Secular and Religious Violence

Over at America, William Cavanaugh has a thought-provoking essay on the nature of violence. His musing is prompted by the coverage of the Chechen background of the Boston bombers – a coverage that plays up Islamic violence and plays down nationalistic violence. As Cavanaugh puts it:

“There will be no debates over the fanaticism caused by devotion to the idea of a Chechen nation, nor the violence caused by Russian insistence that Chechnya remain a part of greater Russia. Why is this so? Why does devotion to jihadism strike us as peculiarly dangerous, while the much better-armed devotion to Russian national pride strikes us as mundane and generally defensible? Why do we prefer to talk about the Tsarnaev brothers’ relation to Islam and not about their stated political opposition to the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan?”

The answer lies in the religious-secular divide, that central divide of modernity. Under this dominant worldview, religion is consigned to the private sphere, with civil religion taking the place in the public sphere that was once occupied by traditional religion.

This has some dangerous implications, especially when it comes to the legitimacy of violence:

“We have been habituated to think that devotion to one’s religion is fine within limits, while public patriotic devotion to one’s nation is generally a good thing. We are appalled at violence on behalf of religion, but we generally accept the necessity and even the virtue of killing for one’s country.”

And in the United States, this civil religion takes on a particularly dangerous form, as it is “based on a heavily ritualized devotion to the salvific role of the United States in world events”. Traditional religion remains strong, but subservient to – and supportive of – this modern civil region.

This leads to Cavanaugh’s main point about the role of violence:

“What is important for our present purposes is to see how the religious/secular divide functions in our public discourse about violence. It serves to draw our attention toward certain types of practices—Islam, for example—and away from other types of practices, such as nationalism. Religion is the bogeyman for secular society, that against which we define ourselves. We have learned to tame religion, to put it in its proper, private place; they (Muslims, primarily) have not. We live in a publicly secular and therefore rational society; they have not learned to separate secular matters like politics from religion, and so they are prone to irrationality. We hope they will come to their senses and be more like us. In the meantime, we reserve the right periodically to bomb them into being more rational.”

Although it is not the point of his piece, I think there is a lesson here for those American Catholics – including some bishops – who are too quick to invoke the tenets of the civil religion, especially when they talk about the constitution. Ironically, they make these arguments to support religious liberty, while they are in effect accepting the dominance of the civil religion and the concurrent private and limited role for religions like Christianity. It’s a false path and a dangerous path.

  • trellis smith

    Surely Mr. Cavanaugh does not find an equivalence in the asymmetrical violence purposely aimed at civilians and noncombatants and the violence aimed at the perpetrators of such violence. The brothers Tsarnaev stated aims are really hard to fantom and since they are neither Afghan nor Iraqi and since their adopted country heretofore was highly critical of the Russian actions in Chechnya they seem hardly fueled by nationalism. Pan-Islamism seems the motivation of their objection of the wars as pure ideology usually is the impetus for such types of violence otherwise known as terrorism.
    Is nationalistic or religious violence worse, maybe not but one may pose more of a threat.

    I do find little credence in the United States for a civil religion which is mostly banal and perfunctory as providing the necessary impetus for the wars. That said I do think that the moral tone of the nation is set by a cacophony of voices both religious and secular with some gaining more ground over others and thus the Evangelical strength behind George Bush provided the necessary support and cover as it continues to determine our overall policies in the Middle East. Instead of providing too little of a role for religion there may be too great of a role played but that religion is decidedly Christian not a nebulous civil religion. The bishops are more aligned with the Evangelical churches on a wide range of issues than the catholic laity however the Vatican to its credit checked that alignment in regard to the Iraq war.

    I may not be understanding your objection regarding the bishops’ invocation of the constitution and religious liberty. They maybe in error in their claims but are you disputing the principal they invoke ? The separation of church and state may be tenuous but it is a principle along the lines of the Elizabethan settlement which was an accommodation to provide for peace rather than to determine truth that we would abandon at great peril.

    While whatever the motivation ultimately being killed by a pressure cooker bomb or one from a drone matters little to the victim and that for a Christian may be all that matters. But in the abstract it should be recognized that the nation state serves its own interests and will do violence in its defense. The ultimate hypocrisy of religious terrorism whose stated aim is defenseless peace cannot but be the greater evil.