A Morality Tale

book examines psychology of religious violence

Amanda Schaefer, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

Holy wars, crusades and the new era of terrorism in the name of God – in the face of modern and historic religious violence, many people ask “Why?” Religious violence is not a new phenomenon, but with modern weapons technology, it has become an increasingly threatening one. Many scholars have taken various viewpoints to try to explain why people kill in the name of God – political, economic, biological – but oddly enough, the psychological viewpoint behind religious violence has been largely unexplored.

This viewpoint has been recently explored in More Moral Than God: Taking Responsibility for Religious Violence, a new book by Dr. Charlene Burns, a religious studies professor at UW-Eau Claire. Published in July by Rowman & Littlefield, this book explores the link between human psychology and religious violence. In it, she also implores readers to strive to understand this link and take responsibility for the presence of religious violence in the world.

Burns has always been interested in human belief, but found it impossible to fully understand religious faith without exploring the link between it and human psychology. Burns wanted to write this book to bring her understanding of psychology and religion to the conversation about religious violence. She tackles claims that getting rid of religion will get rid of violence in the world – a claim she regards as completely unhelpful. Many good things come from faith, she says, and blaming an abstract notion for very concrete and dangerous outcomes is a faulty conception. Burns is sure to remind us that “Religion can’t do anything. People make choices, commit acts, and sometimes use ‘religion’ as the explanation of these choices.”

Burns also illustrates the distinction between religious violence and terrorism. Terrorism is an act of violence employed by a marginalized group in order to draw attention to their plight. This can be religiously motivated, but not all religious violence must be terrorism. Burns cites examples of religious violence perpetrated by powerful religious groups, including the Christian Crusades and Buddhist-Hindu conflicts in Sri Lanka. She also makes the clarification between the metaphysical God and one’s God image. Violence performed presumably in the name of God is actually performed in the name of one’s God image, because the real God’s mind and motives are unknowable.

This is where the psychology comes in. Burns has chosen a Jungian psychoanalytic framework for her analysis. She cites the familiarity with Jung in the Western world, as well as his work on how people construct images of the divine. She defines the origin of much religious violence as a destabilization of the God image. Destabilization is a challenge to one’s God image (and therefore one’s worldview) in the form of an encounter with a different religion. The God image has more to do with one’s self than the metaphysical God, so this kind of destabilization can be incredibly threatening. Most people handle these challenges peacefully. But there are those who react violently.

Burns hopes to move the dialogue on religious violence away from blame and towards personal responsibility. When we realize how we shape our God images to justify our actions, we will be more careful when talking about God, and eventually religious violence will decrease.

Personal responsibility for the murderous deeds done in God’s name is scary. It is not something most want to hear. But the refreshing and logical psychoanalytic view Burns presents in More Moral Than God makes this responsibility empowering and progressive. She has charged us with creating peace within our minds so that we can start building peace in the world.