging Topics for the Classroom

Few topics are as divisive or as polarizing–particularly in today’s divided, polarized world–as religion. The very use of the word can immediately raise defenses, as our views on this topic, whatever they may be, tend to be held quite deeply and viscerally.

At one end of the spectrum of views, there is intense devotion to a particular set of religious beliefs and practices. This devotion is all too often (though certainly not always) accompanied by an equally intense aversion to other worldviews and ways of life.

At the other end of the spectrum is a strong rejection of religiosity in all its forms, often on the grounds of the belief that religion, more than any other social force, has led to untold violence and loss of life throughout human history. Witch-burnings, persecutions, crusades, genocides, the destruction of cultures and the loss of ancient knowledge systems: all can be traced, so it is often asserted, to religion.

In our increasingly diverse college and university classrooms, it is likely that a wide range of views will already exist in the minds of one’s students on these issues. There will be very devout practitioners of various religions, as well as students who do not find religion persuasive at all, or who are reacting against what they have found to be oppressive religious upbringings.

To raise the topic of religious violence, as a professor, is thus to walk into a metaphorical minefield, with a high potential for conversation to become derailed as one encounters the deeply held views of one’s students. At the same time, though, teaching about religion, violence, and non-violence is a prospect filled with exciting possibilities for the kind of serious and transformative engagement that is often the most memorable part of a student’s college experience.

The belief that religion lies at the root of much of the violence committed in human history is one of the main reasons a growing number of people reject religion altogether. It is also, itself, a topic of debate; for it is not as obvious as it may seem at first glance that religion itself is the real cause of the violence so often committed in its name. As Mark Juergensmeyer has pointed out, “A number of scholars have insisted that religion is not a thing that can cause anything, much less violence. Rather, religion is a set of cultural perceptions, and as such is basically nonviolent, or at least neutral on the subject.” 1

A conversation about religion, violence, and nonviolence is thus a great opportunity to raise the question, “What is religion?” This can sensitize students to the fact that our strongly held views on many topics are a function of how we define words. A difference which can appear superficially to be a substantive disagreement can turn out, on further reflection, to be a difference over how we use words, and interlocutors who may initially see themselves as being locked in opposition might actually share much more common ground than they previously suspected.

One of the main problems that I find I am working against in the classroom is a widespread tendency in society at large to cast complex issues in overly simplistic terms. A large part of the task of an instructor in the field of religious studies is to introduce complexity into the subject: to contextualize specific incidents of religious violence, for example, so these will not simply be seen as instances of how ‘bad’ religion is, or of how ‘bad’ a particular religion is; and to teach religions themselves in all their complexity as containing both affirmations of nonviolence, often as a core virtue, and discourses which justify violence under some circumstances.

We need to show our students that if one is attentive to the contexts in which religion is invoked as a motivator for violence, one typically finds other, non-religious elements that play a key role. Inter-religious violence is far more likely to occur, for example, in conditions where one religious community is seen to have a monopoly on resources–perhaps economic resources, such as land, or other social goods, such as status or prestige–of which another religious community is deprived. Much so-called religious conflict is, in other words, more often about the power relations between tribal groups formed on the basis of religious identity than it is about religion as such. It is very rarely about doctrinal disagreement or differences in ritual practice, both of which are more often tolerated than not. And human beings form tribal groups around many things which include, but are not limited to, religion. Indeed, inter-religious conflict is also more likely to occur if the lines of religious difference correspond with ethnic, linguistic, or other forms of difference which further fuel tribalism. The coincidence of all of these differences enables a process of ‘othering,’ in which one community can be de-humanized in the minds of another, a process which further facilitates violence.

We can further problematize the idea that religion is at the root of most violence by making our students aware of the fact that social conditions have existed at significant points throughout history when people of diverse religious persuasions have lived and worked together peacefully. Indeed, it could be argued that peaceful co-existence amongst diverse religions is more often the norm than not, particularly when looking at the histories of large, multi-religious polities in various parts of the globe.

Of course, it is not the task of instructors to seek to absolve religions of all responsibility when violence is committed in their name. The justifications given for violence in various religions need to be studied as well: again, in all their complexity. Another popular tendency is to see those who commit religiously motivated violence as “crazy.” Part of the task of an instructor in this field is to take students to the point where they can understand–without agreeing or approving–why a person with a particular worldview would see violence as a perfectly acceptable, and indeed a morally commendable, course of action. Understanding the point at which the line is likely to be crossed, from peaceful to violent adherence to a religious worldview, is of course an essential task if we wish to avoid future incidents of religiously based violence. As teachers, we have the difficult task of cultivating empathy for both the victims and the perpetrators of religious violence while simultaneously avoiding the kind of lazy moral relativism that can write off any atrocity as “part of ‘their’ culture.”

Religious Resources for Nonviolence

In 1893, the renowned Hindu teacher, Swami Vivekananda, denounced “Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism,” which he claimed, “have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.” 2   A central question for those of us who teach about religion, violence, and nonviolence is: Do sectarianism, bigotry, and fanaticism inevitably accompany religion, or are they distinct and separable from it? A related question is: Can religion be marshalled as an ally against these destructive forces which so often attach themselves to it? The answer to the second question, of course, depends upon the first.

One of the most puzzling aspects of the question of religion and violence is the fact that so many religions–nearly all–uphold nonviolence as a central ideal. To again cite Juergensmeyer, it is even the case that those who commit acts of horrific violence in the name of religion will often insist that their religion is essentially nonviolent, whatever religion it may be. “If even terrorists can claim that religion promotes nonviolence, this raises many questions about what the term ‘nonviolence’ means. Perhaps it could mean that religion is nonviolent at its core, and this principle is abandoned only as bizarre exceptions to the norm. Or it might mean that religion is basically neutral on the topic and that although nonviolence may be advocated as an ethical position that stance can be abrogated depending on the circumstances, such as defense or fighting for justice.” 3   Raising and exploring all these questions, fearlessly and empathetically, and modeling this process for our students, is vital to our task of providing a transformative classroom experience that will enable our students to see their world with new eyes, in all its messy complexity.

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1 Mark Juergensmeyer, “Introduction: Nonviolence in the World’s Religions,” in Jeffery D. Long and Michael G. Long, eds. Nonviolence in the World’s Religions: A Concise Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2022), p. 1.
2 Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works, Volume One (Mayavati: Advaita Ashrama, 1979), p. 5.
3 Juergensmeyer, p. 2.