What really causes violence? Sam Harris takes a look at this rather important issue.


Sam Harris asks a rather important question, he has written an article entitle “No Ordinary Violence” on his blog that takes a good look at the root causes of violence. This is a question that needs to be faced up to and asked, we cannot simply sweep it under the carpet, because doing so means that not addressing the cause will ensure that the almost random acts of violence will persist.

So what exactly do we mean by violence? It should of course be obvious, but let’s quickly describe it to ensure we are clear. Sam Harris describes it like this …

A young man enters a public place—a school, a shopping mall, an airport—carrying a small arsenal. He begins killing people at random. He has no demands, and no one is spared. Eventually, the police arrive, and after an excruciating delay as they marshal their forces, the young man is brought down.

This is a pattern we see repeated many times, and what becomes interesting is that is there not one single cause, but instead different root causes. Sam Harries identifies these (and yes most are, when you give it some thought, rather obvious) …

…Those who are suffering from some form of mental illness that causes them to think and act irrationally

…Prototypically evil psychopaths who feel no empathy for others and may even derive sadistic pleasure from making the innocent suffer

…Normal men and women who cause immense harm while believing that they are doing the right thing

However, this is the one that caught my attention …

…Those who are moved by ideology to waste their lives in extraordinary ways while doing intolerable harm to others in the process

And the reason I’m pointing this all out is because he makes this key observation …

Whenever I point out the role that religious ideology plays in atrocities of this kind—specifically the Islamic doctrines related to jihad, martyrdom, apostasy, and so forth—I am met with some version of the following: “Bad people will always do these things. Religion is nothing more than a pretext.” This is an increasingly dangerous misconception to have about the human mind.

This is sport on … it is not just mentally sick people, or psychopaths who commit abhorrent acts of violence, decent honourable humans can also do the same when an irrational belief infects them and tricks them into believing that the violence is decent and honourable, and so motivates them to act.

The problem is indeed not bad people using religion as an excuse, and the religion is just fine, it is instead bad beliefs that motivate and drive the violent behaviour.

Believing things that are not actually true at all can indeed have truly catastrophic consequences for us all. A rather frightening thought is that one of these days a religious lunatic will be in a position to deploy a nuclear device within a major city and murder vast numbers of people.

While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. Religion is the one area of our discourse where it is considered noble to pretend to be certain about things no human being could possibly be certain about. It is telling that this aura of nobility extends only to those faiths that still have many subscribers. Anyone caught worshipping Poseidon, even at sea, will be thought insane.” – Sam Harris

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