The myth of religious violence should finally be seen for what it is: an important part of the folklore of Western societies. It does not identify any facts about the world, but rather authorizes certain arrangements of power in the modern West… The myth also helps identify Others and enemies, both internal and external, who threaten the social order and who provide the requisite villains against which the nation-state is said to protect us. (William Cavanaugh, 226, cited below)
I recently discussed a phenomenal work by William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence. It has forced me to rethink a number of issues. The fact of the matter is that although that which we generally term “religious” often may be involved in violence, the categories of “secular” and “religious” are themselves social constructs which have been used in the West to stigmatize the religious Other.
The Myth Played Out
The religious other is said to be violent. Religions cause violence due to their scary propensity to link with irrationality, absolutism, and divisive. Religion caused wars and chaos. Religious persons engaged in wars for God over nothing but minute doctrinal differences raged across the time of the reformation and at other times as well. The rise of the secular nation-state and the squelching of religion in the public square allowed for the cessation of violence and for man to live in peace. Such goes the myth of religious violence. Cavanaugh refers to this myth as a “creation myth” of the nation-state (123).
Notice the themes that run through any discussion of religion and violence. The general theme is that religion causes division through doctrinal matters. Because person A believes x and person B believes y, they argue, Furthermore, because neither x nor y has sufficient rational grounds for A and B to resolve the issue, they must fight in order to determine is right. After all, religion deals with absolutes. A and B square off about salvation–their eternal souls are at stake!
Often, religious persons are tempted to come back and counter that those who are non-religious are often violent too. However, this is itself a reaction to the same factors that drive the notion of religious violence. Namely, the myth of religious violence is used to stigmatize the Other. It constructs temporary categories of “religious” and “secular,” groups people based upon that, and then delegates the worst types of violence to that which is called religious. The myth is part of the justification for the nation-state and nationalism. The Nation is that which protects us from the Others in our own society. Without the protection of the State, we would turn to violence to try to subjugate others for our own purposes. Therefore, the State becomes a sacred object. Its symbols become cultic objects, and we ritualize specific aspects of the State. After all, the Nation is our savior from violence of religion. People will willingly lay their lives down in the name of their country, but for their religion? Certainly not! The State is worth dying for because it defends all people, but a religion is an internalized, personal object.
Thus, those things deemed religious are stigmatized and forced into the personal sphere, while those deemed secular are allowed for public debate. As such, specific aspects of a person’s worldview are forcibly separated and parsed. The religious person is expected to act “secular” when it comes to the public sphere, but is allowed to do whatever he wishes in the private realm. The problems quickly become clear.
Religion as a Myth
Religion itself is a social construct. I have seen this personally in a number of works dealing with “religion.” Rarely do authors attempt anything more than a working definition, and even then the definitions do little to outline real differences between that which is “secular” and that which is “religion.” The definitions are either extremely vague or too specific.
A survey of literature on religion shows that this problem is pervasive. The problem is with the notion of religion itself as a category that can somehow cordon off that which is secular. It may be much more useful to speak simply of ideologies or worldviews. Thus, a side-by-side comparison of differing worldviews can indeed be made. There is no fast and hard distinction between secular and religious, for such a distinction is nothing but arbitrary.
How does one define religion in such a way that Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam all somehow fit while Marxism, Communism, Nationalism, and the like do not? It seems an impossible task. Some who read my site may notice that I frequently file things under “philosophy of religion” [including this post!]. I’m not suggesting that “religion” is an entirely useless word. What I’m suggesting here is that we must admit that the category is a construction, pure and simple. When I use “religion,” I use it pragmatically to review to an arbitrarily dilineated set of worldviews. Ultimately, “philosophy of religion” is a philosophy of worldviews: putting them side by side for comparison.
By challenging the reigning paradigm of religion as a real, transcultural, category we may thus turn to the question of violence, rationality, and the like as an empirical, philosophical, and existential study. By stripping away the prejudices that come up when someone uses the word “religious” or “secular,” we may focus upon the actual data at hand. Regarding the question of violence, we can ask questions like: “In what circumstances will worldview U turn to violence?” or “Is worldview U more prone to violence than others?” As such, extremism like that of Marxism which has killed untold millions with an atheistic paradigm can be set up alongside extremism like that of Islamicism. Thus, categories outside of “religion” can be used to analyze these cases. Surely divisiveness, absolutism, and irrationality are involved in both cases? What causes them to arise? How do we slow that tide? How do we reason with the Other?
The category “religion” is a construct of the person utilizing it. As such, it can be wielded as a weapon. And, I charge, that is exactly what the category “religion” has been used for.
Controlling the Other
Those who argue that religion causes violence are, in particular, wielding the phrase as a weapon. The religious Other is irrational, violent, and to be feared. It is “us” or “them.” One can observe this in the literature. Some endorse violence against specific religions just because they assume that the myth of religious violence will apply to the view at large.
It is this kind of mentality that the construct of religion perpetuates. It is the Other which we must fear. We, who are rational, need to fear the irrational Other. The Other causes violence, they cannot be reasoned with, and they want absolutist control over society.
The key to this discussion is that the notion of a hard line between “secular” and “religious” is a social construct. The notion of religion is indeed a construction.
The myth of religion is therefore one step towards the myth of religious violence. The key is to construct a “religious other” who is irrational, divisive, and dangerous. Thus, we can feel free to stigmatize and fear this Other. We need to make sure that the Other does not threaten us, and indeed part of this may be to use violence against the Other. After all, they are incapable of reasoning and will not listen to our sound arguments. The only thing they are capable of understanding is violence, which they have used to try to subjugate us to their views.
It is in this way that the myth is used most dangerously. The religious other is a fearsome enemy, one who must be avoided and perhaps even destroyed in order to prevent one’s own destruction. By perpetuating the notion of religion as a transcultural, transhistorical, real entity distinct from that which is secular, the possibility is made to make the religious other the enemy, while glorifying those categories which one decides are not religious. It undermines the empirical study of the way violence comes about on particular worldviews.
An Alternative Way Forward
Rather than using the category of “religion” in order to stigmatize, I suggest that we instead discuss “worldviews.” In this way, all worldviews are on the same plain. Violence may arise in certain worldviews more easily than others, whether it is nationalism or a particular worldview which is deemed “religious.” It may be extremely difficult to avoid using the term “religion” so I will not even attempt to do so. The category is a construction, so it can be used as a useful fiction. Because it is indeed a temporal, cultural distinction, I can use “religion” in a meaningful sense so far as when I say it people will tend to think of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and the like.
However, it is just as important to focus upon all worldviews, not those which are somewhat arbitrarily deemed “religious,” when discussing truth claims. As such, it is important to avoid the secular/religious distinction and instead focus upon factual debate and discussion over the coherence of particular views. By doing so, we can advance the discussion about worldviews while avoiding the use of the myth of “religion” to stigmatize the other.
Book Review: “The Myth of Religious Violence” by William T. Cavanaugh- I review the book which has led me to discuss the ways the category of religion is used to stigmatize the other and also forced me to rethink a number of issues. I highly recommend this book.
William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (New York: Oxford, 2009).
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