Religion-sanctioned violence has a long (overly long) pedigree. Early myths going all the way back to the Sumerians incorporate violence on the part of the gods. Depending on one’s school of interpretation, this could be seen as “form following function” — people saw the violence inherent in nature and projected its causation onto the source of nature, namely, the gods. Ancient people did not perceive of the world in terms of natural phenomena. “Nature” behaved the way it did with will and reason, the will and reason of the gods.
The stories preserved from ancient Ugarit stand as witness to this conceptual world. In one story, Kirta by title, the eponymous king Kirta seeks a family and has his wish granted by El and Baal. Hedging his bets, he makes a vow to Asherah that he forgets to fulfill. Asherah sees to it that Kirta’s divine gift comes undone. More obvious is the tale of Aqhat, another divinely granted child. Aqhat is given a bow by the craftsman god Kothar-wa-Hasis, only to have it coveted by Anat. When he refuses to release it to the goddess he is unfortunately pecked to death in a hitchcockian demise by a swarm of buzzards with attitudes. Violence is introduced into the human realm by the gods themselves.
Today, some 3,000 years after Ugarit, we still find ourselves living with violence sanctioned by religion. Whether it is as obvious as extremist factions of a religion calling for outright attacks on others, or as subtle as self-professed righteous believers destroying a colleague’s career in the name of Jesus, religion is used as a mental crutch for striking others. While I can not walk all the way with Christopher Hitchens, I do have to acknowledge that when it comes to human-on-human violence religion is a socially accepted motivation, no matter how pure its original intentions.