Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence across Culture and History


This illuminating, in-depth study presents a wealth of case material, demonstrating the many manifestations of religious violence—not just war and terrorism, which are the focus of so many discussions of religiously motivated violence—but also more prevalent forms.  The author, an anthropologist, devotes separate chapters to:

• sacrifice (both animal and human);
• self-mortification (including ...

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This illuminating, in-depth study presents a wealth of case material, demonstrating the many manifestations of religious violence—not just war and terrorism, which are the focus of so many discussions of religiously motivated violence—but also more prevalent forms.  The author, an anthropologist, devotes separate chapters to:

• sacrifice (both animal and human);
• self-mortification (including self-injury, asceticism, and martyrdom);
• religious persecution (from anti-Semitic pogroms to witchhunts);
• ethno-religious conflict (including such hotspots as Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, and the former Yugoslavia);
• religious wars (from the ancient Hebrews’ wars and the Christian Crusades to Islamic jihad and Hindu righteous wars);
• and religious homicide and abuse (spousal abuse, genital mutilation, and "dowry death," among other manifestations).

In the final chapter, "Religion and Nonviolence," the author examines nonviolent and low-conflict societies and considers various methods of managing conflict.

This book goes a long way toward helping us understand the nature of violence generally, its complicated connections with religion, and how society in the future might avoid being blindsided by the worst aspects of human nature.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Over the centuries, critics of religion have often condemned the world's religions because of the violent acts religions' practitioners have committed against society and against one another. In this unremarkable study of religious violence, anthropologist Eller simply reminds us that religion and violence are not synonymous. After he explores quite perfunctorily six dimensions of violence (instinct, integration into groups, identity, institutions, interests, and ideology), he contends that religion is a social and ideological system that creates a reality in which violence is acceptable, necessary, and even desirable. Drawing on a broad range of examples from the world's religions, Eller examines the violence of many religious practices, ranging from sacrifice and asceticism to war and ethnoreligious conflict. In spite of the persistence of violent acts in and by religions, many religious traditions teach and practice nonviolence, and in his concluding chapter Eller explores the ways in which such traditions present an alternative to religious violence. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"This is an important contribution to understanding both the attraction and repulsion that religion conjures up among human beings. The author painstakingly and objectively covers the full spectrum of personal and mass violence associated with the whole gamut of the world’s religions, past and present."
–Barry A. Kosmin, director, Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture

"You don't have to agree with every word of the author's argument to appreciate the complex and often troubling questions that Dr. Eller raises about the nature of religion, and the potential of so many faith traditions to produce violence, abuse and exploitation. Passionately written, Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence is a wide-ranging and obviously timely, text."
–Philip Jenkins, author and Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities, Pennsylvania State University

Library Journal
Taking on a highly volatile subject with admirable objectivity, Eller (anthropology, Community Coll. of Denver; Cultural Anthropology: Global Forces, Local Lives) has written a thorough academic study of religious violence from an anthropological and sociological perspective. Drawing extensively on examples from the history of various religions around the world, he covers the full range of religious violence, going well beyond the current hot topics of war and terrorism to include sacrifice, self-injury, persecution, and ethno-religious conflict. He even devotes a chapter to nonviolence and religion. Overall, his argument is highly nuanced and avoids any temptation to oversimplify the complexities of human violence and its relationship to religion. VERDICT Eller makes a commendable effort to avoid taking sides or focusing too heavily on one particular religious tradition. Those seeking either a spirited defense of religion or a ruthless attack on it should look elsewhere. This book is ideal for those studying or teaching anthropology, sociology, and religion and looking for a scholarly and objective overview of a complicated subject.—Brian T. Sullivan, Alfred Univ. Lib., NY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781616142186
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 10/1/2010
  • Pages: 465
  • Sales rank: 401,880
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Jack David Eller, PhD (Denver, CO), is the author of six other books, including Cultural Anthropology: Global Forces, Local Lives and Introducing Anthropology of Religion: Culture to the Ultimate. He is an assistant professor of anthropology at the Community College of Denver and the film editor for the Anthropology Review Database.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 7

Chapter 1 Understanding Violence 11

What Is Violence? 12

What Makes Violence Possible-and Likely? 16

A Model of Expanding Violence 18

Conclusion: Hurting without Feeling Bad-or Feeling Anything at All 43

Chapter 2 Understanding Religion 45

What Is Religion? 46

Populating the Religious Domain: Beings, Forces, and "Types" of Religion 52

"Local" versus "World" Religions 65

The Functions of Religion: Explanation, Control, and Legitimation 69

Conclusion: Society, Supernatural Agents, and Violence 76

Chapter 3 Sacrifice 81

What Is Sacrifice? 82

The Diversity of Sacrifice 85

Theories of Sacrifice: Girard and Burkert 105

Toward a Better Understanding of Sacrifice 108

Chapter 4 Self-Injury 117

Religious Self-Mortification: A Cry of Pain to the Spirits 120

Asceticism: Religious Athletes 133

Pain, but What Gain? 143

Martyrdom: Death on Principle 149

The Selfish Selflessness of Martyrs and Other Self-Mortifiers 158

Chapter 5 Persecution 161

What Is Persecution? 162

Religious Persecution in the Ancient/Non-Christian World 168

Early Persecution of Christians 170

Early Persecution by Christians 173

Persecution in Islam 184

The Persecution of Witches 188

Persecution of Religion by Antireligion 191

Persecution by the American Religious Right 197

The Virtues of Persecuting-and Being Persecuted 201

Chapter 6 Ethnoreligious Conflict 207

Ethnicity, Culture, Religion, and Conflict 208

Ethnoreligious Conflict in the Modern World 215

Why Ethnoreligious Conflict Now? 238

Chapter 7 War 241

The Religion and the War in "Religious War" 242

Religious War among the Ancient Hebrews 252

"Holy War" in Christianity: The Crusades 256

"Holy War" in Christianity: The European Religious Wars 260

The Taiping "Rebellion" in China 263

Islam and Jihad 267

War in Hinduism 275

"Fighting Orders": Saintly Soldiers 279

The Mythology of War 283

Chapter 8 Homicide and Abuse 291

When Is Religious Crime "Religious" and "Crime"? 292

Religious Homicide 297

Religious Abuse: Women and Spouses 311

Religious Abuse of Children 319

But Religion Is Supposed to Make People "Good" and "Moral" 327

Chapter 9 Religion and Nonviolence 331

What Is Nonviolence? 333

Religions of Nonviolence 342

The Religious Contribution to Nonviolence 360

Notes 373

Bibliography 407

Index 427

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First Chapter


Religious Violence across Culture and History

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2010 Jack David Eller
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-218-6

Chapter One


There are few things in life that people claim to understand better and to deplore more than violence. They are wrong on both counts. Violence is dramatically more complex than we recognize or perhaps want to recognize: we want to believe that bad people do violence to good people for no particular reason other than the perpetrators' badness. But this cannot be true, as we will soon see. First of all, any of us can, and many of us will, commit some kind of violence during our lives, and we may do so with the noblest of intentions and the clearest of consciences. We may go to war for our country or fight to defend our family or property. This raises another point, that we do not in actuality condemn all forms of violence. Some we censure, some we commit ambivalently, and some we openly celebrate.

It is a neglected but essential fact that we cannot appreciate the relationship between religion and violence unless we grasp the nature and meaning of the two partners in this relationship. Yet our understanding of both religion and violence are inadequate. Further, we usually consider too few offspring of their troubled marriage: when we think of "religious violence," we tend to think only of holy war and (especially since September 11, 2001) religious terrorism. However, those are not the only types of religious violence or violence in general, nor are those types exclusively religious: there is also secular war and secular terrorism. So we have two projects at the outset of our study: to explore the nature of violence and to explore the nature of religion. These projects will take us to places we may not have been before and may not really want to go.


Discussions and debates commence with definitions, or at least they should. What do we mean by violence? Again, that may seem perfectly obvious to us. It is not. Notice, for instance, that the language of violence consists of many related and overlapping but nonsynonymous terms, such as aggression, hostility, competition, and conflict. Scholars and laypeople often use these terms interchangeably, and interchangeably with violence, but they are not all synonyms. To start, competition need not necessarily be violent or aggressive; we speak regularly of "healthy competition," and we expect competitors like athletes to refrain from real hostility and to shake hands after the contest. Even conflict is not always violent or at least not always equally violent; there are degrees, from mild or perhaps peaceful conflict—such as a conflict of interests or of opinions—to deadly conflict.

Violence need not even be directly interpersonal, that is, a clear case of one person hitting another person. What has been called structural violence refers to less direct, more pervasive, and sometimes even unintentional or at least "invisible" harm (up to and including real and serious physical harm) caused by the very arrangements and institutions of society. Paul Farmer takes the concept of structural violence to be

"sinful" social structures characterized by poverty and steep grades of social inequality, including racism and gender inequality. Structural violence is violence exerted systematically—that is, indirectly—by everyone who belongs to a certain social order: hence the discomfort these ideas provoke in a moral economy still geared to pinning praise or blame on individual actors. In short, the concept of structural violence is intended to inform the study of the social machinery of oppression.

David Riches, who has studied violence extensively, makes a further distinction between violence and aggression. Examining how both specialists and the general public use the terms, he concludes that aggression "connotes antagonistic behavior which, even when consciously performed, is nonvolitional (and probably irrational), the immediate impulse for which lies in uncontrollable forces within the human body that are barely at all subject to reason or sense." Put another way, he sees popular and theoretical notions of aggression as referring to "an inner tendency (by implication, both unrelenting and ubiquitous)"—a kind of drive or instinct—separate from "the act of harm itself." Violence, on the other hand, he finds to be less a name for a kind of act than a judgment, a label that people put on certain instances of acts:

"Violence" has strong pejorative connotations. Through it, the unacceptability and illegitimacy of harming behavior is conveyed. "Violence," in this usage, clearly connotes a double distance from the harm-giving moment: not only is it invoked as commentary on the act, the perspective on this act is unequivocally twisted—from performer to observer. For their part, perpetrators—distancing themselves from the act—are reluctant to concede that what they have done is violence: their representation of what happened will be that it was self-defense, unavoidable force, freedom-fighting, social control, and so on.

In response, we might insist that violence is behavior that harms someone. As an "objective" account, that is probably necessarily true. But there are many variables and nuances that make the application of such a simple definition more difficult:

• How great does the harm have to be? Are a slap and a murder both violence?

• How intentional does the harm have to be? Are accidental and purposeful injury both violence?

• How physical does the harm have to be? Are emotional abuse, verbal abuse, and physical abuse all violence?

• How undeserved does the harm have to be? Are self-defensive and offensive acts both violence? In fact, is some violence justified and justifiable— or even "justice" itself?

• How unwanted does the harm have to be? Are masochistic or self-inflicted and other-directed injuries both violence?

• How human does the victim or the perpetrator have to be? Is a tiger killing a human, or is a human killing a tiger, violence? Is bacteria killing a human, or is a human killing bacteria, violence? This is why Riches concludes, "The question, 'what qualifies as "violence"?' in fact has no absolute answer." Fortunately, there is probably no need to settle on a single definition or criterion of violence. The main point is to raise the issues: it is an imposing task—and perhaps an impossible task—to determine which behaviors are "really" violence. The determination is in the end a human evaluation: by violence we tend to mean "harm that we do not approve of."

There is no escaping the fact that the world is a violent place. I do not mean merely the human or social world, although it is eminently violent. But the natural world itself shows its violence; it is, as the saying goes, red in tooth and claw. At the same time, it also shows its cooperation and peace. There are cases in nonhuman animals of individuals helping each other, caring for each other, even risking injury and death for each other. There are cases of two different species interacting symbiotically for the benefit of both, when one could easily kill and eat the other. But there is no denying that organic life depends on organic death—that life eats life—and that nonliving forces (tornados, earthquakes, and tsunamis) can bring destruction. We sometimes speak of a "violent storm," but we mean that metaphorically, since I assume that nobody thinks the storm has violent passions or intentions.

Violence is ubiquitous. It is also relative. If there is such a thing as "justifiable homicide" or "just war," then violence is relative: some violence is good (according to certain people, from a certain perspective). The victim of a justifiable homicide is every bit as dead as the victim of an unjustifiable one, and a just war can be even more lethal and brutal than an unjustified one. There is no one-to-one correspondence between the scale and the acceptability of violence: a small incident can be unjustified and a large incident can be justified.

So the real issue appears to be not the damage that is inflicted by the behavior but the legitimacy of the behavior that caused the damage. Granted, the harm may be out of all proportion to the cause for it, but then that is precisely what earns it the verdict of illegitimacy. But all except the most total pacifists allow for the possibility and the reality of legitimate and justified violence; "make my day" laws (which allow a person to use deadly force against intruders in his or her home) are one example, and they prove our point particularly well since such laws did not exist until recently. That is, the same behavior that was illegitimate and illegal a short time ago (killing an intruder) is now in some places legitimate and legal. Of course, we can only use "appropriate force" and only in particular ways (no shooting in the back), but that simply further demonstrates that some kinds of force, even deadly force, are not just tolerable but actually rule governed, and others are not—and we decide which.

In other words, violence is only a problem when it crosses a certain line, when it goes beyond the bounds of "acceptable violence." And since we humans determine, based on our values and beliefs, what is acceptable violence, these bounds differ for different societies and historical periods and for different groups and individuals within a society or period. The Semai, a peaceful tribal people in Malaysia, believed that all violence was completely unacceptable and that even bothering somebody with excessive demands was an unbearable disturbance of the peace (see chapter 9). The Yanomamo, on the other hand, have been described as "fierce," placing a high value on aggression, teaching it to their children, and practicing it on each other—men hitting women, pounding each other in various kinds of "duels," and raiding each other's villages. The ancient Spartans tossed weak or deformed male babies off of cliffs and raised the rest to be skilled and disciplined warriors, and the medieval Japanese developed a warrior ethos, known as bushido, that glorified death as the vocation of the warrior or samurai—and not so much the death of the enemy as the death of the self. The Hagakure, an eighteenth-century treatise on the warrior code, urged the samurai to become "as one already dead," to meditate daily "on inevitable death" and on all the ways in which that death might come: "And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead." Beyond that, he was taught to take his own life willingly at the order of or merely for the honor of his master. Thus even suicide was normal and noble. Presumably, the Japanese samurai would not have called war or suicide "violence"—or at least if he had, he would not have meant it in a derogatory way.

The conclusion must be that violence is not only varied but variably valued. Simply being "violent" is not automatically a problem and cause for concern and condemnation—or not by the perpetrating party, at any rate. Conceivably, a Yanomamo villager did not enjoy being raided, but he would have understood and accepted the place of raiding in his culture. Conceivably, a Japanese warrior did not enjoy being killed, but he would have understood and accepted his appointed role in life, as long as he could die in battle and in honor. So even the "victim's" point of view, which we tend to privilege in thinking about violence, is not always consistent and negative about the value of violence.

Finally, notice that we have not invoked religion so far to explain these types of violence. Arguably religious—particularly Confucian and Buddhist— concepts entered into the bushido code, such as the transitory nature of life and beauty and the importance of duty to one's superior. Presumably the Yanomamo had some spiritual or supernatural reason for their violence. But religion is not a necessary or sufficient component in violence. People can be violent or nonviolent with religion and without it. Most important of all, every single form of religious violence—from war to terrorism to persecution to martyrdom and self-injury to crime and abuse—has its nonreligious correlate. There are nonreligious wars, nonreligious terrorists, nonreligious martyrs, nonreligious violent crimes, and so on. In other words, religion is hardly single-handedly responsible for violence in the human condition.


Another assertion that many people make is that violence is perpetrated by violent people, even "bad" or "evil" people: simply put, good people do good, and bad people do bad. Violence, in this view, is possible and likely when bad and violent individuals are allowed to express their badness and violence. Psychologist Roy Baumeister dubs this the "myth of pure evil," which begins from the premise that violence is evil and goes on to claim that

• evil involves the intentional infliction of harm;

• evil is motivated primarily by internal or "personality" factors, especially the pleasure of doing harm;

• the victim is always innocent and good;

• the evil one is the Other, the enemy, the outsider, even the "monster";

• evil represents the very antithesis of order, peace, and stability; and

• evil-doers "lose control" over their violent emotions, especially rage and anger.

This position is a myth precisely because it does not stand up to the facts. As much as we would like to think that only bad, crazy, and mean people commit violence, and that violence is fundamentally a matter of individual traits ("personality")— and therefore that we would be incapable of it while they are incapable of restraining it—all the evidence indicates that we and they are not so different after all. Psychologists and social scientists have arrived at similar conclusions: violence is mostly learned and situational. Unless the Semai and the Yanomamo/ Spartans/Japanese are innately different, the source of their differences lies elsewhere than in "human nature." Philip Zimbardo, one of the leading psychological researchers on violence, conducted a famous experiment or simulation in which he assigned some participants to be "prison guards" and others to be "prisoners" and set them to play their parts in a mock prison. In the so-called Stanford Prison Experiment, participants so quickly and completely fell into their roles that the level of violence and abuse necessitated shutting down the simulation early—and this despite the fact that the subjects were randomly assigned their roles and given no specific instructions on how to behave. His interpretation was that people's behavior is shaped at least as much by the situations they occupy as by their "personality"—that we all know the expectations of specific circumstances and roles and act accordingly when we are in those circumstances and roles. I do not act like a prison guard most of the time, but if I were put in the position of a prison guard, I would. Thus, if we find ourselves in violent conditions, we act violently, even if it is not in our "nature."

Another even more renowned experiment illustrated the same point to a startling degree. Stanley Milgram, perplexed by the violence committed during World War II, wondered if "normal people" could be led to perpetrate extreme violence. In his "authority experiments," ordinary citizens were placed in a role of administering painful electrical shocks to other subjects as part of a "learning experiment." Of course, there was no learning experiment, and there were no other subjects. The only subjects of the experiment were the "teachers" who could not see but could hear their (nonexistent) victims. With each wrong response the teachers were told to deliver a shock and turn up the voltage. To everyone's surprise—and to the overt emotional distress of some of the shockers—a full two-thirds of them gave what they believed to be fatal jolts to their victims. But why would good people do such a bad thing?


Excerpted from CRUEL CREEDS, VIRTUOUS VIOLENCE by JACK DAVID ELLER Copyright © 2010 by Jack David Eller. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Posted November 10, 2010

    Unique, balanced, informative--the most comprehensive study of religious violence

    What IS remarkable about this book is how it avoids the common errors and transcends the common bounds of literature on religious violence. Neither accusing nor excusing religion for violence, the book shows how religion is particularly well suited to provide the circumstances for extreme violence that is entirely justified in the mind of the violator. Most books on religious violence take for granted what "religion" and "violence" are, but this book does not. The first two chapters sensitively explore the meaning and variability of violence and of religion. Then, the material goes far beyond the standard treatments of "terrorism" and "holy war" to describe--with many historical and cross-cultural examples from many religions in addition to the usual Christianity and Islam--other, older, and more widespread forms of religious violence such as sacrifice, self-mortification (including martyrdom and asceticism), persecution, ethno-religious conflict, war, and crime and abuse. The concluding chapter credits religion for its actual and potential contribution to nonviolence. There is truly no book like this one on the market today, and it shows that an understanding of religious violence requires a consideration of religious violence in all its forms and in relation to the general human cultural capacity for violence and nonviolence.

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