Theology of Religion

Religion, Violence and Civil Society

Religion, Violence and Civil Society

Dr Vincent Kundukulam


Vincent Kundukulam







From the genes of our animal ancestors, we humans have inherited loyalties toward our own kin and aggression toward outsiders. This was essential for the survival and development of the most viable genotypes. Today however as biological evolution has given rise to cultural evolution and as cultural evolution has advanced from kinship to interdependence of nations, the conditions for survival have changed. Now cultures and nations will survive not by aggression and dominance but by cooperation. But unfortunately we are heading into an epoch of unlimited violence and terror. South Asia is at the centre of conflict and could suffer the most from it.

This short paper is an humble attempt to expose the underpinnings and undercurrents of religious violence, which affect adversely the preservation of civil society in India. It has four sections. After making some preliminary remarks on the key terms of this paper – religion, violence and civil society – we will reflect upon the psychological and sociological aspects of religious violence. Secondly we will discuss the role of religion in violence. Third section is a review of civil society in India, which is actually sickened by erosion of secular public institutions and silence of the majority against the minority that involves in violence. Lastly, we will make a few suggestions to counter the insane marriage between religion and violence in India.

1. Clarification of terms

Religion: Among the numberless definitions that have been suggested to religion, those that have been most frequently adopted for working purposes are that of E.B. Tylor, J. G. Frazer and F. Schleiermacher. They define religion as a conciliation of powers superior to man, which is believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life. Religion stands for the pattern of beliefs and practices through which men communicate with or hope to gain experience of that which lies behind the world of their ordinary experience. Typically it focuses on an Ultimate or Absolute, thought of by some believers as God[1]

Sociologists and anthropologists are not satisfied with the above-mentioned formalistic and experiential type of definitions. To them religion is never an abstract set of ideas, values or experiences developed apart from the total cultural matrix. Religion is only partly studied if it is not seen as part of a longer social order. Sociologists perceive religion as a social institution related to the structure and processes of human societies and which reflects and affects the stratification systems in society, political and economic processes, levels of integration and conflict and the course of social change[2]. In this essay since we assess the impact of religious violence on the formation of civil society we will deal with religion from the sociological and anthropological perspectives.


Violence: The word violence makes us think of acts of destruction; how one is made the object of physical abuse. It is exertion of any physical force considered with reference to its effect on another than the agent. An expanded definition of violence can be found in the Latin root, violare meaning to violate. Whatever violates another in the sense of infringing upon or abusing the other, whether physical harm involved or not, can be understood as an act of violence.[3] We understand here the meaning of violence in terms of its Latin context which embraces all sorts of violations done against another.

Civil society: Understanding civil society through definitions is a difficult task because definitions make sense only if the subject concerned is a repeated phenomenon before our eyes. Civil society is not an institution which survives permanently. It emerges at special moments of history, when the conscious members of society perceive a gap between the social aspiration of the people and the opportunities given to them by the State. In Europe, civil society expressed the views of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau who envisaged a society founded essentially upon the liberty and equality of men. When the citizen is denied his rights, the elites engage in debates and discussions for a new order and these discourses give shape to the form of the civil society. Thus civil society is here seen as an intermediate institution between the individuals and the State, which grants liberty, equality and fraternity to all citizens when the government seems to fail in exercising the liberating mission of the Constitution.[4]

2. Psycho-social backdrop of religious violence


2.1 Myths, Rituals and Cultural Unconscious

The constituent elements of  culture are symbols, myths and rituals. Myths, especially founding myths tell us that we are a unique group in the world with a particular destiny. Myths are the memory bank for people as they tell us of past defeats and victories. It is through myths that we are raised above the ordinary things of life; they give us powerful visions of what can be and the energy to do what must be done to realize them. Little wonder that people are prepared to act violently against those who dare to question or suppress their myths. Nor is it surprising if people are tempted to violence when their myths disintegrate or cease to be operative in life. Myths recounting former defeats can arise in people the desire to revenge the humiliation. When a people experiences disintegration they feel the urge to rediscover and relive their creation myth.

The function of rituals is to impose, strengthen and reaffirm conformity to the status quo as desired by leaders of a particular society. The national flag is such a powerful symbol of national identity that its raising carries considerable ritual importance especially in times of national tragedy. Following the terrorist assaults on the US in 2001 the whole country was aflutter with flags; tiny flags were attached even to baby carriages. Their display was a ritual of defiance and reaffirmation of the identity signifying that Americans would not be coerced into submission. Ritual can be a powerful way also to degrade people. For example the parade of those who were taken in hostage at the American Embassy in Iran in 1979 through the streets of Teheran symbolized the humiliation of American nation.

Cultures through their myths and symbols have an innate tendency to create feelings like ‘us and them’. This happens by subscribing most often unconsciously to rooms of purity and pollution. The fear of pollution defines and protects the boundaries of group.   Groups see their own cultures as clean or pure and others as dirty or impure and therefore to be eliminated. The Islamic fundamentalists regard Western civilization as polluting force to be kept at a distance or destroyed. Hitler considered that Jews endangered the purity of Aryans and so had to be eliminated.

Walter Wink speaks of the Myth of ‘redemptive violence’ in Western society. By this he means that violence is necessary for a society’s continued existence. Violence is presented as something that solves conflict. Even the threat of violence is able to stop aggressors. Violence is redemptive in the sense that it restores the society to a state of peace and justice[5].

In short, to disintegrate one’s myths is equal to destroy ones self itself. Groups will therefore resort to violence when their cultural symbols or rituals are attacked. They will try to regain their lost identity by way of promoting violence in and through the celebration of its myths and rituals.

2.2 Communal Identity and Violence

There are three processes that interact in the perpetuated construction of communal identities. First, there are everyday practices of neighborliness often marked by discrete stereotypes in the communities about the other. In India today, the relatively limited interaction across the communities is worsened by a relative separation of economic activities. The interaction of Hindus with Muslims is more and more limited on account of the widespread stereotypes they have concerning the dirtiness and food habits of Muslims. The stereotype that works among Muslims against Hindus is that of their cowardice and lack of firmness. Hindus are weak and afraid. And they dare to fight only in group whereas Muslims are brave, know how to fight, and never give up even when the enemy is outnumbered[6].

Second factor that forms the communal identity is the narratives, rumors and experiences of riots which perceive the other as the source of absolute evil and brutality.  Wandering stories are recycled again and again (about gang rape, poisoning of food and water, decapitations, etc.) during riots. The proliferation of these narratives demonizes the other community and suspends the normal parameters of honour and humanity.

The third dimension of the complex reproduction of communal violence is the organization and dissemination of an inferior political identity. In India, among Muslims the modes of identification of self and community seem to be organized around a fatalistic acceptance of being caught in a marginalized position In India. Whereas, in the case of Hindus, the display of discipline and power at Friday Namaz in the Muslim world evokes in them a sense of fear and fascination[7].

The fundamental reason behind the formation of inferior identity is lack of self esteem, self respect and self discipline. The image of the strong and lustful other is always characterized by fascination. The communities always fantasize about the special ways in which the other enjoys life, ultimately revealing to themselves ways in which they could also have more fun in life. The inability to control the self, to discipline one’s enjoyment, and to unfold fully one’s own enjoyment as part of the country produce self hatred and a sense of castration. The community feels to be weak sinful and unfulfilled. The only way to remedy this is destroying the other whose very presence weakens the manliness of the community[8].

During religious festivals thousands of frustrated young men seek to organize their enjoyment by nosily occupying and domesticating public spaces that are normally seen as neutral ground in and around streets, temples and mosques. To attack homes and shops, to burn, to kill and to loot become a way of shedding their own perceived humiliation and a way of restoring masculinity[9].

If brief, violence is stitched into the very process of overcoming the lived inferiority of a community and affirming its masculinity before others.

2.3 Injustice

To characterize violence / terrorism only as the result of a clash of cultures would be unrealistic. A thorough study of the roots of violence calls our attention to the economic underpinnings of the issue. It seems that terrorism emerges fundamentally from the unbalanced distribution of material wealth and democratic rights. When the institutions of governance are not able to assure people prosperity, dignity and liberty it leads to animosity towards the authority. The victims then resort to violence in pursuit of political objectives.[10]

This leads us to the fact that the basic form of violence is injustice. It does not necessarily do any physical harm, yet it is a violation of personhood. It is the institutionalized destruction of human possibilities. It is present whenever the structures of society act so as to depersonalize people by making them objects rather than subjects. When the injustice of society becomes too oppressive it takes the course of revolt. Violence as revolt is directed against the status quo, against those who have the power and are responsible for injustice. Unless and until we get at the root of injustice we will be dealing in only a superficial way with the problem of violence.[11]

We have been trying to grasp the phenomenon of violence from psychological and sociological angles. The above study about the formation and expression of violent culture, communal identities and injustice is taking us to another factor contributing to violence namely religion. The question that has to be answered now is whether violence is intrinsic to religion? Why people accuse religion as responsible for violence?

3. Violence Prone in religions?

When we study the history of religions we come across several incidents where the religious leaders despise other religions as enemies. Crusades are best examples in the history of Christianity. Pope Urban II’s speech was proficient to instigate violence: “I beseech and exhort you – and it is not I but God who beseeches and exhorts you as heralds of Christ – both poor and rich, to make haste to drive that vile breed from the regions inhabited by our brethren, and to bring timely aid to the worshippers of Christ. I speak to those here present, I will proclaim it to the absent, but it is Christ who commands …If those who go thither lose their lives on land or sea during the journey, or in battle against the pagans, their sins will at once be forgiven; … What can I say more? On one side there will be poor wretches, on the other the truly rich; there the enemies of God, here his friends. Pledge yourself without delay.[12]

The justification offered for demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas on 26th February 2001 was that these graven images offended the religious sentiments of Taliban. Their supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was quoted as saying: ‘I ask Afghans and the worlds Muslims to use their sound wisdom… Do you prefer to be a breaker of idols or a seller of idols? Is it appropriate to be influenced by the propaganda of the infidels? The mode of expressions that President Bush employed over the September 11th terrorist activity also had an extremist slang. He posed the entire problem not in terms of secular international politics but rather as problem of faith. Bush gave the proposed military operation a code name, ‘Infinite Justice’. The reference was again to the belief that only the Lord can bestow infinite justice. America sees itself as the Lord of the universe. It was not president George speaking but rather St. George speaking[13].

In the light of the above-mentioned inglorious stories, can we conclude that violence is native to religions? The answer depends on how we comprehend religions. The social scientists make a difference between religion as faith and religion as an identity. Religion as faith has largely a spiritual function and religion as identity acquires political overtones[14]. As social institution religion is mot merely a set of revelations. It includes also dogmas and laws, which are the results of the interpretations made on the revealed texts to meet the cultural social and sometimes even the political aspirations of the believers. Consequently, some scriptural texts and their interpretations may have extremist slant. Thus  religion as identity is vulnerable to violence.

As evidence, we see the martial metaphors in the Scriptures. The Hebrew Bible contains military exploits of great kings. The great epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata are tales of unending conflict and military intrigue. The ideas of Salvation Army in Christianity, Dal Khalsa in Sikhism, notion of Jihad in Islam, etc. denote images of warfare. These martial metaphors show that religion is an order restoring institution. The institutionalized religions would allow struggle for the order to be restored.  Whenever the religious activists feel commissioned to protect the good from the satanic forces they may draw on violent means. In the Sri Lankan conflict the militant bhikkhus state that the people there live in dukkha, in an immoral world. The conflict is between dhamma and adhamma: order and disorder, religion and irreligion. That means, religions may give moral sanction to violence for the cause of bringing order in the world[15].

If religions, as social institutions, are exposed to the danger of extremism, building up a peaceful society will remain utopist unless creative measures are taken to curb the excessive interpretations of Scriptures. How to protect the revealed texts from disruptive interpretations? The best remedy is religions themselves. Religions as faith possess by nature anti-extremist potentials. The inner dynamism of religions consists in generating universal and pluralistic values, which create solidarity and equality in the society. This is possible because religions, by their origin, are liberative. All the major religions extol the value of self-sacrificing love, non-violence, solidarity of mankind, justice, reverence for life, truthfulness, etc. This is not a over ambitious project because religions, as M. Juergensmeyer has rightly observed, provide images capable of conquering violence too. In rituals, violence is symbolically transformed. Christ’s crucified image induces Christians to sabotage violence. In the Sikh tradition the two edged sword is an example of domestication of violence. Islamic mystics have come out to speak of the true jihad as the one to take place within each person[16].

4. The Collapse of Civil Society in India

Two and half months of continuing violence in Gujarat (2002) and the recent attacks against Christians in Orissa have raised a series of questions regarding the strength of secular fabric of our nation. What surprised most the secular thinkers in both these incidents was that in the face of violence there were not many who could exercise moral authority and rescue the dialogical space. How did it happen? One reason is the erosion of secular culture from Gujarat which gave birth to the sage of non-violence.

4.1 The erosion of Secular Public Institution

In Gujarat, after Gandhi’s death, the void left by him had been immediately sought to be filled by the voluntary sector. The secular movements and NGOs engaged to create lively hood, to defend the human rights, and to solve the issue of Dalits, Adivasis and women in the state. But the race for globalization changed the cultural and political aspirations of the people. The Green and white revolution together with the industrialization got grip of political and social power. The combined effort of the new emerging class – politicians, bureaucrats, business men – found the Gandhian culture as a hindrance in the march towards global economy. The eagerness for money, power and success got over the Gandhian principles of ahimsa, inter-religious fellowship and dignity of human person. It was this morally disintegrated Gujarat that became the laboratory for politics based on collective communal Hindu identity[17]. Violence became a legitimate form of political and cultural intervention in Gujarat. Gandhi’s memory and legacy came to be museumised.

To blame religion alone for horrors of the kind perpetuated in Gujarat would be unscientific and unjust. The accelerating erosion of our public institution the apathy of the judges and the death of professionalism in the civil services are matters of far more concern than the inroads of religion into nation’s politics. Whatever you do religion will affect politics, at times even dominate it particularly in this country. No constitution can effectively fence off our country’s politics form religious prejudice. We have to recognize the failure of leadership and the breakdown of our public institutions in the country specially the civil services.

As Harsh Mander has rightly observed it was the duty of public services in Gujarat to assure that the law and order be kept fearlessly and impartially. If even one higher official had acted courageously in Ahmadabad, there would have been enough police forces and army to halt the violence. He writes: ‘I have heard senior officials blame the communalism of the police constabulary for their connivance in the violence. The same forces have been known to act with impartiality and courage when lead by officers of integrity’[18].

4.2 Violence of Silent Majority


In our country after every major communal riot the well wishing citizens reiterate the old cliché – the majority of Indians are secular minded and they believe in living together in peaceful harmony. We interpret the riots as misdeals perpetrated by a gang of criminals only in the pay of unscrupulous politicians in league with a handful of fanatic religious groups. To defend the wishful image of tolerant majority we pick up any news   that describe in some isolated incident a single brave Hindu individual or family saving a Muslim neighbour or vice-versa.

While admiring such courage, needless to say that exception do not always make the rule. We refuse to accept that the silence of the majority provide the social sanction for outbreak of violence. The holocausts in Gujarat and Orissa show that the majority is no longer silent. When the gangsters went on looting and burning the properties of minorities it was not out of fear that the silent majority kept silence. They had loyalty and sympathy for the attackers. We have to admit the stark fact that much tilt has taken place in the mind of Indians during the last decades.

The silent support of the majority in favour of violence is partly due to the antediluvian and communal attitudes of religious leaders. The statements and the customs they dictate during tensed situations accentuate divisive feelings in the minds of believers. It is in this environment that the war-cries like jehad and dharmayuga get easily upper hand among the people.[19]

5. Some concrete steps to counter religious violence

Mankind is today in the midst of one of the greatest cries in history. Despite the fact that the great scientific inventions liberated us from servitude to nature, we seem to suffer from a type of religious neurosis. We need a moral and spiritual therapy, which would heal the human mind. The best medicine would be a new spirituality of religions and the following ones may be some of its constituents.

Propagate noble values of all religions: Ignorance about other religions is a great hurdle in the path of communal harmony. The UNESCO Constitution begins by saying. “As wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that defense for peace must be constructed.” If this remains true the culture of unity and diversity must be instilled in the people educating in them the noble values of all religions. We have to pursue a methodology of education, which helps the people so to understand their own religious traditions as to affirm and celebrate the significance of other religions. Religions, in and through all their academic and cultural institutions, can cultivate human and religious values in the minds of pupils. Initiation to inter-religious prayer gatherings and readings from different Scriptures are to be multiplied all over the country.

Virtue of Interdependence: Every religion has something unique to contribute for the welfare of the world. For example, Islamic life is known for prayerfulness and fellowship, Hindu-Bahai mind for universal vision, Sikh-Buddhist-Jain heart for Courage Compassion and Non-Violence, Parsi intellect for initiative and creativity, Jewish will for strict adherence to law, and Christian spirit for forgiveness and self-sacrifice. But at the same time we know that religions have influenced each other, helped each other and enriched each other in developing their specific virtues. For example, Christianity received from Babylonia the idea of God as the maker of heaven and earth, from Persia the dualism of Satan and God, from Egypt last judgment, from Phrygia the worship of the Great Mother, from Greece and Rome the idea of universal law.[20]

If so, it is naïve to harp on exclusiveness and assert one’s superiority either in belief, or in tradition or in culture. The virtues of interdependence transcend the barrier of caste, creed, race, colour, language and nationality. It can be built up through mutual trust. An atmosphere of understanding one another, not in religious or caste terms but as human beings with same needs, aspirations and obligations is to be created. Ways of worship and objects of worship may be differed, style of life may be varied, language may be different, but these are only the outward manifestations, which need not erode the basic trust in one another as human beings. Peace which is result of trust among the people can prosper only when social interdependence becomes a way of life of the people.[21]

Counter-cultural and political formation: Compared to the activities of communal forces, the resistance put up by the religions is very less now. Today the religious and cultural leaders don’t come forward exposing the failure of police and the bureaucracy during communal violence. Using art forms – painting, music, street plays – have been a method successfully experimented in this sphere.  The cultural forums at the village levers can employ these methods to disaffiliate society from the logic of communalism. The counter cultural formation has to be done also through mass media. Disseminating teachings, stories, legends and myths from different religious traditions would instill in the people universal love and respect for the other. Mere cultural response will not be sufficient if not followed up with more substantive moves on the political front to check the wave of violence.  Solution would be an extensive campaign sponsored by all those sections of civil society, who believe in non-communal politics.

Overcome structural injustice: Violence cannot be checked by maintaining an unjust status quo which is in the advantage of the powerful. Let us avoid situations where a section of people gets so alienated and start believing that violence is the only means to get justice. The way to avert physical violence in our society is to overcome structural violence. What prevents believers from fighting for the justice is the false conception they have regarding religion. Many think that the task of the religious community is to avoid conflict and to reconcile; it should not divide but unite; it should not be a centre of agitation but a source of peace, and so on. This concern is right. But its antithesis is false. Much that passes for the reconciliation is phony reconciliation, covering up conflict rather than confronting it honestly. To stand on the side of justice will make many people unhappy; particularly those who benefit from the structures of injustice and to be on the side of justice will thereby create conflict.

St. Joseph Pontifical Institute

Mangalapuzha, Aluva


[1] Encyclopedia Americana, vol.23, USA: Grolier Incorporated, 1988, p. 359.

[2] The New Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 15, Chicago, 1980, p. 604.

[3] R.M. Brown, Religion and Violence, Philadelphia: the Westminster press, 1973, pp 6-7.

[4] N. Abercrombie, S. Hill & B. S. Turner, Dictionary of Sociology, England: Penguin Books, 1994, p. 56; S. Dasgupta, Civil Society Through Clear Eyes, Economic and Political weekly, vol.35, no.40, September 30, 2000, pp 3614-3615.

[5] G. A. Arbuckle, Violence Society and the Church, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2004, pp. 12-17; 31

[6] S. Kakar, The Colours of Violence, New Delhi: Penguine Books, 1995, pp. 160-168.

[7] T.B.Hansen, The Saffron Wave, New delhi, Oxford university press, 1999, pp. 207-209.

[8] S. Zizek, For They Know Not What They Do, London: Verso, 1992, p. 200.

[9] A. Feldman, Formation of Violence, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp. 78-81.

[10] Editorial, Terrorism: Eliminating The Sources, Economic and Political Weekly, vol.36, no.28, September 22, 2001, p. 3569.

[11] R.M. Brown, Religion and Violence, Philadelphia: the Westminster press, 1973, pp 9-13.

[12] P. Regine, The Crusades, London, 1962, pp. 23-24.

[13] GPD, Everyone a Fundamentalist?, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 36, no. 39, September 29, 2001, pp. 3668-3669.

[14] A.A. Engineer, September 11: Many Messages, Economic and Political Weekly, vol.36, no.42,October 20, 2001, pp.3982-3983.

[15] M. Juergensmeyer, Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State, Delhi, 1993, pp. 157-164.

[16] M. Juergensmeyer, Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State, Oxford University Press,, 1993, p. 159.

[17] T. Suhrud, No Room for Dialogue, Economic and political weekly, vol.37, no.11, march 16, 2002, pp.1011-1012.

[18] J. B. D’ Souza, Politics, Religion and Our Ailing Public Institutions, Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 37, no. 19, May 11, 2002, pp. 1779-1780.

[19] S. Banerjee, When the silent majority backs a violent minority,  Economic and Political weekly, vol.37, no.13, March 30, 2002, pp. 1183-84.

[20] S. Radhakrishnan, The Present Crisis of Faith, 51-58.

[21] S. K. Parmar, Inter-religious Co-operation for Peace and Value Education: Response to Consumerism and Communalism, Peace and Values Education, K. P. Joseph [ed.], 30-33.

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