Religion and violence

There are those who claim that religion is little more than a perverse and irrational scar on the modern world, one that invariably causes violence, while others (at times driven by political motivations) claim that religion is good and that violence only occurs when religion has been hijacked by other forces. Others still claim that religious violence is a myth constructed for political purposes, and that one should not therefore speak of religion in such terms.

In disentangling such claims, this course examines the relationships between religion and violence, asking whether one can draw such associations between the two and whether one can develop any broader theoretical understandings about their relationship that enhances our understanding of religion in the modern world. It thus challenges students to think through and develop an understanding of these issues. While examining a variety of theories and perspectives on the topic, including close examination of the arguments outlined above, it continually will refer to empirical data and case studies in which religious movements and religious individuals have been involved in violent activities, as well as examining cases where acts of immense violence (including genocide) have occurred in what appear to be political contexts, but where religious rhetoric may have been used by the perpetrators of violence.

The cases range across time, space and traditions: Judaism and Israel; Christianity and the Spanish Empire; the development of Islam as well as global contemporary issues; and Buddhism in Imperial Japan and late-20th Sri Lanka. A concluding case, that of the Bosnian civil war, will examine a specific situation in which political, ethnic and religious justifications for violence were all entangled.

Through discussions and examination of both textual sources and political realities, the course will seek to encourage students to develop an understanding of the debates over the notion of religious violence, formulate their own understandings of the validity of the arguments made by those involved in such debates, and develop an awareness of the possible patterns and processes whereby religion and violence come to be associated in a diversity of ways.

The syllabus will cover the following:

1. The very idea of 'religious violence' and the many different contexts in which it is found.

2. Theories of violence and key concepts

3. 'Imperial Christianity': violence, expansion and legitimation in the Spanish Empire

4 The idea of a people and a nation: Violence, Judaism and Israel

5. Striving: fighting for Islam - text and history

6. Revenge of history or the dawn of a caliphate? - Contemporary issues

7. Holy War and Just War: the political theology of necessary violence

8. Buddhism, nation and state - Zen and imperial Japan; Theravada Buddhism, Sri Lanka and the civil war

9. Religion and other ideologies: the case-study of Bosnia

In addition to the lectures and seminars, there will be fortnightly seminars specifically for postgraduate students.