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Does Nonviolence Require a Spiritual Basis?

The following is an excerpt from Casey Dorman's longer, published essay, Atheistic Nonviolence, which is available on Amazon as a Kindle or paperback book. Click Here

Does Nonviolence Require a Spiritual Basis?

Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Gandhi stands as perhaps the most convincing and articulate advocate of nonviolence. Despite sometimes making confusing statements regarding the acceptability of violence, most of Gandhi’s writings suggest that the choice between violent or nonviolent opposition to oppression, for him, was not based upon a decision about the most efficacious strategy, but rather upon whether one accepted the spiritual truth that nonviolence is “the law of our being.”  As he said, “Belief in nonviolence is based on the assumption that human nature in its essence is one and therefore unfailingly responds to the advances of love.” He asserted that if these things were not true, “the whole of my argument falls to pieces.” In other words, Gandhi saw nonviolence as a means to enact the quality of love, which, in his mind, characterized God and the humans, which God created.

Gandhi’s philosophy, as he articulated it, is a deeply spiritual one. He often faulted himself for falling short in having the courage to live by it in all situations, and he faulted his followers for not believing it at all, but rather as seeing nonviolence as a political strategy.

Martin Luther King was an admirer of Gandhi, both of his political strategy and his spiritual philosophy. He referred to Gandhi as ‘‘the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change,’’ a statement which at least gives credit to Gandhi as the architect of King’s political strategy. As a result of his trip to see, first hand, the results of Gandhi’s nonviolent actions, which led to Indian emancipation, he said that he learned,  “True non-violent resistance is not unrealistic submission to evil power. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.”

After King’s participation in the Montgomery bus boycott, King gained a spiritual realization.

"…in past years the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category which I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. Perhaps the suffering, frustration and agonizing moments which I have had to undergo occasionally as a result of my involvement in a difficult struggle have drawn me closer to God. Whatever the cause, God has been profoundly real to me in recent months. In the midst of outer dangers I have felt an inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power."


The two foremost advocates, examples and spokespeople for nonviolence in our time both saw it not just as a method of protest or resistance, but as an expression of their faith and a technique that was based upon their view of God and of man’s relationship to God.  In fact, as Martin Luther King wrote, his faith was deepened by his participation in nonviolent resistance. Is it possible to be committed to nonviolence and to nonviolent resistance without having any faith in a supreme being or any sense that there is a spiritual basis for human existence?

Most, but not all, spiritually-based nonviolence rests upon an assumption that love of one’s fellow man is one of the inherent characteristics of humans, in fact, other than love of God, of which it may be an expression, it is the defining characteristic. Gandhi says this most clearly, as mentioned earlier, and premises his argument for nonviolence on that belief. Martin Luther King believed the same thing, although it is unclear whether he based his nonviolent method upon this belief or whether he developed the belief after practicing nonviolence. At any rate, the possession of love for all humans and the belief that humans will respond positively to overtures of brotherly love seems at the core of many, if not all, nonviolent philosophies.


An Evolutionary Basis for Love and Cooperation

One need not believe in a human spirit, nor in a supreme being, force or spirit to believe that humans are innately loving toward each other and that the tendency to respond to overtures of love with reciprocal love is a species-wide trait. For most of us, simply living life and falling in love, being cared for by parents, having children, or being around friends, provides personal evidence that love of our fellow human being is a powerful force in all of our lives. Nearly every one of us has had the experience of being emotionally touched by the distress of family, of friends, of even strangers who are sick, hurt, handicapped, or the victims of war or natural catastrophe. Every day we see evidence of other human beings showing tenderness, caring, or even risking their own well-being to take care of or protect others, often others they do not personally know.

Many people who experience love, either personally or as something they observe in others, see it as evidence of something “deeper” than mere biology within the character of humans. However, thanks to what we have learned about behavioral evolution and genes, there is ample evidence that the presence of love and mutual caring does not require a magical force or spiritual presence for it to be present in a species. Although it would be both hazardous and disingenuous to assert that the behavior of our nearest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, demonstrates the presence of loving, comradely behavior as their preeminent trait (since they are often aggressive and brutal toward one another), they also display caretaking, mutual affection and helpfulness toward one another. In fact, chimps are not alone in responding to each other with reciprocal helpful behavior—behavior that entails an immediate cost to them but will increase the likelihood of a future reciprocal benefit— it can be seen in most primates, in a number of bird species and in vampire bats. According to Robert Trivers, the evolution of reciprocal altruism (I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine – but sometimes involving even genuine sacrifice and risk) is dependent upon the inheritance of certain dispositions, including emotions of liking, friendship, trust, gratitude, sympathy and guilt. Not only have other primates, such as bonobos or chimps inherited these dispositions, but so have humans, perhaps at a considerably greater level, since human behavior is characterized by much greater and more complex cooperation than any other species. In all the species that display these characteristics, they are present for the same simple reason: they conferred an evolutionary advantage to the individuals who possessed them.

This is not to say that human beings are not aggressive toward one another. They are.  All we have to do is to look around us to witness murder, cruelty, war, and domination. To deny that aggression is a strong motivator of human behavior would be to deny reality. And in humans, it has been present as long as our tendency to cooperate. Modern scholarship suggests that mutual aggression was a natural state of our hunter-gatherer predecessors, as it is among present-day chimpanzees. Annual death rates from conspecific aggression were approximately 0.5% of the population among hunter-gatherers, and 20-25% of males died by being killed by other members of their species. These numbers are staggering by modern standards, especially considering that hunter-gatherers used no guns, warplanes, drones or bombs to achieve these numbers.

Looking on the bright side, 75% of hunter-gatherer males did not die from murder nor did a substantially larger percentage of females. And although our history books are crammed full of accounts of bloody wars and conquests and we seem to mark history by such events, the vast majority of human interactions have always been cooperative. Rome may have extended its military presence over a large portion of the ancient world, but, as we say, it wasn’t built in a day, and building Rome took massive cooperative behavior among its citizens (as well as the use of slaves). Similarly, Egypt, at the beginning of “civilization” constructed great pyramids and temples. Archaeological records suggest that workers on the earliest, and greatest, of the pyramids were Egyptians themselves, not foreign slaves. The story of the development of civilization is the story of mutual cooperation among human beings. And such cooperation, considered as a form of reciprocal altruism, is dependent upon inborn dispositions of liking, sympathy, trust and gratitude. So we can say that such dispositions are an essential component of modern human beings and therefore can be a basis for nonviolent solution of conflicts.

Humans are inherently violent and they are inherently cooperative. Both propensities reside within the human genome. While Gandhi thought that love needed to be the “essence” of the human spirit in order for nonviolence to work, in truth, it only needs to be present within the human psyche. After that, it is a matter of contextual contingencies, many of which are involved in “culture,” as to whether aggression or cooperation will determine how humans will actually behave in any particular situation.

Valuing Human Life

There are practical reasons for being nonviolent and being committed to nonviolent methods when trying to solve a conflict, even if one’s opponent is violent. These reasons may be ample, but is there another reason, besides the practical one for choosing nonviolence, a reason that is not spiritual? The basic reason for choosing to use nonviolence rests on the value one places on human life, even of lives one does not know personally, and on avoiding human physical suffering. If one holds these values, then he or she will always strive to find a nonviolent solution to a conflict, regardless of whom it is with. There may be times when this is not possible, but they will be the exception and, if my earlier analysis of the causes of conflicts is correct, they will be rare. But can this position be justified without involving spirituality?

If human life stands by itself, without any imbued sacredness from a spiritual source, either external to it or inherent within it, then why try to protect it at all costs? As I have argued above, we are very probably genetically endowed with a tendency to feel love, liking, friendship, gratitude, trust and sympathy, as the basis of cooperation and reciprocal altruism. This makes it unlikely that we will have to construct our emotional responses to other humans from scratch, based upon our experiences or our culture. As part of this genetic endowment, which was shaped by evolution, we are disposed to protect those who are close to us, and perhaps those with whom we have reciprocal interactions. Of course these are not our only genetically based tendencies. We are also disposed to be angry, aggressive and perhaps territorial, distrustful and physically violent in response to threats against our being. As humans, we have more choice in which dispositions to obey than do most other animals.  So the question comes down to why make the choice to avoid hurting or killing others?

The choice is probably not as free as we might think. For some of us the dispositions toward liking, loving, sympathizing, and even trusting are stronger than for others. Some others may feel less sympathetic, less prone to like others, and more distrustful. Most things that are part of our genetic endowment are inherited by the species as a whole on something like a normal curve—some people have more, some have less and most are in the middle. What may feel as if it's a free choice is often simply the tendency to go with our dominant disposition. Of course we could have done differently, but we just felt like doing what we did. And after the fact, we accumulate reasons why we did so. So some people may feel as if the natural thing to do is to pursue cooperation in order to resolve a conflict and others may feel as if the natural thing to do is to pursue confrontation and dominance. In other words, nonviolence will not appeal to everyone, although Gandhi, in particular, demonstrated that, at least on some occasions, a very large portion of the population can be persuaded to follow a nonviolent course of action.

Most of us are not Gandhi-like and we are going to respond with the dispositions that most naturally come to fore in a situation, based upon both our underlying genetic traits and our culture and training. If we are taught to empathize with those who are vulnerable or downtrodden, if we are taught that everyone has positive qualities, which are often covered over by anger and fear, then it is more likely that we will respond to situations of conflict with efforts to solve them nonviolently. If we learn how to de-escalate conflicts, we are more likely to think in terms of de-escalation than confrontation. If we are taught the evils and costs of war instead of being taught its glories, we are less likely to embrace war as a solution to international disagreements. If we learn enough about others to allow us to see them as similar to ourselves, then we are more likely to feel our natural dispositions toward sympathy, trust, liking and gratitude toward them, which will make us favor cooperation over confrontation.

I favor nonviolence as the method of conflict resolution at a personal, national and international level. I can, and I believe I have in this short essay, made arguments in favor of using nonviolence to resolve conflicts and resist injustice. My reasons are not based upon my spiritual beliefs, but the reason I am disposed to favor nonviolence and seek and give credence to reasons that support this choice are no doubt based upon the influences of my parents, my education, and my cultural environment, as well as my genetic traits. To me this means that more people can be convinced of the virtue of nonviolence if they are exposed to education and cultures that favor empathy, sympathy and trust and present cogent, rational arguments in favor of nonviolent means to resolve conflicts and resist injustice and de-emphasize the nobility, glory or necessity of using violence. I have no objection to basing one’s choice of nonviolence upon one’s spiritual beliefs, but I hope that I have shown that it is not necessary.

Interested in this topic? Casey Dorman's new book, Atheistic Nonviolence contains practical arguments against the use of violence for conflict resolution as well as why a nonviolent stance need not be spiritual. Find it at Amazon.


Reader Comments (1)

While it’s true that spiritualism or spiritual belief is not a pre-requisite for adopting non-violence, I do believe that having a cultural mooring based on the ideas of spiritualism accentuates the process. Perhaps, it inculcates the idea, or at least, gives a reason to make it a way of life in a more seamless way.
History in the Indian Subcontinent, points that during the early and late Aryan civilisation, invaders from Middle-east would routinely come and loot the kingdoms, especially the temples and take away the booty. The locals could never regroup and put up even a semblance of fight. In some cases, like the case of Somnath Temple, there are eighteen instances during the reign of Gazni.
In the seventeent century the Bhakti movment (the early traditions of the present ISKON) by Sri Chaitnay Dev influenced the people so much that the warriors forgot to fight and defend themselves and the kingdom was taken over by the invaders from Bengal.
My point is, yes, being non-violent is the inborn quality of man like most species, but at the same time, the cultural dispositions, which often has its spiritualism in many civilization can usher in the idea of non-violence in more fruitful way, or at the least, give the scope to think and draw attention to the whole concept of violence.
Gandhiji used non-violence both as a mirror as well as a tool to fight against the British rule.
Here I am not talking about religion, which far different from spiritualism.

July 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSanjaya Mishra

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