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Root causes of religiously-motivated conflict,
oppression, unjustified discrimination, etc.

Possible causes, aggravating factors, & examples

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Possible root clauses of religiously-based conflict, hatred, violence, oppression, discrimination, etc:

Some root causes:

bullet Incomplete teaching on reciprocity: All of the major religions of the world teach an Ethic of Reciprocity. This is often referred to as the Golden Rule in Christianity, Judaism, and other religions. Although these religions use slightly different wording, they all teach that we should treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves. Jesus talked about the Good Samaritan who helped a victim who was not of his religion. See Luke 10:25-37. In fact, most Jews at the time hated and denigrated Samaritans. In the passage Jesus defined one's neighbor to include the entire human race.

Unfortunately, most faith groups seem to have done a poor job conveying the range of the Ethic to their membership. In practice, congregations often interpret the Golden Rule as applying only to fellow believers. It is often seen as not extending to followers of other faith groups withinin the same religion, to followers of other religions, and to secularists such as Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, Ethical Culturalists, etc. What starts off as considering "the other" of less importance than one's own group can degenerate into active discrimination, intense demonizing, and even violence. More details.
bullet Inferring that collective punishment is OK: A major theme running throughout the Bible involves the transfer of sin and punishment from the guilty to the innocent. Quite often, it is not a single person but an entire group of individuals who had no involvement in the original sin and who end up being punished or murdered.  Examples are seen throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Three are:
bullet Descendents of Adam and Eve are cursed with the sin of the original humans even though the descendents were not yet born when Adam and Eve allegedly ate the fruit. Thus the descendents, including us, are obviously not responsible for the transgression.
bullet Every fetus, newborn, infant, and child in the world was said to have drowned during the great flood of Noah because of the beliefs and religious practices of their parents and other adults.
bullet All of the members of a soldier's family were killed in retaliation for a sin committed by the father.

Examples are also seen in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). Perhaps the most obvious case was the transfer of immense levels of sin from every human onto Jesus, who is frequently regarded by Christians as having led a sinless life. The sin potentially came from everyone who were alive at the time of Jesus, and who were alive before his ara, and who lived since his time.

Although transfer of sin from the guilty to the innocent is considered profoundly immoral by most ethical systems, it is fully integrated into Christian beliefs.

One result is a commonly held belief that if a person commits a crime, it is OK to retaliate against an entire community who share some factor with the perpetrator. The common factor might be religion, skin color, race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. One of the most remarkable example of this concept of collective punishment occurred when President G.W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in retaliation for the 9/11 terrorists who were mostly from Saudi Arabia. The common factor that linked the terrorists and the Iraqis was the religion of Islam. Another example was a Sikh who was murdered in the U.S. after 9/11 because his head covering was mistaken to be Muslim. A Hindu temple was attacked in Toronto shortly after 9/11 apparently because it was mistaken for a Islamic mosque.

bullet Attitude of exclusivity: Most religions teach that they alone are the sole true religion and that they uniquely possess the only true knowledge of god. This implies that followers of other religions are in error, and are worshiping a false god. Some faith groups even teach that followers of other religions worship Satan or demons. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when many Christian groups accused Wiccans and other Neopagans of being Satanists and responsible for widespread Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) of children, there were instances of shooting, physical assault, an attempted mob attack, advocacy of genocide etc. and a lynching by some Christian groups against Neopagans. These threats have largely dissipated as accurate knowledge about Neopaganism has spread and as more people realize that SRA never happened. More details.
bullet Lack of accurate knowledge: Many public schools do not teach even the rudiments of world religions, perhaps because of a misunderstanding of the principle of separation of church and state, or out of fear for negative reactions by parents. Faith groups generally do not include meaningful studies of other religions in their youth education classes, perhaps out of the fear of legitimizing other religions or out of concern that their children might discover another religion to be more attractive. Many religious information sources on the Internet and elsewhere teach a heavily distorted view about other religions, and about the teaching of heresies by "cults."
bullet Fear: People often fear groups that they do not understand. Fear of "the other" can easily lead to discrimination, rejection, denigration, hatred, etc.
bullet Conflict of science and religion: Most religions' holy books were written in a pre-scientific era. For example, the Christian Bible, literally interpreted, discusses an earth-centered universe created less than 10,000 years ago. The Bible contains many fear-based passages in which storms, tsunamis, floods and other natural disasters are sent by God to punish humans. Even though weather, earthquakes, comets, eclipses, planetary motion, etc. are now known to be natural phenomena subjected to natural forces, the same fear of God's punishment is felt by some people.  This has led to the fear expressed by many religious leaders that God might expose the entire population of the U.S. to natural disasters because of the actions of secularists, feminist groups, pro-choice groups, progressive Christians, organizations seeking equality under the law for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender persons, (LGBT) etc. This fear has resulted in hatred being expressed against Humanists, religious liberals, and secularists.
bullet Lack of doubt: The World Christian Encyclopedia has identified 270 large religious groups, and many more smaller ones in the world. 1 These religions teach an amazing variety of conflicting beliefs concerning deity, humanity, morality, and the rest of the universe. If we assume that absolute truth exists in theological matters, then the chances of any one faith group having the whole "truth" is a fraction of 1%. Yet, for many people, religion is an accident of birth. A person born in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be a Muslim in adulthood; a person born in Alabama will most probably be a fundamentalist or other evangelical Christian, and so on. In spite of these facts, many, perhaps most, people hold tenaciously to their unique religious beliefs, having zero doubt that they are absolutely true. A little doubt would go a long way towards alleviating religious intolerance in the world. Nobody is going to fly an airplane into a building in a suicide attack if they harbor the slightest doubt about God or Heaven/Paradise.
bullet Top-down vs. bottom-up religions: Among monotheistic religions there are thought to be two kinds of religions. We call them "top-down," and "bottom-up:"
bullet Top-down religions are based on revelations by a god to humanity, often through prophets. Typically, the revelation contains a creation story in which their god creates humans.

Bottom-up religions involve humans struggling to understand the nature and expectations of their god. Their god(s) and/or goddess(es) are created by humans.

Many, perhaps most, people regard their own religion as the only top-down faith in existence. Being revealed by God, it must be true. The holy book either is god's word or contains god's word. All of the other religions in the world are seen as bottom-up faiths, and are thus severely limited by cultural factors, lack of knowledge of the social and natural sciences, tribal beliefs, etc. Given that their own religion is the only one revealed by God and that they know the fullness of truth, some find it difficult to tolerate other religions who only have part of the truth. More info.


The existence of Hell: Most monotheistic religions have historically taught that God will judge people after death and send them either to Heaven or Hell. Many, perhaps most, people believe that they and most of their fellow believers will end up in Heaven, while most or all followers of other religions will go to Hell. Similarly, many fundamentalist and other evangelical Christians believe that in the near future, during the Rapture, Christians who had been saved will rise through the air to meet Jesus Christ in the sky. The unsaved will remain on earth to experience a mass slaughter -- the largest genocide the world will have ever seen -- during the Tribulation and War of Armageddon. God is seen primarily as a wrathful deity who has such a low opinion of followers of other religions that he will organize a massive genocide on Earth, and later have their followers tortured for all eternity without hope of mercy or relief in Hell.

If God hates followers of other religions so intensely, then it may well be difficult for true believers to avoid denigrating and oppressing them.

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bullet Dualistic thinking: In religion, dualism is the "concept that the world is ruled by the antagonistic forces of good and evil." 2 Many individuals have "us" vs. them" beliefs. They regard their own religion (or race, or sex, or nationality, or skin color, etc.) as the "good side" and others as representing the "evil side." Much of this thinking is based on a lack of knowledge of other religions, races, genders, etc.
bullet Linking religion and nationalism: Many people have closely linked their religion and their nationality. We see this in the quotation by George H.W. Bush above where he denied citizenship and patriot status to those who do not believe in the existence of his God. We saw it also in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s when the Serbs fused their Serbian Orthodox Christian faith with their Serbian nationality. The result was the genocide of Muslims and others involving the deaths of about 200,000 victims.
bullet Responsibility across generations: This is a variation of collective responsibility where an entire group -- a race, religion, gender, sexual orientation etc. -- is considered responsible for the actions of one person. Here, an entire group is held responsible for an event that happened generations, centuries or even millennia ago. For example: until the mid-20th century, some Christian denominations taught that every modern-day Jew bears responsibility for the execution of Jesus by the occupying Roman Army in the 1st century CE back almost two millennia ago. This belief was responsible for horrendous persecution of Jews by Christians and laid the foundation for the Nazi Holocaust.
bullet Passages in their holy text: Many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, Christian Scriptures and Qur'an call for active discrimination against members of other religions. Some parts of the Bible describe the murder, mass murder and genocide of religious minorities. A believer who merely follows their holy book can find lots of justification to engage in religious discrimination today. Fortunately, these holy books also have some passages calling for religious tolerance. It all depends on which passages are given the most attention.

Aggravating factors: 

bullet Many people are motivated to adopt a religious faith out of a need for security in a dangerous world. Their faith can be brittle; they may fear that their entire belief system may collapse like a house of cards if a single belief is shown to be untrue. When their religion is challenged, they may react very emotionally.
bullet Religious beliefs are largely based on faith rather than reason. This means that conflicts among religions cannot be easily settled through dialogue. Disagreements can often escalate.
bullet Many feel that they are God's only representatives on Earth; in effect, they are God's arms and legs. They feel a moral obligation to be God's defenders and to act in the place of God against unbelievers.

Examples of religiously motivated hatred:

We see many examples of contempt, fear, and aggression against followers of other religions, Consider the following examples which cover an extreme range of seriousness:

bullet The most obvious examples are by violent, radical, religious fundamentalists with little regard for human life. The attack by a Christian terrorist on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, OK is one example. Various attacks by Muslim terrorists on the World Trade Center in New York City, government buildings in Washington DC, the Pentagon, a subway in London, a train in Spain, etc. are other examples. All of the terrorists were totally convinced -- without even the suggestion of doubt -- that they were acting on behalf of God.
bullet Municipalities and counties have voted to turn down a building permit for a mosque or Muslim cemetery, even while approving a construction of a church.
bullet Most Americans do not consider race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or a history of multiple marriages to be much of an impediment for a presidential candidate. But most people would not vote for an otherwise well-qualified Atheist. Many national surveys over past decades have shown that peoplle are least likely to vote for an otherwise qualified Atheist for president. They moved to the second most distrusted group in the fall of 2011, when members of the Tea Party movement took over the least trusted spot.
bullet A Southern Baptist pastor in Texas advocated that all Wiccans be rounded up by the Army and napalmed to death.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. David Barrett et al, "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," Oxford University Press, (2001). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Definition of "Dualism," American Heritage Dictionaries, at:

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