Today while watching the latest reports on the missing girls of Nigeria I heard the reporter reference ongoing Muslim/Christian tensions in the north of the country. And I thought to myself: “I wonder how many anti-religious zealots will place that factoid into their long list of examples of how religion is uniquely productive of conflict?” If my past experience is any guide, the answer is: many. Since the incendiary rhetoric of the new atheists went mainstream a decade ago, the maxim that religion is uniquely productive of conflict has become a piece of received wisdom as obvious as the fact that you ought not lick brightly colored Bolivian tree frogs.
But really, is there any evidence that “religion” as a discrete entity is more productive of conflict than, say, politics or sports?
Consider the latter. Fifteen years ago when I lived in London I was walking along the sidewalk near Paddington Station when I noticed that the police had closed the street down and two dozen bobbies were milling about. I went up to one of the officers and asked what was going on. He replied by pointing his night stick at two pubs kitty-corner to each other on the intersection. “Right now,” he said, “there is a football match going on, and these two pubs are hosting fans of the opposing clubs during the match. In the past the fans have tended to riot with each other after the game, so we’re here to keep everybody moving.”
Fight over a soccer match? Are you kidding?
By this time you might be thinking that the problem isn’t soccer. It’s the fans. And you’d be right.
Mutatis mutandis for politics.