Gary Gutting discovers the obvious: religion can cause violence

“We may find it hard to believe that religious beliefs could motivate murders and insist that extreme violence is always due to mental instability or political fanaticism. But the logic (and the history) of religions tells against this view.”  –Gary Gutting, having an epiphany

The Stone, the New York Times‘s philosophy column, is remarkably undistinguished, and one reason is Gary Gutting, the Notre Dame philosopher whose Stone columns are not only baby-soft on faith, but full of unenlightening bromides (see here).

His latest piece at the Times, “How religion can lead to violence“, shows a man who, though he’s a philosopher and concerned with religion, seems completely oblivious to what atheists and secularists have been saying for years: religion, like other ideologies, can prompt violence. The quote that heads this post is from his piece, and all I’d say to that is, “Well, Dr. Gutting, over at WEIT we don’t find it so hard to understand that religious beliefs could motivate violence. After all, other ideologies like Communism or Nazism, are well known for promoting violence.”

Wed that to religion’s claim of absolute truth and its promulgation of a moral code, and you have an automatic recipe for “othering”. And if your scripture calls explicitly for violence against nonbelievers, as does the Qur’an, then why is Gutting so surprised?

I’ll tell you why: he can barely bring himself to think that religion can produce anything bad. That’s what Dan Dennett calls “belief in belief.” When Gutting figures out the obvious, he writes a column about it.

It’s not surprising that what brought Gutting to the realization that all of us have had (save weaselly apologists like Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald) is the murder of the French priest, Jacques Hamel, by two people acting in the name of ISIS. (Notre Dame is a Catholic school, and Gutting is a liberal Catholic.) Read the paragraphs below and see if you find anything in them that we haven’t hashed over during the past five years:

“These heinous crimes violate the tolerant teachings of Islam.” Similar responses followed recent attacks in Orlando and Nice. We are told that the fanatical fringe groups who do these terrible things are at odds with the essential Muslim commitment to peace and love. I understand the reasons for such responses, but they oversimplify the relation of religion to intolerance and the violence it can lead to.

Both Islam and Christianity claim to be revealed religions, holding that their teachings are truths that God himself has conveyed to us and wants everyone to accept. They were, from the start, missionary religions. A religion charged with bringing God’s truth to the world faces the question of how to deal with people who refuse to accept it. To what extent should it tolerate religious error? At certain points in their histories, both Christianity and Islam have been intolerant of other religions, often of each other, even to the point of violence.

This was not inevitable, but neither was it an accident. The potential for intolerance lies in the logic of religions like Christianity and Islam that say their teaching derive from a divine revelation. For them, the truth that God has revealed is the most important truth there is; therefore, denying or doubting this truth is extremely dangerous, both for nonbelievers, who lack this essential truth, and for believers, who may well be misled by the denials and doubts of nonbelievers. Given these assumptions, it’s easy to conclude that even extreme steps are warranted to eliminate nonbelief.

There follows a tedious disquisition on the history of religious intolerance, just to show that Christianity and Judaism were once intolerant, too. But then Gutting gets to his point:

Today, almost all Christians are reconciled to this revision, and many would even claim that it better reflects the true meaning of their religion.

The same is not true of Muslims. A minority of Muslim nations have a high level of religious toleration; for example Albania, Kosovo, Senegal and Sierra Leone. But a majority — including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Malaysia — maintain strong restrictions on non-Muslim (and in some cases certain “heretical” Muslim) beliefs and practices. Although many Muslims think God’s will requires tolerance of false religious views, many do not.

A Pew Research Center poll in 2013 found that in Iraq, Malaysia, Pakistan and other nations in which Islam is officially favored, a large majority of Muslims think some form of Islamic law should be the law of the land. The poll also found that 76 percent of such Muslims in South Asia and 56 percent in the Middle East and North Africa favored executing Muslims who gave up their religion, and that in 10 Muslim counties at least 40 percent favored applying Islamic law to non-Muslims. This shows that, for many Muslims, the revealed truths of Islam are not only a matter of personal conviction but must also have a central place in the public sphere of a well-ordered society.

The Pew poll is 3 years old, and we’ve discussed it here at length. Why did Gutting just discover it?

Apparently he’s also discovered that the taming of religious extremism by the Enlightenment is one reason why we don’t have so many terrorists citing the Old or New Testaments, or crying “Jesus is great!” as they sever someone’s head.

There is no central religious authority or overwhelming consensus that excludes such Muslims from Islam. Intolerance need not lead to violence against nonbelievers; but, as we have seen, the logic of revelation readily moves in that direction unless interpretations of sacred texts are subject to nonreligious constraints.

. . . Does this mean that Islam is evil? No, but it does mean that it has not yet tamed, to the extent that Christianity has, the danger implicit in any religion that claims to be God’s own truth. To put it bluntly, Islam as a whole has not made the concessions to secular values that Christianity has.

What a revelation! In the end, Gutting notes that until Islamic extremism is “tamed” by modern values, it will continue to be a religiously based source of evil acts. Again, nothing to see here folks; move along.
While Gutting is preaching to the choir here, he’s also preaching to the real choir: the believers and faitheists who read the Times. And that’s to the good, for even getting people to admit that religion can produce violence is a step forward in a world of Ostrich Leftism. So let’s hear the sound of 1.5 hands clapping for Gutting’s piece.

h/t: Greg Mayer


  1. GBJames
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink


  2. Kevin
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    “unenlightening bromides”. Fantastic.

    Gutting is saccharine full stop. If knife cutting is his reasoning, he’s equipped only with plastic spoons.

    The honest life of reflection is one that sits in front of Gutting, untouched, because there is almost nothing he has said so far that he does not perjure with the defense of his faith.

    Maybe someone showed him how to turn on the lights.

  3. steve oberski
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I think this how the reformstion of the illiberal left has to happen, one voice at a time pushing back against it’s invented reality.

  4. Hal Broker
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    “…ideologues like Communism or Nazism, are well known for promoting violence.”

    Left out Capitalism.

    • Salger
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Tell me how Socialism worked out for Venezuela.

      • Filippo
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

        As regards Capitalism, do you – does it sit well with you to – view yourself as a “human resource” or as “human capital”? That’s certainly how the Masters of Mankind view the rest of us.

    • Posted August 1, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Ask about capitalism people whose countries have been deprived of it, like me. Most of us have only good things to say about capitalism, because we know the alternative.

      • Filippo
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

        Fine. But do you like the idea of some Master of Mankind capitalist viewing you merely and solely as a “human resource” or “human capital”?

        • Robert Bray
          Posted August 2, 2016 at 9:16 am | Permalink

          Yes. In a two-noun phrase like ‘human resource,’ note which one occupies the adjectival place.

        • Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

          No. I do not like the very expression “human resources” (I prefer the old “personnel”). I wish all employees to enjoy the same labor rights protection that I have, or better.

          I know of a teacher who dared to defend her rights before her employer and he fired her. It was a private school, they collected huge tuition fees but paid small salaries to teachers. The employer thought that the teacher, being poor, would just bow her head and leave the scene. But she protested: “In the order to dismiss me, you haven’t written according to which article of the Labor Code you are dismissing me.” He arrogantly opened the Code at the dismissal chapter and wrote a randomly chosen article number.
          It turned out that this article was meant for grocery shop assistants, and it stated that they could be dismissed “for systematically selling a smaller quantity of groceries than paid by customers”.
          The teacher sued and won.

          • frednotfaith2
            Posted September 29, 2016 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

            Glad to hear that! Too often it comes down to which side has the most money to buy skilled attorneys to browbeat down the other side and overwhelm the jurors with bombast.

      • Posted August 1, 2016 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

        “The” alternative? It’s pretty silly to claim there’s only one alternative to the economic system currently fattening fat cats and abusing the unlucky in the U.S.

        Just because some power-crazed totalitarians called their regimes “socialist” doesn’t mean a feasible, beneficial-for-all, totalitarianism-free version of socialism isn’t possible.

        • Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

          “Alternative” was a courtesy; I do not think capitalism has any realistic alternatives. Maybe by “socialism” we mean different things. I am using the definition from my old textbooks: “public property over the means of production”.

          If a major crisis occurs, as I fear, capitalism will collapse, globally or in large regions, e.g. in Europe. Societies will revert to earlier production systems. If earlier cataclysms are indicative, we should be aware that people will not just become poor. They will become fewer. The territories that currently have capitalism would be unable to sustain the same population if capitalism collapses.

          As for “the unlucky in the U.S.”, let me admit something that has wondered me in other comment threads on this blog: Many Americans (and other Westerners) think that their economies will collapse without the cheap labor of immigrants. I do not understand this. I am living in a country much poorer than the USA, and it is in a reasonably good condition without any import of people to be exploited.

    • Frank Bath
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      All economies rest on capital and so are capitalist. In ‘Capitalism’ capital is privately provided and freely traded, which is why billions have been raised out of poverty. The monopoly provision of capital leads to poverty, deprivation and tyranny, e.g. socialism and communism.

      • Posted August 1, 2016 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

        Can you expand on the equation of socialism with tyranny?

      • Posted August 1, 2016 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

        Not to mention poverty and deprivation.

        • Posted August 2, 2016 at 6:01 am | Permalink

          Well, it does not surprise me at all at how a controlling elite has arisen in every socialistic society that I can think of – and that these elite takes privileges and economic advantages for themselves that are wholly unavailable to the ordinary citizen (e.g. access to goods, premium education children, dachas etc etc. etc.)
          This behaviour seems to me evolutionarily universal given the drives of self promotion and kin selection genetically programmed into us for survival. These “selfish genes” drive us to what we economically define as capitalism.
          Capitalism (with a capital C) is not however, like Socialism, hypocritical in claiming that the elites in control do not take such benefits to themselves.

          • Robert Bray
            Posted August 2, 2016 at 9:24 am | Permalink

            ‘a controlling elite has arisen in every socialistic society that I can think of’

            Elites, yes; controlling, not necessarily. All polities have elites, perforce. But the democratic rule of law, combined with a strong social safety net and limits on wealth (assured through taxation), can work well to balance power among classes. Not utopias, certainly, but the Scandinavian countries do better by their citizens than does the United States.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    It’s as if he saw the light. Too bad he does not explain what he discovered to the Pope, who is over in Poland now, playing the supreme apologist.

  6. Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Breaking news: pain hurts

  7. Historian
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Indeed, Gutting says little if anything that is new to readers of WEIT. But, the fact that his column is published by the New York Times (“the paper of record”) is significant. The view that religion can incite violence now has “street cred.” Although the article is an op-ed piece, its thesis has now entered the realm of being open advocated in the country’s most influential newspaper, perhaps freeing many more people to openly concur to an argument that is patently true.

    By the way, the link to the NYT article needs to be fixed.

  8. Sastra
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    A religion charged with bringing God’s truth to the world faces the question of how to deal with people who refuse to accept it. To what extent should it tolerate religious error?

    I’ll point out that the danger here is not just fed by the belief that the special revelation of God needs to be spread to nonbelievers. After all, there are plenty of secular situations which entail teaching a particular truth to the unconvinced.

    What really makes a religion toxic I think is an underlying belief in some form of damnation. Those who refuse to accept the ‘good news’ are not simply condemned to ignorance. No, they are condemned (or have condemned themselves) to the fate of being ultimately unworthy and without value. Only God matters — and what reflects God. Those who reject God are therefore part of the toxic residue of the world, the corruption which needs to be purged before humanity is finally clean enough.

    Even ostensibly non-violent versions of the Abrahamic religion are technically violent if you consider the end game. Refusing to hit back because one’s father is guaranteed to settle the score with blood and thunder later on isn’t really conducive to developing an attitude or approach of pacifism and tolerance, seems to me.

    • Claudia Baker
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. The underlying premiss of the Abrahamic religions is “love me or else”. If g*d is violent, why wouldn’t his believers follow suit?

      • yiamcross
        Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        And none of that would be too bad if they were prepared to leave it to their god to handle things but they don’t. They take on the mantle of agency for their supposedly omnipotent god and dole out the justice they believe their god would if he/she/it were on hand to do it personally. Yet the irony of that completely escapes them.

    • Posted August 1, 2016 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

      That is a great insight that I hadn’t thought of before. It’s not genuine pacifism to say “I won’t harm you, but my dad is gonna fuck you up.”

    • Les
      Posted August 1, 2016 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

      Also, religious belief in Deadman Disneyland (Heaven) encourages suicide bombers and shooters.

  9. jeffery
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    “Religion can produce violence”- William James figured this out and explained it at length in his, “The Varieties of Spiritual Experience” over a hundred years ago. I think the reason that Gutting is finally “coming around” is that ISIS might be developing the new habit of killing WESTERN Christians just because they are Christians… wake-up call!

    • Posted August 1, 2016 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. Up until now it’s been attacks on random people in public. Going into a Catholic church and singling out the Catholic clergyman? Oh, now the gloves are off.

  10. Posted August 1, 2016 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    I’m unfamiliar with the writings of Gary Gutting or what his credentials are. If he has finally come to the realizations that WEIT has had for a very long time, congratulations to him for finally “seeing the light”. If he speaks to his fellow religionists about his new knowledge, maybe his message can be absorbed by some where our messages have not
    been. To this extent, lets commend him rather than denigrating him.

    • Posted August 1, 2016 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

      The impulse to denigrate him comes from the fact that he denigrates vocal atheism every chance he gets. He is (or has been) a strident critic of the “new atheism”.

  11. Matthew
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Gutting’s opinion piece is aimed not at individuals who are rational and, more importantly, informed, but at those who believe that Islamic extremists are not representative of those who practice the Islamic faith. (As his piece points out, they are more representative than most educated westerners think.) He is definitely talking down to his audience, but in the most polite way possible. His tone is heuristic. I seriously doubt he suddenly came to this realization recently. The New York Times is not an intellectual paper. We should be grateful that there are people like Gutting to write calm, reasoned, and accurate opinion pieces for the masses.

  12. lonefreethinkers
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Religion is responsible for causing great damage, and at the same time it is also responsible for the unification and cooperation between large numbers of people.

    • Posted August 2, 2016 at 1:03 am | Permalink

      But is it /uniquely/ responsible? Would that damage have happened without religion? Would that unification and cooperation have happened without religion?


      • lonefreethinkers
        Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

        For unification and cooperation religion is necessary, it allows people all over the world, to follow specific norms and values required to maintain social order. Religion combined with nations and economics played a role as well, but religion is solely responsible for particular violence.

        • Posted August 3, 2016 at 12:56 am | Permalink

          Claiming that religion is necessary is an assertion without evidence – and counter examples abound. On the trivial end of the spectrum, people worldwide can unify and cooperate when inspired by sports, films, tv programs, musicians, … often transcending ethnic and cultural boundaries in ways that religion doesn’t.


          • lonefreethinkers
            Posted August 3, 2016 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

            Religion is and will always be necessary, for the social order. As you are biased towards them, you can’t look at it rationally. Thousands of years ago, people following same religion from different parts of the world, had very similar behavioral control, which is necessary as sapiens haven’t evolved to cooperate with large numbers of strangers. At that time, people believed in God, the norms and values were followed, now fast-forward the cultural momentum has shifted to ‘liberalism’, ‘humanism’, they are just norms and values but don’t have God, archaic religion has evolved to modern liberalism. Football has norms and values, without God, but it is still like a religion, we are witnessing evolution of social order, whether one realized it or not.

            • Posted August 4, 2016 at 4:59 am | Permalink

              « Religion is and will always be necessary … »

              I still see no evidence for that assertion (and seeing evidence *is* the rational position).

              And at the end you seem to be saying that social normalisation *is* possible without religion …


  13. Posted August 2, 2016 at 3:32 am | Permalink

    I am awaiting Gutting’s follow on article which admits that adherents to “moderate” religious beliefs, by default, endorse the same flawed mindset that leads to and even justifies the religious terrorists actions.

    Not holding my breath…..

  14. Mike
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    Is this is “road to Damascus moment” ?

  15. Posted August 2, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Gutting has run a valuable service to the philosophy community for years – the NDPR review service. However, one can be right one place and totally clueless in another.

    I used to make the mistake myself, however – overintellectualizing religious doctrine.

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