The best books on religious violence

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

By Mark Juergensmeyer,

Book cover of Terror in the Mind of God

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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Mark Juergensmeyer Why did I love 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.  

By Karen Armstrong,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Fields of Blood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

It is the most persistent myth of our time: religion is the cause of all violence. But history suggests otherwise. Karen Armstrong, former Roman Catholic nun and one of our foremost scholars of religion, speaks out to disprove the link between religion and bloodshed.

* Religion is as old as humanity: Fields of Blood goes back to the Stone Age hunter-gatherers and traces religion through the centuries, from medieval crusaders to modern-day jihadists.

* The West today has a warped concept of religion: we regard faith as a personal and private matter, but for most of history faith has informed…


Book cover of Violence and the Sacred

Mark Juergensmeyer Why did I love 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. 

By René Girard, Patrick Gregory (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Violence and the Sacred as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"His fascinating and ambitious book provides a fully developed theory of violence as the `heart and secret soul' of the sacred. Girard's fertile, combative mind links myth to prophetic writing, primitive religions to classical tragedy."--Victor Brombert, 'Chronicle of Higher Education.'


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

Mark Juergensmeyer Why did I love 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. 

By Reza Aslan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How to Win a Cosmic War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*Why do they hate us? An entire cottage industry has arisen to answer this question. But what no one has really figured out is, who exactly are they? Is it al-Qaeda? Islamic nationalists? The whole Muslim world?

*HOW TO WIN A COSMIC WAR lays out, for the first time, a comprehensive definition of the movement behind and surrounding al-Qaeda and the like, a global ideology properly termed Jihadism.

*Contrasting twenty-first-century religious extremism across Christianity, Judaism and Islam with its historical antecedents, Aslan demonstrates that while modern Jihadis may have legitimate social grievances - the suffering of the Palestinians, American support…


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

Mark Juergensmeyer Why did I love 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.

By Ashis Nandy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of India's leading public intellectuals, Ashis Nandy is a highly influential critic of modernity, science, nationalism, and secularism. In this, his most important collection of essays so far, he seeks to locate cultural forms and languages of being and thinking that defy the logic and hegemony of the modern West. The core of the volume consists of two ambitious, deeply probing essays, one on the early success of psychoanalysis in India, the other on the justice meted out by the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal to the defeated Japanese. Both issues are viewed in the context of the psychology of…


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

Mark Juergensmeyer Why did I love 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. 

By Elaine Scarry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Body in Pain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Part philosophical meditation, part cultural critique, this profoundly original work explores the nature of physical suffering. Elaine Scarry bases her study on a wide range of sources: literature and art, medical case histories, documents on torture compiled by Amnesty International, legal transcripts of personal injury trials, and military and strategic writings by such figures as Clausewitz, Churchill, Liddell Hart, and Henry Kissinger. Scarry begins with the fact
of pain's inexpressibility. Not only is physical pain difficult to describe in words, it also actively destroys language, reducing sufferers in the most extreme cases to an inarticulate state of cries and moans.…


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By Nita Sweeney,

Book cover of A Daily Dose of Now: 365 Mindfulness Meditation Practices for Living in the Moment

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Who am I?

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Nita's book list on why meditation is worth your time and effort

What is my book about?

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Interested in religious violence, India, and pain?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about religious violence, India, and pain.

Religious Violence Explore 4 books about religious violence
India Explore 425 books about India
Pain Explore 19 books about pain