The best books on religious violence

Mark Juergensmeyer Author Of Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence
By Mark Juergensmeyer

Who am I?

Though religious violence is an odd obsession for a nice guy like me, the topic was forced on me. Having lived for years in the Indian Punjab, I was struck by the uprising of Sikhs in the 1980s. I wanted to know why, and what religion had to do with it. These could have been my own students. It is easy to understand why bad people do bad things, but why do good people—often with religious visions of peace—employ such savage acts of violence? This is the question that has propelled me through a half-dozen books, including the recent When God Stops Fighting: How Religious Violence Ends. 


I wrote...

Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence

By Mark Juergensmeyer,

Book cover of Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence

What is my book about?

Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (University of California Press). Now in its 4th edition, this is only one of many books on religious violence that I have written, but it’s the one that endures. It is based on my conversations with militants in every religious tradition—from Islam and Judaism to Buddhism and Christianity--and tries to get inside their worldviews. It explores the idea of terrorism as performance violence, and probes the role that religious images of cosmic war play in contemporary struggles from ISIS to the Christian right.

The books I picked & why

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Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

By Karen Armstrong,

Book cover of Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence

Why this book?

Armstrong, a former nun and author of many widely-read and well-reviewed books on the history of religion, takes the challenge of many critics who contend that violence is caused by religion. In a well-researched rebuttal, she chronicles the history of wars and attacks related to religion and finds that invariably they are caused by social and political conflict. Religion is just the vehicle through which they are expressed. Though she lets religion off too easily—she doesn’t explore why religion is so often associated with violence—her main point is on target. Religion doesn’t do anything by itself; we humans do.  


Violence and the Sacred

By René Girard, Patrick Gregory (translator),

Book cover of Violence and the Sacred

Why this book?

This is one of the classics in the field. I choose it not because I agree with all of it but because it has made such an impact and has such an ardent academic following. Girard picks up a thesis propounded by Sigmund Freud that symbolic expressions of violence in religion (the eating of Christ’s body and blood in the ritual of the eucharist, for example) helps to defuse real acts of violence. Girard regards mimesis—the imitation of the desires of a competitor—as the driving force behind violence and the instrument that is tamed through symbolic expressions. 


How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror

By Reza Aslan,

Book cover of How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror

Why this book?

A popular author of books on Islam and Christianity, Aslan in this book expounds on the idea of cosmic war that I have discussed in Terror in the Mind of God, and more recently as the central subject of my God at War: A Meditation on Religion and Violence. Aslan correctly asserts that struggles that are animated by visions of cosmic war are not easily defeated through conventional means. He cites the “war on terror” proclaimed by President George W. Bush as an ill-conceived effort to fight one concept of cosmic war with another and concludes that the best way to fight a cosmic war is to refuse to fight like one. 


The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves

By Ashis Nandy,

Book cover of The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves

Why this book?

Those who know the field of religious violence may find my choice of Ashis Nandy’s book of essays to be a peculiar one since it deals with a variety of issues besides religious violence. But one of his essays, “The Discrete Charms of Indian Terrorists,” is worth the price of the book. In it, Nandy describes the remarkably civil behavior of young Sikh activists who hijacked an Indian plane in the 1980s. He then goes on to disagree with Gandhi that terrorism necessarily absolutizes a conflict, and he rejects the common perspective, especially in the West, that terrorism is always evil. Though Nandy’s analysis does not fit all, or perhaps most, instances of religion-related terrorism it makes us reconsider our assumptions about the use of violence in certain situations.


The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World

By Elaine Scarry,

Book cover of The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World

Why this book?

This modern classic by a Harvard anthropologist is about torture and inflicted body pain in general, though it has abundant examples from the bible and religion-related conflicts. Her main thesis is that acts of torture are attempts to destroy the worlds of the victim and remake them in the mold of the torturer. It helps us understand that acts of religious violence are always so some extent a clash of worldviews and the attempt to forcibly destroy one view of reality with another. 


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