Exploding the myth of religious violence

Exploding the myth of religious violence March 9, 2015

Image courtesy of Oxford University Press

William Cavanaugh’s 2009 book The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford University Press) offers a compelling commentary on the current discussions regarding the relationship between religion and violence, discussions rekindled in part by President Obama’s critique of ISIS at the National Prayer Breakfast. Cavanaugh digests the argument in his book and provides responses to critiques in a new essay at Political Theology (opens PDF).

Cavanaugh’s thesis is that there is no meaningful difference between religious violence and secular violence:

If there is a simple way to sum up the thesis of the book, it is this: people kill for all sorts of things that they treat as gods, including supposedly ‘‘secular’’ things like ‘‘freedom.’’ This insight is nothing more startling than the biblical critique of idolatry—human beings are spontaneously worshipping creatures whose allegiances fall on all sorts of mundane things. The point is not at all to deny that Christians and Muslims, for example, sometimes use their faith as justification for violence; the point is to level the playing field, so that we examine not just violence on behalf of jihad or Jesus, but violence on behalf of free markets and free elections.

For Cavanaugh, the easy punching bag for many secularists is something they call “religion”– a word that (to quote my friend Iñigo Montoya) does not mean what they think it means. Cavanaugh spends the first part of his book undressing what he describes as an “essentialist” understanding of religion–that is, as something that has always meant the same thing, and still means the same thing everywhere. In a word, that’s nonsense, he writes. Pointing to prominent critics such as Martin Marty, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Christopher Hitchens (“The distinction between secular and religious is nothing more than the distinction between things Hitchens likes and things Hitchens does not like”), he writes

Everyone appears to agree that religion promotes violence, but there is nothing like a coherent distinction between what counts as religion and what does not. The whole argument depends on the religious/secular distinction, but no one provides a coherent argument for supposing that so-called secular ideologies such as nationalism, patriotism, capitalism, Marxism, and liberalism are any less prone to be absolutist, divisive, and irrational than belief in, for example, the biblical God. In fact, all of the authors undercut this argument. Empirical evidence does as well. American Christians, for example, are far more willing to kill for their country than for Jesus.

The problem is what is known in philosophy as a category mistake: that is, the invention of a category that did not previously exist (“religion”), and throwing into that category whatever seems to fit the preconceived argument I wish to make. Cavanaugh elaborates:

 there is no once-and-for-all definition of religion or the secular. The religious/secular divide is a modern Western construction that arose as an adjunct to the rise of the modern state and the triumph of civil over ecclesiastical authorities in early modern Europe. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith showed over 50 years ago, the concept of religion as we understand it was simply absent from pre-modern Europe and non-European cultures.

Cavanaugh stresses again and again that he is not denying that Christianity or Islam are implicated in violence. Rather, he stresses that Christian or Islamic implication in violence is to be treated with the same analytical care with which one treats secular forms of violence. It is irresponsible to throw one form of religion into a vague conceptual box called “religion” which is then applied to anything a particular person thinks smells rather the same. (Do we really think that the Little Sisters of the Poor and the army of Pope Julius II, or the poetry of Rūmī and the actions of ISIS are all species of the same genus?)

The bottom line is that for Cavanaugh, the religious and the political always grow together like tares and wheat, and it is unhelpful to label the backward elements “religion” and the noble, redeeming elements “secular.”

In general, the myth of religious violence promotes the idea that our Western way of marginalizing ‘‘religion’’ from public power is necessary to save us from mayhem. In domestic life, I examine the Supreme Court’s use of the myth of religious violence since the 1940s to ban practices like school prayer, subsidies for parochial school teachers, remedial public education on parochial school grounds, etc. Until the 1940s the Supreme Court cited religion as a unifying force in American society; since the 1940s, religion has been seen by the Court as a divisive and dangerous force, at the precise time of American history when tensions between denominations are at their lowest levels. The myth of religious violence is not a response to empirical reality but a just-so tale told to justify secularizing arrangements.

His interest is ultimately to get people to think about violence seriously, rather than shoving it into a vague corner called “religion” where people act irrationally. Yet there is at the same time a concern that he raises as a Catholic theologian (Cavanaugh teaches at DePaul University): namely, the way that violence in the name of religion is a corrosive force within religion itself.

Nevertheless there is a theological theme running through the book, albeit covertly. The theme is that of idolatry. Put simply, the argument of the book is that people kill for all sorts of things, things like money and flags and oil and freedom that function as gods in people’s lives. This is a basic biblical theme—people are spontaneously idolatrous, which is why the first commandment is what it is. Some commentators have seen the biblical obsession with idolatry as evidence that religion promotes violence; the ban on idolatry is one more symptom of monotheistic intolerance. I think it works exactly the opposite way: the biblical critique of idolatry exposes the notion that so-called religion is more prone to violence than secular ideologies as a myth.

Herein Cavanaugh turns the critique inward toward those of us who practice our religion, even amidst a larger argument directed primarily at secularists. I will extrapolate from Cavanaugh’s argument to make one further point related to the way that religion is treated at the university level. Cavanaugh makes mention of his visit to a prestigious state university, to speak to doctoral students in political science. They were delighted at the fact that religion was finally getting some good attention after decades of neglect. Cavanaugh remarks that

 We do need to talk about religion, but as a lens, not an object. The categories of religious and secular are a way of seeing the world.

He is right, and there is a corollary. If in fact the secularist project is flawed in its assumption that secularism is a form of evolutionary advancement past religion, then secularists must begin to come to terms with the reality that religion is not going away, and that religion is for many a force for creativity, intellectual advancement, and the promotion of human welfare. Different cultures will nurture either advanced, intellectually rigorous, aesthetically beautiful, pluralistically engaged, politically astute forms of religion, or it will breed debased forms like ISIS or the Westboro Baptist Church. No amount of “religious studies” will provide that kind of nurturing; only substantial, rigorous, historically engaged, doctrinally informed, politically aware studies of real theology will provide such nurturing. Messy? Yes, but no one will persuade me that great universities aren’t up to the task of dealing with messy topics.

Read Cavanaugh’s whole essay here.

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