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A Violent Faith

I identify religious fanaticism as the root cause and unifying theme of the conflict between Western civilization and Islamic fundamentalism. That is not a controversial opinion; the terrorists have directly explained that they view the conflict in religious terms.

Many people are comfortable blaming the violence on Islamic extremism or fundamentalism, carefully carving out space for moderate Muslims. Few people claim that the problem is inherent in Islam and that the "religion of peace" is, in fact, a religion of violence. I am one of those people. However, I'll go one better: Violence is not only fundamental to Islam, it is fundamental to all religions. Violence is fundamental to religion as such.

Why? In a word: faith.

Faith is belief without evidence. Faith is always subjective, based on an individual's feelings — rather than objective, based on sensory input from the external world.

The status of beliefs derived from introspection is a complex issue. For example, if I introspect and believe that I feel sad, can I be wrong? What are the implications of psychological defense mechanisms on beliefs of this sort? What about physical manifestations of mental states, such as changes in blood pressure or neural activity? In short, when can we properly claim to have evidence regarding mental states? This is a fascinating question but it does not need to be answered in order to address the matter at hand.

Religious beliefs form large systems. They are not merely claims about mental states — they are claims about the external world, often universal in scope. The complexities of the standards of evidence for introspection do not apply to religious beliefs about Creation or of the proper moral code for people to live by.

Ask persistently about the roots of any religious belief and you'll eventually reach the bedrock of faith. Believers have faith that they're correct and will say that their confidence is the result of communication with God — through prayer or some other form of divine revelation.

Yet different people have different religious beliefs. And not just minor differences, but fundamental incompatibilities. For example: Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God. Jews and Muslims don't believe this.

So, who's right?

Ah, there's the problem. Because a person's belief about the divine status of Jesus (or any of a myriad of other religious claims) is based upon faith, it is not possible to settle the disagreement and reach a consensus. I don't mean "not possible" as merely unlikely, I mean literally impossible. Nothing short of a new divine revelation would change a person's mind, and obviously no one has been successful at causing his dissenters to have such revelations. And individual prayer seems only to strengthen, never weaken, one's religious convictions.

In any matter where objective evidence were available, the disagreement could be settled by looking at the data, or by collecting additional data, or even by agreeing that the data is inconclusive.

No person ever agrees that their faith is inconclusive.

Because religious beliefs form large systems, different religions have disagreements over a very large number of particular items. And many of these disagreements are about fundamental issues, conflicts about the central tenets of the religion and challenging its very truthfulness.

No religion can "back down" regarding its central tenets; to admit uncertainty about those things would jeopardize its very existence. With no appeal to objective evidence, and no ability to project divine revelations upon heretics, the only way to end the disagreement is through physical force. Heretics cannot be turned; they can only be silenced.

Because religious belief is based on faith, and because violence is the only way to settle disagreements about matters of faith, violence is inherent in religion. Faith and force are corollaries.

Tiny Island