Religion, Law and Violence: The State's Efforts at Taming the Beast

David E. Guinn

SUNY Center for International Development

June 9, 2010


Religion represents one of the most powerful and volatile social forces confronted by the state. It predates the state and, by its own confession, promises to outlive the state. Through its ability to meet the spiritual and existential needs of people, it unites and motivates its adherents far more effectively than any other social institution – or the state itself. When directed towards violence, religious followers act with abandon. As such, throughout recorded history the state has sought to control religion, through law, so as to harness its power for state purposes and avoid religion becoming a threat to its own control or its very existence.

In the West, analysis of religion, law and violence has focused on the development of laws protecting religious freedom and the non-establishment of religion both domestically and internationally as a defense against religiously identified violence. These approaches, however, represent only two strands among the complicated web of legal relationships between the state and religiously associated violence developed and practiced throughout the world. Moreover, they are culturally contingent approaches, drawing their salience from the broader development of political liberalism. They focus on only one understanding of religion and a narrow interpretation of religiously associated violence. This leads to misunderstandings between the West and the rest of the world in international efforts to confront the challenges of religiously identified violence.

In order to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the relationships between the law and religiously identified violence, in this chapter I will analyze two typologies of relationships between religion and the state: first, those in which the state seeks to harness the power of religion for its own ends; and second, those in which the state seeks to avoid domestic threats posed by religion. I will then consider the limitations of each approach in addressing religiously identified violence in the domestic and international context. In pursuing this analysis, I adopt more encompassing definitions of religion and violence than that commonly used in the literature.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 26

Keywords: Religion, Violence, Conflict, Liberalism, Jihad, Religious Freedom, Religious Tolerance, Diversity, Pluralism

JEL Classification: K19, K33, K49

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Date posted: June 9, 2010  

Suggested Citation

Guinn, David E., Religion, Law and Violence: The State's Efforts at Taming the Beast (June 9, 2010). BLACKWELL COMPANION TO RELIGION AND VIOLENCE, Andrew R. Murphy, ed., Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1622750

Contact Information

David E. Guinn (Contact Author)
SUNY Center for International Development ( email )
State University Plaza
Albany, NY 12246
United States
HOME PAGE: http://www.cid.suny.edu
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