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Review of The Myth of Religious Violence

(Submitted for a school assignment, but something I'd been wanting to do anyway)

In his latest monograph, The Myth of Religious Violence, William Cavanaugh indulges once again in his favorite past-time of shattering cherished idols of liberal political thought, idols that serve as foundations for consensus within the current Western political order.  However, apparently zealous to avoid being marginalized by the academic establishment of the various fields he is engaging, Cavanaugh seems at pains to present his case with a scholarly rigour and thoroughness that marks a definite shift in style from his earlier, more essayistic works.  Valuable as this thoroughness may be, fans of Cavanaugh’s writing may find that it has the unfortunate side-effect of draining this work of some of the refreshing vigour, flair, and provocative edge that characterize his previous works.  

However, one may perhaps wonder whether the blunting of this provocative edge is not a rather good thing, given that the argument of the book already contains plenty of material to provoke.  In it, Cavanaugh violates basic assumptions not only of current political pundits and theorists, but also established canons of modern sociology, history, and religious studies.  In setting out to debunk as “myth” the enormously influential dictum that religion is particularly prone to cause violence, it is well that Cavanaugh proceeds with great care and patience.
The title of the work neatly summarizes the task that Cavanaugh sets for himself, for he is using the word “myth” not simply in its cheap polemical sense of “a load of hogwash,” but in its richest sense, which we might define as “a self-authenticating foundational narrative of a culture which serves to structure society in its image by legitimating certain configurations of power and delegitimating others, and by classifying phenomena of our present experience in terms of its narrative.”
  Thus, Cavanaugh is not merely interested in demonstrating that the myth is false, but in examining its origins, uses, and inner structure.  So Cavanaugh clarifies right at the outset that “this book, then, is not a defense of religion against the charge of violence” (5); that is to say, he is not interested in offering a fairly straightforward objection to the myth along the lines “Actually, religions are the sources of peacemaking more often than violence” or “Actually, the violence usually attributed to religion is the result of other, non-religious causes,” though, as we shall see, the latter claim is not entirely foreign to his project.  Rather, his goal is to question the very terms in which the myth is couched--specifically, the term “religion.”  He sets out to argue “that there is no such thing as a transhistorical or transcultural ‘religion’ that is essentially separate from politics” (9).  In other words, he lays down the challenge: to indict religion as a root cause of violence, one has first to be able to identify a distinct phenomenon called religion, to which violence can be meaningfully attributed; but this is impossible.  Having established this bold claim, he can then argue that the myth’s error on this fundamental point is not the product of an innocent misunderstanding, but “is itself a part of a particular configuration of power, that of the modern, liberal nation-state as it developed in the West” (9).  That is to say, the myth was able to arise and continue to hold sway despite its incoherence because the narrative it offers is useful and comforting to many aspects of modern society.  
Cavanaugh develops his first argument in three long chapters, entitled “The Anatomy of the Myth,” “The Invention of Religion,” and “The Creation Myth of the Wars of Religion.”  The second claim, though it appears in places throughout these chapters, is primarily fleshed out in the final chapter, “The Uses of the Myth.”  Let us take some time to examine the structure of both arguments in a bit more detail.
In the first chapter, Cavanaugh examines the arguments of nine major theorists of religion who have argued some version of the claim that religion causes violence, whether because “religion is absolutist” (John Hick, Charles Kimball, Richard Wentz), because “religion is divisive” (Martin Marty, Mark Juergensmeyer, David Rapoport), or because “religion is not rational” (Bhikhu Parekh, Scott Appleby, Charles Selengut).  The exercise becomes rather tedious, as the arguments and Cavanaugh’s criticisms of them begin to sound like a broken record.  In each case, the scholar in question fails to provide an adequate account of what defines a religion, as over against a mere secular phenomenon, and how to identify one set of phenomena as the cause of violence rather than the other.  Whenever these scholars seek to provide criteria that suitably define “religion,” these criteria seem not to apply to some traditional religions (e.g. Buddhism), while seeming clearly to apply to phenomena generally deemed “secular” (e.g., Marxism, nationalism).  Indeed, these scholars often find themselves invoking examples of nationalistic or Marxist violence as examples of “religious” violence, though elsewhere, the same scholars resolutely classify such phenomena as secular.  The reader may wonder if it is really necessary for Cavanaugh to rehearse the same claims and criticisms nine times, but, assuming Cavanaugh is accurately representing the views of these scholars, the exercise does have the effect of conveying just how empty and tiresome are the traditional justifications for the “religion causes violence” argument.  Cavanaugh concludes, “There is no reason to suppose that so-called secular ideologies such as nationalism, patriotism, capitalism, Marxism, and liberalism are any less prone to be absolutist, divisive, and irrational than belief in, for example, the biblical God” (55).
At the end of the first chapter, we find ourselves wondering how it could be that the phenomenon “religion” proves so difficult to use or make sense of.  In the second chapter, Cavanaugh offers us a jarring answer: because there’s no such thing; the very concept is a comparatively recent invention.  Each of the scholars in chapter one, he says, have attempted to assume that we can discuss “religion” as a transhistorical, transcultural phenomenon.  And yet it is neither, as he argues in two sections, refuting first the “transhistorical” claim and then the “transcultural.”  First, he shows that the concept as we now use it was neither known nor meaningfully applicable in earlier ages of the West, first appearing in something like its modern sense around the time of the Reformation.
  Second, he shows that it is not transcultural, offering some fascinating testimony of the confusions encountered by Europeans when they first came into contact with indigenous religions in Africa and Asia.  These did not seem to fit in any way the Western concept of “religion,” blurring together sacred and secular duties and commitments.  In both cases, he argues that the concept “religion” was not primarily descriptive, but rather constructive, of social reality: by claiming to have isolated a universal essence of “religion,” Western thinkers succeeded (to a limited extent) in shaping existing religions into something more closely resembling that essence.
Having noted in chapter two that most of the early modern thinkers who began to describe religion in these universal terms were political theorists, theorists interested in subordinating “religion” to the control of the nation-state, he turns in chapter three to uncover just what motivated these thinkers.  Men like Locke and Hobbes, he says, diagnosed a situation of uncontrollable religious violence in the century and a half following the Reformation, and made this their rationale for controlling religion by subordinating it to the State.  This diagnosis, he shows, remains enormously influential for the modern myth of religious violence, and its continued use to justify secular political intervention as the remedy.  The problem, though, is that this diagnosis was also a myth--the “Wars of Religion” were not wars of religion, wars fought between Protestant and Catholic for religious supremacy, as he demonstrates with no less than forty-five historical counterexamples to the traditional narrative.  This does not mean, he is careful to clarify, that they were “merely secular” conflicts; rather, the modern distinction between “secular” and “religious” phenomena simply did not apply then.  It was indeed, as his most intriguing argument claims, created by the “wars of religion,” since they were actually fought in order to consolidate state authority independent of the Church.  
In the final chapter, “The Uses of the Myth,” he seeks to reveal the dangerous consequences of this false narrative, and at the same time reveals to us his practical motivations in writing.  Cavanaugh believes that this myth, by categorizing certain phenomena as “religious” and therefore violent, serves to legitimate “secular” violence, and indeed, to invoke it as a necessary weapon against religious violence.  He explores two case studies in which this has unfolded: the use of the myth in American jurisprudence to justify a radical separation of church and state, which suppresses the public embodiment of any religions except the patriotism of the American civil religion; and its use in post-9/11 rhetoric across the political spectrum to justify violent suppression of Islamic fundamentalism and the forcible secularization of Islamic societies.  Some of the examples of the latter that he quotes, from mainstream writers like Christopher Hitchens and others, are downright chilling, and help to convince the reader of the urgency of the task of demythologization that Cavanaugh has undertaken.  
On the whole, it must be said that Cavanaugh has succeeded admirably at this task, despite the scale of the undertaking.  At times, the reader feels as if the disillusioning process is itself an illusion, as if Cavanaugh has merely pulled the wool over our eyes by some linguistic acrobatics, telling us that there’s no such thing as religion when we all know there surely must be.  But reconsideration always compels the conclusion that Cavanaugh has not indulged in any such cheap tricks, and does convincingly establish the main pillars of his argument.  
However, it is easy to get the nagging sensation that, as new as this all sounds, we’ve heard it all before.  And so we have, perhaps.  It turns out that Cavanaugh’s project is a fairly standard postmodernist one, in the venerable Foucauldian tradition of the “genealogy.”  All the familiar elements are there: the assertion that a diversity of historical forms underlie concepts we now take for granted; the insistence on the incommensurability of phenomena in different cultures and the claim that our homogenization of them is an act of cultural imperialism; the subjection of a fact we take for grantedto a historical narrative to demonstrate that it was contingently constructed; and the “unmasking” of power grabs that underlie supposedly neutral knowledge claims.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, of course (unless you hate all things postmodern).  Indeed, perhaps Cavanaugh is implicitly critiquing postmodernism for having uncritically adopted the myth of religious violence from modernism, rather than deconstructing it, and is doing so by beating them at their own game.  But it would be comforting to see Cavanaugh show a bit more self-consciousness regarding his methodology and be up front about the nature of his project.
One also wonders if there is a bit of a contradiction between Cavanaugh’s argument and the practical political use to which he puts it.  On the one hand, we are told that there is no universal essence of religion, which can enable us to clearly determine what counts as a religion or to attribute common elements to diverse religious traditions.  On the other hand, his argument seems to move from proving that the Christian religion was not in fact the cause of violence in the “Wars of Religion’ to arguing that the Islamic religion should not be blamed for violence in our own day.  If religions do not share a common essence, why shouldn’t Islam be inherently violent after all, even if other religions are not?  Admittedly, Cavanaugh’s blind spot here is not so glaring as this might make it sound; his argument is rather more sophisticated and complex than that.  Nonetheless, it does feel as if the particular practical application he attempts to make is imported from elsewhere, rather than flowing decisively out of his argument.  The cynic might say that he has chosen this application merely because it was likely to win the favor of a certain liberal audience that otherwise would be hostile to his demythologizing project.  After all, despite the resolutely counter-cultural pose that he strikes, he seems to throw a lot of bones to prevailing liberal sentiment in the course of the book, particularly in the section regarding the exportation of the concept “religion” to other cultures.  Here he adopts the typical righteous indignation toward colonialism, together with a fashionable disdain for missionaries as exploiters of the natives.  Is he accepting one anti-religion myth while debunking another?
Despite these minor misgivings, I can heartily commend this book as a bold and scholarly contribution to political theology and the sociology of religion, and a valuable exposé of careless cultural assumptions that we all share.   


Hello sir,

I was doing a report on Cavanaugh's book as well and was wondering were you found that definition for "myth" as I'd like to include it in my report. If it is your own invention I'd be more than happy to properly cite you for it. Thank you kindly.

-Taylor Coffey

December 7, 2011 at 1:36 AM  

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