Myth of Religious Violence

Myth of Religious Violence April 27, 2017

Revisiting William Cavanaugh’s devastating 2009 The Myth of Religious Violence.

The myth of Cavanaugh’s title is a well-known one. According to the myth, religion is a distinct sphere of human life and practice from the rest of human social life, a universal impulse in human beings, and is dogmatic, private, and interior. Since the early modern period, it has been widely believed that because religion is irrational, absolutist, divisive it has a peculiar propensity toward violence.

Enduring the horrors of religious war following the Reformation, the West learned its lesson, and the secular state came to the rescue, saving the West from violence and establishing institutions to ensure that it never happens again, though the sacred walls of secular order must be constantly policed against the benighted fundamentalists who haven’t yet caught up.

What is wrong with this picture? Several things.

First, Cavanaugh argues that the myth depends on an essentialist definition of religion that treats religion as a distinct reality from other spheres of life. This is an anachronistic concept of religion in the sixteenth century, and Cavanaugh shows that advocates of the myth offer no, or no coherent, definition of “religion.” If religion is defined as belief and practice relating to God, a large swath of Eastern “religious” life is left out. If religion is defined in terms of “ultimate concern,” then it must include political and other ideologies that are typically classified as “secular.”

Essentialist definitions fail because they define religion too narrowly, and thus leave out some important “religions”; functionalists define it so broadly that it includes “secular” ideologies and ceases to be a meaningful concept in the analysis of violence. If religion = ultimate concern, and ultimate concern = something worth dying and killing for, then to say “religion causes violence” is to say “things we consider worth killing for lead to killing.” As Cavanaugh shows, the most thoughtful writers on religion and violence oscillate back and forth between dissolving the concept of religion and resurrecting it when it proves useful.

Continued at Theopolis.

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