Date: June 24 2012
IT IS A perplexing paradox that so much of the world's violence is perpetrated in the name of religion.
So it was interesting during his recent Australian visit to speak with University of California sociology professor and affiliate professor of religious studies, Mark Juergensmeyer, who has made a career of studying religious violence.
He says it is easy to understand why bad things are done by bad people. But it is less easy to understand what drives people of faith to contradict a fundamental tenet of most major religions.
In his project on religious violence he sought to understand the connection between religion and actions which seem to be irreligious, such as violence and terrorism. ''I found in most cases the people engaged in these acts, or those who supported them, did so for reasons they thought were defensive. That is, they were trying to protect their community. They thought their community was already under siege.''
So, as they see it, they use violence in a war between good and evil. Whether or not these people are delusional must be questioned.
Juergensmeyer agrees Norwegian Anders Breivik is a good example of someone who imagines confrontation which so consumes him he is willing to undertake the most vicious acts. As Breivik sees it, people should be proud of his efforts to protect Norway against the forces of multiculturalism.
As Juergensmeyer says, this is ludicrous to most of us but in Breivik's mind it is the reality. Whether it is indicative of a mental illness Juergensmeyer says he is not qualified to say, but he says it is a skewed view of the world.
A similar condition exists in groups of people who feed on each other's energy to develop a spirited sense of protecting the innocent.
''Every religious tradition has such imagined wars.''
Alternatively, many people are influenced by religious themes to be extraordinarily tolerant, helpful, generous and just.
Juergensmeyer has written about 20 books, including Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. This includes interviews with people convicted of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, leaders of Hamas, and abortion clinic bombers in the US.
He says none of these people thought of themselves as terrorists.
''Rather, they thought of themselves as defenders of the faith.''
Though there is much terrorism with no connection to religion, he says religious terrorism is more puzzling. It is sometimes more virulent because it is part of an imagined war.
Though most of these conflicts are over social disadvantage, they are difficult to resolve when people believe they are doing God's work.
Juergensmeyer is a Christian and says he sees the value of religion in personal and public life.
''I also see the narrowness with which some people use and abuse their tradition.''
Asked what religious leaders might do to prevent such abuse, he says some leaders feed on such abuse to build their power.
''Sometimes the leaders are the last people who we can rely on to try to bring some sense into badly used religious ideas.''
The correction must come from followers; to challenge and to abandon these leaders.
''It is up to all of us to hold violent spokespeople, whoever they are, to accountability.''
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