“Religious Violence” in Historical Perspective

Round Table Colloquium at Goethe University Frankfurt

Project leaders: Prof. Dr. Boris Barth, Prof. Dr. Hartmut Leppin and Prof. Dr. Dorothea Weltecke


“Religious violence” in public and academic discourse is often understood as violence that is motivated by religion. Notably, the so-called monotheistic religions are held responsible for the emergence of religious intolerance and religious violence because of their exclusive social and dogmatic claims. However, research has shown that any religious belief system is capable of framing and legitimising violence.
After all, “religions” as such do not commit acts of violence; human beings do. Consequently, historical research will ask for social, political, economic, or cultural constellations, which may have contributed to the production of militant theologies and acts of violence, and, in turn, intends to explain why and how violent events are framed and legitimised by religious claims.
Violence research has shown that “violent interaction uses the suffering body to stage a positional asymmetry”. The same may also be said about religious violence. Religious violence may also, for example, aim at the production of deterrence, economic gain, political power and social or sexual hierarchy. Religious violence can be directed against people or objects and places. The motives are only by definition related to truth claims. In addition, while one agent may consider an act of violence religious, this may not necessarily be the case for all parties involved. There is, for example, no doubt that Jews regarded the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD as an act of religious violence, while the Romans were probably motivated by military considerations. One may even argue that religious differences and religious propositions are neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the emergence of violence, even if they are its result.
At a closer look, then, “religious violence” is a rather vague concept. The causal relation is controversial, and both the concepts “religion” and “violence” are highly contested. What is more, their use might lead to anachronisms, for example for what Jews and Christians call pagan beliefs. The distinction between religious violence, hate crimes and violence with ideological framing is difficult to draw. Yet, the concept may be useful after all, because of its openness, and because religious framing and the legitimation of violence are undoubtedly aspects of a historical and a present reality.
The participants of this workshop are invited to comment on the evocative concept of “religious violence” and to discuss events from their fields of expertise. Together, and in light of different theoretical perspectives, we aim to answer the question regarding whether, and if so where, the concept of “religious violence” may be useful in historical research. How and in which way does “religious violence” have a history? There are clearly conjunctions and waves of religious violence, but does its history have patterns, periods or even a development?

Round Table Colloquium at Goethe University Frankfurt
July 5th 2019, Frankfurt am Main, Campus Westend
SH 3.105
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