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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Thanks for bringing this out. The use of ‘religion’ to stigmatize is getting plenty of usage these days. I was with you in your summary all the way to the end.
However, when you propose using ‘worldview’ instead of ‘religion’ you must realize that that boat has already sailed. From Washington D.C. outwards, ‘worldview’ is being used in the same way to relativize and stigmatize.
That is why I have stopped using the word after years of teaching on the subject. In our forthcoming book, David Richardson and I refer to one’s ‘assumptions’ as a term without the baggage (so far!).
Otherwise, great synopsis!
Fixed my name :P.
I’m not sure that “assumptions” really captures what I mean with “worldview.” Worldview itself goes beyond just assumptions. Assumptions are involved, yes, but I don’t see how that term could encompass the totality of a worldview.
I’m not sure what you mean by fixed your name–did I misspell it in the original? Sorry about that!
Anyway, ‘assumptions’ is not meant to encompass the totality of worldview. Besides the fact that ‘worldview’ has almost the same baggage as ‘religion’ now for those not in the church, therefore nullifying your argument for using it, assumptions are the basic building blocks of what is popularly termed worldview (which is really the inferences and emotional commitments based on assumptions with which people and communities construct their interpretation of the world around them, i.e., worldview). So, because of these two reasons, one can use assumptions in any conversation in which one would use worldview. Furthermore, starting with assumptions gets at the root, rather than staying with generalities. Just like Andrew Marburger just asked: “What was the root-cause worldview that cause the Crusades? The Inquisition? These are not rhetorical questions. Or, at least, I don’t mean them to be. I am genuinely curious about your opinion on the matter.” I bet that he was asking about assumptions without the correct terminology.
Reblogged this on Right Angles and commented:
I particularly like the concept here of ‘truth claims’ and the suggestion of evaluating competing truth claims for logical coherence and factual basis.
“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.” ~ J.W. Wartick.
Thanks for your comment and sharing it!
So, instead of saying “religion is violent,” is it fair to say “people with worldviews involving a belief in god or gods have been known to behave violently as a result of that worldview?”
For instance, the worldview of Islam (religion in this case) has been known to become inordinately violent due to otherwise innocuous events.
Christianity has behaved violently as a result of the worldview of Christianity. (killing / torturing “heretics,” violent seizure of “holy lands,” etc.)
Atheism, another worldview, has not been know to become violent as a result of the worldview. Rather, historical violence caused by atheists was caused by other worldviews (communism, fascism, totalitarianism), the atheism worldview being incidental and irrelevant to the cause of the violence.
Someone’s still not thinking about it quite right ;). Note that you break up atheism into several differing groups. I think that’s correct, because “atheism” is merely one facet of those views (communism, fascism, etc). Yet why do you refuse to do that to Christianity? I’d hate to think it’s because you prefer to use a double standard against religious persons in order to continue to stigmatize them.
Instead, you should say that Christian persons in x situation with y set of beliefs often turn to violence. Few people acknowledge (or, frankly, even care to investigate enough) the complex sociological climate which lead to the Crusades and the like. But consistency isn’t exactly what has been the strong point of dialogue on “religion,” to be fair.
I’d say the same about Islam, of course. Islam with some set of beliefs certainly is violent, but Islam simpliciter?
Do you consider atheism a necessary feature of fascist or communist ideologies? There’s a small historic village about two miles from my house. It was a communal settlement. (Google the Zoarites). I guess that’s a conversation more about the difference between communism and Marxism.
I don’t think I’m using a double standard. I’m simply identifying some historical observations.
Hitler and the Nazis committed atrocities as a result of extreme nationalism and racism. Mussolini due to nationalism also. These things were not motivated by atheism as a worldview. They were motivated for other, readily-identifiable reasons.
In history, on the other hand, Christians have often killed in the name of Christianity. Muslims killed in the name of Allah. Christians tortured heretics on the specific grounds of failure of those people to adopt the precepts of the religion (which of course went against the state in many cases as well).
I’ve not yet identified a case where people were killed as a result of a disbelief in god(s). Indeed, the inverse is readily apparent in history.
Can you point out some cases of atheism resulting in atrocities?
Now it really seems clear to me you’re using a double standard. Are you willing to engage in thoughtful dialogue or would you prefer to continue to only allow distinctions in your own worldview?
For some mechanical reason, I can only reply to this message and not to Andrew Marburger’s further one in which he says: “Hitler and the Nazis committed atrocities as a result of extreme nationalism and racism.” The plain implication in that sentence is that Hitler happened to be an atheist but that his most horrifying actions were dictated by something other than atheism. However, while it is true that Hitler’s most detestable deeds were dictated by factors other than atheism, the additional fact is that it wouldn’t have been hard for atheism to be absent as a factor — for the simple reason that Hitler was no atheist at all!
I am amazed and disheartened at this continuing ignorance, throughout the Internet and beyond, on Hitler’s avowed belief in God. While it’s true that he would often trash any number of different prevailing viewpoints re God and Jesus, he still believed in God. He was no atheist and even took off after atheists on occasion! My growing impression is that the continuing — and erroneous — association of Hitler with atheism is largely kept up by a hate mentality against atheists in general who want to use Hitler — a justifiably infamous historical figure — as a stick with which to beat atheists. This is deplorable.
On top of all that, we now see the same pernicious notion that Hitler’s an atheist being accepted and purveyed by an (apparent?) non-believer like Andrew Marburger! That is especially unfortunate. Candidly, I have come to ascribe any association of atheism with Hitler as a form of hate speech — against atheists. And now when we see a sincere non-believer (apparently?) like Andrew Marburger drinking the same poisoned Kool-Aid about atheists and Hitler, while presumably defending atheism(!), that only serves to show just how far this pernicious notion of Hitler as an atheist has circulated. Do your reading A.M., before spouting off on matters where you are evidently almost as ignorant as the most malicious fundie.
Can you help me understand why that is a double standard?
I understand the issue of simply labeling religion as violent. Clearly other, non-religious, worldviews hold a propensity for violence as well.
However, atheism has not resulted in violence as a result of atheism. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen…it would be weird, though.
On the other hand, many religions have demonstrated violence.
Obviously every episode of violence is th result of an extreme interpretation of each worldview.
Considering the gratuitous violence in the OT, however, it shouldn’t be so surprising things went the way they did during the Crusades and the Inquisition. Deuteronomy 13:7ff comes to mind…
First of all, I would love to see how you explain away Stalin and the Soviet Union’s oppression of religion and killing of priests and anti religious propaganda. Apparently, according to you, it wasn’t because these people were trying to force atheism upon these other persons, but because of nationalism.
Secondly, what I’m pointing out is that you do this:
Atheism is parsed into views like communism, nihilism, etc.
Christianity is unparsed.
Have you not studied religious or belief-based communism? You evidently didn’t examine Zoar either. They were religious separatists who founded a communal society.
How can you say is unparsed? Unparsed by what? Nationalism? Extremism?
As Bill Maher has pointed out, two concepts that are completely incompatible (at least in a healthy sense) is the Christianity that Jesus talked about and nationalism.
I think you’ve succeeded, again, in saying a lot without actually saying anything. The majority of your readers will nod in agreement because they don’t understand. Or can’t.
Growing up in church, I never would have guessed god required such mental gymnastics to demonstrate his greatness. Seems petty.
But, I can admit that maybe this is just way above me, and I am incapable of understanding it. That certainly could be the case. As The Who said, I guess I won’t get what I’m after til the day I die. I’m not going to lose any sleep over it, anyway.
Have a great day my man!
Really all you’ve done is continue to show you missed the point of my post, and open up a number of red herrings. Of course I can’t answer all of these comments in any meaningful way, and these comments largely don’t even apply to the post and that is hardly fair dialogue.
Regarding the “mental gymnastics” argument. I articulate a worldview here in philosophical form. It is perfectly acceptable to adhere to a worldview without knowing why or how you believe in everything. Consider this: would you claim to know everything about evolution, Big Bang Cosmology, quantum mechanics, and the like? If you do, that’s quite a bit of hubris. But you don’t think you are somehow in limbo and in danger of losing faith in the truth of your worldview. Why do you insist on others’ worldviews being completely articulated?
Similarly regarding the religious question, I really, really don’t see how your missing the point unless you’re just unwilling to engage with it. It’s pretty simple: Christianity is not a homonegenous group. As I articulated in this post, it is much more useful to look empirically at what conditions in various worldviews lead to violence than it is to just declare a worldview violent. But hey, looks like you’re taking the easy route. I guess I shouldn’t complain. Not many are willing to drop a double standard.
If it is wrong to attribute acts of violence as a result of religion due to religion being nothing more than a social construct, does it follow it is equally unacceptable to connect the violence of Stalin to the social construct of his secularism?
It seems you are either ignoring the distinction I’m making or blindly and intentionally flaunting it.
Okay…can I ask another, open-ended, question? “Religion” is a myth because it is a social construct that makes a poor attempt at distinguishing what is religious and what is secular. Right?
So, what was the root-cause worldview that caused genocidal communism?
What was the root-cause worldview that cause the Crusades? The Inquisition?
These are not rhetorical questions. Or, at least, I don’t mean them to be. I am genuinely curious about your opinion on the matter.
Andrew. Seriously, just re-read my post. You’ve totally missed the point.
What was the root-cause of murder in communism? What was the root-cause cause of murder in the Crusades? murder in the Inquisition?
That’s simple. It’s the same as the root cause of all wrongdoing. Sin in the human heart.
I meant to say ‘precise’ terminology, not ‘correct’.
Thought provoking. Thanks for posting. Outside of violence, this post brought to mind the way ID proponents are labeled as a dangerous Other and are oustracized.
Indeed. We can’t have anyone with a differing worldview, now, can we?
I don’t think ID is completely without merit. I am, personally, open to the idea of a designer of sorts. I should note that I remain skeptical that this “designer” is anything like the god of the Bible, but that is another matter.
The point is, ID has no place in a a science classroom. It is pseudoscience. It makes untestable predictions.
Indeed, the apparent “design” in nature is better explained by evolutionary biology than the “science” of ID.
(and it should be noted that what appears designed really isn’t so designed after all…or, at least, it would be a very poor design)
(Just to clarify…by all means, teach ID in Sunday School with the talking snakes and Noah’s Ark. Leave science to its speciality.)
So ID shouldn’t be taught in a science classsroom, but a multiverse hypothesis is ok?
Honestly as long as Theism remains to be discussed in philosophy classrooms I am happy.
oh and about the talking snakes comment, that is seriously one of the worst statements against science and theism. As if God WAS the creator of the universe he couldn’t make a snake talk LOL
Do you realize that science teaches us life came from non-life? moral value came from valueless matter? and ‘reasoning” came about from a reasonless universe? Yes, very logical indeed Andrew you stick with science I’ll stick with philosophy.
+1 for the sweet Leibniz avatar !
“So ID shouldn’t be taught in a science classsroom, but a multiverse hypothesis is ok?”
Umm, yes? It should also be presented as what it is: a preliminary hypothesis for dark energy, etc.
Why? Do you think ID should be taught in science classrooms?
“Do you realize that science teaches us life came from non-life?”
It does? I must have missed that lesson. Was there a breakthrough in abiogenesis research I am not aware of?
“…you stick with science…”
Okay, will do!
“Do you realize that science teaches us life came from non-life? moral value came from valueless matter? and ‘reasoning” came about from a reasonless universe?”
Yes, I think that would be a reasonable interpretation of what many scientists would think on those topics, except the second point perhaps (which appears to be incoherent, but maybe for interesting reasons). But what are your objections to these ideas? I think these points would be interesting topics for discussion and need some further elaboration.
you say “It does? I must have missed that lesson. Was there a breakthrough in abiogenesis research I am not aware of?”
If they reject God as an explanation, then they obviously lean towards philosophical naturalism, so how else would humans and other life would have gotten here? Do you think life always existed? You consider yourself to be part of this ‘life’, correct?
“Umm, yes? It should also be presented as what it is: a preliminary hypothesis for dark energy, etc.
Why? Do you think ID should be taught in science classrooms?”
A preliminary hypothesis with what evidence?
For your second question, no, but all talks of God should remain in a philosophy classroom where it should be, and has always been since the days of Socrates. The last thing I want to hear is secular scientists trying to attempt Theology. Just look at how bad Carl Sagan was in his book “The Cosmos”:
P1) Humans are small
P2) The universe is big
C) therefore God does not exist
“Okay, will do!”
Good, now please buy yourself a beginners book philosophy and/or theology before trying to argue about it. God = philosophical question, so if you want to talk God, please learn a bit more about the topic that is relevant to God.
“Yes, I think that would be a reasonable interpretation of what many scientists would think on those topics, except the second point perhaps (which appears to be incoherent, but maybe for interesting reasons). But what are your objections to these ideas? I think these points would be interesting topics for discussion and need some further elaboration.”
Ok since you think it is reasonable, and want some objections on why I think scientists need to take lessons in epistemology before making fools of themselves, here is my first objection on why I think naturalism + evolution = problems.
Let’s start with the basics:
“Nevertheless you have expressed my inward conviction, though far more vividly and clearly than I could have done, that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? ”
Darwin to William Graham July 3rd 1881
“Boiled down to essentials, a nervous system enables the organism to succeed in…feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing. The principle chore of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive. . . . Improvements in sensorimotor control confer an evolutionary advantage: a fancier style of representing [the world] is advantageous so long as it is geared to the organism’s way of life and enhances the organism’s chances of survival. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.”
Patricia Churchland, “Epistemology in an Age of Neuroscience,” Journal of Philosophy 84 (1987), pp. 548-549;
The very fact we think that truth is something real and not just a concept in our brains. This is completely without justification. Ascribing a natural non-teleological process to answer all these phenomena reduces them to the status of being mere illusions. This is why some naturalists go so far as to suggest that consciousness is an illusion. Because they want to reduce everything down to its working parts. But this is not a good explanation of our world nor how we live.
Therefore on naturalism + evolution, therefore, what we call ‘truth’ appears to be no more than just information which holds a heuristic benefit to survival. Alvin Plantinga has made a good case for this. If ‘truth’ is also the product of minds and not a mind then it seems difficult to refute the implication that there is not truth but truths. That it is inherently subjective and not objective [although majority agreements can cause the illusion of the latter].
it does not look as though knowing what’s true is all that necessary for survival so it’s a huge epistemic leap to think we do. The naturalist has a problem here.
“Umm, yes? It should also be presented as what it is: a preliminary hypothesis for dark energy, etc.”
And what is the evidence for this?
“Why? Do you think ID should be taught in science classrooms?”
No, I think all talks of God should be inside a PHILOSOPHY classroom where its atmosphere has belonged since the time of Socrates.
“It does? I must have missed that lesson. Was there a breakthrough in abiogenesis research I am not aware of?”
Secular Scientists lean towards a naturalistic explanation, right? So did life always exist? because if it didn’t then that would lead us to believe that ‘life HAD to come from non-life” yes? Do you follow?
“Okay, will do!”
Well then, hopefully I will not see you around here again speaking about topics that you aren’t very well trained in, so next time I expect you freshen up on your philosophy and theology if you wish to partake in this subject whilst being taken seriously at the same time.
I have some good introductory books on these subjects if you are interested? Keep in mind, God = Philosophy question that is mostly discussed in the philosophy of religion.
Cornell: “Alvin Plantinga has made a good case for this.”
No, he made a God-awful case for it (excuse the pun). His argument involved talking about cavemen running away from lions because they thought the lion was playing a game with them, rather than trying to eat them. Further, your argument seems to be that for truth to exist we need the supernatural. The burden of proof rests with you if you want to make that case.