Father Steve reviews William Cavanaugh's book, The Myth of Religious Violence, which tackles the frequent claim that "religion" is at the root of violent actions throughout history.
One of the prevalent and widely accepted narratives of our culture promotes the idea that religion exhibits a propensity towards violence. From the Crusades, to the Salem Witch trials, to the terrifying events of September 11th, religion is seen as the primary culprit in perpetrating a great deal of hostility and, as such, is a phenomenon that must be kept under cautious survellance, its power sharply curtailed. This is the narrative that “reasonable” people have come to accept. But is it true?
William Cavanaugh, as expressed in his recent book, The Myth of Religious Violence, thinks that the all too easy association of religion and violence serves a purpose in our culture; that purpose is not so much to curtail outbreaks of faith-based fanaticism, but to legitimize the narrative of secular modernity in which “religion” is a power that must be overcome in order to assure the advancement of human culture into a prosperous future. In other words, in terms of religious violence we are not necessarily dealing empirical facts, but with a myth. Now mind you, a myth is not something that is, by necessity, untrue. Rather, it is a representation of the ultimate meaning and purpose of existence, which is usually presented in the form of a story. Myths are foundational to culture.
Thus the myths of the Olympian deities and their interaction with humanity are not just tall tales, but a dramatic telling of humanity’s encounter with the natural necessities that order our existence. Myths need not simply be reduced to stories of divinities, for they also provide secularity with its understanding of what it thinks is important and what must be done. In this respect, modern theorists like Freud or Marx were not providing a receptive culture with facts gleaned from empirical observation; they were creating myths describing the ultimate meaning and purpose of reality. These myths had great cultural authority and resonance until the narratives were exposed as not only inadequate representations of reality, but based on questionable, if not fraudulent assumptions.
Modernity set forth a mythic narrative based on the inevitable progress of humanity if the constraining powers of throne and altar were removed. In place of these, a new system of convictions was advocated in which the state would order reality to the benefit of humanity. The end result would be an environment conducive to the realization of human potential. The foil to all this, at least once kings and queens have been discredited and deposed, is the enduring power of what is called “religion.”
We all know what religion is, or at least we think that we know. Religion is a general category that encompasses all those systems of conviction that assert belief in a deity. But, wait a minute. Isn’t Buddhism a religion? The category must be broader then simply belief in God or gods. Maybe, as Paul Tillich observed what we call religious has a great deal to do with that which concerns us in an ultimate sense. If this is the case, there are any number of systems that have all the attributes commonly associated with religion that could also be included under this category, such as a pronounced conviction of what is or should be our ultimate concern supported by dogmas, rituals, and myths. What about the nation state? Modernity’s cults of reason and empiricism? Capitalism? Socialism? Scratch the surface of what we understand the category of religion to mean and it reveals itself to be an absurdity. Everything is religion.
For Cavanaugh, this lack of specificity in regards to what religion actually is
or is not
constitutes a significant problem for the many scholars who have written about religion and violence. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most who write about such things are willing to concede that in terms of the category of religion, we simply do not clearly know what we actually mean. This lack of clarity allows for a great deal of muddled thinking and arbitrary judgments, as is clearly demonstrated by many of the purveyors of the so-called new atheism who insist that religion is absolutist, divisive and irrational. In fact, anything that falls into these categories gets to be “religious”- except, of course, atheism. Truly, what we don’t think to be religious can be just as absolutist, divisive and irrational as anything that we think to be religious, as the secularist ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries so clearly demonstrated. So is it really true that religion has a problem with violence, or does everything have destructive potential? It seems to be the latter rather than just the former. If this is the case, why are we so preoccupied with the alleged power of religious violence? Why are we so inclined to believe that religious violence is such a problem?
It would seem to me that we have transposed the general and the particular and have done so because it serves the mythology that undergirds the foundational narrative of modern culture. Modernity has made some pretty big promises in regards to its potential to accomplish great things. These promises have allowed modern culture to gain ascendency and to promote its interests with an authority and power that ancient monarchs would have envied. But, making a promise and fulfilling that promise is not the same thing, and much of modernity’s promise is a dream that has been deferred for most the world’s population. Why do the dreams of modernity remain unfulfilled? Rather than deal with modernity’s claims, methods and goals, we are easily distracted by the assertion that the answer must be the phenomena that has vexed modernity from the beginning: the persistence of religion. What the myth of modernity means by “religion” are those systems of conviction that dissent from the truth claims that are expressed in secular culture’s foundational narrative. Rather than name these dissenters in terms of particularities, we identify them all by a generalized category, and we call that category “religion.”
None of this is to deny that people who profess belief in a deity will sometimes do terribly violent things, but the fact of the matter is that humanity has demonstrated time and time again that we don’t need faith based convictions to cause harm; there is no real evidence that the convictions born of faith are any more inclined to cause violence than, for example, those convictions that are secularist- even those that claim to serve such apparently beneficent powers as “reason” and “progress”. Unfortunately, the “myth” of religious violence, while consoling for some (because it ratifies prejudices) does not provide us with sufficient clarity in regards to a human predicament that repeatedly resists the categories that we seek to impose upon it.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.