The Myth of Religious Violence

Brad S. Gregory, writing in the First Things journal, reviews William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict:

“The “Myth” of religious violence? Is the head of this ivory tower academic (Cavanaugh teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota) buried in the sand? Cavanaugh has no interest in denying the obvious, that human beings are sometimes motivated by religion to act in violent ways. Nor does he seek to differentiate between “genuine” and “so-called” religion in an effort to keep the sincere and the devout free from the taint of violence.

Exposing the myth of religious violence means something else: the careful demolition of the variously argued idea that in ostensible contrast to rational, modern, secular ideologies, there is something distinctively disruptive, divisive, and dangerous about religion that makes it, across historical epochs and cultures and peoples, inherently prone to irrational, intractable violence. Because of this, the argument goes, religion must be resolutely corralled and controlled by the benign secularism of the liberal state, if necessary by justifiable, pacifying violence of the state’s own.

Cavanaugh rightly sees that, for this argument to work, there must be something identifiable about “religion” that makes it susceptible to violence and sets it apart from secular ideologies and commitments. But those who make this argument have offered no account of religion that can sustain the argument. Ignoring much scholarship about the historical and cultural variability of the concept of religion itself, they argue as if the differences are apparent. Hence they offer, in the guise of description and analysis, the myth of religious violence: the powerful and pervasive perpetuation of the false notion that because it is especially liable to violence, religion merits special attention by a secular state whose legitimacy is reaffirmed every time it performs its policing function, thereby reinforcing the myth and deflecting attention away from its own violence.

The Myth of Religious Violence begins with the arguments of nine leading scholars-including John Hick, Martin Marty, and Charles Kimball-who argue in their respective ways that religion tends especially to violence because it is absolutist, divisive, and/or not rational. Cavanaugh demonstrates that all such arguments founder: If they define religion in substantive terms, he shows with abundant evidence that “there is no reason to suppose 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,” and if they employ a functionalist definition of religion, they dissolve the analytical distinction between religious and secular, because “the term religion comes to cover virtually anything humans do that gives their lives order and meaning . . .”

. . . “But didn’t the “wars of religion” in the Reformation era show beyond any doubt that religion is absolutist, divisive, and irrational and therefore prone to violence? And, as a result, wasn’t the modern liberal state created and construed as a secular, privatizing, and individualizing religion in order to tame it?

This “creation myth of the wars of religion” Cavanaugh dismantles thoroughly. He rightly directs his analysis especially against contemporary liberal political theorists and legal scholars who construe the creation of the secular state as the creation of a peacemaking savior from the religious unrest of early modern Europe. The contemporary liberals’ story simply echoes the story’s self-serving creators, from Hobbes and Spinoza through Voltaire and Rousseau.

Against this narrative Cavanaugh marshals a wide range of evidence from historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that hopelessly complicates any construal of major European conflicts from the Schmalkaldic War (1546-1547) through the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) as “wars of religion.” More fundamentally, he correctly notes the inseparability of religion from politics and society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Hence, one cannot, for example, say that a Catholic Eucharistic procession was religious rather than political or social–unless one applies, anachronistically, a conception of religion that itself arose only as a rejection of the human realities it sought to refashion . . .”

“. . . In place of the myth of religious violence, Cavanaugh suggests leveling the playing field: Both secularist liberalism and religious traditions should be placed within the same analytical framework when it comes to answering without prejudice a straightforwardly functionalist question: “Do certain ideologies and practices have more of a tendency to produce violence than others?” In this endeavor, “the distinction between secular and religious violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and it should be avoided altogether.””

Read the whole article here.

The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, by William T. Cavanaugh (Oxford University Press, 2009), 296 pages is available for $39.96 on Amazon.

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