(New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)
In The Myth of Religious Violence, William Cavanaugh argues that the concept of religion as a transhistorical and transcultural entity distinct from secular social features like politics is a mythic construct, not rooted in reality (3). As such, the notion that one can distinguish between violence motivated by religion and violence driven by other cultural, political and social motives is patently false. This is a careful, philosophical book, in which the author takes time to define his terms and explain exactly what his argument is and is not, using more examples than will interest most readers in the cause of being thorough (7).
Cavanaugh’s stated goal in writing The Myth of Religious Violence is to show that the distinction between the categories “religious” and “secular” is a false, western, modernist construction that only came into existence with the rise of the secular nation-state (3). Prior to this, religion and governance comingled so that it never occurred to declare violence either religious or non-religious. These categories had not yet been teased apart. By identifying violence with religion, westerners are able construe reality in their favor, creating a false sense of distance between “safe” secular institutions and “dangerous” religious institutions. Yet the ideologies and institutions deemed “secular” can be just as irrational and absolutist as those that are termed religious (6).
First, Cavanaugh explains the roots of the myth and shows how three common arguments used to defend the link between religion and violence fail (17). These arguments claim that religion causes violence because it is absolutist, divisive, and insufficiently rational (18). Cavanaugh engages nine thinkers who promote these arguments, carefully defeating each in order to make his case. Drawing on the likes of John Hick, Martin Marty, and Richard Wentz, Cavanaugh shows that the distinction between religious and secular violence is based on faulty a priori logic. To refer to religious violence, one must first assume that religious violence can be distinguished from violence arising from other sources. Cavanaugh maintains that this task is impossible. For example, the twentieth century debate over flag burning in the United States was understood as a secular conflict, yet was rife with language presenting the flag as a sacred totem that should not be desecrated. These secular claims are identical to the claims religious adherents make about their sacred objects (55). Despite the supposedly secular status, patriotism and the belief in the righteousness of one’s own national cause often results in the same absolutist, divisive and irrational behaviors blamed on religion. Cavanaugh’s purpose in this example is not to show the similarities between religious and secular violence, but to show that the evidence does not substantiate a distinction between religious and secular violence. Rather, the roots of violence are the same regardless of whether a conflict is termed religious or secular (56).
Cavanaugh’s second step is to explain the invention of religion as a transhistorical, transcultural entity. He wants to show that attempts to differentiate between the religious and the secular are based on false distinctions. To do this, he deconstructs essentialist definitions of religion, whether they take substantivist (religion is defined as awareness of the Transcendent) or functionalist (religion is that which includes certain practices) approaches (58). Cavanaugh points out that all such approaches fundamentally fail because there is no universally recognizable “essence of religion” (58). It is, in fact, “a constructed category” that only exists when used diametrically in opposition to the term “secular” (58). Moreover, the defining characteristics used by leading scholars of religion are simply arbitrary (59). Cavanaugh asks why certain configurations of power lead to denoting some things as religions, that in other circumstances are not considered religions. For example, Confucianism is often defined as a religion by Westerners, but its Eastern adherents regard it as irreligious (119). This leads to an appropriate question: “what practices and shifts in power occur when religion is so construed?” One such power shift is the validation of the nation state. When religion is considered to be categorically different than secular institutions, a negative bias is created against religion and secular institutions are then presented as unquestionably neutral and thus worthy of allegiance in a way that religion is not. Thus religion becomes “part of the legitimating mythology of the modern liberal state” (122). It is not a transcultural, transhistorical entity in and of itself.
Third, Cavanaugh examines what he calls the wars of religion myth (120). The term “wars of religion” applies to a number of conflicts between Catholics and Lutherans following the Protestant Reformation. Proponents of the wars of religion term claim that these were conflicts between two branches of Christianity, and therefore were religiously motivated. Cavanaugh points out that the truth is much more complicated. During these conflicts, Catholics often killed other Catholics, Lutherans other Lutherans, and so on (11). As such, the roots of violence included not only religious affiliation, but also political, economic, and social factors, and it is unclear how these factors should be weighted.
The rise of the nation state is commonly posed as the necessary triumph of secular policing institutions that made peace between warring religious factions in 16th and 17th century Europe. Cavanaugh argues that this presentation of the raw elements of history serves primarily as a myth legitimizing the use of force by nation-states (124). But the transfer of power from the church to the state did not result in a more peaceful Europe; it simply changed what people were willing to commit violence for (12).
Rather than presenting the “religious wars” as secular, as other scholars have attempted to do, Cavanaugh argues that they were the origin of the religious/secular distinction and thus the source of the myth of religious violence (124). To make this case he draws on Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, as well as current historiography and political theory to explain how these wars came to be presented this way. Additionally, he notes that it is impossible to separate the religious goals of violence from political, economical, or social goals. In fact, it was often the attempt to achieve political or state power that caused much of the violence of the so-called “religious wars” (177). Therefore the religious wars do not promote the myth of religious violence, but in fact, are a primary source of the myth.
Fourth and finally, Cavanaugh looks to the uses of the religious myth. Using a wide range of historical and contemporary resources, he shows how the myth of religious violence has served to both justify and overlook atrocities performed in the name of nation states (228). “Religious beliefs do not lurk essentially unchanged underneath historical circumstances, waiting to unleash their destructive power on the world” (229). This is because no transcultural, transhistorical and essentialist religion exists. In a telling example, Cavanaugh points out that it was the CIA , invoking military action against Russia during the Cold War, that reawakened the concept of jihad. Prior to U.S. action in 1979, jihad had been dormant for close to four hundred years (230).
In using the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Cavanaugh is again reinforcing that religious and nonreligious action cannot be separated. Instead, he prefers the term “theopolitical,” and notes that all violence is best understood this way (230). In order to understand violence holistically, Cavanaugh proposes a test: “Under what conditions do certain beliefs and practices – jihad, the ‘invisible hand’ of the market the sacrificial atonement of Christ, the role of the United States as worldwide liberator – turn violent?” (8). When we neglect this question, we fail to understand the nuances and complexities of the forces that shape history and create violence.
Cautious readers would do well to recognize Cavanaugh’s catholic faith as a powerful motivator in this project, for it is possible that his faith could predetermine his supposition that the religious/secular divide is an artificial construct. That being noted, his argument is strongly supported, easy to follow, and well organized. A professor of theology at DePaul University in Chicago, Cavanaugh also holds a law degree and has spent a portion of his career working for the Center for Human and Civil Rights at Notre Dame University. This unique constellation of experiences confirms Cavanaugh’s capability to undertake this bold project that challenges popular assumptions about the connections between religion and violence.