William T. Cavanaugh, author of The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, recounts seeing a poster at a university campus where he was speaking. The poster was for his own event, with the question, “Does Religion Cause Violence?” Somebody had scrawled across the entire poster in black Sharpie, “DUH!”
That pretty much sums up the attitude toward the subject. It seems so obvious and self-evident that religion does cause violence. After all, what about the Crusades? what about Islamic terrorism?
There are actually a couple of ways people attempt to argue against this idea. One is to argue that good religions do not cause violence, and the violence done in their name is only by those who misunderstand the religion. “Clearly the Crusader is not a Christian, because a Christian wouldn’t do what the Crusader is doing.” The second way is to argue that these religions are neutral and that what actually motivates religious violence is some sort of socio-political cause.
Cavanaugh rejects both these ideas. In fact, he baldly says, “Religion causes violence. I have no doubt.” Then what is the myth of religious violence for Cavanaugh? It is that religious ideology causes violence whereas secular ideology does not. In the received story, violence utilized by a secular society is rational and is necessary to combat the irrational and fanatical violence of the religious. The myth of religious violence then becomes a kind of rhetorical tool at the disposal of secular liberalism to justify its wars.
But can we really suppose that religion is any more prone to violence than a secular body? At the center of the issue are these questions posed by Bill Cavanaugh:
- Is there any good reason to suppose that people are more likely to kill for a god than for a nation?
- What percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians would be willing to kill for Jesus (or for their Christian faith)?
- What percentage would be willing to kill for their country?
It seems clear to Cavanaugh (and sadly I cannot disagree) that most American Christians would be willing to kill for their nation but not for their religion. In fact, Cavanaugh points out, the majority of Christians in America are not even willing to evangelize in public, finding it in poor taste, but are willing “to endorse organized slaughter on behalf of the nation as necessary and sometimes laudable.”
In light of this, it seems that there is no coherent way to isolate religion from other ideologies as the one particularly given to violence or promoting violent adherence. Secular ideologies such as nationalism and capitalism can incite just as much violence as so-called religious ones.