William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence (hereafter MRV) examines the oft-perpetuated notion that religion causes violence. Cavanaugh levels an attack against this notion that comes in two primary directions: 1) He argues that “ideologies and institutions labeled ‘secular’ can be just as violent as those labeled ‘religious'”; 2) He argues that the “twin categories of religious and secular” are constructs which are used to “provide secular social orders with a stock character, the religious fanatic, to serve as enemy” (3-5).
Violence in the name of…
Cavanaugh first turns to the analysis of violence. He argues that rather than just declaring “religion” violent, people should engage in an empirical study. In analyzing various “ideologies, practices, and institutions” like “Islam, Marxism, capitalism, Christianity, nationalism, Confucianism, secularism, Hinduism…” “A careful examination of the varieties of each [worldview] and the empirical conditions under which each does in fact support violence is helpful and necessary. What is not helpful is to divide the above list into religious and secular phenomena and then claim that the former are more prone to violence… such a division is arbitrary and unsustainable on either theoretical or empirical grounds” (16).
Next, Cavanaugh analyzes three ways that religion is supposed to be tied intrinsically to violence. These are that “religion causes violence because it is (1) absolutist, (2) divisive, and (3) insufficiently rational” (17-18). MRV follows several important thinkers who argue from each camp. Cavanaugh concludes that:
[T]here is no doubt that, under certain circumstances, particular construals of Islam or Christianity contribute to violence… Where the above arguments [about the intrinsic ties of religion to violence]–and others like them–fail is in trying to separate a category called religion with a peculiar tendency toward violence from a putatively secular reality that is less prone to violence. There is no reason to suppose that so-called secular ideologies such as nationalism, patriotism, capitalism, Marxism, and liberalism are any less prone to be absolutist, divisive, and irrational than belief in, for example, the biblical God (54-55).
The Myth of Religion
In a very real sense, MRV could just as easily be titled The Myth of Religion. Cavanaugh argues extensively for the conclusion that “Within the west, religion was invented as a transhistorical and transcultural impulse embedded in the human heart, essentially distinct from the public business of government and economic life” (120).
The attempt to define “religion” has “nothing close to agreement among scholars…” (57). In fact, “[t]here is a significant and growing body of scholars… who have been exploring the ways that the very category religion has been constructed in different times and different places… Religion is a constructed category, not a neutral descriptor of a reality that is simply out there in the world” (58). Following Jonathan Z. Smith, Cavanaugh states, “religion is not simply found, but invented. The term religion has been used in different times and places by different people according to different interests” (58).
Cavanaugh argues towards these conclusion through multiple lines of evidence. First, the concept of religion itself is different across different times and places. The Western notion of religion is not mirrored in other cultures (61). Yet even in the west, the concept of what denoted “religion” evolved. The concept was used simply to mean “worship” in the past (63). Through the medieval period, religion basically just meant “rites” or “piety”: religion was “not a universal genus of which Christianity is a particular species” (64-65).
Thus, religion was “invented in the West.” Now it has come to mean a “universal genus of which the various religions are species” (69). Part of this development was due to a need in the Reformation to demarcate differences between the varying schools of thought (72ff). When moderns use the concept religion in a universal fashion, such as Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) did, the problem “is that it is unfalsifiable. In constructing an a priori religion in the minds of all people, Herbert [and those like him] has made his theory impervious to empirical evidence. All evidence is seen and interpreted through the lens of his religious view a priori” (77). “There was a time when religion, as modern people use the term, was not, and then it was invented” (81).
MRV then outlines two ways to define religion, either through a substantavist–one which focuses on the content of religion–or functionalist–which focuses on how a practice functions–approach. The problem with a substantivist definition is that “even if one were able to come up with a coherent, transhistorical, and transcultural definition of religion which would include things like Christianity and Confucianism and Buddhism and exclude things like Marxism and nationalism and capitalism, it would not tell us anything worthwhile about the cuases of violence. Indeed, to exclude [the latter three] a priori from an investigation of violence in the service of ideology in fact distorts the results of any such study” (105). Functionalist definitions fare slightly better because they define religion in such a way that “‘if it looks like a religion and acts like a religion, then it is a religion'” (109). This approach is capable of including things like the American Civil Religion.
Thus, Cavanaugh states that “there is no transhistorical or transcultural concept of religion. 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 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 (59).
What does this mean for violence and religion? Cavanaugh proposes a test:
The crucial test, however, is what people do with their bodies. It is clear that, among those who identify themselves as Christians in the United States, there are very few who would be willing to kill in the name of the Christian God, whereas the willingness, under certain circumstances, to kill and die for the nation in war is generally taken for granted (122).
The Creation Myth of the Wars of Religion
The story goes that, after the Protestant Reformation divided Christendom along religious lines, Catholics and Protestants began killing each other for holding to different doctrines. The wars of religion… demonstrated to the West the inherent danger of public religion. The solution to the problem lay in the rise of the modern state, in which religious loyalties were marginalized and the state secured a monopoly on the means of violence…
This story is more than just a prominent example of the myth of religious violence. It has a foundational importance for the secular West, because it explains the origin of its way of life and its system of governance. It is a creation myth for modernity (123).
Following the lines of thinking of Voltaire, John Locke, and others, Cavanaugh argues that the myth of religious violence is perpetuated in order to marginalize that which is considered religious and give rise to the nation-state. According to this myth, “All theological religions are to be tolerated, provided they do not interfere with the obligations of citizens to the state…” (129). The myth is that religion is divisive and that they “fight over doctrines or ‘religious creeds'” so that “the state steps in to make peace” (130).
Cavanaugh shows that this myth is indeed false. The “wars of religion” had any number of motivating factors. The use of this story is not so much to tell a truth as it is a means by which to legitimize the nation-state. He argues towards these conclusions by showing that many “wars of religion” were in fact wars of economy, wars of power structures, and the like. He notes four primary factors for this myth to work: that combatants were motivated by religious difference, that the primary cause of war was religion, that religious causes are analytically separable from political, economic, and social causes at the time of the wars, and that the rise of the modern state was not a cause of the wars (141-142). He then analyzes each of these in turn based upon the historical record and shows that these all fail to account for the actual history of the “wars of religion.” In fact, the opposite is true in each case (142-177).
“We must conclude that the myth of the wars of religion is finally incredible, which is to say, false” (177).
The Uses of the Myth
Perhaps the most challenging and paradigm-shifting portion of the book is that which focuses upon the uses of the myth of religious violence. Cavanaugh argues that the myth is so perpetuated because of its usefulness.
First, he analyzes the use of the myth in building the “wall of separation” between church and state. He examines a number of supreme courses and how the myth of religious violence was used to favor the constructed notion of “secular” over that of “religious” (183ff).
The myth of religious violence is used to create a religious “other” which can then be exploited, coerced, and denigrated. “[R]eligion–or more precisely, religion in public–is what the liberal nation-state saves us from” (192). History is revised in order to show how religion is that which causes violence, while the secular nation-state is that toward which we should turn for salvation.
Oddly, it is permitted, encouraged, and sometimes even required to give devotion to the nation state, while this is not religious. “We are all Americans, and devotional exercises [the pledge of allegiance, venerating of the flag, etc.] 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” (192).
On a functionalist definition of religion, however, nationalism counts as religion. “American religion” has “saints (the founding fathers)… shrines (Independence Hall)… relics (the Liberty Bell)… holy scriptures (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution)… martyrs (Lincoln)… inquisition (school boards that enforce patriotism)…” and various religious festivals (Flag Day, the Fourth of July) (117). Nationalism is prevalent in many countries. Religion is privatized, secular nationalism is standardized and enforced. Not only that, but “Only the nation-state may kill” (118).
Again, Cavanaugh’s point ties into his earlier discussion: the ties to violence must be an empirical study based upon ideologies, not one based upon constructed categories of religious and secular. These categories are faulty in-and-of themselves. Furthermore, they undermine the possibility of the empirical study of violence. Nationalism and secularism–ideologies in other words–can be every bit as violent as some ideologies called “religion.”
The myth is also used to hide possible “secular” causes for war. Al Qaeda is specifically religious, and the West is all too happy to use this to ignore the fact that its own mistakes in installing regimes in the Middle East has caused the rise of absolutist, controlling states (202ff).
Worst of all, the myth of religious violence has been used to carry out violence against the religious other. Those who perpetuate this myth often use it in order to legitimize violence against the religious person, who, after all, is irrational and incapable of reason due to their religious beliefs. Sam Harris is a prime example of this notion. He argues that “There are other ideologies with which to expunge the last vapors of reasonableness from a society’s discourse, but Islam is undoubtedly one of the best we’ve got” (HarrisThe End of Faith, 136, quoted in Cavanaugh, 214). Furthermore, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them… Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of peaceful means of persuasion while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others” (Ibid, 52-53, quoted in MRV 213). Notice how this works: the religious other is that which is unreasonable and violent; in order to stop their violence, it may be ethical to kill them for their beliefs. Harris is not the only one who perpetuates this ideology. Cavanaugh cites a number of other thinkers who have utilized the myth of religious violence in this fashion.
Killing for religion is bad, killing for the state is often good (219). As Cavanaugh states, “The myth of religious violence thus becomes a justification for the use of violence. We will have peace once we have bombed the Muslims into being reasonable” (215). This analysis of violence again plays off the myth of religious violence: “Violence labeled religious is always irrational, particularly 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” (216).
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 (230).
It is rare that one comes across a book that forces them to rethink just about everything they have thought about a specific issue. William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence is one of those books which will challenge readers on every level of the discussion. It has an extremely broad scope, but argues convincingly and with a depth that seems almost indefeasible.
The myth of religious suffers a number of serious defects. It assumes an unwarranted division between the constructed categories of “religious” and “secular,” it oversimplifies the justification for violence, it is a clear example of a creation myth used for the founding of the nation state, and most alarmingly it is used to justify violence against the religious other.
The myth of religious violence may live on on the popular level, but Cavanaugh has dealt its death blow. Whether it takes 50 years or never happens, the myth has been destroyed.
The review has been lengthy, but that is due to the importance of this topic. I will be expanding on and elaborating Cavanaugh’s ideas over the course of the next 1-2 months. Check back here, where I will post links to future posts, or be sure to follow the blog to catch the posts over the coming weeks.
Finally, I want to say that this book was a gift from an anonymous donor from this site and I must say Thank you, you have been a huge blessing! It was so delightful to receive a book out of the blue, and to have it be so fantastic was another reward.
William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (New York: Oxford, 2009).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
Peter van Inwagen presents a discussion of composition in his work, Material Beings. His central thesis is
there are no tables or chairs or any other visible objects except living organisms (1).
This sounds odd to a great many people, and he acknowledges this. The thesis, however, solves many of the standard problems of composition. Specifically, van Inwagen seeks to answer, specifically, the special composition question: “In what circumstances is a thing a (proper) part of something?” (21). He surveys traditional answers to this question and finds them wanting. Some have argued simply that “contact” is enough to deduce when an object is composed of other objects, but van Inwagen utilizes a series of thought experiments to show this cannot be right (33ff). Specific types of physical bonding fair no better (61ff) while nihilism (there are no composite objects) and universalism (one can’t compose something, because if there are disjoint xs they compose something ) fall victim to a number of difficulties (72ff).
Van Inwagen therefore suggests that one way to show that things are composed is:
(there is a y such that the xs composes y) iff the activity of the xs constitutes a life (or there is only one of the xs) (82).
He goes on to define what he means by life (87ff). Against those who argue that his answer violates ordinary beliefs, van Inwagen proposes various linguistic fixes to allow for everyday language to still be “correct” without violating his suggested answer to the composition question. Thought experiments about artifacts (constructs of people/other living things) help bolster his points (124ff).
After these sections, van Inwagen turns to questions over how to identify life as well as offering attempts to deal with various dilemmas presented to materialists. This composes most of the rest of his work, but more on that shortly.
Van Inwagen’s analysis of the problem of composition seems quite sound, and while his proposed modifications of everyday language to fit into the philosophical answer he has proposed may seem a bit odd to many, they seem to answer the charges his opponent may level against him regarding such questions. Furthermore, his proposed answer gets past the difficulties of the other answers which have been proposed. The most intuitive answer, “contact,” van Inwagen shows is at least fraught with difficulties.
That said, there are some significant problems with van Inwagan’s approach, most of which stem from those which he, being a materialist, has presented to himself and other materialists.
First, he takes life as the basic indicator for when things are composed. But van Inwagen does little to clearly define life, only briefly touching on what it means to be “alive.” Although he devotes several chapters towards various problems about life, his basis for seeing something as alive or not is fairly weak. There is significant debate in scientific literature on what it means for something to be living (or indeed if “living” is a category at all separate from “nonliving”). While one can hardly fault van Inwagen for not dealing directly with these heavy issues in biology and philosophy of science, it is hard to feel comfortable accepting his thesis without a better understanding of what he means by “life.”
Second, van Inwagen has to resort to some extremely implausible positions regarding life. The reason van Inwagen must deal with such problems, I charge, is exactly because he is a materialist. [Astute readers will note that van Inwagen is a theistic materialist, but the problems I raise here go against any materialists who wish to hold to his analysis.]
One place to identify van Inwagen’s problematic approach is in section 12. He writes, “…the fact that I am a thinking being shows that there is at least one composite material object…” (120). He continues, “What is the ground of my unity? …It seems to me to be plausible to say that what binds [the simples which compose me] together is that their activites constitute a life…” (121).
These thoughts start to reveal the serious cracks in his view. He holds that he himself is a material object, which he takes to be demonstrated by the fact that he is thinking. Yet then he argues that what binds him together is the fact that he’s alive. But this is exactly what he is seeking to demonstrate via his observation that he is thinking. But what is “he”? He is a material object. Thus, we have the argument, tied to his thesis:
1) Only those things which are living are composite objects
2) I think
3) Thinking things must be alive [implicit premise given his conclusion on p. 120]
4) Therefore, I am alive
5) Therefore, I am a composite object
Now, wholly apart from whether or not “simples” can be thinking objects, this argument seems unsound. For, on materialism, what justifies 3? Why think that whatever thinks is alive? I’ve already noted that there are philosophers of science and biologists who seem to think there isn’t such a distinction as alive/nonliving (see, for example, Iris Fry’s work, The Emergence of Life on Earth). This therefore reflects the problem I’ve noted already: without a clearer definition of “life,” it is hard to analyze van Inwagen’s thesis.
Yet one may also question the second premise. Why suppose that “I think?” Materialists cannot be substance dualists and must therefore justify personhood in purely materialistic ways. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it seems that materialists almost must deny that there are such things as subjects. Yet van Inwagen just makes the assumption that “I think.” What is “I” on his view? Finally, why think that 1 is true?
One can see the great difficulties with his position illustrated when he turns to thought experiments about when human life begins. Van Inwagen argues that we cannot be the same as the zygote which was our intial state because it splits from A into B and C, neither of which is identical to A (152ff). He argues that the zygote ceases to exist. One instantly wonders how it is that “I” am therefore the same person as I was yesterday, or years ago when all the material which composes me is different. Van Inwagen’s answer is his thesis (above) with the supposition that life actively continues itself. But then one wonders why he doesn’t consider a zygote alive, because it clearly self-organizes, continues itself, etc. In fact, when one examines van Inwagen’s definitions of life, one sees that a zygote meets every criteria. They maintain themselves, they are individuating events, they are “jealous events,” etc. (see his brief discussion 87-90). So why suppose that the zygote isn’t alive?
Again one can observe van Inwagen’s frustrations with brain transplants (section 15). Eventually, he resorts to a mock discourse in which he uses question-and-answer format to try to deal with some extremely illogical consequences of his own naturalism (196ff).
Similar confounding issues arise with the “vagueness of composition,” unity and thought, and the identity of material objects. One can see that van Inwagen’s materialistic bias truly undermines his position in each of these problems. If one holds to substance dualism, one can easily answer any of these problems. Not only that, but his “proposed answer” makes much more sense conjoined with substance dualism, which allows one to make sense of the persistence of persons, living things, etc. without any of the counter-intuitive solutions to which van Inwagen must adhere.
Thus, it seems to me that Material Beings is an excellent book which will provoke much thought, but that its author is, unfortunately, trapped within his own materialism. If he’d think outside the [brain] box, the seemingly insurmountable problems he honestly faces find solutions.
Peter van Inwagen, Material Beings (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1990).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.