On thick and thin religion

Miroslav Volf weighs the claim that religions are violent by nature.



Miroslav Volf weighs the claim that religions are violent by nature.


People sometimes think that religions are, by their very nature, violent. And then, [the] obvious conclusion is the less religion you have, the better off you’re going to be in terms of its support of violence.

If you step back and think that religion might not be by very nature violent, then you might want to start to think in a different way about it. Then suddenly it looks like religion ends up fostering violence in situations in which it has become thin. And by thin, I mean religion that has been emptied of its essential content – important convictions about how we are to live in the world, what the good life is that we should strive [for] – and kind of reduced to energy, to legitimising force, to [a] kind of healing mechanism. And when that happens, obviously, religion can be very easily co-opted to whatever ends we set for ourselves. It becomes a mere tool.

Now if you think of thick religion, thick religion is precisely thick on account of resisting being reduced to a mere tool. It sets its own goals, and those goals I think have a power to shape a vision or are in fact shaping a vision of a good life that in its own … is part and parcel of its fabric, has ways in which to counter our propensities toward violence.

That certainly is true about the Christian faith. So [a] central Christian conviction is love of enemies. Now if you embrace this as a central conviction that is inalienable from the Christian faith, you will see what that’s going to do in the situation of conflict. That is going to put pressure on you to use religion, or to engage even apart from religious reasons, in conflict situations.

So that’s why I say more religion – more religion understood thickly – the better it is, rather than less religion. You can put it this way: less thinly zealous religion, more thickly thought through religion, and you’re going to be better off when it comes to religion and violence.