Belief and violence

As Rwanda commemorates the 19th anniversary of the first day of a horrific genocide against Tutsis today, my mind turns to rising violence against religious minorities in Pakistan, particularly against Shias. I came across this 16th century passage by French scholar Sebastian Castellio on the absurdity of people holding unshakable, incompatible beliefs. Replace ‘Calvin’ with ‘Haq Nawaz Jhangvi and his followers’ (since, from what I can find, it seems Jhangvi himself did not advocate attacking Shias, and was apparently popular amongst local Shias for his social programmes), and you have words that hold true today:

‘Calvin says that he is certain, and [other sects] say that they are; Calvin says that they are wrong and wishes to judge them, and so do they. Who shall be judge? Who made Calvin the arbiter of all the sects, that he alone should kill? He has the word of God and so have they. If the matter is certain, to whom is it so? To Calvin? But then why does he write so many books about manifest truth? […] In view of the uncertainty we must define the heretic simply as one with whom we disagree. And if then we are going to kill heretics, the logical outcome will be a war of extermination, since each is sure of himself.’

 The above was quoted in The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined by Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker. He also eloquently posits the psychology of those who react to blasphemy with rage:

‘People become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, and rationalises their mandate to lead. Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing and power. And when those beliefs are based on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile. […] Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading sceptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.’


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