Thinking about Religion and Violence

Course No. 4105
Professor Jason C. Bivins, Ph.D.
North Carolina State University
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Course No. 4105
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers what we can do at the individual and international level to combat religious violence
  • numbers what some of the world's sacred texts say (and don't say) about religious violence
  • numbers get at the heart of violent beliefs and behaviors including anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and terrorism
  • numbers how different world faiths approach the issue of when to wage holy war-and when to find peace

Course Overview

We live in a world where religious violence seems more prevalent than ever. But while news stories make this seem like a relatively modern phenomenon, the truth is that religion and violence have been intertwined since the dawn of the world’s great faiths. Religious violence isn’t a contemporary phenomenon—it’s an enduring aspect of the human experience.

What is it that causes some people to commit violent acts in the name of religion, either against themselves or others? Why does violence even play a role in religion to begin with? How can theology, as well as history, sociology, and other frameworks, help us grasp the nature of religious violence? All religions, including the world’s great faiths—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism—have their inner battles with violent beliefs and practices. And, in a world where violence in the name of religion can impact so many other people’s lives, it’s critical to understand the intersection between the two.

Perhaps the biggest obstacles to this understanding lie in fear, sensationalism, and dismissal, all of which can prevent you from truly grasping the nature of religious violence. What’s required is not to see religion as inherently violent, but to recognize that the violence associated with religious groups and communities is worth exploring and interrogating. It’s about examining whether religious violence is an indelible part of the human experience or a problem we can truly solve.

“If we want to know why ‘bad stuff’ happens in the name of religion, we need to understand how those who commit religious violence perceive what they’re doing,” says Dr. Jason C. Bivins, award-winning professor of Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. “That’s the best way to understand why our world is producing so much of it, and what we can do about it.”

In his 24-lecture course, Thinking about Religion and Violence, Professor Bivins takes you on a global, historical, and multidisciplinary investigation of religious violence. Delivered with honesty and sensitivity to the diversity of spiritual beliefs, he examines the roots of this phenomenon and guides you toward more informed ways of thinking about it. You’ll consider how faiths like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism view concepts like human sacrifice, martyrdom, penitence, and means of violence; the ways religious violence can be directed toward specific races, genders, and cultural groups; the connections between violence and other religions, including Mormonism and Native American faiths; concepts like heresy, demonology, and witch-hunting; and more. Blending history, theology, psychology, sociology, and other fields, Professor Bivins helps you get to the heart of a complex problem that’s broader and deeper (and more optimistic) than you might have thought.

Learn How to Talk about Religious Violence

At the heart of Thinking about Religion and Violence is this central question: What sources shape and feed violent habits of mind and, in turn, the violence that sometimes follows from them?

To start, Professor Bivins grounds his lectures in the central concepts and ideas you’ll need for understanding the subject, mastering the flexibility with which we need to talk about religious violence responsibly, and fashioning your own interpretations. These topics include:

  • Religion: It’s critical to remember that religion doesn’t exist in a vacuum. However you choose to define it, religion is always mixed up with factors ranging from biology to culture to geography to class. One can’t simply say: “Religion made them do it.” One must look to the role played by culture, society, and the media—whether we’d like to or not.
  • Violence: Like religion, violence doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is related to politics, human bodies, economics, sex, and law. Violence is also about a kind of forcibly changed relationship between persons and communities (usually in public) and, therefore, quite often impacts the most deeply held beliefs of the people involved.
  • Other-ing: This term refers to the cultural construction of an enemy figure rooted in older cultural convictions, social hierarchies, and caricatures of different classes of people, all of which draw support from religions (even as religions critique them). The viewpoint of “other-ing” is at the root of concepts related to religious violence like scapegoats, demons, and anti-Semitism.
  • Cult: Many of the groups regarded as cults emerge from, or end up in, the religious mainstream. An objective definition of a cult involves the presence of several key characteristics, among them a desire for purity and authenticity, the importance of a new kind of authority figure or text, and a new pattern for living that often breaks with mainstream culture.
  • Holy War: While religious traditions often advocate holy war, they also contain resources for thinking through the moral complexity of “just” warfare. While there’s no clear roadmap or set of conclusions, each tradition has within it an obligation to wrestle morally, conceptually, and strategically about when to wage war.

You’ll also explore sacred texts to see what they have to say about the spiritual purposes of violence, and how their meanings may have been misconstrued and manipulated over time. Some of the fascinating books you’ll explore include not just the major religious books—the Old and New Testaments, the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad Gita—but also lesser-known texts including the Malleus Maleficarum, the infamous and widely used witch-hunting manual of the 15th century.

From Racial Violence to “Cult” Panics to Terrorism

Throughout Thinking about Religion and Violence, you’ll explore multiple examples from all over the world and throughout history as a way to probe the nexus of these two powerful forces. These examples range from racial violence and holy war (and peace) to “cult” panics and terrorism.

Given the immediacy of the issue, Professor Bivins takes care to burrow deep into both current issues as well as their historical and conceptual sources. The goal is to illustrate the concept of religious violence as not particular to one faith but as a part of human spirituality around the world.

  • Witch Hunting: As deep as many societies’ fear of demons is, witches are more of a target for religious and political violence. Whether its folk witches, European witch-hunting, or America’s political witch trials, a witch hunt expresses a sovereign’s power to torture, banish, and kill. It provides emotional catharsis and juridical power at once.
  • Religious Violence in India and Israel: Interreligious violence in India and Israel combines two different articulations of violence. The first is nationalistic, in which social conditions make violence possible. The second is spatial, and reflects how religious exclusivism with regard to land can lead people to create and maintain boundaries as sharp as a knife edge.
  • Religious Suicides: The interplay of people’s adherence to sacred texts, their aspirations for purity, and their placement of religious authority over temporal authority allows them to willingly destroy their bodies as a sign of commitment to their faith. Examples include Muslim soldier-martyrs, the Heaven’s Gate suicides, and Buddhist immolation.
  • Violent Gods and Wars: The ancient roots of war gods and sacred violence aren’t quite as distant as we’d like to think. What we learn by looking to those gods and seeing their authorization of violence as a religious vehicle is that holy wars of various stripes reveal our abiding fascination with conflict. This veneration is sometimes explicitly religious (the Crusades) and sometimes buried (the Cold War).

An Open-Minded, Optimistic Perspective

Despite the troubling nature of the subject, Professor Bivins doesn’t take a pessimistic or clinical approach to the material. Rather, he’s a charming and engaging on-screen presence with a fierce curiosity and open-mindedness to the varieties of religious experience.

He’s also fiercely optimistic about what we can learn from a comprehensive study of religious violence, and devotes his concluding lecture to ideas of what can be done to mitigate the impact of religious violence—at the international level, the local level, and the individual level. And at the individual level, it starts with approaching the topic in the company of a master professor with a lecture series that’s immersive, insightful, thorough, and important for our times.

“I’ve constructed this course out of the conviction that we can and must understand things that are horrific,” Professor Bivins says. “If you can raise questions, think through competing considerations, assess the range of principles and practices at stake in what goes into making religious violence, you’re already in a different conceptual world. And if that world is one in which it’s harder to discriminate or mistreat others, then I think you’ll be on the right path.”

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    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. x
  • 2
    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. x
  • 3
    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. x
  • 4
    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. x
  • 5
    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. x
  • 6
    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. x
  • 7
    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. x
  • 8
    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. x
  • 9
    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. x
  • 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)? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x

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Your professor

Jason C. Bivins

About Your Professor

Jason C. Bivins, Ph.D.
North Carolina State University
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...
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Thinking about Religion and Violence is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 50.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Insightful, Balanced, Well-Done Based on the reviews, course expectations were widely varied, and ratings seem based to a large extent on the viewer's own perspectives on religion, especially with regard to particular religions' relation to violence both through history and in our very problematic present. A number of reviewers also objected to specific events not receiving the attention they felt the events deserved. For me, this is an excellent course, covering a vast range of the history of religious violence, and giving both historical and psychosocial analyses of their causes as propounded by many scholars through the ages. In 24 lectures it is clearly impossible to cover all significant instances (religious violence is a pretty consistent part of human history), and of course some will feel their preferred religion to have been presented unfairly, and those in opposition to have received favored treatment. As a non-religious person, but one with a sincere and profound respect for the good which religions offer humanity, I found the course remarkably fair, balanced, and unbiased. And Professor Bivins is outstanding - highly knowledgeable, organized, clear, eloquent, and insightful. I cannot imagine a better brief review of this extremely complex topic. My only slight disappointment was to be expected: The ultimate lecture, "What We Can Do about Religious Violence", is as well-done as the rest of the course, and goes into often helpful detail about various approaches. But, essentially, it comes down to: try to better understand ourselves, try to better understand others, and "we should all try to get along." Audio or video would be fine. And the Course Guidebook is quite complete and well done. So - This course has my highest recommendation for any with an interest in this area. If you come to it without expectations about the conclusions you would like to hear, I think you will enjoy (if that's not an inappropriate word to use in this context) and appreciate it. Regardless, it is certainly a crucial area for humankind's consideration.
Date published: 2020-11-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from My Review for Thinking about Religion and Violence This course is comprehensive; it covers topics that I have never even thought about. It covers religions from Buddism, Hinduism, and Native American religions as well as Abrahamic faiths. Professor Bivens had some very interesting lectures; others were more foundational. One trouble with this course is that the professor is fast paced. By that I mean he moves on to the next paragraph, the next thought before I have fully comprehended what he had just said. This is more problematic for some viewers when the viewer does not have much knowledge about some religions, such as Hinduism for me. The viewer may want to view some lectures twice. This is why I ranked this course 3 stars. The content merits 5 stars because of its breath and depth. The vocabulary here is college level.
Date published: 2020-03-02
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Mildly Disappointing Due to the title of the course, and the description of the content, I expected a course much different than the reality. On a surface level one would think that “Religion” and “Violence” should be incompatible. The title suggests that “Thinking” about this strange pairing would be the thrust of the discussions. I did not find this to be the case. Professor Bivins was knowledgeable on the relationship, but sort of hopped around not truly confronting the issue: why has religion been a primary contributor and underpinning of societal violence instead of a bulwark against it. This primary question was largely “danced” around and not fully confronted. All manner of excuses were made, in the guise of historical context. Individual responsibility was either ignored or minimized. Religion was properly shown to be one of the undergirding causes of violence. But not why it did not fulfill, what one would suppose was one of its primary purposes - that is to reduce violence. Far too much time was spent using various forms of Christianity to support his thesis. Islam should have been discussed to a far greater extent; both the positive and negative interfacing with the topic. Eastern religions were mentioned but sparingly, and often not on point. The input of ancient religions was sorely lacking, as were most indigenous belief systems. This is not to say the course had no value, it just didn’t attack the primary topic introduced. There was much to be gleaned from the examples and the interplay of what Bivins did discuss. He just fell short of getting to the crux of the introduced topic.
Date published: 2020-02-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Unbiased examination presents even case These series of lectures examine a subject that is often ignored in an even and unbiased way. The connection of violence in religion can not be disputed. Everything from terrorists to self-immolation is brought to light in these informative lectures. I learned a lot from this series both from a historical and social perspective. All religions and their beliefs are covered extensively and the lectures often go beyond sacred texts and halls. Civil rights, witch trials, and cults are all explored though there are some ommissions. The professor is engaging as a lecturer and is not overwhelmed by the weight of his subject matter. Full of information and insight he gives a complete picture of the topic with no frills. These series of lectures certainly gave me some insight into how much violence has influenced religion and vice-versa.
Date published: 2019-10-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from USA / christian centric material Overall, I have to say I didn't like the course. It was too USA focused, too christian focused, and lacked comparisons to draw the ultimate conclusions about why religions tend to be violent. There was not an overall perspective but too much detail presented. The author's attitude was annoying at first, and I tended to zone out because I felt I got the message again and again it wasn't religions being violent or causing violence, it was the other conditions; culture, etc. The section on Islam and violence was especially weak. What I expected was overall conclusions about why religions are violent: ie, perhaps there would be meta-evidence to suggest that people joining religions are more violent, or have a lower IQ, or some such. The professor failed to provide comparisons to non-religious parts of the world, ie, japan and rates of violence. Overall there was not a lot of data, a lot of historical anecdotes and a lot of PC vibes.
Date published: 2019-10-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A very good non-biased course I liked this course, in fact, a lot, as the author followed a non-biased attitude towards different religions. There were a couple of misconceptions about Islam & its relationship with violence (in my view), but compared with what I get from other sources, it was negligible. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2019-09-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from some topic areas well done others less so There was a lot of old information and few suprises.
Date published: 2019-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Religion and Violence You see a lot about this is the news but he gives good background info on the topics. I really enjoyed this course.
Date published: 2019-08-09
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