BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 68, 2020

HECTOR AVALOS, The Reality of Religious Violence: From Biblical to Modern Times (BMW 72; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2019). Pp. xiv + 499. Hardback. £75.00.

The aim of The Reality of Religious Violence is to highlight the inseparable nature of religion and violence. Avalos not only argues that religious violence exists, but that it is an integral part of religious literature, practice and experience. He notes his argument as one of “comparative ethics” within religious studies, which engages also with secular literature and history (388). Largely, this book reads as an extensive and commendable analysis of apologetic treatments of the literature in the Abrahamic religions, alongside evidence from within the texts of these religions of violent commands, allowances and norms. Avalos argues that apologetic interpretations do not extricate religious texts from endorsing violence, but instead that they ignore what he considers to be the reality of violence as implicit within religion.

Avalos’ assessment of whether religious violence exists is developed and explored in response to considerable scholarship that attempts to remove religion and religious texts from acts of even overtly recognisable religious violence. A persistent flaw of this mode of interpretation, Avalos notes, is that scholars attempt to depict these acts of violence to be outliers or the acts of fundamentalists, not from within the “true” form/s of religion. He does not accept this supposition, instead indicating that violent acts are at the heart of each of the Abrahamic religions—with confronting clarity and scriptural breadth.

Avalos makes his argument in four parts: Part 1—Past Explanations of Violence; Part 2—A New Theory for Religious Violence; Part 3—Secularism and Violence; and Part 4—Synthesis. In Part 1, Avalos explores the definitions, historiography and causality of religious violence, before suggesting a new theory for religious violence in Part 2, which he then applies to the Abrahamic religions. Central to his argument is that religion creates scarcity for self-interested and/or immoral reasons, which results in violence. There are four key elements that Avalos says develop scarce resources: inscripturation, sacred space, group privileging and salvation. He discusses these elements by utilising examples from the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Bible and the Quran to highlight violent aspects of these texts which create opportunities for, and endorse, violence based on religious presuppositions. These include categories some readers may not have considered to be violent, including circumcision as internal violence (173–4), shalom and/or Christian peace as hegemony (189–90; 246–49), and violence for the sake of salvation with the crucifixion of Jesus (223–27). He also utilises acts of more recognisable violence, like the September 11 hijackers (292–93). Further, in Part 2, Avalos reflects on and dismisses academic defences for sacred texts which he, fairly, categorises as violent (e.g. 2 Kings 1:3–4; Deut 23:3–4; Matthew 10:34–38; Luke 14:26–27; Sura 9:29; Sura 3:55–56).

In Part 2, Avalos tackles the Nazi Holocaust and Stalinism as well as the nation-state and secular humanist violence. He demonstrates the relationship between Hitler, Nazism and religious violence. This is indicated most clearly through correlating phrasing from Martin Luther in On the Jews and Their Lies and the actualised atrocities of this text within World War II and Nazism (319–21). Avalos further highlights the relationship between violence and religion, specifically through scripture, in a table demonstrating the synergy “between Nazi racial policy and the genealogical policies of some authors in the Hebrew Bible” (354). Acknowledging that religion is not the only antagonist in creating scarce resources, Avalos investigates, though briefly, secular violence, but points to the potential for violent causation from religion in Stalinism (355–64) and Nation-State/Secular-Humanist violence (365–96).

Finally, in Part 4, Avalos offers his synthesis, concluding that violence is an inherent part of Abrahamic religions. For Avalos, the only solution to religious violence is two-fold: “(1) to retain religion, but modify it so that scarcities are not created; (2) Remove religion from human life” (406).

Avalos’ frank style and view of religion’s relationship to violence will be confronting for some readers. At times, he deals bluntly with scholars he disagrees with, suggesting in the case of René Girard that his theory is impotent and should “at least be partially sacrificed in academia” (228). He is uncompromising in his view that religion and religious texts cannot be re-interpreted outside of their violent intentions and, as Mein Kampf is noted as irredeemable though having “some good things within [it],” so too, scholars need to consider whether the scriptures of the Abrahamic religions also need to be re-categorised as irredeemably violent texts (407–8). Avalos’ The Reality of Religious Violence may not be a popular read amongst biblical and religious scholars, but it is a text built on significant research and elicits important discussions for academic and broader cultural consideration.

Review by
Caryn Rogers
University of Adelaide
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