In How can I convince members of peaceful religions to start a holy war?, I made one critical assumption: Religious groups can be peaceful. As four separate people expressed some doubts on that assumption. This worried me slightly, and given that I think their points could be valid, I would like a complete answer to the question.

Can there be a religious group that will not commit religious violence?

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2015 at 3:35
  • $\begingroup$ "How can I convince members of peaceful religions to start a holy war?" Tell one half of them their deity's name is spelled with an "i", and tel the other half it is spelled with an "e". That is quite sufficient! $\endgroup$
    – user79911
    Nov 3, 2020 at 10:08

16 Answers 16


I think there is a distinction to be made here between a pacifist religion and a pacifist people.

There are plenty of religions that espouse pacifism to various degrees. Some allow violence as a means of self-defense, others deny the right of the individual to commit violent acts on behalf of a nation or government. Some forms of Christianity fall under the latter category, which may be a driving factor for why the military allows conscientious observers to opt out on religious grounds.

Individuals can also be pacifists. Mahatma Gandhi is probably one of the most famous pacifists. While he himself practiced pacifism, he admitted that not everyone could be a pacifist and, thus, not everyone should be. Pacifism is, in effect, antithetical to evolution. Those who are unwilling to harm another, even in self-defense, are liable to have their genes quickly removed from the gene pool.

There is, however, an example of a purely pacifist religion on Earth: Jainism. This is probably one of the oldest religions we know of. The core tenet of Jainism is ahimsa, or the concept of absolute non-violence.

A community of people who are all dedicated to the Jainism religion would, therefore, never commit violence in the name of their religion (or in the name of anything else).

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    $\begingroup$ just as an interesting side note, Gandhi was not as much a pacifist as some believe. Oh yes he did believe that non-violent protest was best and encourage it, but he has gone on record saying that it was best to act to stop injustice then take no action, even if that meant using force. He was less "force is always wrong" and more "Force could be justified at times, but in this case, and many others, there are better alternatives". $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Jul 15, 2015 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ It's important to note the Jainist are always embedded in other societies, almost always Hindu. The Jainist do not rule and are not responsible for enforcing law nor providing defense. So, its easy to act the pacifist when someone else protects you form attack. $\endgroup$
    – TechZen
    Jul 16, 2015 at 2:57
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    $\begingroup$ In some cases Jains try to avoid killing insects and bacteria. So I'd not say they don't have any qualms about it - just in some cases its unavoidable. $\endgroup$ Jul 16, 2015 at 3:32
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    $\begingroup$ Counldn't find a decent reference to support that but from "Jain vegetarianism" on wikipedia is Strict Jains do not consume food that has been stored overnight, as it possesses a higher concentration of micro-organisms (for example, bacteria, yeast etc.) as compared to food prepared and consumed the same day. (Blergh wikipedia reference - sigh). $\endgroup$ Jul 16, 2015 at 3:38
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    $\begingroup$ @ParthianShot Jainism beliefs can include sweeping the ground where they are about to step to prevent stepping on anything that could be harmed, and they ideally end their life through starvation, refusing to harm anything. $\endgroup$
    – Emerson
    Jul 16, 2015 at 6:04

The answer is both yes and no. There exist religions which are entirely peaceful or pacifist. However even in those cases there are exceptions. In general power will attract people who like power, and those people will then try to keep or expand that power. Violence is a very attractive way to do this.

Even religions which are themselves peaceful may need to defend themselves from other non-peaceful people (whether religious or not).

As a result most truly peaceful religions tend to be small pacifist sects with no real power or wealth. Even in those though you often get splinters, off shoots, or changes in direction over time where violence becomes accepted.

Buddhism is a great example here. The central tenants of Buddhism are very peaceful. To quote wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_and_violence

One of the Five Precepts of Buddhist ethics or śīla states, "I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing." The Buddha is quoted in the Dhammapada as saying, "All are afraid of the stick, all hold their lives dear. Putting oneself in another's place, one should not beat or kill others"

It is clear that this is a religion that holds non-violence as important. Indeed of all the major world religions it probably has the best record on that score, and yet there are many cases of violence on record. See here for another article on this specific subject where it says.

But however any religion starts out, sooner or later it enters into a Faustian pact with state power. Buddhist monks looked to kings, the ultimate wielders of violence, for the support, patronage and order that only they could provide. Kings looked to monks to provide the popular legitimacy that only such a high moral vision can confer. The result can seem ironic. If you have a strong sense of the overriding moral superiority of your worldview, then the need to protect and advance it can seem the most important duty of all.

Christian crusaders, Islamist militants, or the leaders of "freedom-loving nations", all justify what they see as necessary violence in the name of a higher good. Buddhist rulers and monks have been no exception.

All Abrahamic religions have "thou shalt not kill" as one of the main commandments, and yet crusades, jihad, genocide, etc. have all been parts of these religions.

Christianity in particular has the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus Commands all his follows to turn the other cheek and confront violence with not more violence (which is a precept in Islam and Judaism) but with compassion.

So realistically speaking, while a pacifist religion is possible unless that religion is small and localised there will always be members of that religion who resort to violence.

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    $\begingroup$ It's worth pointing out that Buddha was kshatriya, or part of the class of military elite. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Jul 15, 2015 at 17:55
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    $\begingroup$ It's also worth mentioning that "Thou shalt not kill." isn't the first commandment. It's 6th. $\endgroup$ Jul 15, 2015 at 20:29
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    $\begingroup$ The 6h commandment is actually, "thou shalt not murder" i.e. kill for selfish personal reason without the consent of law or society. After, all the books of Leviticus have a lot of capital crimes. $\endgroup$
    – TechZen
    Jul 15, 2015 at 22:21
  • $\begingroup$ It may be the sixth Commandment, but it's clearly the first Lay Precept, and is not restricted to humans but to all animal life as far as practical. (and it is pointed out that even vegetarian farming unavoidably involves killing insects) $\endgroup$ Jul 16, 2015 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ AFAIR, there's at least one strain of Buddhism (forgot the name) that is not quite as peacful as majority of mainline ones. $\endgroup$
    – user4239
    Jul 17, 2015 at 17:48


There can be a religion that preaches non-violence, from Buddhism (though, I don't really consider it a religion) to fun, modern ones, such as the Church of the Spaghetti Monster. Similarly, one might consider Atheism a religion, as "religion" is defined as a collection of beliefs or world views.

The reason, however, that I say you will never be a religious group that does not commit violence, is because you are including individuals. In any situation or culture, you have people committing violence in the name of their religion: even Buddhists.

You can have a religion that promotes non-violence, but you cannot expect comprehensive adherence of the individuals.

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    $\begingroup$ The linked wikipedia article doesn't really support considering atheism as a religion if you look past the first sentence. $\endgroup$
    – Geobits
    Jul 16, 2015 at 3:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Geobits Depending on interpretation, some of the ideas in the "definition" section could apply (I am of the firm belief that atheism is a set of religious beliefs, even if not a formal religion so I am apt to reinterpret to that POV of course). $\endgroup$
    – Emerson
    Jul 16, 2015 at 6:22

Short Answer: Your questions seems premised on the idea that religion in particular causes violence. There is no evidence to that effect.

It's better to ask if any group of humans will, given the power to do so, never commit violence against other groups. Evolutionary theory says no. If we believe we can benefit from from violence we will use it. We don't need religion to justify warfare, we can always find an excuse. Religion likely stops more wars than it enables.

The key factor in violence is a group of humans acquiring the ability to profitably commit violence against others. It is the capacity to profit from violence that comes first. All rationalizations on the morality of the violence, including religious ones, come later.

In the case of large organized religions, this usually means become allied with some state and becoming an established religion. When the religion becomes an arm of the state, the potential for violence is very high.

Religion disconnected from the state cause little violence and the more disconnected from the state, the less violence they cause.

Outlaw sects hiding in the shadows of the state rarely cause violence. Christianity existed peacefully for over 300 years in the Roman Empire. It was not until it became a state religion that we see begin to be used to rationalize violence. The same pattern occurred in Buddhism.

Conversely, Islam has militarism built into its core. Unlike, Jesus and Buddha, Mohamed was a military leader (and a very good one) yet during the Islamic golden age, Islamic polities were beacons of learning, trade, tolerance and in many wide areas, extremely peaceful compared to their contemporaries. Even, though many interpretations of the Koran seem to require Muslims to war constantly against the infidels, historically they only do so when war confer some material advantage.

Clearly, the effects of religion itself in promoting warfare if fairly minor and is overshadowed by more materialistic concerns and motives.

Long answer:

Religion is not especially violent. Objectively, in the last two hundred years, materialist atheist have proven much more brutal, bloody and warlike than the religious in the same time period. Every atheist dominated polity since the French Revolution as turned instantly muderolus and warring.

The 20th century is largely the story of the war against murderous states with ideologies founded in materialistic atheism, who adopted notionally secular ideologies but which functioned as religions in terms of their absolutism. It appears that if people do away with a supernatural religion, they just reinvent the same functional structure using a made up materialistic explanation. We get the worst of religion with none of its built in moral restraint.

I would also note that the idea that "religions cause wars" is fallacious. People fight whomever is nearest and the vast majority of wars are fought between coreligionist. It's impossible to point to a war which was caused purely or even primarily by religion. Instead, all notionally "religious wars" arise from a complex combinations of dynastic ambitions, lust for wealth by conquest, counter-attacks etc which are just wrapped up into religion.

Its also common for combatants to jump across religious lines in search of allies. France famously funded the Ottoman Empires attacks against the Holy Roman Empire to split its attention between the Ottomans and the rest of Europe. France also, though a Catholic country, funded the Protestants, particularly Gustave Aldophus of Sweden in the 30 years war.

Cromwell fought the Protestant Dutch, then allied with Catholic France against Catholic Spain.

The Christians dominated liberal-democracies allied with the atheist Soviets during WWII. (Even though the Soviets had destroyed the churches in their own domain and declared they would do the same every where when they conquered the world as "historical inevitability said they would.)

Religion relates to fostering war only in that makes people more militarily effective. The function of religion is to foster cooperation between co-religionist. Military success is all about internal cohesion and cooperation. The more internally cohesive and cooperative a religion makes a people, the more militarily effective it makes them. Historically, militarily effective peoples have also been deeply religious e.g. Sparta, Rome.

Historically, "religious wars" have just been the means to increase cooperation across political boundaries in order to fight larger wars.

The Famous Crusades where just a counterattack against the massive conquest of Christians lands the Islam's had carried out over the prior 400 years (itself land grabs more than Jihads.) Muslims and Christians spent most of their time fighting each other but by evoking religion, The Popes and the Mediterranean kingdoms, hoped to push the Muslims back or distract. They choose the holy land not only for its symbolic significance but because it was accessible by sea and not very mountainous.

Ventians provided the transport even though they made most of their money trading with the levant.

The Muslims at the time where busy fighting each other and pretty much ignored the invasion for two centuries as the Holy Land was not otherwise significant territory. When Saladin finally wiped out enough Muslim competitors to establish a broad kingdom, he just brushed the "Frankish Kingdoms" aside, even though they were nearly two centuries old at that time.

Historical evidence shows that the world's major religions suppress warfare internally strong textby making cooperation the ideal moral behavior. As religions become larger and larger, the rate of human on human violence drops.

The upshot is that is seems impossible for any group of humans for justifying war if the payoff seems high enough. We'll find a rationalization and cram it into whatever religion, ideology, philosophy or science we have on hand to justify our war.

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    $\begingroup$ In lieu of flagging, I asked a question on meta. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jul 16, 2015 at 23:20
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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Jul 17, 2015 at 23:05

The ancient (hellenistic) Greeks were very pious, and did not fight wars of religion.They fought wars for other reasons, and saw no benefit to dragging their gods into it.

The hellenistic Greeks took their religion very seriously. They spent lavishly on votive offerings and piously observed festival days. Despite having the tactical advantage, the greek warriors at the Battle of Halys held off their attack because of an eclipse (known in advance), which they interpreted as an omen of warning from the gods.

Alexander the Great famously allowed and encouraged conquered peoples to keep their own religions, going so far as to recast himself as the appropriate god-king in the appropriate place (it helped that most of the Greeks' neighbor cultures had god-kings in that time).

Obviously, the Greeks had wars of aggression. But the moral authority for these wars did not come from religion; In antiquity "I am stronger than you and I want your land" was reason enough to conquer another people.

The bottom line is that societies will have wars. If they can think up reasons to have those wars that don't include religion, the conquerors will be just as happy to leave religion a peaceful thing.

Reading between the lines though, I think you were asking if you could create a peaceful society through religion. I would argue that this reverses cause and effect; Ideologies cause people to go to war far less often than people who want to go to war come up with ideologies that will allow them to do that.

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    $\begingroup$ Really? Your answer gets 5 upvotes? Did nobody on this site read Iliad??? Every other event was done for godly reasons; a bunch of times gods explicitly "helped" (Athena driving a warlord's chariot, anyone). Let's not forget taht the whole sad story was blamed on an Olympian's beauty contest as a root event. Sorry, -1. $\endgroup$
    – user4239
    Jul 17, 2015 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ The Iliad was a work of fiction, composed centuries after the events described (if they ever happened in the first place). Coupled with the fact that the poem describes things such as human sacrifice and unmediated mortal-god contact which are elsewhere proscribed by other discussions of the divine, I have a hard time counting the Iliad as evidence of how the Greeks actually did anything. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Jul 20, 2015 at 19:48
  • $\begingroup$ @user4239 Some historians after the fact have speculated that the Iliad might have been a "just so" story for a conflict whose real purpose was over trade routes or some longstanding rivalry and adding Helen of Troy made it simpler and more interesting in the retelling. Even in a literal reading of the Iliad, the reason for war wasn't "those guys believe in different gods than us" (they had the same pantheons) but "that guy stole the king's wife". $\endgroup$ Jun 12, 2020 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ @user2352714 - correct, but their most eduring and main cultural artifact (or at least one of the...), explicitly propagated the idea of a religious violence, regardless of the base human nature of the underlying events in real history. Crusades were mostly about economics IRL, yet they are considered a "religious" war. Spanish cared far more about gold than saving souls in the New World. I don't even have enough space in this comment to analyze the secular nature of 30 years war. $\endgroup$
    – user4239
    Jun 12, 2020 at 17:43

No, if we are making these assumptions:

  • The religion will spread across geography, culture and time.
  • The religion includes any types of imperatives regarding morality or behavior.
  • The religion exists in a world populated either by humans or by beings with the same basic nature as humans.
  • The religion exists in a world lacking any extraordinary circumstances which could enforce nonviolent behavior.
  • "Religious violence" occurs when a statistically significant percentage of the religion's followers believe the violence to be justified by the religion, even if this is disputed by the majority, religious leaders, or sacred text.

Simply put, as any group (but especially a religion) grows, its belief set will be diluted and trend toward that of the overall population (i.e. human nature + cultural norms of the time). If a true believer makes 5 converts, at least one of them will not be fully converted, but believe, say, 90% of the doctrine and 10% of what they previously believed. These "lesser" converts will in turn convert others, some of whom won't quite believe everything the person converting them does. There may be a thriving group of fundamentalists keeping true to the faith, but there will inevitably a significant amount of people who identify as followers of the religion who will believe most of the core tenets but see the religion as flexible enough to allow for their variations (which will, the majority of the time, align with basic human nature).

Once any number of these people exist and enough time passes, an act of violence will occur and the religion will be used as justification. It doesn't matter if 95% of the religion speaks out against the event; if 5% believe it was justified, religious violence occurred. (I doubt you could find a Christian today that would advocate exterminating the Jewish people, but Hitler was able to persuade enough people to act on his fringe beliefs.)

However, one could theoretically exist in a world sufficiently different from ours.

Assume the opposite of any of the assumptions above and one can imagine scenarios that would make a completely nonviolent religious group possible. For example:

  • The religion never spreads beyond an isolated paradisaical island where the inhabitants want for nothing. There are enough resources that those who are driven to have more can obtain it without taking it from others. There is never enough conflict for religious violence to arise.

  • The religion makes so few or insignificant claims that we barely recognize it as one. Imagine if all Christianity taught was that the first humans were named Adam in Eve. It's possible that some of this kind of religion's followers would use their religion to justify violence, but exceedingly unlikely, especially compared to the likelihood of religious violence in more assertive religions.

  • The religion exists on a world where people are blindly and absolutely obedient. Imagine people with personalities more akin to robots or trained dogs. (Essentially, remove or reduce their free will.) A religion that clearly and explicitly prohibits violence will be effective for such a race.
  • There is some fantastic method to enforce uniformity. Imagine a religion based on Borg technology. To convert, you must interface with the collective. Unlike the Borg, this collective is nonviolent, and when a member tries to contradict the nonviolent teachings, the majority overrule them and shut them down. (Obviously, a Borg religion could be very violent, but if it was started by a large enough group of true believers who are genuinely nonviolent, this nonviolence could realistically persist.)
  • The religion is actually real and its god is active in enforcing it. If the deity truly exists and takes an active role in human events, he can smite those that disobey his teachings. (Perhaps this is still religious violence, but of an entirely different nature?)

The question requires considerable clarification. By "religion" do you mean the religion as a whole (such as Christianity), or do individual sects count? By "peaceful", do you mean that all members are prohibited from military activity upon pain of expulsion from the group?

If sects are allowed, then (just in the US) the Amish, Hutterites, Jehovah's Witnesses and Quakers, at the least, espouse pacifism and have never entered an armed conflict against any other religious group, and all have resisted military participation in national wars.

As far as I know, all of the groups have occasionally produced soldiers (often non-combatant, especially including medics), and even some fighters, but these actions were individual choices. In no case did the sect as a group take part.

The Hutterites, for example, refused military service during WWI, and when 4 men were imprisoned for failure to comply with the draft (and 2 died of injuries incurred in prison), the entire community moved to Canada.

  • $\begingroup$ By "religion", I mean the religion as a whole. No sects. Your definition of peaceful is pretty good, but as I wrote in a comment above, "violence" also covers "physical harm". $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jul 15, 2015 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ I think that if a religious sect can be pacifist, then a religion can be pacifist, at least in principle. For one thing, the distinction between a sect and a religion is pretty fuzzy - are Jehovah's Witnesses really a Christian sect, or are they a new religion derived from Christianity, in much the same way that Christianity derived from Judaism? In the specific context of Wymran, I think you could model both religions after real-world religious sects, declare them to be separate religions - perhaps but not necessarily with a common descendant that has died out - and make it sound credible. $\endgroup$ Jul 16, 2015 at 0:51
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 - that's a bit of a slippery slope. You can make a perfectly valid point that Christianity isn't really a separate religion, just a sect of Judaism; they are about as far from Judaism as LDS are from Catholics. There's a reason for a term "Abrahamic religions". $\endgroup$
    – user4239
    Jul 17, 2015 at 17:57

Yes. But in reality, No

It depends on what you define as the religious group. The teaching, or the people? Jainism teaches noninjury towards all living beings. I don't know any followers personally, but I have read some accounts that they're pretty serious about this.

So, yes, in this case the religious group is perfectly peaceful. In theory. But what about Jains that aren't wearing their Jainism hat? Are their actions attributed to the individual or the religion? Are they always a representative of their religion?

Most people I know are not always being a representative of their professed religion. Unless they really believe its teachings in their heart of hearts, they act like a normal human when they're not wearing their religion hat. Though, as far as I know, most of those same people would also argue that their religion doesn't allow part time adherence. In which case, every action they make is representative of their religion.

So, no, a religious group is made up of humans who are not always peaceful. As soon as one follower of a religion does something violent, they are representing their religion as one of non-perfect peace.


Here lies a fallen god
His fall was not a small one,
We did but build his pedestal
A narrow and tall one

-Tleilaxu epigram,
from Frank Herbert's Dune Messiah

The most interesting question one has to deal with when answering this question is the definition of violence. In the comments, you mentioned one such definition you would explore: "...defining violence as 'causing physical harm to any human being'..." The answer with this choice of wording is unequally yes, so long as the religious group believes in freewill.

The subtle issue with that particular definition is that one must define causality, which has been a quagmire for philosophy for several millennia. Consider a case where one has two options: one option results in a guaranteed but very obscure and hard to see death, the other results in easily seen deep hardship. If an individual fails to consider the situation sufficiently, they miss the threat of death, seek to avoid the hardship, and metaphorically draw the sword across their own throat. A group may consider this to be the act of the victim, thus they claim to have caused no physical harm.

The Tleilaxu from Frank Herbert's dune are one such group. Without revealing any spoilers from the book, the Tleilaxu have a caste known as Face Dancers, who are used for assassinations, amongst other undesirable tasks. The Face Dancers have one rule in their assassinations: the victim must always have a way out. Thus, by Face Dancer logic, when the victim fails to see the way out, they sign their own death warrant, and the Face Dancer allows the victim to tighten their own noose.

So if a Tleilaxu Face Dancer who specializes in assassinations can meet your criteria for not using violence, I think a few harmless old priests can manage to meet it if they try hard enough.


The "no true scotsman" fallacy might help you there: If you have a religious group that bans violence, then you could easily (while not necessarily correctly) argue that any person commiting an act of violence was no true member of that group.

But you could also take a slightly different approach, looking at your restriction that "the group" would not commit religious violence. (I assume that "the group" was not meant literally, since the group will never commit violence, but a subset (which might still be all) of it's members might do, individually):

I think it should be easy to argue in at least nine out of ten cases of alleged religious violence that the true motivation was not religious but simple, boring greed, either for money or for power.

So, i guess the answer can easily be yes to the question as you asked it. But the value of that answer for any practical purpose is clearly debatable.


I don't think the religion matters at all, except that it not allow violence at all. The real question is about the people involved. As long as we are talking about humans living under vaguely normal circumstances, the answer is no.

One question is going to be with the faith of the believers. Strong believers will never act violently. Weak believers may act violently. Human psychology drives us to stick with our beliefs, but if someone were just in the religion because their parents were in it, they might disagree on some points, not enough to make them leave, but under special circumstances, they may do something against the tenants of the religion. This becomes especially important when religion is involved in politics as well (I read your other question), as a citizen may join a theocracy because they like the politics, and they may be willing to fight for their home or country, regardless of what the prevailing religion says about fighting.

The other question is who controls 'the religion.' If you define the religion as being the followers of an entity who determines the tenants, then the religion itself could always be peaceful, while proclaimed 'followers' commit acts of violence. These 'followers' may be banned from the religion, but unless the entity or his followers enforce this and renounce their actions, or in some way make it clear to others that this is not the way of the religion, it will still look to outsiders as though a member of the religion was violent. If the religion is defined by a religious text, it is similar to an entity, except that the followers must enforce the rules and banishments because the text itself is powerless, and the text is open to interpretation because the text cannot clarify itself to those who do not understand. If a religion is defined by a group of people or a single person, then it cannot be peaceful, because at some point, those people will have a need to use violence, and will simply change the religion to allow it.

Religion is usually based on willing membership, which means members can be kicked out if they don't follow the rules, but unless the definition of the religion lies outside human hands, some person will inevitably allow violence for their own purposes.

Of course, it's always possible to have your people have different psychology, but being too alien makes them hard to relate to for us humans that will learn about your world.

  • $\begingroup$ It's a good thing a religion was never made around Tom Riddle's diary, or part of your answer would be invalidated. :) Welcome to the site! $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Jul 15, 2015 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre Lol, perhaps that falls more under the category of entity... >.> Thanks for the welcome! $\endgroup$
    – Zach
    Jul 15, 2015 at 18:08

Many, if not most faiths will claim that peace is a core tenet of their theology, though in practice of course that doesn't always pan out.

This is true of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Less centralized faiths may or may not espouse peace/non-violence but these are tougher to gauge.

Many have a clause in their non-violence teachings that can be boiled down to:

Violence is bad, except when in defense of the faith or the weak (or faithful).

Even Buddhism which specifically mentions non-violence and thanks to Gandhi is well known for non-violence can be oppressive and violent.

So, there are a couple ways to look at this.

  1. The religion is not violent, the people are. This is pretty common and in reality I believe that any Christian who promotes violence is not in fact Christian, same goes for violent Buddhists etc.

But this is sort of a cop out and doesn't really address the problem you are trying to solve, which in my mind is Can I have a major religion with varied adherents profess and maintain non-violence?

  1. So do we have examples of religions that both preach and practice non-violence? As a matter of fact we do. Jainism has already been mentioned so I won't go into a ton of detail on that, another option is the Baha'i faith. This religion is interesting to me because it is monotheistic and Abrahamic and yet preaches (and has thus far) practices non-violence. There are a myriad of other smaller faiths or denominations that preach and practice non-violence as well.

Several common theme's present themselves when you look at faiths that preach non-violence but then go to war in the name of religion.

  • Exclusivity: They are the one and only way to god and have the true path. This I feel is the biggest single flaw in organized religions. Many preach that you cannot get to heaven unless you are of that faith...which begs the question, what about people on the other side of the planet that had never even heard of the faith. Dooming someone for not following a faith they cannot know doesn't seem like a very godlike thing to do.

  • Divine inspiration: If your holy book is the true word of god...and another religion claims the same...you have an obvious conflict unless they say exactly the same thing...AND are interpreted exactly the same way...which means they are actually the same religion so I suppose that makes its own point.

  • Mixing politics and religion: When there is power, and wealth to be gained ideals can and often are thrown by the wayside. No religion that has held political power can claim that they have not also participated in violence. Even if the country in question hasn't gone to war, I would wager it has a police force...

So what does allow for truly peaceful religions?

  • Codified and explicit non-violence. There can be no exception for self-defense, defense of the faith, or anything else for that matter. Any exception can be extrapolated for the use of the 'church' or country. Jainism for example.

  • Universalist religions: Baha'i falls into this category. The religion is an attempt to bring all previous religions together as smaller pieces of a larger whole.

  • Traditionalist religions: This is going to generally be smaller religions or sects, people that prefer to live without technology and live a simple life. The Amish would be an example of this.


The problem is that Religion, by definition, involves irrational beliefs ("faith") and that opens up any possibility.

By irrational I mean "not in accordance with reason", meaning not using the correct rules of logic to form a proof based on givens. You can't reason about the behavior if the people are not going to follow your logical conclusion. You can prove a theorem of sorts taking the stated or observed tenents of behavior of the group, put in data for a situation, and determine what the teachings say should be done, assuming the rules are not ambiguous and open to interpretation. Even so, so what? A follower will not criticality analyse the situation and rule set like a good Vulcan; he will do what the group and leaders state, even if a logical outsider or any critical thinking person can see that that's wrong.

Don't beat me up for this: it's the definition. If there is no "faith", you would not consider it a religion, but rather philosophy, law, math, or software engineering. Any system that is perfectly logical will be welcomed by the mathematicians as their turf, even if it doesn't seem math-like to a layman (e.g. Group Theory). Human thinking is generally not like that.

At best, it would be a system of Law, and if lawyers and judges did follow everything logically like Vulcans or computer programs, and was not subject to interpretation, you could ask about the legality of a particular action. And that doesn't mean that someone won't break the law! Just that the law does not allow the action.

So more generally, you can ask about a society or culture that has a set of rules, both specific and general principles. In order to predict confidantly that it will be nonviolent you need to

  • verify that the rules are such — this is complicated by generic principles and templates and metarules.
  • verify that members will come to the same logical conclusion.

Even if the first was defined exceptionally well, at least for the area of interest, the second is a problem.


  • people will decide what they want and then cherry-pick rules to justify it, ignoring other rules and conclusions even when pointed out,
  • people will not think it through themselves but will rely on leaders to tell them the result.

To be certain of a negative answer to your question, you need:

  • experts work out the conclusion logically
  • peer-review and oversight is used to find mistakes and mitigate human biases
  • people listen to the expert's result, and know which result is the right result from that process, as opposed to somebody preaching his own wrong answer.

Now here's another semantic issue. If people do X anyway even though the system prohibits it, (1) you did not correctly predict that X would not be done, and (2) the system is still prohibiting X. Those people are not acting according to the system according to the same experts and process that determined the legality of X, but those people can themselves say they are still using the system. Is this the no true scottsman fallacy? Do the outside observers care that the ligitimate leaders who defined the system are now ignored? I think not: they just see the society doing X, in spite of the well-specified rule system.

In a system of law within a strong authority, you remove the people not respecting the authority.

At the very best, you can check whether the current in-power leadership is interpreting the rules rationally. But the leadership changes over time, even if the rule set (on paper) does not.

So your question boils down to: will people behave logically and rationally, and continue to do so forever?

Perhaps a benign dictatorship where kings are trained from birth to be that way, and stay in power. But that's only stable over the span of a few generations. In a SF or Fantasy story you might come up with ways to keep it working as such.

Even so...
You might have a kingdom with super wise rulers and engrained culture so you can, at best, say "kingdom K won't fight other kingdoms unless threatened" and even assume that credibility of threats is done logically. As civilization advances and changes, novel situations arise and can you know for sure what K will find threatening?

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    $\begingroup$ The problem is that Religion, by definition, involves irrational beliefs ("faith") and that opens up any possibility. Factually incorrect. Faith is not "an irrational belief", but rather "a belief that cannot be proven by available evidence," and as such it is the motivating principle behind all purpose-driven action. Even rational people act on faith, and acts of religious faith tend to be quite rational to one who understands what people with experience in acts of religious faith understand. $\endgroup$ Jul 17, 2015 at 15:00
  • $\begingroup$ "Irrational" means not a conclusion reached through reason. So you are actually agreeing with me on "faith", but not for "irrational". It can also mean a number that's not the ratio of two integers. "Proven by available evidence (and correct rules for proof)" = "rational" = use of reasoning processes. Your definition is the same as what you are saying is "factually incorrect". rational does not mean "what I would expect of them", nor the result of someone who thinks he's using logic but isn't. So I say your last sentence is factually incorrect. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jul 18, 2015 at 2:28
  • $\begingroup$ Also, "not proven by available evidence" is not a sufficient definition. People claim faith and Belief in things that have been excluded by evidence. For example, evolution, deep time, roundness of Earth, special relativity, twin towers destruction, and many bigfoot sightings. It is endemic of those self-described as having/using faith to cherry pick or outright ignore evidence that doesn't fit their belief. As relates to my thesis, it is observed that apologists will list a bunch of bullet points/steps and claim that to be a proof, when they do not follow any logical rules. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jul 18, 2015 at 2:44

As others have noted pacifist religious groups do exist, and the best way to make them immune to greed and power seekers is by making the religion incredibly exclusive.

No one can use our own religion against us and turn us to violence by our own ignorances if we do not allow any outsider to know about our beliefs and keep everything secret.

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    $\begingroup$ If someone forces their way into the sanctum to learn all it's secrets and publicly expose all the members, or even to kill them all...essentially to erase the religion from existence, still no violence? Could work though, but it would need to stay very secret, members suiciding rather than betray it. +1 $\endgroup$ Jun 11, 2020 at 23:23

I think some people may have misunderstood the OP's question. He's not asking if a "pacifist religion" can exist (i.e. people proclaiming non-violence) but rather about religion without "religious violence".

Religious violence is something like crusades (although it was actually just a mask to political reasons) or jihad, where people wage war for the sake of their religious beliefs or in name of their god.

Consider Christianity: apart from specific branches (which, again, twisted he truth for personal gain), there is no prescription of holy wars. So here is one.

Same for Islam.

Buddhism, as far as I am aware, does not prescribe war.

So there are lot of non-warring-religions. The fact that a specific sect or member of a religion is violent doesn't make the whole religion violent.


People are violent. We will use violence to protect our "family". That family can be a a spouse and offspring, an extended clan or a small village. We are usually not violent with those within that family. We have learned to extend this protection to larger groups we identify with and reduce the violence towards others outside of the group, but we still stand ready to do violence.

While many individuals choose to not be overtly violent we are all capable of it. Most parents will do almost anything to protect their offspring.

Large groups of pacifists can only exist when protected by a larger group that considers them to be "family".

Potentially if we ever discover another intelligent civilization we might start to consider every human as being part of our family. Even then you will have at least the potential of violence, if not actual violence toward the aliens instead of eliminating violence.

It is also very possible that our divisions will be enduring that even in face of aliens outsiders, we will still fight among ourselves. after all we still have violence today over issues from decades, centuries, and even millennia ago.


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