Quotes from William T. Cavanaugh

The following quotes are from the recommended: Cavanaugh, William T. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

What I call the “myth of religious violence” is the idea that religion is a transhistorical and transcultural feature of human life, essentially distinct from “secular” features such as politics and economics, which has a peculiarly dangerous inclination to promote violence.1

In the first chapter, I examine arguments from nine of the most prominent academic proponents of the idea that religion is peculiarly prone to violence. The examples range widely across different scholarly disciplines and give different types of explanations for why religion is prone to violence: religion is absolutist, religion is divisive, religion is irrational. They all suffer from the same defect: the inability to find a convincing way to separate religious violence from secular violence. Each of the arguments I examine is beset by internal contradictions.2

In the second chapter, I give evidence for two conclusions. The first conclusion is that there is no such thing as a transhistorical or transcultural “religion” that is essentially separate from politics. Religion has a history, and what counts as religion and what does not in any given context depends on different configurations of power and authority. The second conclusion is that the attempt to say that there is a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion that is separable from secular phenomena is itself part of a particular configuration of power, that of the modern, liberal nation-state as it developed in the West. In this context, religion is constructed as transhistorical, transcultural, essentially interior, and essentially distinct from public, secular rationality.3

In chapter 3, I examine one of the most commonly cited historical examples of religious violence: the “wars of religion” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe. . . . In this chapter, I question the standard story by looking at the historical record. The case is not as simple as the standard story implies. Christians certainly did kill each other, marking a signal failure of Christians to resist violence. But the transfer of power from the church to the state was not simply a remedy for the violence. Indeed, the transfer of power from the church to the state predated the division of Christendom into Catholics and Protestants and in many ways was a cause of the violence of the so-called wars of religion. The shift from medieval to modern—from church power to state power—was a long, complex process with gains and losses. Whatever it was, it was not a simple progressive march from violence to peace. The gradual transfer of loyalty from international church to national state was not the end of violence in Europe, but a migration of the holy from church to state in the establishment of the ideal of dying and killing for one’s country.4

In the fourth and final chapter of the book, I ask: what purpose does the idea that religion causes violence serve for its consumers in the contemporary West? I show how useful the myth has been in the United States in authorizing certain types of power in both domestic politics and foreign policy. In domestic politics, it has helped to marginalize certain practices such as public school prayer and aid to parochial schools. At the same time, it has helped to reinforce patriotic adherence to the nation-state as that which saves us from our other, more divisive, identities. In foreign policy, the myth of religious violence helps to reinforce and justify Western attitudes and policies toward the non-Western world, especially Muslims, whose primary point of difference with the West is said to be their stubborn refusal to tame religious passions in the public sphere. It is important to note that arguments about religion and violence are not necessarily antireligion, but are anti–public religion. Although the majority of Americans consider themselves to be religious, the overwhelming majority also regard the secularization of politics as foundational to any rational and civilized society. Muslims are commonly stereotyped as fanatical and dangerous because they have not learned, as “we” have, to separate politics from religion.5

The arguments I examine attempt to separate a category called religion, which is prone to violence because it is absolutist, divisive, and nonrational, from a secular, or nonreligious, reality that is less prone to violence, presumably because it is less absolutist, more unitive, and more rational. As we shall see, such arguments do not stand up to scrutiny, because they cannot find any coherent way to separate religious from secular violence. Once we begin to ask what the religion-and-violence arguments mean by religion, we find that their explanatory power is hobbled by a number of indefensible assumptions about what does and does not count as religion. Certain types of practices and institutions are condemned, while others are ignored.6

The point is that the distinction between secular and religious violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and it should be avoided altogether.7

The earliest form of pluralization [of the term “religion”] in the modern sense is found in the 1590s, with Richard Hooker from the Anglican side and Robert Parsons from the Catholic side writing about religions as objective and opposing sets of doctrines.8

In the medieval period, the saeculum had both a temporal and spatial dimension; it referred to this world and age, and saecula saeculorum was translated in English as “world without end.” The saeculum was all of creation, written into the providential plan of God. It did not refer to some spatial area of interest autonomous from the church’s concern.9

There is no reason to suppose that medieval religio simply morphed into modern religion and that, underneath the changes, it has the same essential qualities. There are, of course, commonalities between medieval religio and modern religion, but religio as a virtue also has commonalities with modern concepts such as public allegiance, civic obligation, justice, public virtue, and a host of other concepts and practices that modernity categorizes as political.10

The idea that there exists a transhistorical human impulse called religion with a singular tendency to promote fanaticism and violence when combined with public power is not an empirically demonstrable fact, but is itself an ideological accompaniment to the shifts in power and authority that mark the transition from the medieval to the modern in the West.11

The concept of religion was introduced outside the West in the context of European colonization, and the introduction of the concept often served the interests of the colonizers.12

In reality, the amorphous nature of Hinduism is due to the fact that Hinduism originally included all that it means to be Indian, including what modern Westerners divided into religion, politics, economics, and so on. But if Hinduism is what it means to be Indian, then by identifying and isolating a religion called Hinduism, the British were able to marginalize what it means to be Indian. Under British colonization, to be British was to be public; to be Indian was to be private. The very conception of religion was a tool in removing native Indian culture and Indians themselves from the exercise of public power.13

Until the seventeenth century, supernatural was used adverbially or adjectivally to indicate someone acting above what is ordinarily expected of them, for example, a human being acting justly and truthfully through the gifts of God’s grace. The term supernatural, therefore, could never be applied to God.14

If this is true, then the idea that the rise of the modern state rescued Europe from the scourge of religious wars becomes highly questionable. The modern state was not simply a response to the advent of religious difference in the Reformation and the subsequent violence that religious difference unleashed. If the Reformation itself was, as Wolfart says, an “invention” of the ongoing struggle for power and authority between church and civil rulers—which had been going on for quite some time before Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door at Wittenberg—then the transfer of power from the church to the state appears not so much as a solution to the wars in question, but as a cause of those wars. The so-called wars of religion appear as wars fought by state-building elites for the purpose of consolidating their power over the church and other rivals. This view conforms more closely than the wars-of-religion myth to the historical account of the actual rise of the state given by David Held above. The point here is not that these wars were really about politics and not really about religion. The point is that the very distinction of politics and religion made possible by the rise of the modern state against the decaying medieval order—the transfer of power from the church to the state—was itself at the root of these wars.15

The myth of the wars of religion concludes in one of two ways: either the baneful influence of religion in the public realm is banished to the private realm by the secularization of the state (liberalism), or religious disunity is overcome by the imposition of religious unity by a powerful state (absolutism). Neither of these ideas can stand up to the historical record. On the one hand, the idea that the liberal state was the solution to the wars of religion is anachronistic. The state was not secularized but sacralized in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; religion was not banished but, as John Neville Figgis wrote, “the religion of the State has replaced the religion of the Church.” The advent of liberalism in any strong form would come only a century or more after the conclusion of the so-called religious wars. On the other hand, the idea that the absolutist state solved the crisis of the wars of religion by the imposition of a firm unity is plausible only if one ignores the fact that the rise of the centralized sovereign state was a principal cause of the wars in question. The notion that the state came on the scene as peace maker requires a quaint and credulous belief that the political theories of state-building elites—represented by Bodin, Hobbes, Rousseau, et al.—are an accurate reflection of the actual history of the state.16

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.17

Although the myth authorizes certain uses of power, I do not think that there exists a conscious conspiracy on the part of certain powerful people to construct the myth as deliberate propaganda. The myth of religious violence is simply part of the general conceptual apparatus of Western society. It is one of the ways that the legitimacy of liberal social orders is continually reinforced, from official government actions to the common assumptions of the citizen on the street. The myth is never uncontested, as the Supreme Court cases I examine below make clear. But the myth is pervasive and helps to structure domestic and foreign policy in ways that are often unconscious.18

It is no accident that in the secular individualist world view the definition of religion is negatively but inextricably linked to patriotism. Religion appears as the alter ego of the liberal nation-state; religion—or more precisely, religion in public—is what the liberal nation-state saves us from. Religion is defined as mere opinion, with no rational basis on which disputes can be solved. Religion therefore is inherently divisive and dangerous. What unifies us is the nationstate. In public, our identities as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Unitarians and Catholics and atheists no longer take precedence. We are all Americans, and devotional exercises meant to instill love of our country are unitive, not divisive. Such exercises, however, are not religion. Patriotism, in this world view, is defined over against public religion. To allow that patriotism might be a type of religion and might carry its own dangers of violence would threaten the very basis of our social order. Religion belongs to the private realm of opinion; patriotism belongs to the public realm of fact. Dissenters from religious orthodoxy must be protected from religion; dissenters from patriotic orthodoxy may be tolerated but not allowed to interfere with the inculcation of the fervent love of country.19

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the myth of religious violence in U.S. jurisprudence is the fact that it was made useful at a moment in U.S. history when the violence against which it warned was least likely to occur. Was the Supreme Court seriously concerned in 1971 that a marauding band of enraged Rhode Island Presbyterians would attack St. Agnes grade school and shoot the social studies teacher in the middle of her Mt. Rushmore slide show? The nation had by then elected its first Catholic president, and suspicion of Catholics as agents of a foreign potentate—the pope—although not absent, was at a historical low. Despite dire warnings about the volatility of the issues at hand, none of the Supreme Court opinions was able to point to any actual disruptions of the peace that were less than a couple of centuries old. The Rhode Island and Pennsylvania legislatures had passed the offending legislation several years before Lemon v. Kurtzman, without apparently causing more violent disagreement than other funding bills dealing with highways and health care.20

What these dissenting opinions underscore is that the Supreme Court’s use of the myth of religious violence has never been a response to empirical fact as much as it has been a useful narrative that has been produced by and has helped to produce consent to certain changes in the American social order. Stories of the inherent danger and divisiveness of religion helped to facilitate a shift from a predominant religious communitarianism to a predominant secular individualism in American jurisprudence and American culture. To recognize this shift is not necessarily to imply nostalgia for the previous regime. In the older view, religion is the glue that holds the nation together. The recruitment of the churches for the support of U.S. nationalism is, in my view, problematic. However, a shift toward the newer view, in which the nation is held together by allegiance to the nation itself over against the divisiveness of public religion, is also problematic, insofar as it unfairly marginalizes voices labeled religious from public discourse while it simultaneously promotes a secular religion of U.S. nationalism.21

This type of double standard with regard to violence runs throughout Harris’s book. He condemns the irrational religious torture of witches, but provides his own argument for torturing terrorists. He rejects the idea that our violence is equivalent to their violence: “Any honest witness to current events will realize that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments.” What allows Harris to maintain this double standard is the distinction between religious violence and secular violence. Violence labeled religious is always irrational, peculiarly virulent, and reprehensible. Violence labeled secular, on the other hand, no matter how regrettable, is often necessary and sometimes even praiseworthy for the job it does defending us from religious violence.22

Hitchens thus seems to employ a functionalist conception of religion, but he does not do so consistently. For most of his book, what Hitchens means by religion seems to be limited to some substantivist list of world religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism all come in for criticism and dismissal. When it helps to make his case against religion, however, things like Kim Jong-il’s militantly atheist regime in North Korea count as religion too. But Hitchens refuses to employ a functionalist view of religion when it comes to ideologies and institutions of which he approves. There is no recognition that secular nationalism, with its rites and sacrifices, can be religious too. Such a recognition would threaten Hitchens’s absolute distinction between religion and the secular. But the distinction is based on little more than the distinction between those things of which Hitchens approves and those of which he does not. Religion poisons everything because Hitchens identifies everything poisonous as religion. Likewise, everything good ends up on the other side of the religious-secular divide. For example, Hitchens writes of Martin Luther King, Jr., “In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian.” Hitchens bases this remarkable conclusion on the fact that King was nonviolent and preached forgiveness and love of enemies, as opposed to the Bible, which in both the Old and New Testaments is marked by a vengeful God. Here, what is not violent cannot possibly be religious, because religion is defined as violent.23

The myth of religious violence is also useful, therefore, for justifying secular violence against religious actors; their irrational violence must be met with rational violence. We must share the blessings of secularism with them. If they are not sufficiently rational to be open to persuasion, we must regrettably bomb them into the higher rationality.24

I am certainly not arguing that Muslim radicalism is really political and not really religious. As I have argued at length throughout this book, especially in chapter 2, there is no coherent way to separate a universal essence of religion from that of politics. To attempt to do so in this case would severely distort the nature of Muslim radicalism by imposing an alien theoretical framework on it. Muslim radicalism is best understood as a theopolitical project, which means that any attempt to isolate religion from the political and social contexts of Muslim radicalism will fail to grasp the full reality of Muslim anti-Western sentiment.25

Violence feeds on the need for enemies, the need to separate us from them. Such binary ways of dividing the world make the world understandable for us, but they also make the world unlivable for many. Doing away with the myth of religious violence is one way of resisting such binaries and, perhaps, turning some enemies into friends.26


  1. p. 3 
  2. p. 8 
  3. p. 9 
  4. p. 10 
  5. p. 12 
  6. p. 16 
  7. p. 56 
  8. p. 74 
  9. p. 80 
  10. p. 81 
  11. p. 85 
  12. p. 86 
  13. p. 91 
  14. p. 104 
  15. p. 162 
  16. p. 176-7 
  17. p. 179 
  18. p. 183 
  19. p. 192 
  20. p. 193 
  21. p. 194 
  22. p. 216 
  23. p. 218 
  24. p. 226 
  25. p. 230 
  26. p. 230 
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4 Replies to “Quotes from William T. Cavanaugh”

  1. I don’t recall him providing a definition of religion. The third paragraph of the post is important: “The first conclusion is that there is no such thing as a transhistorical or transcultural ‘religion’ that is essentially separate from politics. Religion has a history, and what counts as religion and what does not in any given context depends on different configurations of power and authority.”

  2. Thanks for the post!

    Cavanaugh says in the book that the problem is not defining “religion”. Many have done it pretty well (although the definitions do have some problems). The problem is rather that “religion” – no matter how you define it – has been used to separate “religions” from the secular state. It is, as he says, an invented category that only serves to marginalize religions in the public sphere.

    An other book by Cavanaugh that deal with this question is his book Torture and Eucharist. Here is a quote from that book:
    The distinction between politics and religion is “invented”

  3. I’m finding it hard to disagree more with you. There is a very important problem with defining religion, and politics and religion are definitely not the same thing, especially when you define religion as I do, as the belief in, worship of, or obedience to a supernatural power or powers considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny. Secularism is a coherent concept that works – but it always needs to be defended so long as there are theists who want to destroy it.

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