Brutal Faith: Does Belief in God Incite Violence?


“The Taliban members I encountered . . . are heartless, completely so. And that is what makes them all the more dangerous.”

I was speaking with a former US soldier who had served numerous tours of duty in Afghanistan. We met while at a speaking engagement where I had been asked to give a lecture on religion’s impact in the 21st century. He described going after Taliban members, kill-capture missions,

and experiencing much of the Arab world through night-vision goggles. He told about devoutly religious people who sell their daughters into sex slavery, and the local men of virtually every village who maintain a “chesca,” a small boy who is used as a human sex toy.

Nothing I gleaned from the discussion with this honorably discharged US soldier conflicted with other research conducted over the past two decades. And I have dialogued with many people whose gut reaction to such realities is to conclude that faith itself is a “net negative.” To our Western minds, it seems impossibly paradoxical that regions and people groups steeped in religious history would exist in a near-perpetual state of bloodshed. Those with a Christian orientation will point out that such tragedies are the result when a Biblical foundation for morality is not present.

Increasing numbers of Westerners without a Christian perspective assume that religion itself is pathological, inevitably leading people to do evil things. I cringed as he described his last tour of duty in the Middle East: “All day, every day . . . (it was) 15 months of seeing death.”

The Growing Bias Against Faith and Religion

Most dictionaries define “religion” and “faith” in terms of, “devotion to a deity,” and the “pursuit of God and salvation through certain rituals and ceremonies.” Definitions commonly reference the moral and ethical implications of religion, and regardless of the faith system, there is a near-universal pointing of adherents to greater levels of virtue and piety. What is not commonly associated with most understandings of religion is an imperative to violence and bloodshed. Quite the opposite. And yet there is growing sentiment among some in America and the West that culturally, religion is a “net negative,” invariably provoking violence and ultimately harming the human condition.

The scientific method emerged from a milieu of Christianity, which saw the world as orderly and intelligible, because the cosmos was the product of a God who is not the author of confusion. But Western academia has spent the last 100-150 years embracing a definition of “science” that has Darwinism and a strict materialism as its foundation points. Today, bias against religion is not only limited to atheistic philosophers, militant secularists, and academicians for whom science is the only allowable test for truth¾ but there is also a growing hostility to religion (and specifically to Christianity) among society overall.

Bernard Spilka, Ralph Hood, and Richard Gorsuch (authors of The Psychology of Religion, a commonly used undergraduate text) write, “Conventional religion is not an effective force for moral behavior or against criminal activity.” Irishman Jonathan Swift (of Gulliver’s Travels fame) wrote, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” This conclusion (though certainly an inaccurate assessment for all faiths) is the mindset of secularists today, most of whom dismiss the possibility of there being any potential value in religion.

Is Religion Inherently Violent? Does the Bible Promote Acts of Aggression?

The Bible is full of violent scenes even outside the context of war. Cain murdered his brother, Abel, out of jealousy. Joseph’s brothers threw him into a well, planning to leave him for dead, but eventually sold him into slavery because they resented him.

Peter even cut off the ear of a priest’s servant while defending Jesus, after which Jesus told Peter, “Put away your sword. Those who use the sword will die by the sword. Don’t you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and he would send them instantly? But if I did, how would the Scriptures be fulfilled that describe what must happen now?” (Matthew 26:52-54, NLT)

It is important to remember that not everything recorded within the Bible is condoned by God. These scriptures weren’t meant to be lessons about how to further our beliefs; they were examples of sinful and fallen people and cultures who had succumbed to what the world had to offer, rather than God’s plan for their lives.

Today, we see headline after headline focusing on those inciting violence, sometimes in the name of religion. Why is it that some turn violent or feel the “calling” to carry out harm based on their beliefs? Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists have all been guilty of it. In fact, singer-songwriter Elton John has said that all organized religion should be banned because of the hate that is born from belief.

In a world where terrorism is, unfortunately, all too common, our fears can sometimes take over. When we hear of seemingly random violence in places like Kalamazoo, Michigan, where six people were gunned down while shopping for cars or dining at a restaurant, our anxieties become very real. During the brief time taken to write this article, so many new stories of terrorism continue to hit the news wire (Paris, Brussels, New York, et al), I have opted not to focus on any one specific occurrence.

What Ultimately Causes People To Carry Out Violent Acts in Name of God?

Jesus’ warning in John 16:2 sounds incredibly relevant for our day: “The time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God” (John 16:2). But this is a horrifically misguided notion, to say the least. Christ never called his people to violence, providing us instead with lessons about turning the other cheek and giving of ourselves for the good of the world. Christianity has been an overwhelmingly benevolent force throughout the ages.

Those who inflict violence want to take back control, to right wrongs, to prove a point. But often, our emotions are controlled by news of violent acts. As parents, teachers or church leaders, it is difficult to calm a child’s fears, for example, about violence, when we ourselves are also fearful.

For instance, how do we answer questions from our kids, such as, “How do I know someone won’t break into our house and hurt us?” or “What if a bad person comes into my school?” These are tough questions—tougher even still, because we as adults ask them too. How do we know that evil won’t enter our workplace, as it did in Hesston, Kansas, just recently?

Even our churches, once thought of as a safe haven for worship, reflection and prayer, are no longer safe. The community of Charleston, South Carolina, was rocked by a tragic shooting this summer that killed nine people, including the pastor of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Churches used to be sacred and secure. But sadly, our churches and their faithful people have now become a target for hate, as societal issues have created a wide chasm in this country. With rebellion and unrest among those who do not know God, will security now become a top priority for churches to keep God’s people safe?

But we can be secure in the fact that Christ and the Holy Spirit will work the fruits of the spirit— love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—into our lives. Hate or harm in the name of our beliefs was never the intention, but unfortunately, sometimes, human beings turn to violence rather than piety.

Often, in today’s politically charged environment, some see violent acts as justification for gun control arguments. But the question we should be asking is, “Why not a morality and faith argument?” Those who carry out violence do so in anger and revenge. No violence is ever carried out in the name of peace and love. Conversely, hyper-tolerance and hyper-pluralism are not rational. As they carry out these violent acts, the misguided are exercising freedoms that will end all of our other freedoms.

Is Religious Violence Validation of Our Need To Be Secular?

The violent acts we see every day are actually causing some to turn away from faith. In my most recent book, “The God You Thought You Knew: Exposing the 10 Biggest Myths About Christianity,” one myth is that “Christianity cannot be true because of the evil and suffering in our world.”

Sometimes, it seems this is a valid argument. Why would a God we know to be loving call people to act hatefully? The answer is, “He wouldn’t.” What about all of the bad things that happen to good people? Why would God allow these? The fact is that we live in a fallen world, and those who proclaim to have faith in God—or any higher being—are far from perfect.

In the end, we must be secure in the fact that God is just and his justice prevails, along with His love and mercy. But God is not weak or soft, and in a nation that has turned its back on Him, suffering occurs as a consequence. So we can continue to expect to see violence—even if it’s falsely proclaimed in the name of good—because we are a world that is far from God and what he intended for His planet.

Just because we don’t live in a peaceful world doesn’t mean that God isn’t hearing and answering our prayers, and it doesn’t mean that He is not at work. Many want to reap God’s blessings without ever having to deal with His judgment. The truth that counters myths about God is that Christianity offers the best hope and power to deal with suffering.

We also need God’s protection. Bloodshed on American soil—and around the globe—will continue until we genuinely turn back to God. Our leaders must promote morality, natural law and the Ten Commandments. There is the easy way, to follow God’s precepts in our leadership, or the hard way, which is to continue to fight truth and refuse to acknowledge the reality that our world is lost without God.

Keeping (or Finding) Faith in a Dangerous World

Will we humble our hearts or harden our hearts? The American people and her leadership have accountability in the events that take place on our homeland.

In December, the New York Daily News offered this arrogant headline, “God Isn’t Fixing This” after the deadly shooting in San Bernardino, California, which was carried out by two who justified the violence in the name of religion—Islam. This headline, and other thoughts along the same lines, are attacks of a different kind on all Christians and God Himself.

The more our culture becomes anti-God and anti-Christian, the more our culture will succumb to violence. The truth is that we need to return to God, now more than ever, not away from Him. We don’t necessarily have a violence problem. We have a God problem.

Rather than sweeping God under the rug and blaming Him for not “fixing” all of our problems, we need to reinforce biblical truth. As we, as Christians, must do our part by defending our beliefs and the peaceful teachings of Jesus Christ in the Bible.

Likewise, Christians must be quick to call out those who carry out violence in the name of “life,” such as the lone gunmen who opened fire at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood facility in November, declaring “no more baby parts.” Violence is not the answer in the name of any belief.

A pro-life person would never kill anyone. Any assassin, any killer—conservative or liberal, Christian or Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist—is not the sole representative of that group. They are the aberration. No true Christian would condone killing people of any age, born or unborn. Killers are haters. Killers are not pro-life.

We know this is true—Satan is real. And Satan’s intent is to destroy the human race. Sin exists, and there are things of this world that are objectively evil. Extremists may believe in a cause, but in reality, they are bound in sin, evil and Satanic delusion. All of the liberal, politically correct, pluralistic “spin” cannot change the dark nature of anyone who inflicts violence in the name of any religion.

But, we can rest assured in the hope of Christ, knowing that His plan is better than anything we can formulate for our own lives. He never promised us an easy, completely peaceful, safe life. But comforted by Christ’s presence, confident in His care, and instructed by His Word, we rest in the knowledge that nothing that can separate us from His love. This is the message we must proclaim, starting with the example shown forth by our actions and reactions.


Alex McFarland

Alex has preached in over 2,200 churches throughout North America and numerous more internationally. He also speaks at Christian events, conferences, debates, and other venues to teach biblical truths and preach the gospel.

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