Myth of Religious Violence
April 27, 2017

Revisiting William Cavanaugh’s devastating 2009 The Myth of Religious Violence.

The myth of Cavanaugh’s title is a well-known one. According to the myth, religion is a distinct sphere of human life and practice from the rest of human social life, a universal impulse in human beings, and is dogmatic, private, and interior. Since the early modern period, it has been widely believed that because religion is irrational, absolutist, divisive it has a peculiar propensity toward violence.

Enduring the horrors of religious war following the Reformation, the West learned its lesson, and the secular state came to the rescue, saving the West from violence and establishing institutions to ensure that it never happens again, though the sacred walls of secular order must be constantly policed against the benighted fundamentalists who haven’t yet caught up.

What is wrong with this picture? Several things.

First, Cavanaugh argues that the myth depends on an essentialist definition of religion that treats religion as a distinct reality from other spheres of life. This is an anachronistic concept of religion in the sixteenth century, and Cavanaugh shows that advocates of the myth offer no, or no coherent, definition of “religion.” If religion is defined as belief and practice relating to God, a large swath of Eastern “religious” life is left out. If religion is defined in terms of “ultimate concern,” then it must include political and other ideologies that are typically classified as “secular.”

Essentialist definitions fail because they define religion too narrowly, and thus leave out some important “religions”; functionalists define it so broadly that it includes “secular” ideologies and ceases to be a meaningful concept in the analysis of violence. If religion = ultimate concern, and ultimate concern = something worth dying and killing for, then to say “religion causes violence” is to say “things we consider worth killing for lead to killing.” As Cavanaugh shows, the most thoughtful writers on religion and violence oscillate back and forth between dissolving the concept of religion and resurrecting it when it proves useful.

Cavanaugh traces the history of the concept of “religion” to show that the definitions usually adopted by analysts are dependent on contingent developments within Western European political and intellectual history. There simply is no transhistorical or transcultural definition of religion. The problem is not that the definitions of religion are too fuzzy. On the contrary, Cavanaugh finds them “unjustifiably clear.” The lines between “religious” and “secular” are far too bright. Obviously, if the lines are not as clear as analysts make them, then one cannot make much of a case for the notion that “religion” is an independent factor, more likely to produce violence than secular ideologies.

Worse, by focusing on the bad violence prompted or justified by groups classified as “religious,” analysts sometimes ignore or implicitly endorse the “good” violence perpetrated by “secular” powers. Cavanaugh’s argument here isn’t a refutation: He doesn’t claim that religions are all non-violent. Nor is argument simply a tu quoque: Secularists do just as much violence as religious people. His argument is more devastating because more fundamental: Once “religion” is dissolved genealogically and logically, it no longer has a useful role in analyzing the causes of violence.

Second, he shows that the wars of religion were not “religious” in the sense used by later analysts. Cavanaugh has made this case before, in a widely cited article and in a chapter of his Theopolotical Imagination. In Myth of Religious Violence, he performs a work of supererogation. After demonstrating how the myth of religious wars has shaped and still shapes Western political theory, he details on page after page the folly of describing these wars as simplistically “religious.” Members of the same church killed one another, members of different churches cooperated.

The notion that these wars were religious and not political, economic, social, whatever is anachronistic, projecting a later concept of “religion” back onto the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. By the same token, the notion that the wars were “political” and not-religious assumes a concept of “politics” that is just as anachronistic as the apolitical conception of religion.

As Cavanaugh sees things, the wars were about state-building: Kings justified attacks on rival nobles and efforts to consolidate their power by invoking the name of God. Most especially, they pursued a transfer of social power from the church to the state. The state was not savior but cause. Further, the concept of “religion” as a separate, private sphere of human life emerged during this period. “Religion” as we know it in the West was not the cause but the result of the “wars of religion,” as was our concept of the “secular.” Cavanaugh makes the important point that the states erected on the rubble of the post-Reformation wars were often confessional and absolutist. Liberal states emerged a good deal later, and then justified themselves by convincing everyone that they had saved Europe from religious conflagration.

If the “myth of religious violence” is neither conceptually nor historically tenable, why has it been such a fixture of modern Western political theory and life? Why has it assumed the stature of “myth,” an unquestioned story that we tell ourselves about ourselves? Cavanaugh asks the obvious question: “Who benefits?” What practices are being authorized, and which are being discouraged, by defining religion in a particular way?

This is the most original and arresting part of the book. Cavanaugh argues that the modern Western concept of “religion” is part of the legitimating ideology of the liberal state. Because the liberal state is the savior, it must be protected against incursions of primitive irrationality. Because the liberal state represents rational opposition to irrational violence, it has the right to demand sacrifices of its citizens. Sacredness – including the willingness to die or kill – has migrated from the church to the state. The myth legitimates patriotic displays and fervor, including self-sacrifice in war, but marginalizes school prayer, Christian schools.

The myth, in turn, becomes part of the legitimating narrative of the West’s superiority. Secularity, the excision of “religion” from public life, is the mark of the Western political progress. The myth of religious violence gives us a reason to ensure that everyone becomes more like us. The violence we unleash against them is legitimate because we are saving them from worse. The claim that “religion causes violence” is part of the history of Western power, not an empirical observation.

In no way does Cavanaugh excuse or minimize Christian violence during the sixteenth century or after. He writes, “If the transfer of power from church to state contributed to the upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that transfer generally took the form of the absorption of the church into the apparatus of the state. The church was of course deeply implicated in the violence of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” In response to criticisms from Ephraim Radner, he acknowledges, as he does in the book, that “The European wars of the early modern period were fought by Christians, and  . . . this outburst of brutality marks a signal failure of the church to be an instantiation of Christ’s peace.”

Cavanaugh’s point is that “enchanted” violence arising from the church, justified and motivated in terms of God’s will, is not a different category from violence “done in the name of the state, the nation, capitalism, and other supposedly ‘secular’ causes.” It’s not as if there’s an enchanted “religious” violence on the one side and secular, rational violence on the other. Instead, supposedly secular violence isn’t “‘disenchanted' at al” but “prone to idolatry, the worship of false gods.”

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.

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