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on March 29, 2016
Eller creates a well rounded argument for the relationship between violence and religion. The book starts out by examining both, What is Violence and What is Religion, before plunging you headlong into a unique investigation of the topic. Eller does a wonderful job of transcending beyond the typical narrative of 'Religion = Bad' or 'Religion = Good' and provides an opportunity for sincere contemplation about the cultural interplay between the two topics.
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This well balanced book is a reasonable addition to studies in violence. Jack David Eller writes from an anthropological perspective on the issue of violence and religion and pretty much shows, implicitly, how secular, "religious" violence generally is. He correctly acknowledges that both religions of Atheism (nontheism if you like) and Theism neither promote violence inherently by nature nor do they promote non-violence inherently by nature. He fairly details many examples from different cultures including indigenous societies which show the true diversity in atheistic and theistic religiosity and the complex views on violence by many religious cultures (European Christians, Atheists, Buddhists,Middle Eastern Muslims, Pacific Islanders, Australian Aborigines, Native Americans, African Tribes, Asians, etc) and the underlying secular foundations for much of the religious violence that occurs.

For example, in his other writings he mentions that the clashes between "Protestants" and "Catholics" in Northern Ireland are really fueled by the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, not Christianity.

A book that is highly recommended that questions whether religious violence is really different than secular violence, is The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. This will at least broaden the perspective on violence in general and its universality.

When one conducts a primary analysis of primary documents on events that are dubbed as "religious wars" or "religious violence" one can see that secular influences (community cohesion, national security, territory, resources, socioeconomic conditions, foreign invasion, etc.) are the primary motivating factors that influence these matters. For example, please read actual documents from the Crusades in The First Crusade: "The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres" and Other Source Materials (The Middle Ages Series) and the Spanish Inquisition The Spanish Inquisition, 1478-1614: An Anthology of Sources. Eller concedes that even in the witch hunts, many people were not sure that witches even existed or if they were even that common in their societies. Please read actual primary documents on this as well in The Witchcraft Sourcebook.

Throughout the book the reader can expect constant reminders on how religions are not inherently prone to generate violence or nonviolence and there are periodic reminders that secular violence (which is the norm worldwide through history up to the present) should not be ignored since most wars (World Wars, Civil Wars, etc) and other conflicts (Revolutions, disturbances, etc.) through time have had little to do with theistic or atheistic religion fundamentally as a source of motivation. For example, the US has had mainly secular wars (Civil, World, Cold, Terrorism) and conflicts, though the US is a "religious" country.

In fact in the end of some of the chapters (Ch. 2 and Ch. 4 for example) have summary lists of aspects of "religion" that may allow for violence to occur. However, when one reads these points one cannot but help to make the link of how the same points are also aspects of the "secular" that equally lead to the allowance of violence to occur.

Each chapter is broken into subsections which include generalized examples from multiple cultures based on a given topic - giving specialized examples when needed and thus providing multiple case studies. This gives more of a balanced look at violence from a global perspective than the common Judeo-Christianity-Islam oriented books on religious violence which are very common and usually erroneous.

Here are the names of the chapters, subsections, and actual or abridged headings on cultures and topics discussed in the subsections (in parentheses). This list is not exhaustive:

Ch. 1 "Understanding Violence"

What is violence?
What makes violence possible - and likely?
A model of expanding violence (Integration into Groups, Identity, Institutions, Interests, Ideology)
Conclusion: Hurting without feeling bad - or feeling anything at all

Ch. 2 "Understanding Religion"

What is religion?
Populating the religious domain: Beings, Forces, and "Types" of religion (Religious Beings "Nonhuman", Religious Beings "Human", Religious Forces)
"Local" vs "World" religions
Functions of religion: explanation, control, and legitimation
Conclusion: society, supernatural agents, and violence

Ch. 3 "Sacrifice"

What is sacrifice?
The diversity of sacrifice (Animal Sacrifice, Judaism, Hinduism, Pre-Christian Europe, Africa, Human Sacrifice, Judeo-Christian Human Sacrifice, Pre-Christian Europe Human Sacrifice, Pacific Islander Human Sacrifice, African Kingdom Human Sacrifice, Mesoamerican Human Sacrifice)
Theories of sacrifice: Girard and Burkert
Toward a better understanding of sacrifice (Religious Doctrine and Reenactment of Myth, Legitimation of Political Order, Religious Economy of Life)

Ch. 4 "Self-Injury"

Religious self-mortification: a cry of pain to the spirits (Australian Aborigines, Shamans, Malaysia, Sambia, Penitence and Self-Flagellation, Sati (Widow Self-Immolation) in India, Collective Suicide)
Acetism: religious athletes (Christianity, Hinduism and Related Traditions)
Pain, but what gain? (Achievements of Altered States of Consciousness, Discipline and Focus)
Martyrdom: death on principal (Judaism, Christianity, Islam)
The selfish selflessness of martyrs and self-mortifiers

Ch. 5 "Persecution"

What is persecution? (Prejudice and Power, Violence Against the Intolerable)
Early persecution of Christians
Early persecution by Christians (Medieval Inquisition, Persecution of Jews)
Persecution in Islam
Persecution on witches
Persecution of religion by antireligion
Persecution by the American religious right
The virtues of persecuting - and being persecuted

Ch. 6 "Ethnoreligious Conflict"

Ethnicity, culture, religion, conflict (Sacred Nation)
Ethnoreligious conflict in the modern world (Sri Lanka, Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Nigeria)
Why ethnoreligious conflict now?

Ch. 7 "War"

The "Religion" and the "War" in "Religious War" (Varieties of War, "Just War", "Holy War" and Dualistic Religions)
Religious war among the ancient Hebrews
"Holy War" in Christianity: the Crusades
"Holy War" in Christianity: the European religious wars
The Tiaping "rebellion" in China
Islam and jihad (A Few Words on Terrorism)
War in Hinduism
"Fighting Orders": saintly soldiers
The mythology of war

Ch. 8 "Homicide and Abuse"

When is religious crime "religious" and "crime"?
Religious homicide (Thugge, Sati and "Dowry Death" in India, Honor Killing, Family Killing Among Christian Fundamentalists, Rajneeshism, Killing of Theo van Gogh, "Soldiers of Christ": Christian Killers)
Religious abuse: women and spouses (Judeo-Christianity, Islam, Other Religions Other Abuses)
Religious abuse of children (Genital Mutilation, Child Burying in India, Recruiting Children for the Lord's Resistance Army, Clergy Sexual Abuse, Medical Neglect)
But religion is supposed to make people "good" and "moral"

Ch. 9 "Religion and Nonviolence"

What is nonviolence? (Varieties of Nonviolence, A Nonviolent Society: Semai of Malaysia)
Religions of nonviolence (Buddhism, Jainism, Piaroa, Christianity)
The religious contribution to nonviolence (Instinct and the Individual, Integration into Groups, Identity, Institutions, Interests, Ideology)

The book is pretty objective for the most part since there is even a small section on religious violence done by atheists (what Eller names "antireligion"). This shows how honest the book is going to be - especially since Jack David Eller is an atheist who has published on the topic of atheism before. He is not shy about talking about violence and atheism. However, it must be noted that the section on atheistic violence is very short. In order to supplement this section I provide a few resources that expand knowledge on the more common secular violence, atheist violence, and even supernatural atheist violence The Irrational Atheist: Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris, And Hitchens (which has tables on genocide under atheist governments and talks about religious violence), Death by Government (great source for genocide by secular governments), The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization, and Buddhism and Violence (Publications of the Lumbini International Research Institute, Nepal). This will give researchers more perspective on violence in general.

For a deep analysis of suicide terrorism and its causes and motives, please read Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. This book is one of the best to study rigorously the dynamics and reasons for suicide terrorism. It includes lots of tables and graphs and is considered to be the most detailed study on suicide terrorism to date - including a database of all suicide attacks from 1980 - 2003 with details on where and how they were done. Suicide terrorism is more secular based than generally presumed and in this book there is even focus on Atheist suicide terrorism - "the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam" or "Tamil Tigers" - which are known to be Atheists and secular suicide terrorists with an impressive rate of causing 76 out of 315 suicide terrorist attacks from 1980 to 2003 according to Pape's data. Another estimate was 168 out of 273 suicide attacks from (Rohan Gunaratna, "Suicide Terrorism: A Global Threat", Jane's Intelligence Review, 20 October 2000). According to the FBI, see comment section for the FBI webpage, they invented and perfected the use of suicide belts, pioneered women suicide terrorists, and have taken out 2 world leaders - the only organization to do this. They have perfected the suicide vest.

One issue I do have with the book is that though Eller does a very balanced job in representing the dynamics of many cultures (current and historical) and violence, he does get sloppy when he tries to link America's "high religiosity" with "high violence" to prove that religion and violence are not contradictory in Chapter 8 - which no one denies. The main issue with this is that he just correlates high religiosity to high levels of crime in the US, which of course anyone who has been around convicts or worked with criminals (I work right next to a Los Angeles County Corrections Department), can easily see that convicts and criminals are not the most "religious" people you will find. The high levels of crimes in the US are very similar to the high levels of crimes in Russia, which has a majority of "nonreligious" people. In a superpower nation like the US which has more people, more racial and cultural diversity than any other country in the world, is involved in more international issues, and is surrounded by poor nations, then a decent amount of crimes must be expected. Socioeconomic conditions and the drug trade are the most important factors in generating crime in the US - that's why gangs have grown rapidly in size in the past few decades. Increases in crime are related often with the drug trade and economics. See comments section for more on this.

Eller makes a slight claim that Bible Belt South has more violence than Northern states. However, one must remember that its not because of "religion" but because of the drug trade, socioeconomic conditions, and cultural diversity. For example, Mexico alone has reeked havoc with the massive drug trade which fuels gang activities nationwide and explains why the southern states have more violence than the Northern states - the most fierce competition for drugs and distribution rights stem from the southern US border and the rest of the South and moves upwards to the Northeast, Northwest, and Midwest. Its interesting how the Southern US is more violent than the Northern US and how Northern Mexico is more violent than Southern Mexico. Please look at gang violence on the FBI's website and also in Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?. All of this violence is secular of course. See comments section for more on this.

Since 2006 to June 2011 40,000 dead in Mexico alone due to the drug wars.

I will provide links to resources on measuring the quality of life and crime rates internationally in the comments section below. At least Eller notes that not all crimes are religious, even though he should have written that the overwhelming vast majority have nothing to do with religion at all.

Another issue is that Eller blames maltreatment of women or male dominance in the US on Christianity. This is also an unwise opinion since many Christian organizations have made shelters for battered women (one of my co-workers was from one of them) as a response for reducing abuse and reversing the negative images women have made for themselves in American culture through time. Also one could argue that if the "highly religious" US has eased violence towards women by ignoring issues, then one can say that the same "highly religious" US has facilitated women empowerment and independence as well. Even still women do not seem to take an initiative to learn how to defend themselves physically knowing that they can be victimized more so than men. This has puzzled me. Eller at least mentions other cultures like the typical Indian sati "widow suicide" to give a broader view of violence and women.

Atheistic Asian countries have more cultural indifference to women and women's issues, than Europe or the US. You can read abut their harder struggles against male dominance in:

"Families in Asia: Home and Kin" by Stella R. Quash. (I provide a link for it in the Comments section for those interested in a more global perspective on treatment of women in other cultures.)

Bravo to Jack David Eller's book! I strongly recommend it to whoever is interested in studying violence in general.

In the end, Jack David Eller recognizes that religion and secularity are not separate but combined and he mentions how religious people are also secular people at the same time and that secularity is a necessary partner to religion - inevitably and inherently.
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on May 18, 2011
If given the option, I would have rated this book 4.5 stars. It is not a 5-star masterpiece, but it is quite good. Dr. Eller is an anthropologist but his book draws heavily on sociology and history as well. It is a trans-historical, trans-cultural, non-ideological survey of the relationship between violence and religion by a self-pronounced non-religious person. It is encyclopedic in its range but very readable. You will encounter a discussion of all levels of violence, from self-harm to holy war, from ancient times to the present, in the East and West, across pre-modern and industrialized cultures. In general, Dr. Eller presents detached analysis based on facts, not uncorrobated, self-important opinion. The last chapter is on non-violence, of which Eller is a proponent. This book reads like a series of engaging college lectures. If you are like me, in the end you may just wish you could take his class.

For this fellow non-religious person, it is a welcome antidote to the recent, popular religion-is-the-root-of-all-evil polemics. Thank you, Dr. Eller, for adding your reasoned voice to this (over-) heated debate.

S. Anne Johnson,
author of "The Spiritual Life of An Atheist" blog at wordpress.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon March 7, 2011
Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence Across Culture and History by Jack David Eller

"Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence..." is a scholarly, thoroughly researched book that focuses on the many manifestations of religious violence in an even-handed manner. The 451-page book is an ambitious work composed of the following nine chapters: 1. Understanding Violence, 2. Understanding Religion, 3. Sacrifice, 4. Self-Injury, 5. Persecution, 6. Ethnoreligious Conflict, 7. War, 8. Homicide and Abuse, and 9. Religion and Nonviolence.

1. A scholarly effort that provides great case samples of religious violence throughout our planet's history.
2. A well-written, well-researched effort that is treated with the utmost of care and respect.
3. I love the perspective that an accomplished anthropologist provides to this topic.
4. A thorough and objective look at violence of all kinds.
5. Covers all the major religions including Eastern religions and various cults.
6. Fascinating look at sacrificial rituals. It has given me a better understanding of the significance behind them.
7. Some rituals will leave you speechless.
8. Interesting history of religious mass suicides.
9. You will end up with a much better understanding of the basic philosophies of religions across the planet.
10. Great historical accounts of persecution...this is where this book shines brightest.
11. Inquisitions, Crusades, Thirty Years' War...oh my.
12. Great explanations on the kinds of wars and how they are justified.
13. Religion and politics and the implications...
14. Religion can be so cruel. Some notorious cases in detail.
15. Religious terrorism and how it is viewed from the perpetrator's point of view.
16. Religions' attitudes toward women.
17. Some data will flabbergast you.
18. Even handed approach on human violence even though this books focus is on the religious variety.
19. A just final chapter on religious nonviolence.
20. An extensive bibliography.

1. The book feels a bit uneven. That is, the author takes too long to build the foundation of the book but once it was established the book takes off.
2. It requires an investment of time but it will reward you with wisdom.
3. Illustrations would have been a nice addition to compliment the topics.
4. Links don't work on the Kindle, arg. A well-researched book like this deserved better.

In summary, this is a book worth reading. It provides a new perspective on rituals. It is a thought-provoking, fascinating and ambitious topic and the author rewards his readers with an excellent book. I'm looking forward to reading more books from Mr. Eller. I am waiting for some of his previous great work to be available on the Kindle.

Further recommendations: "Society without God" by Phil Zuckerman, "50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God" by Guy P. Harrison, "The Religion Virus" by Craig A. James, "The Evolution of God" by Robert Wright, and "God is Not Great" by Christopher Hitchens.
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on November 6, 2015
Excellent overview of the nasty nature of some belief systems.
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