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Monotheism and religious violence

In terms of world history, monotheism is a relatively new phenomenon, although it is now the dominant force in world religion, with Christianity and Islam leading the way.

One abiding feature of the growth of monotheism through the centuries has been a massive rise in violence inspired by religion, and this is not generally something that one associates with polytheistic religions, the adherents of which seem to be generally far more tolerant of other religious standpoints.

The world has been made starkly aware in recent years of violence perpetrated by extremists claiming to be upholders of Islam, but Christianity cannot be let off the hook so easily.

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(St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, by Francois Dubois)

Leaving aside the hatred that members of one religion might have for another, Christians seem to be particularly adept at directing their ire at members of other factions who also profess to be Christians. Historically, the 16th and 17th centuries seem to have been the high-water mark for intolerance within Christianity, with a series of religious wars being fought in Europe that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Probably the most notorious incident during this period was the organized slaughter in France of Protestants by Catholics on St Bartholomew’s Day (24th August) 1572, when it is possible that as many as 10,000 men, women and children were hacked to pieces because of their “heresy”. It is worth noting that more people died because of their religion within 24 hours than in 300 years of supposed persecution under the Roman Empire.

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(Catherine de Medici Gazing at Murdered Protestants, by Edouard Debat-Ponsan)

This is the interesting thing – despite the string of stories about the martyrdom of early Christians, many of whom are remembered today as saints of the Church, there were only four relatively short waves of persecution during the Empire. In general, the polytheistic Emperors of Rome were tolerant of non-official religions being practiced in parts of the Empire, but they tended to become distrustful of people who would not include the emperors on their list of beings to be worshipped. This was mainly down to political rather than religious reasons – when the Emperor could not rely on the loyalty of a group of subjects he was likely to be suspicious of that group’s motives in terms of possible disruption to good order or even plots against his person.

We cannot let Christianity off the hook by saying that this was all in the past and everybody has been perfectly well behaved ever since, because that plainly is not true. Many examples could be cited, such as the running sore in Irish politics that derives from the distrust (and sometimes hatred) between Catholics and Protestants – these being two groups that claim to follow the “Prince of Peace” as their spiritual leader.

I am not claiming that Christianity is the sole culprit. Far from it – the split in Islam between Sunni and Shia has led to countless deaths of people with deep religious convictions, albeit the wrong ones as far as their opponents are concerned. There are many other splits within Islam that have given rise to terrible violence being visited on innocent people who had the misfortune to be born into the “wrong” sect.

One abiding factor in all this seems to be the overwhelming belief of many people that they have the sole answer, in religious terms, this being a direct consequence of monotheism. They are right in their belief, which means that everyone else must be wrong if they do not hold exactly the same opinion. If you are not my friend, you must be my foe.

Unfortunately, the seeds of intolerance yield bitter fruit, and most humans do not seem to have the intelligence to appreciate that violence solves absolutely nothing, whatever its motivation.

So what is the answer? One would like to hope that humanity will eventually come to its senses and realise that monotheistic religious belief, in which one size fits all, needs to be rejected. It would be wonderful if everyone who holds a religious belief accepted that the beliefs of others are every bit as valid as their own, and that constantly trying to persuade (or force) others to follow your religion is a fool’s errand, but what are the chances of that?

Let me end with a favourite quote (from Woody Allen): If Jesus came back and saw what was being done in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.


What do you think?

11 Points

Written by Indexer


  1. One thing I’d like to see explored more fully is the reason why monotheistic religions might be inherently more intolerant. Perhaps we’ve been cherry-picking a little in our discussion below, in highlighting the conflicts we have. What about Hindu-Muslim violence in the Subcontinent during the last century? And the current Buddhist-Muslim conflict in Burma? It seems clear that the polytheistic side is at least as aggressive and intolerant in these cases. My feeling is that in these conflicts too, the fight is essentially ethnic, religion functioning solely as a marker of the Other, who is feared.

    • Yes – I have to agree that not all polytheists are whiter than white when it comes to ethnic cleansing, but maybe that is the clue – ethnic and religious are not necessarily the same thing, as you say.

      I was inspired to write this post after reading a section of Yuval Noah Harari’s book “Sapiens”. He seems to write with a great deal of common sense, although I would have to allow that he might not be correct about everything. Here is a quote from page 243:

      “Monotheists have tended to be far more fanatical and missionary than polytheists. A religion that recognizes the legitimacy of other faiths implies either that its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth. Since monotheists have usually believed that they are in possession of the entire message of the one and only God, they have been compelled to discredit all other religions, Over the past two millennia, monotheists have repeatedly tried to strengthen their hand by violently exterminating all competition.”

      • Harari’s last sentence is surely correct, but is there actually any evidence that any major polytheistic faith holds that “its god is not the supreme power of the universe, or that it received from God just part of the universal truth”? The assertion fits nicely with the conclusion, but that’s not the fairest way of building an argument 🙂

        • Harari makes the point that most polytheistic religions (such as Hinduism) recognize a central deity but do not ascribe to it any powers that override those of the religion’s other deities. Any god’s power – even that of the central god – is partial, which gives the devotee of any one god the sense that other gods have just as much right to be recognized. This tends to spill over into the recognition of the gods of monotheistic religions, and hence tolerance of its devotees. It is when people worship omnipotent gods – which polytheists do not – that intolerance is likely to emerge.

          • I was going to point out Hindu communal violence against Muslims in India especially Gujrat and Buddhist violence against Muslims in Burma and Sri Lanka but Norman did a much better job.

            I would strongly disagree with this sentence: (Violence)is not generally something that one associates with polytheistic religions, the adherents of which seem to be generally far more tolerant of other religious standpoints.

            I am amazed you can say this John. Maybe incidents of mob lynching of Muslims by Hindu cow vigilantes are not considered a case of religious intolerance in the West.


            And speeches of Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu are not exactly promoting peace and tolerance for Rohingya Muslims.

  2. I just want to say that substantially the human ego is the source of that chaos. The ego with its three children, fear, lust, and attachment, as human rulers work only for the sake of the ego itself. The ego whose vibration then also manifests in the religious egos, sects, ideologies, races, and tribes, of course, always claims to be the ultimate owner of absolute goodness and truth. Therefore, religion as an organization and politics that has many adherents and supporters is the main media which is easiest to be engineered and manipulated in the interest of certain parties.

  3. Fear is not being discussed and is the major driving force of religious opinionated bigots. The true desire here is the desire control and the desire for image and not least, monetary wealth.
    These have nothing to do with either Christianity or Islam, but is a subtle motivator behind the scenes.
    Fear makes a person quite irrational and not consider another opinion.
    However, in terms where people are frightened to talk about their views because they may die, is not very great.
    True love promotes freedom and to me, it does no harm to anyone.

    • I think there is a clear connection between the desire to control and the existence of a dominant religion that depends on a single point of focus. Political leaders have long been aware of the power they can gain if they have religion on their sides. This was true of Emperor Constantine and many others, including the succession of medieval Popes who were political first and “holy men” second. Karl Marx rightly called religion the “opium of the people” because it was a tool that could be used to keep them quiet and less likely to upset the political apple cart.

      My argument is that it is the fact that monotheistic (as opposed to polytheistic) religions have become dominant that places them firmly in the hands of political forces.

    • I think it was Malcolm X who said “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” this is so true for the current scenario.

  4. I’m noticing a rising trend of intolerance and extremism even on a secular level. Uncertain if this is due to overpopulation or lack of education or how else to account for it, but certainly religion, especially monotheism cultivates that “I am right so you must be wrong” sort of mentality that serves only to cause discord

  5. Very interesting and thought-provoking. You’ve omitted what I believe is an important distinction between the religious conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries, on the one hand, and modern conflicts such as Catholic-Protestant violence in Northern Ireland and the three-way Catholic-Orthodox-Muslim wars of the Balkans in recent decades, on the other. Those earlier conflicts were between proponents of each sect about their beliefs per se; in both modern conflicts I mentioned, the actual beliefs of one’s opponents play little or no role—rather the religious affiliation of each group functions solely as an ethnic marker. Thus, in Northern Ireland, broadly speaking, Protestants are descendants of planters imported by the British to supplant the native Irish, who are the Catholics. There are similarities in the Balkans, but I don’t claim to remember the detail. In summary, I’m not sure how valid it is to label either of those recent conflicts as ‘religious wars’.

    • That’s an important point. However, much inter-communal violence breaks down to distinguishing “us” from “them”, and that soon makes any difference largely political. When religion plays a role it is often used as an excuse, which is not the same as a reason. Were the earlier religious wars entirely religious, or not at least in part political?

      • I suppose the answer to your last question is that I don’t really know. So maybe the distinction I’m trying to draw is not as sharp as I thought. In both of the modern theatres I referred to, the conflicts were territorial in nature, and “ethnic cleansing” was the clear goal. Perhaps you can comment on whether this was the driving force in the earlier case in question.
        (I remember the first time I heard that phrase “ethnic cleansing” in the 1990s, I was struck by how deeply hateful was the phrase itself. I still baulk at how the phrase has become normalised in our language.)