William T. Cavanaugh

Puncturing Progressive Myths: Response to Brad Littlejohn

Church and Nation, History, Liberalism, Violence

Brad Littlejohn’s blog entry here last week would raise significant difficulties for the thesis of my book The Myth of Religious Violence if 1) the argument of that book is that modernity is more violent than previous epochs and 2) Steven Pinker has proven that modernity is in fact less violent than previous epochs. However, the first of these premises is false, and the second is highly questionable.

Brad Littlejohn’s blog entry here last week would raise significant difficulties for the thesis of my book The Myth of Religious Violence if 1) the argument of that book is that modernity is more violent than previous epochs and 2) Steven Pinker has proven that modernity is in fact less violent than previous epochs.  However, the first of these premises is false, and the second is highly questionable.

Let me briefly address Pinker first.  My historical expertise and the space allowed in a blog entry are both too limited to make a thorough evaluation of Pinker’s claims here.  Others with some claim to expertise have reviewed his book, however, and many, perhaps even the majority, have found it unconvincing.  Elizabeth Kolbert in the The New Yorker, David Bentley Hart in First Things, and John Gray in Prospect have panned the book. Writing in Scientific American, Robert Epstein accuses Pinker of confirmation bias, that is, selecting evidence based on whether or not it will confirm his pre-judged conclusion.  Statistician Nassim Taleb writes about the “Pinker Problem” in these terms: “Pinker doesn’t have a clear idea of the difference between science and journalism, or the one between rigorous empiricism and anecdotal statements. Science is not about making claims about a sample, but using a sample to make general claims and discuss properties that apply outside the sample.”  John Arquilla, writing in Foreign Policy, says the main problem with Pinker’s analysis of the twentieth century is that he ignores noncombatant deaths from war, which since World War II have made up the majority of casualties.  In a detailed analysis entitled “Reality Denial: Steven Pinker’s Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence,” Edward Herman and David Peterson conclude that Pinker’s is a “terrible book, both as a technical work of scholarship and as a moral tract and guide.”  Stephen Corry has accused Pinker’s book of cherry-picking evidence against tribal peoples, and has written that “pure prejudice runs amok” in parts of Pinker’s book.  A more general critique of the way Pinker twists empirical science to fit his political agenda can be found in Arne Rasmusson’s article “Science as Salvation: George Lakoff and Steven Pinker as Secular Political Theologians” (Modern Theology, April 2012; also available here).

This brief compendium of doubt, incomplete as it is, should at least qualify Brad Littlejohn’s rather innocent treatment of Pinker’s book as scientific fact.  A better-documented and more circumspect analysis can be found in Robert Muchembled’s A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present.  Muchembled shows that the murder rate in Europe dropped precipitously from the medieval to the modern era, but he also argues that that drop occurred largely because young men’s killing energies were directed outward in war and colonial conquest.  Unlike Pinker, Muchembled does not buy the happily progressive narrative of European liberalism’s gradual taming of primitive people’s savagery.

Even if Pinker were right, however, Littlejohn is wrong to think that it would refute the central thesis of my book on “religious violence.”  My book is not an attempt to prove that modernity is more violent than previous epochs.  It is indeed not an exercise in “modernity criticism” at all.  It is a critique not of modernity as such, but of one of the primary ideological defenses of modern liberal politics, that is, the idea that there is a transhistorical and transcultural something called “religion” that must be tamed by the secular nation-state because religion has a peculiar tendency to promote violence.  My point is not that violence is a creation of modernity or that things in general used to be better than they are now.  My argument is negative: the myth of religious violence is false.  There is no coherent way, either now or in previous eras, to separate religious violence from secular violence in such a way that the former is peculiarly more pervasive or more virulent than the latter.

In the third chapter of the book, and elsewhere, I do discuss the violence of modern nation-states in order to show how implausible is the idea that the nation-state saved us from violence.  I show that the creation of the modern state was not the solution but was one of the causes of the violence of the so-called “Wars of Religion” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  At no point do I make any claims that the modern era as a whole is either more or less violent than what came before it.  Indeed, in the second chapter I write “There may be good reasons to prefer modern to medieval, or Western to Islamic, arrangements (though to pass wholesale judgment on entire eras or cultures is probably not the best way to proceed).”  Littlejohn takes a quote from my earlier essay “Killing for the Telephone Company” as what he calls a “breathtaking historical claim” but it is not nearly as breathtaking as he makes it out to be.  Littlejohn takes me as arguing that the early modern state “’create[d] the threat’ of violence,” but that claim would of course be absurd.  When I wrote that “the state itself created the threat and then charged its citizens for reducing it,” I was referring to one specific kind of violence, that is, war between sovereign states.  My reference was to Charles Tilly’s work, which shows that state-making elites in early modern Europe built state bureaucracies largely in order to extract revenues from the peasantry and incipient bourgeoisie in order to make war.  This is far from the breathtaking historical claim that the state invented violence, and I make no claim here or elsewhere about whether medieval violence was better or worse.

I apologize in advance for quoting myself, but I think that the conclusion of the third chapter of my book gives the reader a fair idea of what I am after: “To say that the foundational myth of the ‘Wars of Religion’ is false is not to say that liberal principles are therefore false; the separation of church and state is, to my mind, important to uphold for several reasons, some of them theological. It is to say, however, that the triumphalist narrative that sees the liberal state as the solution to the violence of ‘religion’ needs to be abandoned. To reject the myth by no means implies nostalgia for medieval forms of governance, any more than Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish implies nostalgia for corporal punishment.  Foucault’s famous study shows the modern transition from public torture and execution aimed at the body to imprisonment aimed at the soul as part of a larger movement in modernity toward more invisible—and therefore more effective—types of discipline and power. Foucault’s aim is not to hold up medieval practices as a paradigm, but to question the triumphalist narrative that Western modernity prefers to tell about itself, in which barbarism is progressively conquered by rationality and freedom. Likewise, I want to question the triumphalist view of the liberal state. The shift from church power to state power is not the victory of peaceable reason over irrational religious violence. The more we tell ourselves it is, the more we are capable of ignoring the violence we do in the name of reason and freedom.”

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