Confronting Religious Violence

A Counternarrative

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Richard A. Burridge, Jonathan Sacks
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     310 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Confronting Religious Violence: A Counternarrative takes as its title the subtitle of co-editor Jonathan Sacks’ 2015 book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Schocken). After awarding Sacks the Templeton Award for “harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it,” the Templeton Foundation organized a symposium in response to Not in God’s Name. This volume, edited by Sacks and Richard A. Burridge, is the result.

In twelve essays, scholars, scientists, and activists address the central question introduced by Not in God’s Name: “how a rereading of the hallowed texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam might mitigate the militancy whereby group identity can lead to deadly conflict” (4). The collection begins with an expansion of the lecture Sacks gave upon receiving the Templeton Award. In “The Stories We Tell,” he reminds us of “the intrinsic, perhaps necessary, link between narrative and identity” (19). Four master narratives familiar to religious studies scholars are identified as especially influential in shaping post-Enlightenment Western civilization, even as each explanation proves inaccurate (if appealing).

According to Sacks, the secularization thesis  is “at best a simplification and at worst simply untrue” (19), the accommodation thesis “no longer holds” (23), the end-of-history thesis has “failed” (24), and the Westernization thesis is “increasingly called into question” (25). Sacks identifies an additional narrative: “an escape from identity” (26), a denial of human difference and an embrace of universal science, reason, and morality in order to avoid conflict.

The problem, according to Sacks, is that “there is no such world . . . Identities, like cultures and languages, are inescapably multiple and particular, and we cannot be human without them” (27). Since the 1960s, society has reversed course, embracing individualism, but this has created a host of new problems and “cannot hold” (28).

While Sacks, writing in 2018, did not specifically predict the health, political, economic, and social breakdown in the US that has resulted from the extreme individualism that has guided our response to the coronavirus pandemic, he is clear that society is headed toward self-destruction. “The late 20th-century project of abolishing identity in favor of individual choice is generating its own discontents” (30), Sacks notes with what now seems like understatement. Because it can fill the gaps created by individualism, “religion has proved itself to be unexpectedly well suited to the twenty-first century” (30).

But, as compelling as the Abrahamic traditions’ narratives are, they are troubling when they extend beyond stories telling you who you are to stories telling you who others are.

The remaining contributions are divided into four parts: “Biblical and Classical Background;” “Reflections from the Front Line” (which include pieces focusing on Africa an ISIS); “Moral, Philosophical, and Scientific Reflections;” and “Theological Reflections.” Individually, each is engaging, thoughtful, and accessible to a broad audience, including policymakers, activists, community leaders, and others who are interested in leveraging religion for peace. “(Re)Reading the New Testament in the Light of Sibling Rivalry: Some Hermeneutical Implications for Today” by co-editor Burridge will prompt lively conversation in an adult Sunday school class or Bible study, while Guy G. Stroumsa’s “Open Religion and Its Enemies” and Amineh A. Hoti’s “Empathy as Policy in the Age of Hatred” will enrich community groups seeking to combat religiously inspired bigotry and hatred. Scott Atran’s “Devoted Actors in an Age of Rage: Social Science on the ISIS Front Line and Elsewhere” provides not only insight to guide antiterrorism efforts but also is a model of social science being used for the common good and can be taught in courses focusing on research methods as well as the sociology of religion.

As a whole, the broad scope of the chapters may contribute to readers losing the point. Any given chapter will appeal to those who study religion, history, sociology, or politics as well as policy makers and activists, but the four headers invite us to imagine the dozens of additional chapters that could have been written on the topics. This is an inherent limitation of an edited collection, but it is also a sign of the fecundity of the ground from which it grew. That such different chapters could be inspired by the same questions is an encouraging reminder of the work that remains in front of us and the need for a diversity of thinkers to engage it.

Indeed, it is easy to already imagine the chapters a next edition should include: QAnon as anti-Semitic religion, post-truth white evangelicalism and the coronavirus pandemic, the failure of empathy in All Lives Matter—and those are just forms of religious violence to confront in the contemporary United States. Ideally, the work that emerges from this volume (whether a second edition or engagement in other books and articles) will include a wider diversity of authors, including more women and Muslims.

I share one criticism that makes me particularly sad: the book includes a casual reference to weight loss and invokes the term “barbarism,” which has a racist history. While Sacks and Burridge have done the hard work of editing these complex, engaging pieces into an excellent intellectual product, an anti-oppression reader or panel of readers might have caught these ableist and racist references. Baylor University Press should ensure that all books go through a process of identifying terms, phrases, and allusions that risk alienating or harming readers, if for no other reason that they distract from the good ideas. Should the press consider an updated edition, I trust that the issue of diction choices that reflect prejudices would be revised. A book about confronting violence and promoting empathy deserves it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is the Visiting Coordinator of online learning at Hesston College.

Date of Review: 
January 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard A. Burridge is Dean of King’s College London and Professor of Biblical Interpretation.

Jonathan Sacks is an international religious leader, philosopher, and award-winning author. He was awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize and has authored more than thirty books.


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