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An essay donated by Dave Wilson

Religious intolerance as a symptom, rather than
a cause
of conflicts, mass murder, genocide, etc.

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We tend to think of religious differences as a cause of discrimination, persecution, and genocide. I’d like to argue, however, that these religious differences are often the excuse for such behavior, rather than its fundamental cause. Often resources, such as arable or grazing land, water, fisheries resources, oil, etc. are in insufficient supply to meet the needs of the peoples competing for these resources. In such situations of scarcity, ability to compete successfully for the resource is essential for a group to survive. If that is the case, any differences (in religion, color, tribe, language, for example) that can be seized upon to dehumanize other competing groups has immediate survival value, since these differences can serve as moral justification for persecuting the other groups, driving them out, or killing them in order to acquire their resources. This can be even more virulent if fear of domination or being crowded out can be added to the scenario. The flammable mixture of poverty, religious differences, and tribal differences is then readily ignited by unscrupulous politicians, religious figures, and tribal leaders in their struggles for power. This is generally an easy job, since the group, wanting the resources, wants to believe anything that justifies seizing these resources. And our species is very good at wishful thinking.

In such situations, rational appeals for tolerance are almost certain to fall on deaf ears, since such appeals fail to address the underlying driver of the intolerance—limited resources. Temporary amelioration may be achieved as a result of economic development and industrialization, the Green Revolution, irrigation of new lands to improve agricultural productivity, etc., but our rate of population growth will probably swamp these measures within a few years or decades. Thomas Robert Malthus’s Law is alive and well, although many people and many religions refuse to accept this. Populations are therefore limited in much of the world by the pressure of poverty-stricken people killing each other off as they desperately compete for resources, encouraged by their leaders in rationalizing and justifying the slaughter in terms of religious, tribal, racial, and national differences.

This notion of religious intolerance as a symptom of competition for scarce resources, rather than the underlying cause of the discrimination, persecution, and genocide we see in so much of the world, explains an interesting fact. By world standards, much of Europe, Japan, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are pretty well off; most of us do not live lives of grinding poverty at bare subsistence levels. Religious intolerance, although certainly not unknown in these countries, is certainly at a much, much lower level than we find in the Middle East, Pakistan and India, and North Africa, all areas in which poverty is rampant and people live lives of quiet, or not so quiet, desperation. In much of the rest of poverty-stricken Africa tribal animosities supplement religious animosity as justification for dehumanizing the “other” group(s) as a prelude to slaughtering them with enthusiasm.

The dehumanization of native peoples by colonial powers was a somewhat familiar phenomenon, and often had a religious component. Dehumanization and the belief in the intrinsic inferiority of the native people provided justification in the colonizers’ minds for the seizing of resources, economic exploitation, reduction to peonage, and even the slaughter of the subject population. The advantage to the aggressor of a religious component in this is that, since the aggressor’s faith is involved and is perceived as infallible, he cannot be dissuaded by rational, reasonable arguments, but only by confrontation with superior force.

One can easily see how this resource-driven justification for religious intolerance can make it especially virulent and savage, as it appears so linked to survival.

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Originally written: 2013
Latest update: 2013
Author: Dave Wilson

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