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Sunday, 25 October 2009

Religious violence - myths and legends

Religion and violence seem to be inextricably linked in current popular discourse and the new atheists such as Christopher Hitchens are right in their. If they are really opposed to religious violence then provided we can get clarity about what they mean by the term religious, then I really might be in their with them on that and on grounds that are based on being a follower of Jesus.

Now if that looks confusing at first glance then to unpack the issues we might turn with gratitude to the most recent book by William T Cavanaugh The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular  Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Cavanaugh's  first book Torture and Eucharist was a stunning case study of the Catholic church in
Chile and its engagement with the Pinochet regime that canvasses issues of church and state engagement, why ecclesiology matters and how the Eucharist can be understood as embodying a distinctive form of politics.

(For the a comprehensive list of his work see the  Unofficial William T Cavanaugh Internet Archive at Catholic Anarchy.Org.)


The Myth of Religious Violence is less directly theological than Torture and Eucharist. The argument in summary is as follows:

The idea that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence is part of the conventional wisdom of Western societies, and it underlies many of our institutions and policies, from limits on the public role of religion to efforts to promote liberal democracy in the Middle East.

Cavanaugh challenges this conventional wisdom by examining how the twin categories of religion and the secular are constructed. He shows how a growing body of scholarly work explores how the category 'religion' has been constructed in the modern West and in colonial contexts according to specific configurations of political power and examines how timeless and transcultural categories of 'religion and 'the secular' are used in arguments that religion causes violence.

There are three major strands to his case:
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. Examination of a range of scholars who attempt to make this case makes it clear that it is exceedingly difficult to draw a clear and coherent distinction between religious and secular violence. Cavanaugh is clear that religion can be deeply implicated in violence but that the real issue is to explore when and how beliefs and practices of whatever character become implicated in violence. The practical issue is under what conditions are people willing to kill whether it be for the sake of the belief or practice.

The religious/secular divide is not a transhistorical reality. It is part of the historical mythology underpinning the liberal state. FewAmerican Christians will kill over a matter of belief but many as a matter of practice will kill on behalf of the  United States to uphold the honor of the United States flag. Is that secular or religious violence?

2) A transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion as non-rational and prone to violence is one of the foundational legitimating myths of Western society.  Cavanaugh provides a chapter examining the historical scholarship that calls into question the myth that te liberal state was the solution to the problem of the wars of religion in Europe.

3) This myth can be and is used to legitimate neo-colonial violence against non-Western others, particularly the Muslim world.

Here the issue emerges with which I started this review. Hitchens uses the myth of religious violence as the basis for a secularist justification for violence against religious actors. There is not a consistent commitment to critique the use of violence on his behalf. Terrible irrational religious actors need to be subject to the violence of the secular state seems to be the position which Hitchens ends up justifying. The world must be made safe for secularism and if violence is required then it is OK as long as it is in the cause of rationality and enlightenment.

The way forward for Christians is to go back and revisit the fundamental theological commitments that arise from being followers of Jesus who was announced as the Prince of Peace. Cavanaugh has indicated that if we are going to be committed to the way of peace then the conditions that underpin the justification for violence need to be critiqued regardless of whether they are advanced on "religious" or "secular" grounds.

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