PT 15.6: A Symposium on William T. Cavanaugh’s “The Myth of Religious Violence”


Issue 15.6 of the journal Political Theology is a special issue on William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence. Dr. James Murphy served as guest editor of the issue. Below he introduces the symposium.

The appearance of William Cavanaugh’s important new book offers a strikingly new take on the familiar debate about religion and violence. According to Cavanaugh, it has become a very widespread article of faith that there is something especially dangerous about religion.

Issue 15.6 of the journal Political Theology is a special issue on William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence. Dr. James Murphy served as guest editor of the issue. Below he introduces the symposium.

The appearance of William Cavanaugh’s important new book offers a strikingly new take on the familiar debate about religion and violence.  According to Cavanaugh, it has become a very widespread article of faith that there is something especially dangerous about religion.  Ever since the Enlightenment, many liberal statesmen and intellectuals have argued that religious conflict is a profound threat to civil peace and that the only way to secure civil order is to separate church from state.  Only by denying religious institutions the coercive powers of government and making religion a purely private affair will we be safe from the threat of religious violence.  John Rawls, in his influential book Political Liberalism, argues that the “wars of religion” in early modern Europe demonstrate the dangers that religious belief pose to political order and the necessity of building a secular foundation for political life.  Virtually all major theorists of modern liberalism, including Judith Shklar, Ronald Dworkin and Charles Larmore, cite the “wars of religion” to prove the necessity of the modern secular state.  Modern liberalism is partly founded upon the view that religion is the chief threat to political harmony and freedom.

With the end of the cold war and the rise of “religious” conflict in Bosnia and throughout the Islamic world, the belief that religion is the key source of violence has spread dramatically. Now many conservatives, such as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, argue that religion, especially Islam, poses a unique threat to world peace.  They see a fundamental conflict between Judeo-Christian and Islamic religious civilizations and they expect that the frontier between these religions will be a locus for violent conflict for many years to come. Eliza Griswold’s new book The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam, describes this emerging world-wide conflict in explicitly religious terms.

Rather than attempt to answer the question of why religion is so prone to violence, Cavanaugh asks a different question: why are we so prone to believe that religion is violent?  What is the ideological function of the belief that religion is uniquely violent?

What is it about religion that causes so many people to associate it with violence?  William Cavanaugh in his recent book The Myth of Religious Violence identifies three main arguments: religion is said to be uniquely absolutist, divisive, and non-rational.  First, religion is described as uniquely absolutist in the sense that religion makes claims about the ultimate nature of reality and of moral value.  Religious beliefs are uniquely comprehensive and dogmatic: they offer believers a strong and certain worldview.   John Hick, Charles Kimball, and Richard Wentz all argue that religion is essentially absolutist in its claims.  Second, religions are often described as uniquely divisive in the sense that religious identities are based on a very strong distinction between “us” and “them”.  Many religions profess intolerance of all other religions.  Normally, religious identities are mutually exclusive: very few people consider themselves to be both Jewish and Muslim or both Christian and Hindu. Martin Marty, Mark Juergensmeyer and David Rappoport all argue that religion is uniquely and essentially divisive.  Third, religion is often described as fundamentally non-rational.  Religious believers are uniquely prone to violence because their beliefs so often lead them to fervor, rage, passion, fanaticism, and zeal.  Bhikhu Parekh, Scott Appleby, and Charles Selengut all argue that religion is essentially non-rational.

It is easy to see how these qualities of absolutism, divisiveness, and non-rationality are mutually reinforcing.  If the claims we endorse are comprehensive and unqualified, then they are likely to divide us from others, and if these absolute and divisive claims concern our most basic identity, then they are likely to be held with passionate zeal.  Conversely, passionate zeal is likely itself to be divisive and lead to absolute and unqualified claims.  We can also easily see how absolute, divisive and passionate beliefs can lead someone to violence. Absolute claims do not admit of compromise or negotiation; divisive identities make empathy or even impartiality difficult; and passionate beliefs often burst the bounds of rational self-control.  Thus, at the level of conceptual analysis, these qualities of religious belief do seem likely to foster violence.  And there is certainly lots of empirical evidence that people, movements, and governments inspired by religious motives have fomented a great deal of violence in the past and continue to foment violence in the present.

But the key issues here must be put more precisely: First, is there something uniquely and specifically religious about violence?  Second, does the concept of religion help us to explain violence? Third, how do we account for the widespread belief that religion is uniquely violent?

Is religion uniquely violent?  At a conceptual level, most of the authors who argue that religion is absolutist, divisive, and non-rational also concede that seemingly secular ideologies, such as fascism, nationalism, and communism, are just as absolutist, divisive, and non-rational as any religious beliefs.  So there is nothing uniquely religious about absolutist, divisive, and non-rational belief.  As for empirical evidence, the secular ideologies of the twentieth century led to more killing than all the religious violence in world history combined.

Thus, both conceptually and empirically, there does not seem to be anything uniquely religious about the causes of violence.  Many of those who argue for the religious nature of violence accommodate these facts by describing fascism, nationalism, communism, and capitalism as kinds of religions.  But this expansion of the concept of religion raises our second question: does the concept of religion help us to explain violence?  The fact that every author has his own definition of religion, some of which include Marxism and Nazism, while others do not is disturbing.  If we cannot agree upon what counts as a religion, then the concept of religion cannot help us to explain violence.  Since some kinds of Buddhism and Confucianism make no reference to any god and since Marxism offers a transcendent view of the meaning of history, there seems to be no way to define religion that can exclude Marxism but include Buddhism.  The very notion of religion seems to be too imprecise to illuminate or explain anything about violence.  For example, although the “wars of religions” in early modern Europe are often described as showing the necessity of the modern secular state, many historians deny that these wars were about religion at all.

Indeed, William Cavanaugh’s investigation of the concept of religion suggests that: 1) our notion of religion as a genus whose species are Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc is a modern, European idea which emerged only after the 17th century.  2) The description of Shintoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Animism, etc as “religions” was imposed by European colonial powers against the objections of the colonized peoples, who often denied that their cultural practices were “religions.”  The idea that non-Western cultures must have something corresponding to our notion of “religion” may just be an imperial fiction.

Finally, if secular ideologies are evidently just as likely to foment violence as religious ideologies and if the very notion of religion is impossibly vague, then how do we explain the pervasive belief that religion is uniquely violent?  Perhaps by blaming religion for violence, we conveniently ignore other sources of violence.  Cavanaugh offers this illustration from the liberal Protestant historian Martin Marty who, in Politics, Religion, and the Common Good, describes how, during the 1940s, members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States were castrated, beaten, tarred and feathered, and imprisoned without being charged.  Why? Because they refused to salute the American flag.  What lesson are we to learn from this violence?  According to Marty, the lesson is: “Religion can cause all kinds of trouble in the public arena.”   Here we see the function of the myth of religious violence: to divert attention from patriotic, imperialist, ideological, and other kinds of secular violence.

Before we discuss the articles in this special issue that evaluate Cavanaugh’s striking claims, let’s briefly consider some of the other dimensions of the relation of religion to violence.  The arguments about religiously motivated violence almost always assume that it is directed toward members of other religions.  In the popular, especially secular, imagination, Christians hate pagans, Jews and Muslims.  Hence the frequent invocation of the “Crusades,” meaning the Crusades against the Muslims.  Many, if not most people think that the Inquisition was directed against Jews and Muslims.  But religious hatred and violence are more often, and more terribly, directed at one’s co-religionists, who are thought to have strayed.  Religious enmity is usually a family feud.   The violent denunciations of the Phasisees and the “Jews” in the New Testament were made by Jesus and other Jews.  The angry New Testament rhetoric reflects a bitter struggle among Jews over the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian persecution of heretics was always one-hundred times more bloody than the Christian persecution of Jews and Muslims.  The most brutal Crusades were against Christian “heretics” in Spain and France.  The infamous Inquisition had jurisdiction only over baptized Catholics, some of whom were formerly Jews.  Thomas Aquinas famously argued that whereas the rites of non-Christians should be tolerated, heretics must be suppressed. He said that no one can be compelled by force to accept Christian belief, but heretics can be compelled to return to the orthodoxy of their baptism.  In fact, tolerance of infidels and suppression of heretics makes perfect sense: heresy is always a much graver threat to religious orthodoxy than other religions.  Aquinas compares heresy to counterfeit money: it is dangerous precisely to the degree that it resembles the true faith.  Just compare the number of Catholics who have converted to Islam or Judaism with the number who have converted to Protestant and other “heresies.” Historically, there is no question that Christians have killed many more Christians than they killed members of other faiths; Muslims have killed many more Muslims, and so on.   Catholics have killed more Catholics than Protestants and vice versa.  So religious violence is mainly a family affair, though this obvious fact has escaped most commentary.

Naturally, the question of how to define religion has always plagued claims about the relationship of religion to violence.  If religion includes all motives that lead to violence, then claims about religion causing violence are tautological.  If there is no such thing as “religion” then these claims do not even rise to the level of being false.  As Cavanaugh deftly shows, many actual claims about the relation of religion to violence founder by never bringing the notion of religion into focus.  Still, skepticism about whether or not we can define “religion” is no obstacle to empirical investigation framed in more precise terms.  When people accuse “religion” of fomenting violence, what they clearly mean to say is: “Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism tend to foment violence.”  So we can frame empirical studies to see if people who identify themselves in these terms tend to act more violently.  Benjamin Valentino has studied all wars in the 20th century and asked the question: “Are wars between nations with different religions (one of those named above) more deadly than wars between nations with the same religion?”  If religion tends to exacerbate violence, then we would expect wars involving different religions to be more deadly. But that is not what we find.[1]

But if religion is difficult to define, then the notion of “violence” is even less helpful.  Analytic philosophers, like traditional Aristotelians, avoid the term “violence” because it undermines clear thought.  These philosophers classify human acts into categories of voluntary or involuntary, harms (justified or not), and intentions (malicious or not).   According to dictionaries, violence refers to emotionally-salient acts that involve the sudden application of force and usually involve blood: these include deliberate and murderous dismemberment, but also surgery, punishments, and accidents.  Many theorists of “violence” include verbal violence and psychological violence, so that virtually all human conduct could be described as violent.  Critics of religious violence do not intend to claim that religion causes more violent hurricanes or auto accidents or surgeries, yet they use language that implies all of these.  Obviously, what worries people about religion is that it sometimes seems to foster attitudes of arrogance, hatred, and revenge: these attitudes are themselves morally objectionable even if they do not lead to “violence”.  So the debate about religion and violence ought to be focused on whether religion fosters such noxious attitudes.  A focus on violence leads to the moral absurdities of arguing that killing violently by dismemberment is morally different from killing by non-violent poison gas.  What matters is whether we act from malicious or otherwise wrongful motives, not whether we are “violent.”  We shall never be able to evaluate the moral consequences of religion until we jettison such useless and misleading terms such as “violence.”

Ironically, many classic and contemporary theories of religion generally argue, not that religion causes violence but that violence causes religion.  These theorists all see religion as fundamentally a force for social harmony.  Sigmund Freud, Émile Durkheim, Walter Burkert, and René Girard all argue, in different ways, that violent impulses and other threats to social order have generated religious rituals that serve to channel, defuse, and transmute violence for the sake of social harmony. These scholars were all struck by the implicit or explicit violence of religious rituals, especially sacrifice.  They all argue that sacrifice represents a sacred transformation of profane violence, in the interests of social order.  Freud, in Totem and Taboo, argues that sacrifice commemorates the foundation of a society in the murder of the patriarch.  Durkheim, in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life,  says that all religious rituals function to reaffirm and to secure the harmony of the community from the threat of anarchic violence.  Burkert, in Homo Necans, argues that sacrifice commemorates the violence of the hunt.  Perhaps the most influential argument for the proposition that violence gives rise to religion comes from the literary critic and anthropologist René Girard.  Beginning with his classic book Violence and the Sacred, Girard has argued in a 40-year series of books that sacrifice is the essential core of all religions and that sacrifice memorializes the original murder of a scapegoat that founded social harmony. He argues that the function and purpose of religion has always been to create social harmony by directing the anarchic violence of the group toward a single sacrificial victim – either a person or, later, an animal.  In his contribution to this Special Issue, theologian Michael Kirwan, the eminent scholar of Girard, finds Girardian parallels in Cavanaugh’s thought. To begin with, Girard’s argument that religion serves to channel and contain violence is consistent with Cavanaugh’s deconstruction of the myth that religion is the essential cause of violence.  Moreover, Kirwan argues that Girardian theory provides some of the resources needed to explain how the myth of religious violence, despite being incoherent or even false, is held so tenaciously.  Finally, Kirwan shows that a deep commitment to Christian pacifism underlies both Girard’s and Cavanaugh’s critique of contemporary secular ideologies.

In his opening article, Bill Cavanaugh both summarizes the main claims in his book and also responds to some of the critiques that have been leveled against his provocative arguments.   One of those critiques is that, although he devotes considerable attention to the question of how to define religion, he never offers any definition of violence.  In his article, Cavanaugh also clarifies the implicit theological commitments that underlay his arguments: he comes out of the closet as a political theologian.  Historian of thought Craig Martin, in his article “What is Religion?” attempts to answer that question with another question: “Why do you ask?” He explores the ideological purposes served in different historical contexts by the distinction between what is religious and what is secular.  Martin also raises the question of “What is violence?,” pointing out the ideological functions of this vague concept.

Is nationalism a kind of religion?  In one of his books, Migrations of the Holy, William Cavanaugh argues that a great deal of religious fervor has been directed toward the nation-state in modern times.  As a political theologian, Cavanaugh describes this cult of nationality as a form of “idolatry” and urges us to resist it.  In The Myth of Religious Violence, Cavanaugh points out that historically even the Christian church was deeply intertwined with various political communities and that political unity was assumed to rest on religious unity.  The sociologist of religion Carolyn Marvin, in her article “Religion and Realpolitik: Reflections on Sacrifice,” argues that a religion is a community of believers willing sometimes to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the group.  With this definition, she treats the modern nation-state as a religious community, since citizens express such a strong willingness to die for it.  Like Freud, Burkert, and Girard, Marvin sees sacrifice as the defining religious ritual and like Durkheim, she sees the national community as the essential object of religious devotion.  Indeed, Cavanaugh cites public opinion polls in the United States showing that most people are more willing to die for their nation than for their faith.  So what is our true religion?

Political theorist Ronald Weed in his article “Putting Religion First? Diagnosing Division and Conflict in the Religious Violence Thesis,” addresses the strong form of the religious violence thesis.  Almost everyone agrees that religious differences can be a source of division and conflict; the question is whether religious differences are uniquely divisive and prone to violent conflict.  Weed shows that major political philosophers, such as Aristotle and Rousseau, have argued that the deepest divisions in most political societies stem from sources other than religion.  For Aristotle, political conflict stems from the unequal distribution of wealth, honor, and office in every society.  Citizens fundamentally disagree about what justice requires in this distribution.  Where these conflicts congeal into class conflicts, we have a very dangerous potential for violence.  Rousseau largely concurs, tracing these conflicts over justice to their source in a deep kind of psychological selfishness.  Rousseau, again like Aristotle, recognizes a healthy and natural form of self-love (amour de soi) but also a competitive and vain form of self-love (amour propre).  This latter kind of self-love is created by social life, even as it undermines social harmony.  It is what Kant would later call an “unsocial sociality”.   Weed thus shows, first, that there are other and perhaps more basic sources of social conflict than religion and, second, that even religious conflict may itself be driven by competition for status and by human pride and vanity.

Part of the founding myth of modern liberalism is that the early modern “wars of religion” threatened to destroy political life until liberalism tamed religion by the separation of church from state.  Cavanaugh points out in his book, however, that many historians argue that these “wars of religion” were not really about religion, but about state-building, nationalism, and economics.  If the wars of religion were about religion, says Cavanaugh, then we would expect to see Catholics consistently fighting Protestants.  But, he notes, Catholics often formed alliances with Protestants to fight other Catholics.  In her article, historian Barbara Diefendorf asks the question: “Were the Wars of Religion About Religion?” Based on her extensive study of conflict in early modern France, she answers the question with a qualified “yes”.  Of course, she recognizes that religious identity was much more closely bound up then with social and political order: political unity was thought to be impossible without a unity of public worship. But just because religious identity was bound up with other kinds of identity, does not mean, she argues, that we cannot analytically disentangle them.  Diefendorf argues that religious motives were always mixed with other motives in these wars, but that religious motives were still significant.  She argues that the phenomenon of Catholics fighting Catholics and Protestants fighting Protestants in no way proves the absence of religious motives, recognizing that religious conflict is often familial.  Finally, she argues that the rise of the modern nation-state does not signal the rise of a new kind of national religion: instead, Catholics and Protestants simply began to learn how to share a common political identity despite their own robust and differing religious identities.

William Cavanaugh has challenged us to rethink many common cultural nostrums about the relation of religion to violence.  Unfortunately, his own claims are still largely cast in these same misleading terms, so we need a more precise set of terms and set of hypotheses framed more narrowly if we are to clarify the origins of hatred and the desire to harm others.  Social scientists are beginning to frame and test such hypotheses, as when they ask “Under what conditions do Christians (or Muslims, Jews, etc) frame their enmities in theological terms?” Most people see suicide terrorism as the best example of religiously-motivated violence, but the most comprehensive study of this phenomenon (Robert Pape’s Dying to Win) argues that suicide bombing has almost nothing to do with religion.  When it comes to religion and violence, truly the Devil is in the detail.

Cavanaugh’s well-argued and provocative new book challenges several key assumptions in modern secular liberalism about the threat that religion is alleged to pose to peace and social harmony.  These assumptions were largely the basis for the post-Enlightenment separation of church and state.  By privatizing religion, modern liberal states claimed to be making the world safe from religious violence.  Nation-states would henceforth be the guardians of religious passion.  But, says Cavanaugh, who will guard us from the new guardians?


[1]  See Benjamin Valentino, et al.,“Covenants Without the Sword: International Law and the Protection of Civilians in Times of War,” World Politics, vol. 58, no. 3 (April 2006).  See Bruce M. Russett, John R. Oneal and Michaelene Cox, “Clash of Civilizations, or Realism and Liberalism Déjà Vu? Some Evidence,” Journal of Peace Research 37 (September 2000): 583-608.

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