Calm down. You might like this post.
I’ve just finishing reading William Cavanaugh’s very bold and challenging new book, The Myth of Religious Violence. For Cavanaugh, the myth of religious violence, roughly, is “the idea that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence.” Against this claim, Cavauangh makes three core claims:
(1) There is no transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion. What counts as religious or secular in any given context is a function of political configurations of power.
(2) Such a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion as non-rational and prone to violence is one of the foundational legitimating myths of Western society.
(3) This myth can be and is used to legitimate neo-colonial violence against non-Western others, particularly the Muslim world.
I think Cavanaugh’s arguments should be of great interest to libertarians, but let me explain the view first before I say why.
First, Cavanaugh does not deny that religious motives often lead to violence. Instead, again, he denies that there is any adequate social scientific definition of religion that is sufficiently transhistorical and universal to sustain the thesis that religion is somehow a unique cause of violence. Many of you will find this point at least a bit familiar from libertarian debates about whether Marxism is a religion (or Objectivism for that matter). The question is whether we even have a family resemblance notion of religion that includes Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Shintoism and various ancestral religions which also excludes political ideologies like secular nationalism.
Cavanaugh analyzes – at great length – several attempts to defend the myth of religious violence and carefully deconstructs the definitions of religion at work in each case. For a historian, Cavanaugh is an exceptional logic-chopper. While reading the book, I often found myself forgetting that I wasn’t reading analytic philosophy.
Importantly, Cavanaugh is a theologically orthodox Roman Catholic and somewhat sympathetic to Catholic strains of socialist anarchism, like Dorothy Day. (See his talk criticizing Milton Friedman and defending that old an-soc saw, Mondragon). So his perspective as a critic of the modern liberal state is one that I suspect even very secular libertarians, who might otherwise believe the myth of religious violence, can at least appreciate.
The second chapter of the book argues that the very concept of “religion” as a generic category was a social and political invention that historically served to separate the stuff that power elites liked from stuff they didn’t like. The “secular” became the universal, the rational, the peaceful and, critically, the power and violence justifying. The “religious” became the private, the irrational, the dangerous and, critically, the stuff that could never justify power and violence.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter is Chapter 3, which argues that the “wars of religion” were not about religion as distinct phenomena in the West from politics, economics and other social domains. The Thirty Years War was about a great many things, for instance, and concluded with battles between Catholic France and Catholic Hapsburgs.
What the myth of religious violence does, Cavanaugh claims, is sanctify and justify the violence endemic and characteristic of the liberal democratic nation-state. Liberals since Locke have presented the liberal state as a solution to violent religious conflict. But Cavanaugh argues that the liberal state was not the early modern solution to religious wars. Instead, power grabs by monarchist absolutists were a critical cause of the “wars of religion.”
Cavanaugh argues that a review of historical scholarship of wars in 16th century Europe shows that many violent conflicts were caused by the project of European state building by attempting to collect taxes from an unwilling populace. He claims, interestingly, that this view has gained general acceptance among historians of the period. I like this line: “the rise of the state was one of the principal causes of the wars. The so-called wars of religion were the birth pangs of the state, not simply the crisis which required the state to step in as savior.”
So, the myth of religious violence serves to obscure that fact and incline us to relax in the presence of a dangerous concentration of power, namely the liberal state and the secular nationalism that socially sustains it.
Perhaps most importantly for present-day politics, the myth of religious violence is used to justify American imperialism in Muslim nations. Cavanaugh reviews works by Sam Harris, Chris Hitchens, Paul Berman and Andrew Sullivan, who claim that the Muslim obsession with irrational theocracy is a reason they cannot be reasoned with, but must be the subject of rational, modest liberal military violence. The myth of religious violence is thus used to justify military violence by distracting us from the dangerous violence of the liberal state and convincing us, tacitly, that Muslims in Iran, Iraq, etc. could have no rational grievance with the US government. As Cavanaugh writes:
Their violence—being tainted by religion—is uncontrolled, absolutist, fanatical, irrational, and divisive. Our violence—being secular—is controlled, modest, rational, beneficial, peace-making, and sometimes regrettably necessary to contain their violence.
Consider a line from Sam Harris’s The End of Faith about Muslims:
Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot; otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense.
Or Hitchens’s attitude towards Muslim terrorists:
We can’t live on the same planet as them, and I’m glad because I don’t want to. I don’t want to breathe the same air as these psychopaths and murders [sic] and rapists and torturers and child abusers. It’s them or me. I’m very happy about this because I know it will be them. It’s a duty and a responsibility to defeat them. But it’s also a pleasure. I don’t regard it as a grim task at all.
Note the role of the myth of religious violence here: it makes Muslims an incomprehensible alien species that cannot only be handled with the power of the liberal state. Their violence is irrational. It has no rational source. Were the violence to come from non-religious actors, Hitchens would almost certainly have given a more sober analysis. Instead, he said the following: “Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect.” In God is Not Great, Hitchens repeatedly blames religion for violence – religion kills – but as Cavanaugh says, “The problem with religion is that it kills for the wrong reasons. Killing for the right reasons can be not only justifiable but pleasing.”
Cavanaugh’s conclusion is this:
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. It is a story of salvation from mortal peril by the creation of the secular nation-state.
What are the advantages of abandoning the myth? Several: (1) it would free valuable empirical work on the nature of violence and its connection to ideological systems from bad scientific categories, (2) it would help us see that “Western-style secularism is a contingent and local set of social arrangements and not the universal solution to the universal problem of religion.” (3) It would rid the West of “one significant obstacle to understanding the non-Western, especially Muslim, world.” (4) It would “help to eliminate one of the justifications for military action against religious actors.” And finally: (5) It would aid in ridding Americans of ‘one of the principal obstacles to having any serious public dialogue over the causes of opposition to U.S. policies abroad.”
I figure libertarians will like (2), (4) and (5). So I recommend engaging Cavanaugh’s work.
The book will cause cognitive dissonance for secular libertarians. You typically want to both demystify the liberal state and adopt the myth of religious violence. Cavanaugh isn’t saying you can’t do both. However, given that many secular libertarians believe the myth of religious violence, Cavanaugh’s work will challenge you to revise this belief. While you may want to resist, at least becoming aware of a significant challenge to the myth of religious violence will help you see past one more rationale for irresponsible state power.
If you don’t have time to read them book, go here to see Cavanaugh talk about them.
UPDATE: I initially misattributed the Hitchens quote to God Is Not Great. It’s in fact from an interview. Thanks to Chris … topher Nelson for finding the interview here. The error is fixed, and the Hitchens section somewhat expanded. He’s a remarkably good illustration of Cavanaugh’s concerns.