Thinking about Religion and Violence
Jason C. Bivins is a Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. He received his B.A. in Religion from Oberlin College and his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Indiana University. Professor Bivins has taught at North Carolina State University since 2000 and has received several teaching awards there.
Professor Bivins specializes in religion and American culture, focusing particularly on the intersection between religions and politics since 1900. His books include Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion (named an Outstanding Academic Title of 2015 by Choice); Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (named a 2008 Outstanding Academic Title selected by Choice); and The Fracture of Good Order: Christian Antiliberalism and the Challenge to American Politics. His books have received coverage from both mainstream and academic media, including National Public Radio, The Washington Times, and Religion Dispatches.
Professor Bivins has also published articles, book chapters, review essays, and pieces on religion, politics, and culture in the United States, as well as on theory and method in the study of religion. Regularly interviewed by newspapers, podcasts, radio shows, and other public media, Professor Bivins serves on multiple committees in the American Academy of Religion and was a section coeditor for Religion Compass.
01: Religion and Violence: A Strange Nexus
What is the essence of religious violence? What are the historical trends that explain the relationship between religious beliefs and violence? What are some problematic ways we often frame the issue of religious violence? Begin your exploration of these and other perplexing questions about this complex subject.
02: Defining Religion and Violence
Get a solid introduction to different ways of recognizing and studying religion as a way to start making sense of religious violence. Central to this lecture is the idea that religion and violence exist in a fluid relationship, which can make the boundary between religious and non-religious identities fuzzy as well.
03: Violence in Sacred Texts
Explore the special power and authority that sacred texts have for religious practitioners, and how some people invoke these stories and images to legitimize violence. Consider several prevalent themes found in sacred texts like the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Qur’an: vengeful deities, holy wars, and holy suffering.
04: Martyrdom, Sacrifice, and Self-Harm
Sacrifice is one of the most fundamental building blocks of religion. Here, examine how and why people commit self-harm and sacrifice for religious purposes. Topics include animal sacrifice during India’s Vedic period, self-denial and asceticism (such as vows of celibacy), and religious suicides from ancient Rome to the modern era.
05: Scapegoating and Demonology
Discover how religious violence is almost always justified by portraying its targets as something other than human, or as malevolent. Professor Bivins explains how the social process of Other-ing has led religions to process and create fear through scapegoats, demons and monsters, false gods, and Antichrist figures.
06: Understanding Witch Trials
One of the most effective ways of demonstrating religious power is through trial and punishment. Examine the use of law and the meanings of public displays of violence as seen in historical cases of witch hunting and witch trials. Witches, it turns out, are in many ways more reviled than demons.
07: The Apocalyptic Outlook
For humans, the world is always about to end. Using examples like the People’s Temple, the Branch Davidians, and Aum Shinrikyo, as well as 19th-century America, explore the meanings of apocalypticism as a form of human meaning-making, as well as its role in the phenomenon of religious violence.
08: Racial Violence and Religion
Focus here on a very specific aspect of Other-ing: the idea of different races as the objects of religious violence. First, examine how religions generate racial ideas. Then, take a closer look at two very different expressions of racial religion: white supremacist Christianity and the Nation of Islam.
09: Religion and Violence against Women
In this lecture, investigate the gendering of religious language and the treatment of women’s bodies in religious practices like menstrual seclusion and self-sacrifice. Also, study the anxiety around women that occurred during the Salem witch trials, as well as competing interpretations of women’s freedom and constraint in Islam.
10: Sexuality, Morality, and Punishment
How have religious traditions responded to sexuality with demonization, social constraint, and physical assault? What are some of the oldest, most outlandish forms of religious self-discipline? How has religious and political persecution worked to target specific issues related to sexuality and morality (specifically abortion and homosexuality)?
11: Heresies and Their Suppression
Generally speaking, heresies exist in every religious tradition. Professor Bivins explains how religious violence can consist not only of physical harm against people or groups but of legal constraints, denials of basic liberties, and misrepresentation. Examples you’ll consider include Pope Gregory IX’s heresy courts and the trial of Galileo.
12: Religion and Just War Theory
When is it permissible to go to war? Learn how Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all wrestled—morally, conceptually, strategically—with questions about how to balance religious ideals with real-world conflicts, and how religions define violence in the context of war as a necessary, limited evil.
13: Peace as a Religious Ideal
While sacred texts contain passages on warfare and violence, they also contain maxims, stories, and images exhorting believers to peace. What are the challenges of pacifism? Examine the issue through three historical cases: Mahatma Gandhi, 20th-century American Catholic pacifism, and the Muslim scholar Sheikh al-Hajj Salim Suwari.
14: War Gods and Holy War
Focus on the role of war gods in human cultures and sacred texts. Then, take an extended look at the medieval Crusades, as well as Cold War religious imagery. It turns out the roots of war gods aren’t as removed from our present day as we’d like to think.
15: Religious Violence in Israel
A big challenge in understanding interreligious conflict is figuring out the role national identity plays. See why this is the case in modern-day Israel, where conflicts between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam demonstrate the fractious experience of overlapping histories and the limits of secular power in a complex religious world.
16: Religious Violence in India
First, look at the historical relationship of religious ethics to public life in India. Then, consider the legacy of colonialism in contributing to the rise of interreligious violence (especially surrounding Sikhism). Last, examine the Hindu hyper-nationalism known as Hindutva and the widely-discussed phenomenon called Saffron Terror.
17: Religion’s Relationship with Slavery
How have religions wrestled with—but also condoned—the brutal institution of slavery (especially in the United States of America)? What you’ll learn in this eye-opening lecture is that, while some of slavery’s most powerful critics have been full-throated religious practitioners, the same can be said of slavery’s defenders.
18: Native Americans and Religious Violence
Trace the role of violence in and around Native American traditions. How common is land displacement or outright theft? What’s the relationship between competing gods and vengeful ghosts? Is the story of indigenous peoples inseparable from colonialism and imperialism, which are often motivated to eradicate indigenous faiths?
19: Violence and “Cults”
Study the key characteristics that make a group a “cult,” including a desire for authenticity and a new pattern of life that breaks with mainstream culture. Then, use Mormonism, China’s Falun Gong, and the Solar Temple as ways to explore why some new religions provoke violence and others practice it.
20: Anti-Catholicism in Europe and America
In the first of two lectures on the power of stereotypes and misrepresentation to justify religious violence, look at how church reformers in Europe and the United States of America produced a series of enduring, negative images and stereotypes of Catholics: as degenerate, orgiastic, drunken, and power-mad.
21: The Persistence of Anti-Semitism
Turn now to one of the more glaring and persistent traditions of anti-religious violence: anti-Semitism. Why has this form of historical suffering become an intimate component of Jewish identity? How is it portrayed in scriptural stories like Exodus, as well as modern-day moments of persecution and social marginalization?
22: Islam, Violence, and Islamophobia
Here, look at Islam and violence from different perspectives. Shed light on the negative stereotypes and representations common to discrimination against Muslims. Explore how Islamophobia depends on generalization and exaggeration, then consider Muslim theological sources of violence in the modern world, as well as significant examples of Islamic revolution.
23: Religion and Terrorism
In this lecture, do more than just focus on how to define terrorism. Instead, try and understand how and why terrorists see the world as they do—a task worth undertaking if we’re serious about understanding contemporary problems with religious violence. Your case studies here: Gush Emunim, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda.
24: What We Can Do About Religious Violence
How can we change a world that produces so much religious violence? Professor Bivins starts with tools for individuals and proceeding from there through communities, nations, and international institutions. The important thing: to think concretely about religious violence rather than be numbed into fear or inaction.