The Myth of Religious Violence

by William Cavanaugh

The reason I would like to see more conservatives in academia is so they can write books like this.  In this important study, William Cavanaugh deconstructs one of liberalism’s primary legitimating myths–that religion is unusually violence-prone, and their secular rule is necessary to keep us Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims from killing each other.  The story–and I know you’ve heard it a thousand times, as have I–is that religion and politics used to be illigitimately “mixed”, but that led to the wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when Catholic and Protestants tried to impose their creeds by force, and the slaughter was only ended when the secular state stepped in, regulated religion to its proper (private, socially irrelevant) role, and established peace, reason, and tolerance.  Today that happy settlement is threatened by crazy Muslims who haven’t yet privatized their religion, but we’re going to cure them of their craziness by bombing, invading, and shooting them into rationality–for their own good, of course.

There are just three things wrong with this great myth of liberalism:  1) It’s wrong; 2) It’s incoherent; 3) It’s self-serving propaganda for the secular warfare state.

1) It’s wrong

No historian of early modern times accepts the mythical view of the wars of religion.  The thirty years war was primarily a war between the Catholic Holy Roman Empire and Catholic France.  Both this war and the French “wars of religion” were as much about the consolidation of power in the emerging nation-states (and resistance to that consolidation by German princes and French nobles) as anything else.  Both the Huguenots and the Catholic League were mowed down as obstacles to French state centralization.  Confessionalization, the establishment of sharp confessional boundaries and imposition of religious uniformity in a realm, was part of this process of consolidation.  So the rise of the nation-state was more a cause of the “wars of religion” than their solution.  What’s more, it’s simply wrong that these nation-states separated politics from religion.  In both Catholic and Protestant lands, the state siezed control of the Church and appropriated its of aura of sacrality for itself.  Liberalism didn’t come for more than a century later, when the sacredness of the nation-state was so firmly established that Christianity could be discarded.

2) It’s incoherent

Cavanaugh spends a significant fraction of the book reviews the vast literature on the allegedly violence-prone nature of religion.  He shows that each of these studies is hopelessly muddled with contradictions; none of them even succeed in defining “religion” in a way that would exclude secular causes like nationalism or Marxism.  Religion is supposed to be dangerous because it divides the world into “us” vs. “them”, because it presents utopia to the imagination, because it makes absolute claims about right and wrong and the proper ordering of the cosmos, etc.  In each case, ostensibly secular, modern political/economic systems do the same things, so why single out Christianity, Islam, etc?  Why not just study how belief systems in general, or communities in general, can become violent?  But that would defeat the purpose of these studies, which is to show that something called “religion” is uniquely violence-prone in a way liberalism, nationalism, and the like are not, or at least that its type of violence is worse somehow.  Bizzarely, many of the studies Cavanaugh reviews cite secular violence–nonreligious murderers like Timothy McVeigh or Joseph Stalin, assaults against Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to salute the American flag, G. W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil”, tribal violence worldwide–as evidence that religion is particularly violence-prone!  The idea is that these secular things or people must have been contaminated by religion.  Here religion is defined as violent and secularism as peaceful, making the claim “religion is violent” tautological.  One writer asserts that Christian just war theory is a concession to secular concerns which had nothing to do with the teachings of Christ, and in the next breath he cites just war theory as evidence of religion’s inherent violence!  The only conclusion I can draw from all this (and there’s more silliness I haven’t mentioned) is that liberal academics are simply incapable of thinking logically when it comes to the issue of religion in society.

3) It’s self-serving propaganda

The secular state is our deliverer from religous kookery!  It tells us so itself.  Sure, sure, secular causes like nationalism, liberalism, and socialism have been known to engage in a bit of violence themselves, but that’s totally different.  The state’s violence is rational–regrettable but often necessary.  Religious violence is irrational.  A man who’ll kill for his religion is a fanatic; a man who’ll kill for his country is a patriot.  This self-serving, question-begging nonsense doesn’t just muddle people’s thinking; it serves two definite political purposes.  First, in domestic political debates, it unfairly marginalizes views that are labeled as “religious”, so that they are automatically dismissed as irrational.  (Think of the times you’ve heard someone say that belief in global warming or opposition to embryonic stem cell research is “religious”.  They didn’t mean “deserving of special consideration and respect”.)  Cavanaugh relates how this has affected U.S. Supreme Court decisions.  Each time the Court bans some public display of religion, it makes some utterly implausible claim about the dangers of sectarianism to national unity, backed up by invoking what we all “know” about the wars of religion.  Second, in the area of foreign policy, it leads us to dismiss the concerns and interests of Muslim peoples as “irrational”.  So, for example, to understand Muslim hostility to American policies in the Middle East, we feel entitled to ignore the secular grievances that they themselves give as their motives, because we all know that that’s just a mask for religious craziness.  Cavanaugh cites some amusing examples of this thinking, which give the impression that Western atheists are often more focused on religion than Arab or Persian Muslims.  Worse, since Muslims are irrational, while we are by definition reasonable, we are entitled to impose our reasonable way on them by force.  New Atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens take this line of thinking to hair-raising extremes to justify outright murder–for Harris, genocidal mass murder of the Muslim population, including possible nuclear first strikes!  This is an extreme, but hardly isolated, instance of a rule that obsessive focus on one kind of violence (“religious”) ends up blinding us to the danger of other types.

My only quarrel with this book is that Cavanaugh borrows from nominalism and postmodernism a seeming hostility toward “essentialism” and an intent to find political manipulation behind every narrative.  Perhaps this was included to put his presumably majority-liberal readers off their guard.  Certainly it serves his purposes, but, then, postmodernism can be used to discredit anything, which makes it useless.  Not all labels are arbitrary, and not all stories are masks of the will to power, but these particular labels are arbitrary and this particular story does exist to mask the liberal libido dominandi, as Cavanaugh proves.  Cavanaugh thinks the word “religion” is meaningless, but I think that goes too far.  Both essentialist definitions (based on a phenomenology of the sacred, a path I follow) and functionalist (Durkeimian) definitions are reasonable and useful.  The problem is just that the authors Cavanaugh critiques keep switching back and forth between the two arbitrarily in order to reach their predetermined conclusion.  Even if “religion” were not well-defined, I certainly think “Christianity” and “Islam” are, and investigations into their essential natures is a reasonable task.

All my readers should buy and read this book so they’ll be ready for the next time someone tells them that religion is the cause of most of history’s violence.  Also, you’ll be aware that calling for the secularization of the Muslim world makes one a dupe for atheism and tyranny.

3 Responses

  1. I have Cavanaugh’s little book ‘Theopolitical Imagination’ in front of me. Will read it soon but you might have already done so Bonald and if you have would like your comments.

  2. Hello M.

    I haven’t read it, so I would be very interested to hear your thoughts about it after you read it.

  3. […] William Cavanaugh has demolished the historical claim that the philosophes saved Europe from religious […]

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