Religion and Ethics of Violence

Morton Oxenboell; School of Global and International Studies, East Asian Languages and Cultures, IUB


All collective violence is assumed to be moral. Behind this radical claim is the fact that violence committed by a group of people always calls for a certain degree of legitimization and righteous ideology. Even the most atrocious acts of violence have been committed with at least a nominal claim of “for a greater good” or alternatively as a “lesser evil.”

While most people will agree that physical harm against another human being is an abhorrent act in most of its forms (but perhaps not in all of its forms), it remains fundamental that most societies throughout history have detested particular acts of violence while glorifying others, although representations of violence, and the meanings ascribed to those representations, may have changed over time with different media. Hence, an interdisciplinary model is needed that can show the representations of violence as a result of human agency that unfolds throughout history and in different cultures.

Most religions and philosophical schools in world history have included strong admonitions against the exorcise of violence, but it is equally clear that violent entrepreneurs – including religious leaders of otherwise peaceful religions – have had no trouble finding ways to legitimize or even encourage certain acts of extreme violence – from jihadism, terrorism, and ethno-nationalisms to genocides, slavery, and conquests both in the past and today.

Since modes of appropriate aggression are cultural products and not inherent human traits, such modes need to be taught, learned, and accepted. Existing notions of morality and righteous violence are continuously being negotiated and redefined in social contexts. The purpose of the proposed seminar is to create a dialogue between scholars from different disciplines about cross-cultural and culture-specific ideas of ethical and appropriate violence. 

Thematic Outline:

  • Violent foundations of world religions (the functions of violence in foundational narratives)
  • Ethics of side-taking and choice making in human conflicts
  • Moral legitimization of collective violence
  • Defining proper victims (dehumanization etc) through religious ideologies