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...