Among the forces that motivate people to torture and kill other people, religion is unique. In wars or other forms of collective violence it inspires the worst kind of killing—indiscriminate, unrelenting, insatiable. “Sacred rage” is the default mode of zealots driven by a devotion that is absolute, irrational, and inevitably divisive.

These self-styled true believers are willing to sacrifice themselves, their families, and their homelands in the effort to annihilate the enemy, who is depicted in the religious imagination as a demon-possessed monster. Fighting a cosmic war in God’s name, their victory ultimately assured (if decades or centuries in the unfolding), the holy warriors are not merely unreasonable; they are crazy. In the face of this threat only the legitimate violence of the liberal secular state can preserve order and secure the common good.

This, in a nutshell, is the narrative that accompanied the rise of the modern nation-state and helped to legitimate the division of Western politics and culture into artificial spheres called “the religious” and “the secular,” as well as the gradual subordination of church to state and the transfer of religious prerogatives, sacred rituals and symbols, and divine authority to princes, lords, kings, presidents, and other “heads of state.”

Not least, the narrative authorizes a sort of secular amnesia: captives of the myth tend to forget, or overlook, the egregious and unjust acts of mass violence committed by the state, whether the state in question is “liberal” (that is, killing in the name of freedom and democracy) or “illiberal” (killing in the name of order, security, or sheer power, which can sometimes be useful for the liberal states, especially when religious militants are the victims).

It is the signal contribution of William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford University Press, $49.95, 285 pp.), to expose, unpack, and debunk this pervasive and controlling myth. Cavanaugh, a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, does so deftly in four erudite but accessible chapters.

The first explores “the anatomy of the myth” by critiquing the selected writings of nine influential scholars of religion (all male)—let’s call them the nefarious nine. (Full disclosure: I am one of them.) These generally well-intentioned authors, Cavanaugh complains, advance general arguments about religion and violence that tend to “distort the empirical data and lend themselves to ideological use.” Whatever his distinctive approach and method, each scholar bases his analysis on what Cavanaugh sees as the erroneous assumption that there is something called “religion” about which one can generalize across time and space.

Such “substantivist” definitions, which posit a transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion, foster the notion that a special kind of violence exists in the world, one that is exceptionally deadly and immune to the limits imposed by ordinary strategic, economic, and political considerations. Cavanaugh argues that this notion is false, and that the distinction it underwrites between secular and religious violence is “unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying” and “should be avoided altogether.”

The second chapter, “The Invention of Religion,” emphasizes religion’s virtual inseparability from all aspects of society prior to the modern period. This move is meant to avoid the trap into which the nefarious nine have fallen by construing religion as a separate category of behavior and belief. Add “naive” to “nefarious,” because the nine have inadvertently reified religion, thereby lending scholarly authority (such as it is) to the public-private, religion-politics, and church-state dichotomies. Such dichotomies, rather than describing reality as it is, justify a certain configuration of power. In the early modern period, for example, they provided the rationale for the state’s colonial expansion and claim to a monopoly over internal violence. “To construe Christianity as a religion, therefore, helps to separate loyalty to God from one’s public loyalty to the nation-state,” Cavanaugh writes. “The idea that religion has a tendency to cause violence—and is therefore to be removed from public power—is one type of this essentialist construction of religion.”

The “functionalist” definition of religion endorsed by Cavanaugh, by contrast, shifts attention away from certain kinds of beliefs and practices isolated as “religion” to “the way that such a system functions, that is, the social, psychological, and political tasks it performs in a given context.” Taking as his context the Constantinian and medieval eras of church history, Cavanaugh proposes a model of religio (from the verb religo: “to rebind or relink”) that encompasses “secular” behaviors, such as civic oaths and family rituals, which provided the glue to the Roman social order. Augustine used the term to refer to specific acts of worship within the larger constellation of social obligations, and Aquinas employed it to refer to the cultivation of virtues. In either case, Cavanaugh argues, “religion” was not considered a purely interior impulse secreted away in the human soul, nor an institutional force separable from other nonreligious or secular forces, nor a set of propositions flowing from a truth that is universally available. These supposed elements of religion were the inventions, ironically, of Catholic and Protestant polemicists of the Reformation, as well as Enlightenment figures such as John Locke and the more obscure but still influential Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury.

The Myth of Religious Violence presents itself as an exercise in analysis and criticism, rather than as a normative or constructive project. As mentioned, Cavanaugh is primarily concerned with undermining an approach to religion that implies the existence of a constant “essence,” or core orientation to reality, found in each religion regardless of its specific historical or cultural setting. Accordingly, he does not propose specific norms or principles that would counter and correct the essentialist approach. Nor does he offer constructive proposals for construing and interpreting the behavior and beliefs of people who say they are motivated by “faith,” “belief in God,” “the sacred,” “the limitless horizon of being,” or other such religious or quasi-religious terms. (Of course, this somewhat awkwardly ignores the fact that billions of people do claim such motivation.)

Rather, Cavanaugh restricts himself to comments underscoring the relationship between constructions of religion (how the elements of religion were invented or discovered in and for a particular time and place) and configurations of power. Religion as it was framed by European Enlightenment thinkers in the early modern period, for example, accompanied and supported the rise of the liberal state as the source of totalizing authority over public as well as private lives. By contrast, Cavanaugh’s treatment of the premodern church is meant to indicate that the term religio “functioned in very different ways as part of a complex of power relations and subjectivities unique to medieval Christendom.”

To my mind, at least, two difficulties arise from Cavanaugh’s essentially negative or critical approach. He rightly calls for a more thoroughly historical understanding, which recognizes that what counts as “religion” in any given context depends on the purposes to which it is being put. Beyond this, however, he offers no helpful alternative for those of us who continue to struggle with the undeniable cross-historical, cross-cultural phenomenon we typically call religion. Leaving the matter solely to case-by-case judgments based on “historical context” is unsatisfactory, for it reduces religion to a merely secular or worldly project, one in which the human “passion for the infinite” is no more than a projection of psychological or emotional needs—the yearning to fill a “God-sized hole in the human heart.” According to such a conceptualization, women and men who claim a divine source for their most cherished beliefs and behaviors presumably are responding not to the tug of the infinite, but merely to the lure of power. At the very least, the analytical deck is stacked in that direction, thereby strengthening the argument of old and new atheists, that religion is “nothing but” greed, sex, and mundane power in disguise.

Moreover, Cavanaugh himself privileges a particular historical instantiation of “religion”—that of medieval Christianity—in order to mount his searing critique of modern construals. Tellingly, he does not select as his point of reference the other possible nonmodern candidate, namely apostolic Christianity. Is this because the cult of Jesus of Nazareth intentionally set itself apart from the larger society by its practices, institutions, and creeds? Yet this, too, was certainly an instance of “religion.”

It is not surprising, therefore, that the strongest chapter of the book, “The Creation Myth of the Wars of Religion,” focuses on the transition from medieval to modern power structures and their ideological foundations. Cavanaugh claims that much of our understanding of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century wars of religion in Europe is a willful misreading of the facts. Rather than bloody struggles over the competing doctrines of Catholics and Protestants, the so-called wars of religion were caused in large part by the armed resistance of Catholics and Protestants (sometimes acting in alliance) to the territorial and absolutist political ambitions of religious as well as secular princes, kings, and other “state-building elites.”

A skilled navigation of the historiography allows Cavanaugh to demonstrate that the state-building process preceded the Reformation, exacerbated and enforced ecclesiastical differences, divinized the secular ruler, and in these ways acted as a cause of the violence rather than a solution to it. “In the process the state did not rein in and tame religion but became itself sacralized,” he writes. “The transfer of power from the church to the state was accompanied by a migration of the holy from church to state.”

In his concluding chapter Cavanaugh explores “The Uses of the Myth,” including the “Othering” of forms and expressions of religion that do not consent to the modern deification of the nation, or to the full separation of religion and state. He excoriates the imperial practice of defining and domesticating (that is, Westernizing) religion, whenever and wherever the local cultures and customs did not (or do not) comport with the colonizers’ geopolitical and economic aims.

Cavanaugh is particularly adept at offering a balanced critique of such controversial topics as the post-9/11 framing of Islam (not merely Islamic radicalism) as “essentially” a violence-prone religion. Such constructions of Islam, he notes, do not fully take into account the empirical realities standing behind “Muslim rage.” The portrayal of the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s popularity as a sign of Iranian gullibility and superstition, for example, overlooks inconvenient aspects of the historical record, such as the U.S.–directed overthrow of democratically elected Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and CIA support for the repressive policies of the shahs of Iran—aspects that provided the relevant political context for the Shiite-led revolution of 1979.

There is no pristine religion called Islam that can be separated from Muslim encounters with Western power, Cavanaugh insists, though he also recognizes the presence of the “unhealthy dynamics within Muslim societies.” An honest approach to the contemporary struggle against terrorism would refuse to tolerate sloganeering about Islam, while also noting how “Islam serves as a rallying point not only for anti-imperialist projects but imperialist projects as well.”

The Myth of Religious Violence is an important book; it deserves a fair and careful reading from anyone who seeks to speak credibly to the role of religion in contemporary affairs, and to the ways in which that role is constructed, interpreted, and distorted. Still, I do have a few quibbles, and one reservation.

There is a fine line between effective instruction—Professor Cavanaugh is clearly a gifted teacher—and numbing repetition of one’s point; occasionally, that line is crossed. Likewise, sound argument can quickly deteriorate into unfair (and unintended?) polemic when one cherry-picks passages from authors as subtle and nuanced as Martin Marty and Robert Bellah. By and large, however, Cavanaugh is a generous and fair-minded critic, and such transgressions are rare.

More debilitating to the force of his overall thesis is a tendency to overstate his case. I remain unconvinced that the evidence really demonstrates that the myth of religious violence “does not identify any facts about the world.” And it seems inconsistent, at best, for one who appears to deny a clear distinction between religion and worldly ideologies that claim an absolute status to complain that a substantivist definition of religion is “so broad that it serves no useful analytical function.”

My reservation follows from the last quibble. In his laudable effort to demythologize religion—to rescue the devout from being marginalized as exotic, alien, and uniquely violent disturbers of a supposedly secular peace—Cavanaugh lists to the other extreme. To avoid essentialism, he resists separating any discernibly religious motivations from the array of economic, political, and social causes affecting religious actors. In denying any transhistorical dimension of religion in favor of an approach that binds believers entirely to their historical context, the author devotes relatively little attention to the prophetic “function,” which, if not unique to religion, is certainly a distinctive and powerful weapon in its arsenal. (This oversight is ironic coming from the author of Torture and Eucharist, an analysis of the Chilean Catholic Church’s response to the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, which argues that “the Eucharist is the church’s response to torture, and the hope for Christian resistance to the violent disciplines of the world.”)

Yet religion’s prophetic character is precisely one of the transhistorical, transcultural elements that set the phenomenon apart from other kinds of human symbolic behavior. The witness to the absolute transcendent is central to religion’s unique capacity to sit in judgment of all (merely) earthly powers and promises. In his critique of the absolutist approach to religion taken by the nefarious nine, Cavanaugh mentions John Hicks’s reliance on Paul Tillich, the eminent postwar Protestant theologian who famously defined religion as a matter of “ultimate concern.” What do you care most about? What would you be willing to die for? Whatever that is, Tillich explained, is the content of one’s religion. Cavanaugh later uses this concept to illustrate how the European monarchies and, subsequently, the secular nation-state usurped the place of the divine.

He fails to mention, however, that Tillich had a word for such usurpations—for the practice, by kings, prime ministers, and dictators alike, of ascribing to mundane realities the characteristics and prerogatives appropriate only to the living, eternal God. Tillich called these systems of thought and power “pseudo-religions.” Tillich’s point is that there is a distinctive human activity we can rightly call “religion”—the worship of and submission to a reality that transcends all earthly powers. Such “devotion to the absolute” can, it is lamentably true, motivate mistaken men to kill their brothers in what they believe is an act of piety. But it is also the devotion that inspires men and women to pursue justice, forgive their enemies, seek reconciliation—and refuse to pledge ultimate allegiance to any state or secular regime.

Thus I hope and expect that Cavanaugh, having done God’s and society’s good work in demolishing the myth of religious violence, will devote his next work to the construction of its necessary replacement: the myth of religious peacebuilding.

Related: "Culture & Barbarism" by Terry Eagleton

R. Scott Appleby is the Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School of Global Affairs and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

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Published in the 2010-04-09 issue: View Contents
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