Sacred Fury

Understanding Religious Violence, 3rd Edition

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Charles Selengut
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , January
     250 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The third edition of Charles Selengut’s Sacred Fury: Understanding Religious Violence comes at a moment of intense interest in the question of how religion and violence are related. The topic is now regularly addressed in newspaper articles, in presidential electoral politics, and on late-night comedy shows. In light of this interest, and given that the second edition was released nearly a decade ago, the need for a more substantive revision had clearly arrived.

In an effort to reflect recent events, Sacred Fury has been updated with approximately fifteen pages of new material (e.g., the rise of ISIS, the activities of homegrown terrorists, violence against Rohingya Muslims). The core structure, however, remains unchanged. The book is organized around the idea that religious violence should be explored via five distinct paradigms: a scriptural perspective (in which violence is “based upon the sacred books and holy teachings of a religious tradition”); a psychological perspective (in which violence serves “critical social psychological needs and functions for the larger collectivity”); a civilizational perspective (in which violence is a “weapon of a…group that perceives itself to be physically or existentially threatened”); an apocalyptic perspective (in which violence is a mechanism for precipitating “redemption and salvation to the individual and religious community”); and a sacred suffering perspective (in which self-inflicted pain, sexual violence, and martyrdom are part of religious life and/or religious traditions) (10). The conversation around religion and violence is necessarily interdisciplinary, and Sacred Fury takes up this challenge by engaging with literature from a variety of sources (religious studies scholars, political theorists, psychologists, sociologists, etc.). Additionally, each of the five perspectives that Selengut identifies is explored via both a discussion of prominent theories and a selection of relevant case studies.

There is no question that Selengut’s framework is far-reaching and disciplinarily capacious, and he explicitly acknowledges that “religious violence is a complex and varied phenomenon, and no one interpretive scheme can legitimately explain the many forms of religious war, terrorism, and violent conflict” (9). Thus, to some degree, the text is a useful taxonomy of research on the topic. It fruitfully highlights the multi-dimensional nature of the relationship between religion and violence, and compels the reader to consider the reality that a single action the decision to engage in an act of violence for a religious reason—should be considered through a variety of lenses.

The most recent edition also deserves credit for correcting a problematic emphasis on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that was evident in previous versions. The newest edition, by contrast, reflects not only a linguistic shift but also a shift in content: as one example, the first page now explicitly mentions Hinduism and Buddhism and new material on Hindu/Buddhist violence has been added to the first chapter.

Unfortunately, the utility of the text is undermined by three critical issues that were also present in earlier editions: a difficulty in articulating a clear dataset; a commitment to framing religion as irrational; and a subtle tendency towards essentializing claims about religion.

The least troubling issue is the book’s struggle to compellingly limit its dataset. In some ways, this is a problem endemic to the entire discourse on religion and violence as scholars work to determine which events and movements are “religious” enough to merit inclusion in a work on “religious violence.” Selengut’s struggle on this front isn’t particularly new, but the inclusion of actors like Dylann Roof and Timothy McVeigh is curious as both individuals articulated political and social concerns with little reference to religion. Similarly problematic is the book’s engagement with anti-American violence in Iraq, where Selengut foregrounds religion despite the widespread consensus that overlapping religious, ethnic, cultural, and political concerns are at play. He suggests, for instance, that the Iraqi population sees Americans as “Christian imperialists” though it is by no means clear that America’s Christianity is the core issue for the Iraqi people (137). The unresolved disconnect between the consensus position (emphasizing a variety of contributing factors) and Selengut’s position (foregrounding American Christianity), in combination with the reality that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis aren’t engaged in violence against Americans, raises questions as to why the example is included.

Far more troubling is the book’s consistent return to the idea that religion is an inherently irrational motivation for action. Selengut notes, for example, that “ordinary judgment, canons of logic, and evaluations of behavior simply do not apply to religious activity” (6) and similar language can be found repeatedly throughout the text (8, 15, 39, 87). Problematically, this type of language implies that human logic is secular and that religious action is an irrational deviation. If this is Selengut’s motivating framework—one which few scholars of religion would accept uncritically—then it should be made explicit, defended in some detail, and reconciled with language that is less judgmental (14, 190). As it stands, this framework marks religiously violent actors as other in a way that is neither justified (given that Selengut provides no means via which to differentiate the secular and the religious) nor productive (as it isn’t clear what is accomplished by othering the religiously motivated). As such, the book very quietly reinforces a series of troubling assumptions about religious actors that is particularly pernicious in a national environment that conflates religious violence with Islamist violence.

In some ways, this example is representative of the core issue with the text: it frequently makes problematically essentialist claims. In some instances, these are clustered and a larger theme appears (for example, on the topic of irrationality). In other instances, they stand alone as solitary assertions (as when Selengut writes that all religions “have versions of an eternal life for their religious martyrs”) (7). This approach can be found throughout the book, and even shapes Selengut’s conclusion: “The fact remains that religious violence is not, ultimately, about economics, political power, or even territory. It is about conflicting sacred visions, prophetic pronouncements, and eschatological expectations” (184). It is possible that this tendency to oversimplify is part of an effort to engage with “journalists, social scientists, and diplomats, operating in a highly secular framework, [and refusing] to recognize the religious motivation for religious violence” (184). If this is the case, then such a framework might be read as an effort to package religion in terms amenable to a secular audience, and to foreground the role that religion plays in contemporary violence. The reality, though, is that we now live in an era in which the most-read online article is Graeme Wood’s “What ISIS Really Wants” (which contains the lines, “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.”) and the political establishment is caught in a passionate debate about whether to call terrorists “violent extremists” or “Islamic radicals.” Many now acknowledge the explicit role that religion plays in motivating at least some of this violence, and the critical work of scholarship is to nuance this debate. Selengut’s approach is consequently troubling and counterproductive.

The book remains important and worthwhile because it offers one of only a few interdisciplinary analyses of the relationship between religion and violence. Unfortunately, its significant issues complicate its utility in the context of research and teaching.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Megan K. McBride is a scholar of religion and a post-doctoral fellow in national security studies at the US Naval War College. The views expressed here are her own, and do not represent the views of the US government.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charles Selengut is professor of sociology at County College of Morris and former professor of religion at Drew University. He is the author of several books, including Our Promised Land: Faith and Militant Zionism in Israeli Settlements.


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