Religion, Liberalism

The Myth of Religious Violence

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.

  • Robert

    you call it religious or not, the fact remains that some people follow
    evil totalitarian ideologies fanatically, be it fascism or Fanatical
    Islam. I am with Hitchens on that, Coexistence with Fascism is neither
    desirable nor possible. The same goes
    for Al Qaeda. How you define the Ideology of Al Qaeda is of secondary
    importance, wheter its Nationaism, Religious fanaticism, Racism or a
    mixture of them all, like Fascism was.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      Perhaps, but how do you defeat Al Qaeda? The very legitimate and rational response to violence by our government is often to send them new recruits. I see this as a good starting point to reviewing our goals and out methods.

  • “given that many secular libertarians believe the myth of religious violence” –

    Is this a validated statement to be taken as a given? I’ve been an atheist much longer than I’ve been libertarian. I usually found that while religion is certainly prone to violence, it was not more or less prone than other ideological factors (land disputes, political strife, resistance to colonialism/imperialism, etc) and that most people (atheist or not) fail to acknowledge that these other factors were at play when a religious factor would do. Nationalism has always done quite nicely enough for me as a poisonous issue in many wars with or without religion.

  • Jason Brennan


    It may be that there’s no transhistorical definition that includes all those systems of thought. But what if we tried more specific tests, such as 1) Abrahamic religion causes violence, 2) monotheism causes violence, 3) Abrahamic literalism causes violence, etc?

    • Kevin Vallier

      Then from my read, the question is less one of coherence and more one of empirical validation. The question is comparative: does Abrahamic religion/monotheism/whatever cause more violence than other systems of thought/comprehensive doctrines/whatever? Defining the comparison class will be a tricky matter, along with sorting out the quantification measures.

    • Tedd

      I think you’ve identified the key reason that debates about religion go off the rails in western societies. Most of the criticisms levelled at “religion” are merely critiques of the Abrahamic religions, most especially Christianity and Islam, and don’t apply at all to many other religions.

      It sounds to me as though Cavanaugh’s point is that any such generalized critique of religion is unavoidably an equivocation, since the lack of a “transhistorical definition” means there is no single thing as “religion” to level such a criticism at. It’s not unlike the pointless question of what is a sport and what’s not a sport.

  • Based on Vallier’s synopsis – I have not read the book inquestion – it sounds like the book combines equivocation fallacies with no true Scotsman fallacies to punt on the question of violence.

    Consider the idea that I could probably make similar arguments against “the state.” Is there really a “transhistorical” definition of what “the state” is, or what constitutes “political power” as a separate concept from “religious power?” Add to that the fact that Vallier appeals to the modern libertarian belief that both Marxism and Objectivism are “religions,” even though they are pretty clearly political movements that have merely been maligned by comparisons to religion, and the argument just falls a little short to me.

    Guns are implements of death – that’s a feature, not a bug. People can disagree about whether we are within our rights to own guns, but we cannot disagree about what purpose a gun serves. Similarly, religions are tools of social exclusivity, and social exclusivity quite often results in violence. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the costs of religion outweigh the benefits, but I personally don’t find it useful to think up ways to pass all of religion’s problems off onto the state, while retaining all its benefits. I mean, it just sounds fallacious.

    My apologies to the author and to Kevin Vallier if any of the above opinions reflect a misunderstanding of the book or its arguments.

    • Jeremy McLellan

      I don’t know about Kevin, but Cavanaugh does not assume the idea of a transhistorical definition of “the state.” You can read his treatment here:

      • Jeremy, thanks for the link. My reply is to both you and Sergio:

        My point is not that there is a transhistorical definition of the state, but simply that I can apply the same arguments to equivocate-away claims that the state causes violence. I’m not saying that Cavanaugh is wrong, I’m suggesting that his argument isn’t valid. As Sergio has noted, the violence some see as being inherent in the state is not at all reliant on any sort of a “transhistorical definition” of what the state is.

        And so it goes with religion. That religion may (or may not) have been the direct cause of violence is not at all contingent on any sort of “transhistorical definition” of religion. So Cavanaugh is either advocating a true point with an invalid argument, or he is advocating a false point with a fallacious argument. In either case, I’m not sure he’s managed to convince anyone to change their existing positions.

        • genecallahan

          “I can apply the same arguments to equivocate-away claims that the state causes violence.”

          The state doesn’t cause violence: it has seriously reduced the amount of violence.

          • Whether or not you realize it, you’re agreeing with me.

    • Sergio Méndez

      Do you think there is actually a transhistorical definition of what the State is Ryan? I will say there is only one basic characteristic that is transhistorical in all forms of State (the use of coercion), but then a single possible definition of what the State is…I don´t think so.

      • martinbrock

        I think we can define “the State” in way that permits us in retrospect coherently to identify States transhistorically, even if people across history don’t define the State precisely this way themselves. For example, the State is an authority (either a person or a class of persons dividing authority amongst themselves) effectively monopolizing forcible decrees within well defined boundaries.

        Across history, where states existed, I suppose you could ask almost anyone within the territory of a state who or what constitutes this authority, and practically everyone would give you the same answer, and in this sense of “the State”, I suppose states have roots in tribal chiefdoms. You might find wide unanimity within a tribal territory about the identity of a chief or chiefs, even while the people identifying these authorities commonly dispute the propriety of the decrees.

        The kings of Hebrew tradition, for example, are distinct from the prophets, and the prophets often dispute the kings. If you asked ancient Hebrews to identify a king, I suppose you’d get the same answer from most subjects (absent a state of civil war or a division of Hebrews into distinct kingdoms), but if you asked the same people to identify a prophet, I suppose you’d get many different answers, with unanimity on the identify of a prophet emerging only long after the prophet’s death. We associate the prophets, not the kings, with Hebrew religion.

        • Barnaby

          “The State is an authority (either a person or a class of persons dividing authority amongst themselves) effectively monopolizing forcible decrees within well defined boundaries.”

          It seems to me that religions fall pretty nicely in to this category? But with a supernatural/long-deceased Authority figure/s

          • martinbrock

            No religion has a monopoly of forcible decrees in my neck of the woods, unless we count the state itself as a religion, which seems very reasonable to me. I don’t always limit “religion” to supernatural authority figures myself.

          • Barnaby

            Religion, more than any State, operates in the mind. I would have thought each church could be seen to have a monopoly on forcible decrees to its members. Failure to comply may result in consequences all the way up to excommunication and in the case of some religions, Death.

            A comparison of the costs/benefits and ease/difficulty of emigration and apostasy is, for this evening at least, beyond me.

            It seems to me State and Religion are similar enough that any definition of one, if it could be said to exist, can be easily enough adjusted to define the other. Any loosening of the terms of the definition doesn’t make the violence done in their name a myth.

          • martinbrock

            States and religions operate in the mind similarly. If I’m freely a member of a church, I accept its decree freely, so the decrees are not forcible. That a church promotes belief in mythical punishments after death or the like is irrelevant. One may freely believe in such things. Freedom does not imply believing only the truth.

            If a religion may lawfully kill me for violating its tenets, then it is a state religion, because a state monopolizes lawful killing and the like definitively. A religion does not, not in my neck of the woods anyway. If my minister even slaps me in the face for apostasy, I may have him indicted for assault.

          • Barnaby

            “Freedom does not imply believing only the truth”

            of course not. I never said otherwise, people are entitled to believe in whatever fairytale they want. Or more so, who is anyone to say otherwise.

            ” That a church promotes belief in mythical punishments after death or the like is irrelevant.”

            Some people believe that these mythical punishments are real and therefore, constitutes a real threat. whether it happens after death is irrelevant. Many religions, often not in your neck of the woods, make threats and acts of violence in this life.

            “If my minister even slaps me in the face for apostasy, I may have him indicted for assault.”

            I should hope so, but this is only possible for you to do in a liberal democracy. The fact that religions in the west have ceded there monopoly of forcible decrees to ‘the people’ does not mean they no longer fall under said definition, not to me anyway.

            ” unless we count the state itself as a religion, which seems very reasonable to me”

            religious violence is not a myth?

          • martinbrock

            Believing that fairy tale violence is real doesn’t create real violence, so a fairy tale threat does not violate the NAP in my way of thinking. Maybe it’s fraud, but the fraud prohibition is generally problematic. Someone promulgating a fairy tale is not committing fraud if he believes the fairy tale himself, and believing a fairy tale can be voluntary regardless of the motives of the fairy tale teller.

            If believing some fairy tale helps you kick a self-destructive, drinking habit, that’s your business. Same goes for any other fairy tale. I don’t decide which fairy tales, and which resulting behavior modifications, are good for you. If your chosen fairy tale leads you to serve some guru slavishly, that’s also your business, and I have no quarrel with the guru either. Any deception involved is between the two of you.

            I don’t know that “liberal democracy” heals all wounds, but no one argues there that a theocracy is not violent or that theocracies are mythical. The point is that a theocracy is a state, and states are violent whether or not they’re theocratic.

          • Barnaby

            I agree with most of this, I think 😛

            it just seems to me that if someone believes in a particular fairy-tale the threat of punishment, even if a fairytale, is coercion indistinguishable from that used by the state.

            A liberal democracy doesn’t heal all wounds but by replacing ‘the Authority’ with ‘the People’, regardless of the truth of ‘the Authority’ is an improvement that goes further, although not very far at all in my view, in justifying violence done in its name.

          • martinbrock

            The distinction between a threat of violence in a fairy tale and a threat of violence in reality seems very clear and compelling to me. Sure, telling me that I’ll suffer eternal torment after death for sucking dick is not nice in my way of thinking, but if I choose not to believe you, how does the fairy tale harm me? If I may avoid any harm entirely by an act of my own will, I’m free definitively.

            On the other hand, if you threaten only to slap me on the wrist for sucking dick and if I may not escape this punishment because your power overwhelms mine, then I am not similarly free.

            Replacing “the Authority” with “the People” seems utterly superficial and inconsequential to me. The American Revolution theoretically replaced “the King” with “the People”, but the King already claimed to represent “the People”, and the revolution accomplished little more than perpetuating slavery, which was already ending in Britain and its empire, for another century in North America. For common freemen, the revolution did little more than (nominally) move the most central authority to tax from London to D.C. So what?

          • Barnaby

            “The distinction between a threat of violence in a fairy tale and a threat of violence in reality seems very clear and compelling to me”

            to me and you sure, but if you believed the fairytale to be true you could be coerced in to any number of things.

            “Replacing “the Authority” with “the People” seems utterly superficial and inconsequential to me”

            Really? as a justification of coercion its important to me that the power is (should be) aggregated from, and kept in check by, all of society. How else would you plan on going about creating a libertopia of whatever your persuasion?

            I’m from the U.K and I hate the fact we have an unelected second chamber let alone an unelected head of state. Though its arguably more liberal over here its less democratic, an unnecessary trade-off.

          • martinbrock

            What I believe is my choice or my will definitively. If I choose to believe something and act accordingly, my act is not coerced by definition; otherwise, I don’t know what “free choice” means at all.

            The whole idea that someone can be “programmed” into doing something, by a religion or what have you, and thus not act freely seems absurd to me. Everyone is always programmed into doing everything they do. My programming is my will, or I don’t know what is my will. Everyone acts on debatable assumptions. Acting otherwise is impossible.

            I don’t know what “all of society” means in this context. Free association is 99% of my libertopian ideal. As long as you’re free to leave a community, with no strings whatsoever, and as long as a sufficient number of people may reasonably obtain the resources to establish a community governed as they see fit, that’s my libertopia. If any person or social organization outside of such a community has anything to say about how the community is governed, except insofar as the community chooses to interact with outsiders, that’s not my libertopia.

            I don’t take U.S. elections seriously at all. What matters is the authority the state exercises, not how its officers obtain their offices. Our plebiscites reign in the officers a bit, compared to alternatives, but not all that much. I’d rather live in a monarchy without the highest incarceration rate on Earth. That an elected legislature chooses to cage so many doesn’t justify the cagery one iota in my way of thinking.

      • Damien S.

        I’d say lumping liberal democracies in with absolute monarchies is no more valid than lumping Christianity in with animism.

        • Barnaby

          …I’d say it was less valid even

    • martinbrock

      Social exclusivity does not result in violence. Attempting forcibly to include people in a social group results in violence, and this attempt is hardly distinguishable from attempting to create a state imposing the social norms enforced.

      • Yes, hence my use of the phrase “quite often,” rather then “always and everywhere.” 🙂

        • martinbrock

          Speaking of equivocation?

          My point is that social exclusivity seems practically the opposite of what you associate with violence. You seem instead to be saying that social inclusivity results in violence, when a social group is not content to have its norms respected only with the group and must forcibly impose these norms outside of the group (or enforce membership in the group).

          • I am not really sure what about my comment you’re objecting to anymore. If you feel I’ve mischaracterized religion in some way, then you might want to re-read my comment and realize that I was critiquing the argument as stated, not the author’s or Vallier’s opinion of religion; and I don’t intend to make my view of religion in general a subject for discussion here. (Great way to ruin a good comment stream. 🙂 )

            At any rate, you’re neither addressing the points I was trying to make nor accurately summarizing my views, so there was probably an accidental miscommunication somewhere along the way. I’ll take the blame for that.

          • martinbrock

            I don’t object to your characterization of religion. “Socially exclusive group” seems a reasonable characterization.

            I object to “social exclusivity quite often results in violence”. I’m not sure how you reach this conclusion. Again, you seem to be associating social inclusivity with violence and then substituting “exclusivity” for “inclusivity” in order to rationalize the point you seem to defend, i.e. that religion often results in violence.

            I rather suppose that forcible inclusivity can be a requirement of religion and often is, but it’s more definitively a requirement of statecraft.

          • That’s an interesting question, and a very different one from the topic at hand.

            I said exclusivity. I meant exclusivity. I can see that your description of “forcible inclusivity” does indeed appear to be violent. But it is a very different situation than what I had in mind, which was the arbitrary differences we draw between each other, and then leverage into holy wars, territorial disputes, and ethnic cleansing. Exclusivity is very definitely what I meant.

            But, as I said, that is a different topic altogether.

          • martinbrock

            A group that does not eat pork excludes people who do eat pork, but I don’t associate this social exclusivity with violence. I rather associate attempts by this group to force other people not to eat pork with violence. How we can call these attempts “exclusive”? These attempts seek to include more people in the group of people who don’t eat pork, so they’re the opposite of exclusive.

          • You are talking semantics and I’m rapidly losing interest. I conceive of something like the Holocaust as being an act of exclusivity, rather than “forced inclusivity.” Maybe you disagree, but if so, it is a difference of semantics only. I do see your point, though, and I will leave it at that.

          • martinbrock

            The discussion is all about semantics. What is the meaning of “religion” precisely? I’m not sure how the Holocaust is relevant, but the Nazis didn’t simply expel Jews from Nazis occupied territory. They could have done that. Instead, they confined Jews to concentration camps within Nazis territory, so they were forcibly including Jews in a regime governed by Nazism, which seems quite different from excluding them.

          • reason60

            You don’t think that being excluded from a group leads to violence?
            You wouldn’t happen to be white, straight, and of European extraction, are you?

          • martinbrock

            No. I don’t. I’m excluded from countless groups. I’m not inclined toward violent interaction with these groups, unless they want forcibly to include me in their group, by imposing the norms defining their group upon me.

            I’m white and of European extraction. Is that enough?

          • genecallahan

            Race trump card played!

    • Sean II

      “My apologies to the author and to Kevin Vallier if any of the above opinions reflect a misunderstanding of the book or its arguments.”

      No need to fear that you’re being uncharitable. The argument really does start by saying “there is no…essence…of religion”. Meaning, there is no definition of religion.

      An obvious absurdity, in the tradition of Orwell’s “some things are so stupid only an intellectual could believe them”.

      • adrianratnapala

        About the only thing I agreed with is that there is no definition of religion. I can list them reasonable well, I know them when I see them. But I can’t define them.

        Can you supply a definition?

        • Sean II

          What’s wrong with the usual definition: “a system of beliefs, rules, rituals, etc, built around the worship of a god or gods, or other supernatural being”?

          For that matter, what’s wrong with your definition: “The thing that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism are. You know that thing, where you pretty much know it when you see it? And you know the other smaller things, like Zoroastrianism, that are like that thing? That’s religion”?

          • Kevin Vallier

            Oh, silly Sean II. Read the book or listen to the talk. The post’s a review. But the basic idea is that your definition excludes lots of eastern religions.

          • Sean II

            That’s not exactly a surprising hole card there. Everybody plays that one. It’s a staple of freshman dorm life: “Is Buddhism even a religion, man? Like, I don’t know. On the one hand, it serves the social purp…hey, dude, I think this bowl is cached…”

            The solution seems not difficult. Buddhism is a religion in some respects, but not others. Clearly it takes the place that was held by religion in other parts of the world, but just as clearly, it benefits from avoiding some of the unpleasant features associated with four of the big five.

            Some diseases have atypical presentations. Sometimes those atypical presentations come with the benefit of milder symptoms. So what? The existence of a single atypical case, or a cluster of them, doesn’t make it silly to persist in studying the disease.

            The fact that Buddhism stopped at “magical fat guy” and didn’t progress all the way to “human sacrificing sky monster(s)” is an atypical presentation of religion, and it comes with the benefit of milder symptoms.

            This does nothing to get Christianity off the hook for what happened in Magdeburg, nor does it do anything to get Islam and Hinduism off the hook for the fact that, at present, the most probable scenario for a nuclear exchange is between wacky India and crazy Pakistan.

            The key point remains: no one really has any trouble knowing what we mean when we say “religion”. Even if the list shakes out as “Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and kinda-sorta Buddhism, Taosim…” there is is still plenty to go on when it comes to facing the question “are those things associated with, or implicated in, violence?”

            The answer, often enough screamed from the killer’s own lips, is clearly YES.

          • adrianratnapala

            Your definition leaves out Buddhism, and arguably Taoism. Of course most Buddhists believe in supernatural beings, but they neither agree or care about who those beings are. Buddhism is not “built around” that stuff.

            And while I do like my definition, it’s only allowed under a broad definition of “definition”.

          • Sean II

            See below. The main point is that no one really has any trouble knowing what we mean when we say religion.

            Few definitions are perfect. Even the term “rock” is subject to scientific controversy. But in the meantime we both well enough that we’d prefer not to get hit in the head with one.

          • adrianratnapala

            Yes, the idea that we need a “transhistorical definition” of religion in order to predicate things on it is B.S. But we do not in fact have a definition.

            I find the lack of definition liberating. Take the question: Is Western secularism a new religion. Well I don’t know, and I don’t care, but I can say that some forms of secular overreach violates the principles behind church-state separation.

    • genecallahan

      “Vallier appeals to the modern libertarian belief that both Marxism and Objectivism are “religions,” even though they are pretty clearly political movements that have merely been maligned by comparisons to religion, ”

      No, this is a well-established fact of modern political theory.

      • Only if you choose to equivocate on the word “fact” as well as the word “religion,” Gene.

        • genecallahan

          Nope, vast amounts of historical work have shown how ideology rushed in to fill the vacuum left by the fading of traditional religion in the 19th century. Most of it was NOT done by libertarians. It is a “fact” in that it is well-established in the reality-based community.

          • Yes, I see what you did there. Equivocating between the role ideological systems play in human life and the categories of various ideologies. You are welcome to look at however you please, of course. But calling things that are not facts “facts” only makes you look as kooky as the rest of us.

          • genecallahan

            Yes, I see what you did there, mindlessly repeating yourself.

          • Did you just mimic me? Like a kid? Well done, Gene. We’ll leave it at that.

          • genecallahan

            Just trying to keep things at the level you have set for the conversation as a whole.

    • Tedd

      Your example of the state is partly right, but also partly an equivocation itself. There are at least two arguments about states causing violence.

      One is that the existence of multiple states leads to violence due to conflicting goals. This parallels the argument that multiple religions leads to violence. In that case, you’re correct that if there’s also no transhistorical definition of a state then Cavanaugh’s argument applies equally well to states. I’m not sure that the state is as difficult to define as religion, but I’m not disputing the point.

      A completely different argument about states is that the state itself is institutionalized violence. I think that is more commonly the argument people are making when they talk about the states being inherently violent. State violence, in that sense, would exist even if there were only one state.

    • Tedd

      “Similarly, religions are tools of social exclusivity…”

      That’s a perfect example of the kind of Abrahamocentric critique of religion I mentioned in an earlier comment, and also an example of the problem of a transhistorical definition of religion. Social exclusivity is not a feature of many religions, particularly those that developed in isolated societies.

      Slightly OT, but I’m not sure social exclusivity can be considered a root cause of violence, either. If it was, the colleges of physicians and the bar associations would be constantly fighting each other.

  • Jeremy McLellan

    I actually came to libertarianism/anarchism through the work of “Radical Orthodox” theologians like Bill Cavanaugh and many like him who came out of Duke under Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas and his spawn are very involved L’Arche communities (which is like Catholic Worker but for people with mental disabilities) and during the years I spent there I found quite a few outright anarchists. One should be careful, though. I’m painting with a broad brush, but the British strain of Radical Orthodoxy led by John Milbank lends itself to very anti-libertarian political ideals, the logic being that since the idolatrous nation-state is a result of the Enlightenment and disestablishment, the answer is to reestablish it. Cavanaugh and Hauerwas are more American and have no illusions about reasserting a “robust” Christendom under anointed monarchy.

  • Sergio Méndez


    Why will you think libertarians will like 2?

    • martinbrock

      He’s identifying libertarianism with liberal neutrality, which suits me. It might not suit you as well.

  • martinbrock

    I agree with practically every word in this post, but I’ll add a caveat. Religion per se explains little violence, but monotheistic religion does explain the state, and the state explains a lot of violence.

    “Secular state” is a contradiction in terms, insofar as “secular” suggests “not religious”. Every state establishes a religion, complete with religious prescriptions, proscriptions and supporting mythology.

    The whole idea of “church/state separation” is a political construct favoring a particular church, the state’s established church, over other churches. In the west, this construct simply reduces “religion” to the superficial trappings of religion, so “religious freedom” becomes little more than a right to assemble and recite mantras, leaving every other mode of behavior within the purview of the state religion.

    The problem with this formulation of “religious exercise” is that prophets of the great, historical religions (particularly Jesus) explicitly deny that assembling for this purpose has anything to do with their religious prescription, quite the opposite.

    • adrianratnapala

      So India doesn’t exist?

      • martinbrock

        India exists, but I don’t know how this fact is relevant.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      In my reading of history NO wars were ever caused by religion, but rather wars were fought by states using religion as a tool to motivate their people. I would include in this definition even the beginning surge of Islam as Mohammad and his followers were explicitly trying to create a state.

      Under my definition, Fascism, communism, or extreme Nationalism fill exactly the same roll that religion fills in a cause or rallying point to whip the public into support for aggression.

      • martinbrock

        In the same sense, no wars were ever caused solely by Fascism or Marxism; however, both of these ideologies explicitly incorporate a state and the revolutionary capture of a state.

        Religions can also seek state power, but no widely accepted use of the word “religion” requires a “religion” to seek state power, and many religions explicitly eschew both violence and state power. Often, followers of these religions seek state power regardless, but that says more about the lust for state power than it says about any particular religion.

        If we want to attribute violence to religion, we could attribute the violence more specifically to religions exercising, seeking or resisting state power, and this attribution is even more comprehensive if we incorporate systems like Fascism and Marxism into the “religion” category.

        But this attribution of violence to religion is precisely Cavanaugh’s thesis, so it’s precisely what he calls “the myth of religious violence”.

  • reason60

    I agree that religious ideology per se as a generator of violence is mostly a myth.

    But why is there no discussion of ethnic tribalism as an underlying generator of violence? When I look at most wars, ethnic identity, as opposed to secular nationalism, seems to be every bit as powerful a motivator.

    I mean, seriously, is anyone driven to murderous rage over the concept of transubstantiation? But the idea of Those People Coming to Take Our Wimmen is even today a tremendously powerful way of inciting violence.

  • martinbrock

    Why is Mondragon an old saw?

  • Irfan Khawaja

    Could someone–preferably Kevin Vallier, since it’s his post–supply a page reference in “god Is not Great” for the Hitchens quote? I’d like to know the referent of “them” in “We can’t live on the same planet as them…” And which edition of the book, by the way?

    • Christopher Nelson

      I don’t know if it’s actually in “god Is not Great,” but I found the quote here: Also, Kevin: he hated being called “Chris,” preferred Christopher, something I can sympathize with 😉

      • Irfan Khawaja

        Thanks. It’d be nice to know the actual source of that quote. I guess the author of the post would know.

        The immediate textual problem is that the Hitchens passage isn’t saying what Vallier has it saying. This is Vallier’s comment on the Hitchens passage:

        “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.”

        Well, the problem is: since the referent of “them” is not “Muslims,” the passage is not about Muslims. So the attribution to Hitchens of making Muslims into “an incomprehensible alien species” is a non-sequitur based on a misrepresentation.

        If you read the interview through, the two textual candidates for a referent of “them” are either “aggressive internationalist totalitarian ideologues” (the most proximate candidate) or “theocratic nihilists” (used at the beginning of the interview), or something of the sort. Neither of the two phrases even makes reference to Islam, so it’s a mystery how Vallier (or maybe the logic-chopping Cavanaugh) interprets Hitchens the way he does.

        The editor of the interview has inserted “Islamo-fascist” in square
        brackets as a possible referent, which, though plausible enough, doesn’t appear in the passage or the interview itself. The referent could with equal plausibility be “Al Qaeda,” or the “9/11 attackers.” In cases like the latter, I’d like to think that some alienation might well be in order. Here’s a recent, and rather alienating event:

        It reminds me of what one of my devout Pakistani cousins said to me when I was in Pakistan a few years ago: “You know, we tried to give them everything they wanted, but the more we gave them, the more they bombed us!” The “them” wasn’t Muslims in that sentence, either.

        Come on, Kev. You can do better than this.

      • Kevin Vallier

        Thanks for finding the interview. I updated the section, which allowed me to make the point a bit more clearly and forcefully.

        • Irfan Khawaja

          You “updated” it. In other words, you re-wrote your comment, but have still somehow have managed to slide from a comment about “Muslim terrorists” to one about “Muslims” without any attempt at explaining how you’ve managed to do so. That’s not making “the point a bit more clearly and forcefully.” It’s a public indulgence in disingenuousness, followed by counterfactual speculations about what the author (conveniently dead) “would have” said about topics he addressed at length, but you haven’t bothered to deal with–chiefly because it’s obvious that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

          The fact is, whatever the defects of his writing (and there were many), Christopher Hitchens wrote more in defense of the rights of Muslims than the sum total of all the contributors to this blog. He certainly had more intelligent things to say on the subject than someone whose idea of a contribution to religious discourse is the valorization of the “anti-statist” politics of the ancient Israelites:

          Before getting on your high horse about the rights of Muslims, I’d suggest trying to defend the preceding blog post to a Muslim audience in East Jerusalem, Hebron, or Jenin–audiences that had no trouble welcoming Hitchens with enthusiasm. I think such audiences would have little problem discerning the cheapness of your talk about “neo-colonialism” while rationalizing a version of “Israelite politics” that leads straight the Israeli settler movement.

          As for the Taliban, you might, before you deride the use of cluster bombs on them, ask some non-Taliban Afghan and Pakistani Muslims–people slaughtered with impunity by the Taliban virtually every day, but notably absent from this “discussion”–what they think of the Taliban, and whether they think that military operations against them are really “neo-colonial” in nature. Muslims aside, you could start with your Christian co-religionists in Peshawar (Anglican rather than Catholic, but close enough):

          The Taliban’s “killing the poor” should give BHL-ers all the incentive they need to take seriously the idea that the Taliban are a threat.

          If you have better ideas for how to deal with the Taliban than by bombing them, I’d really love to hear them. If you have some ideas on how to co-exist peacefully with them without bombing them, I’d love to hear those, too. Further, if you’d like to rationalize the Taliban’s political grievances–whether in the Davidsonian sense or the ordinary–well, fire at will. But as it stands, what you’ve written is just an expression of ignorance and intellectual dishonesty–a fact that your blowing off my comment, and re-writing your own, does not change.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            Oh, I get it. So when Kevin Vallier calls for “respect for Christian belief,” we’re to hand it to him on a silver platter just for the asking:


            But when he poisons the well against liberal perfectionists,


            or egregiously misrepresents secular journalists critical of Islamic terrorism, well, then we’re obliged to respect the disrespect, and move on.

            It’s apparently OK in the BHL world that the passage Vallier quotes from Hitchens is about Muslim terrorists, but that the claim he attributes to the passage is about Muslims as such. The mysterious inference from Muslims terrorists to Muslims evidently needs no explanation. It’s an amusing irony that Vallier thinks he’s *defending* Muslims when in fact he’s insulting them and moving on.

            So far, no word on how Taliban violence is rationally justified, or how the bombing of an Anglican church in Peshawar (attended by impoverished and discriminated-against Pakistani Christians) is a rational response to US foreign policy. You’d think that someone as confident as Vallier about the “rational source” of Islamic terrorism would have intelligible things to say on those subjects, but so far, none have materialized. I find it amusing that in the same breath that Vallier insists that Muslim motivations are transparent and explicable, he shows no awareness of the fact that many Muslims agree with Hitchens on the need for a military solution to Taliban aggression. But perhaps such Muslims can be ignored as belonging to an incomprehensible alien species best handled by subjection to theocrats.

            If you’re going to offer public commentary about Muslims, Islam, or the Islamic world, it helps to have some actual contact with Muslims or people otherwise involved in that world. In this case, I’m the closest approximation to one of those here. It’s no surprise that I seem to be talking to myself. But I don’t mind. The silence that arises from a would-be interlocutor’s refusal to engage one’s criticisms is the loudest of hoped-for concessions. I’ve learned that the big shots turn that silence up to 11 here, and that’s fine by me.

          • I hear you man. I recently had a similar conversation elsewhere. In Vallier’s defense, it is extremely difficult for a passionate believer of anything to step outside of their own belief systems in the name of objectivity. That doesn’t get anyone off the hook, but I doubt Vallier consciously presumed what you’ve described – only unconsciously. (FWIW)

          • Irfan Khawaja

            Thanks. I actually think your interpretation is a bit over-charitable. It seems to be a common occurrence for the bloggers here to write discursive checks that they can’t cash, then to go silent when challenged on any fundamental point, and regard their refusal to engage as confirmation of their self-conferred status as the greatest philosophers in the profession today. The implication seems to be that anyone who challenges them–rather than acquiesce in the sycophancy to which they’ve become accustomed–must be a troll, and shouldn’t be argued with. But another hypothesis is that they don’t know how to answer fundamental challenges to their views, a task that’s the bread and butter of philosophy. I can’t imagine Kevin Vallier coming out and saying, “Well, I misinterpreted Hitchens because I was in the throes of passion.”

            Suppose that Vallier wasn’t presuming what I’ve ascribed to him. I don’t even think that’s the main issue. The main issue is: where the hell is he, anyway? He acknowledges the misattribution of the original quotation as though I don’t exist, when I was the one who pointed it out in the first place (even if I did so by asking a question rather than directly describing the misattribution).That aside, the claim he’s attributed to Hitchens *obviously* flouts the text, and in so doing, raises obvious questions about Vallier’s competence as a reader of texts. Here we are, four days later, and he still hasn’t been able to figure out the difference between a “Muslim” and a “Muslim terrorist.” What I love is that he thought he was doing Muslims a favor by equating them with terrorists. Great job.

            If he can’t see the error, he doesn’t know how to read. (If he can’t admit the error, he’s not *worth* reading.) And if he can’t competently read a passage from an interview by Christopher Hitchens, why trust his readings of Michael Walzer, the Hebrew Bible, liberal perfectionism, etc.? I don’t, and I know the texts in question to know well enough why I don’t. I made my point to get some of Vallier’s more critical readers to think about that, and I’d like to think that at this point, some have.

  • Alex

    But doesn’t religion often lead to the creation of states that are of a non-liberal nature, such as most Middle Eastern governments? I fully agree with the claim that secular ideologies are not necessarily less violent than religion, but acknowledging this doesn’t exactly sound like a victory for religion. Belief systems, secular or religious, that have bad consequences should probably be condemned.

    • Tedd

      It’s always hard to separate cause and effect, historically. But what has definitely happened is that religion has been exploited to promote the creation of non-liberal nation states. It’s probably also true that religion has been exploited to promote the creation of liberal nation states — the U.S., for example. These are political movements that have co-opted religion in the pursuit of their goals.

      Personally, I don’t see religion as being much of a motivating factor for any political event. A rationalization, sure. A convenient iconography to exploit, definitely. And I have no doubt that churches (as opposed to religions) have always been political. Religious differences play into the “us and them” mentality behind many political movements, making it easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. There are zillions of ways religion can be exploited for a political purpose. But it’s still a political purpose.

  • Damien S.

    ‘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.”’

    What’s the ‘but’ doing there? Monarchist absolutists aren’t liberal states; instead they’re one of the problems liberal states are meant to solve.

  • Aeon Skoble
    • martinbrock

      Both involve the intersection of religion and state, so the question is: why do you emphasize a basis in religion and not a basis in the state?

    • Kevin Vallier

      Yes, that is based on a religious view.

      • Aeon Skoble

        So, there _is_ such a thing as religious violence after all. Not a myth.

        • martinbrock

          “Myth of Religious Violence” is a four word summary of Cavanaugh’s thesis. “Nothing called ‘religion’ ever has anything to do with violence” is not his thesis. To address the thesis, you must explore it further.

          Similarly, when Christine Rosen writes an article titled, “The Myth of Multitasking”, you might reply with “I’m standing on one one leg while writing this post. So there!” This reply addresses Rosen’s point less than it avoids addressing the point.

        • Kevin Vallier

          Why didn’t you read the post?

          • Aeon Skoble

            I did read it. You said “the myth of religious violence, roughly, is “the idea that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence.”” In the newspaper – pretty much every day – are examples of this.

          • martinbrock

            Religions with state power or vying for state power have a dangerous tendency to promote violence, but ideologies not conventionally labeled “religious” have the same tendency. When you present violence involving religion and the state, you don’t distinguish religious violence from state violence, so you don’t substantiate the idea of secular states suppressing religious violence, the “myth” that Cavanaugh disputes. You only show that adherents to “religious” ideologies and other ideologies exercise state power similarly.

          • Aeon Skoble

            Showing that other ideologies have a dangerous tendency to promote violence doesn’t show that it’s false that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence.

          • martinbrock

            Does Jainism have a dangerous tendency to promote violence, or is Jainism not a religion?

            That religions vying for state power tend toward violence is completely consistent with Cavanaugh’s thesis. The question is: why do you associate religion, rather than vying for state power, with the tendency toward violence?

            1. Ideologies vying for state power tend toward violence.

            2. Religions are ideologies.

            3. Religions tend toward violence.

            1 and 2 do not imply 3.

    • John

      But it’s not religious violence. It’s state violence.

      • Damien S.

        A bus bomb by militants is state violence? There’s two articles, you know, about two different things.

    • Tedd

      The first, sure. The second, no. It’s garden variety ethnic nationalism. That’s exactly the problem: Because they define their ethnicity by their religion, “religion” gets blamed. But do you honestly think that ethnic nationalism is impossible among the secular, or that ethnic nationalism is not a source of violence?

  • John

    Religion has caused almost no violence at all. It is only when government gets ahold of religion that things get ugly.

  • Joseph R. Stromberg

    Those who don’t yet have the book may find this review useful:

    Joseph R. Stromberg, “Onward Secular Soldiers, Marching as to War: Review of William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (2009),” *Independent Review,* 17, 3 (Winter 2013), 461-465, .

  • Joseph R. Stromberg

    Well, actually the link got truncated somehow. Here it is again:

  • Mao Cheng Ji

    I think it’s quite true that “War [and any organized violence] is merely the continuation of politics by other means.” And religion is a good way to organize masses in a society lacking well-developed and well-managed mass-media. And that’s, probably, all there is to it. But how do you make a whole book out of this?

    • martinbrock

      By making the same point in 30,000 words that you could easily make in 3000.

  • Chmee

    Kevin, I’m hoping that you could provide for me your definition of ‘liberal state’, because I’m finding various opinions on it, but most seem to indicate it’s along the lines that most libertarians would agree on, most alluding to definition that Stanley Fish defines in his opinion piece in the NYT
    ( ),
    as Liberalism (as opposed to Liberal) – “an enlightenment theory of government characterized by an emphasis on procedural rather than substantive rights: the law protects individual free choice and is not skewed in the direction of some choices or biased against others; the laws framed by the liberal state are, or should be, neutral between competing visions of the good and the good life; the state intervenes aggressively only when the adherents of one vision claim the right to act in ways that impinge upon the rights of others to make their own choices.”
    Maybe you mean something different?

  • Jameson Graber

    Thank you for this summary. What seems to be going on is that “religion” gets turned into a generic category precisely because we doubt its veracity. Leaders of nation states could have very well appealed *to Christian doctrine* in order to condemn the violence of their world. Instead, they appealed to something which they believed to be more universal. But if Christianity is true, then it is universal. In claiming a set of beliefs that supercedes Christianity, they implicitly denied Christianity. (Incidentally, I’m sure most of the commenters here would have no problem with that.)

    Philosophically, a lot of people seem to think about politics and religion with sort of a winner-take-all model. That is, either religion is merely a private affair, while politics deals with universal moral principles, or else theocracy. That’s a rather combative model. Either religion is actually false (or “true for you but not for me,” which is absurd), but it’s okay if you believe it and practice it away from everyone else; or else (one particular) religion is actually true so let’s force it on everyone. I don’t get that. Religions like Christianity make universal claims about human beings and their obligations to one another. Some of those claims may actually make a good basis for a liberal state. If a Christian believes them because they are Christian and a liberal believes them because they are liberal, what’s to prevent the Christian and the liberal from writing a constitution together? I see the situation as potentially much more cooperative than combative, and epistemologically I think we’re on much more even ground than is commonly pretended today.

    • martinbrock

      Faith is not true or false. It’s more like a preference. If a proposition is demonstrably true, I don’t need faith in it.

      • Jameson Graber

        Preferences, axioms, demonstrable propositions–those simply aren’t all the options. If I had faith that Obama would become president, then my faith would have been correct–true faith, one might say. But it would not have been demonstrable until it came to fruition. Neither would it have been axiomatic, and it need not have been a preference.

        • martinbrock

          I say, “more like a preference or an axiom”. I don’t say the analogy is perfect or the list exhaustive.

          If you want a sustainable faith, stay way from falsifiable propositions. The falsifiable ones are an infinitesimal subset, so the task is not difficult.

          • Jameson Graber

            “If you want a sustainable faith, stay way from falsifiable propositions.”

            I can see why you think that, but I don’t agree.

          • martinbrock

            Why do I think it?

  • J-Lib

    I’m not with the foks that want to characterize religion as somehow a unique cause of violence. Nearly always, the state is either in the forefront or the background, deploying religion to mobilize the troops on its behalf — or vice versa: the religious organization is deploying the state on its behalf.

    The thing is not “religion” as such. The culprit is any organization and any doctrine that endorses aggression. (A twist to that qualification is that statism itself could be described as the ultimate religion!)