Here's an entry from my work in progress, An Opinionated Dictionary of Religion.
Religious Violence : noun. physical harm inflicted from religious motivation.
No one proffering the grim philosophy that humans are inherently violent can produce supporting evidence for that kind of grand assessment. Even the wicked stories that mar our daily news don't provide enough proof.
News media exist, at least partially, to report rare and deviant behavior. Among the trillions of humans acts performed in any day of the world by billions of people, violent acts are unquestionably rare and deviant. That's precisely why these acts got press. It bled, it led. We are thus seduced by news media into believing violence is commonplace when it is not.
It's conceivable that ninety-nine percent of all people--in their seventeen hours of daily wakefulness--simply do the right thing, without violence. This doesn't mean most people are moral exemplars in all the particulars of ethical choice. It simply means that most perform no violent actions.
This leaves one percent of humanity to perform violence every day. That's seventy million violent people. Sounds a bit high. More probably it's a fraction of one percent of humans who act violently on any given day of the world.
But let's stick with 1% for the sake of discussion.
If 99% of people never act violently, violence is not innate to humans now or ever before now, not even in the splendid hunt and peck days of prehistory.
All of this is Prelude to what follows concerning the definition of Religious Violence, because religious violence must be similarly understood with The One Percent Solution.
Among those who are religious, only 1% have performed violence from religious motivations.
Violence perpetrated from religious motives is almost always theological in origin. Anyone familiar with the history of religions knows that Christianity and Islam have had extremely violent episodes over the millennia. Theology has much to do with this. Certain ideas of God, certain self-projected and unsound theologies, enabled the 1%.
The Angry God needs bloody sacrifice, the Jealous God cannot countenance religious competition, the Doctrinal God cannot brook theological error, the Offended God wants revenge, the Paranoid God demands conspirators' heads, the Look-At-Me God is dismayed when disbelievers look away.
But even when these incredible models of the Divine leaked into Christianity and Islam and thereby fueled religious violence, we may still say that only 1% of Christians and 1% of Muslims, at any point in the history of these religions, acted violently.
It is a telling feature of human nature, and the best evidence yet for the innate decency of human beings, that even if humans are spurred to violence by the authenticating operations of religion, most religionists won't act violently.
D'Holbach in his 18th-century book The System of Nature said this:
It is because the temperament of man is always stronger than his Gods that the wickedest [ideas about] Gods cannot always corrupt an honest soul ... The human constitution will always be more powerful than religion.
George Eliot in her 19th-century essay "Evangelical Teaching" said this:
Fatally powerful as religious systems have been, human nature is stronger and wider than religious systems, and though dogmas may hamper, they cannot absolutely repress its growth: build walls around the living tree as you will, the bricks and mortar have by and by to give way before the slow and sure operation of the sap .... [T]he tendency towards good in human nature has a force which no creed can utterly counteract, and which ensures the ultimate triumph of that tendency over all dogmatic perversions.
Religiously motivated violence is real, but it is anemic and unappealing to the vast majority of religionists.
And let's not forget that religions may also prevent violence. Buddhism, by credo, repudiates violence. There is at least one religion, Jainism of India, that equates non-violence with being religious.
Within religions that are not wholly non-violent like Christianity and Islam--both of which developed theories of permissible, justified violence--you will find many, many non-violent persons who would not lift a thumb or forefinger in anger against another human being, and you will even find many who would not impair the life of a mockingbird or a fenced cow.
Tendresse est notre vertu !