Upcoming Conference Religious Violence: Myth or Reality

An International Conference to be held at Dartmouth College, Hanover NH, USA

(Free and Open to the public)

May 11-13, 2012

Director: James B. Murphy, Department of Government


Intellectual Rationale

It has become a very widespread article of faith that there is something especially dangerous about religion. Ever since the Enlightenment, statesmen and intellectuals have argued that religious conflict is a profound threat to civil peace and that the only way to secure civil order is to separate church from state. Only by denying religious institutions the coercive powers of government and making religion a purely private affair will we be safe from the threat of religious violence. John Rawls, in his influential book Political Liberalism, argues that the “wars of religion” in early modern Europe demonstrate the dangers that religious belief pose to political order and the necessity of building a secular foundation for political life. Virtually all major theorists of modern liberalism, including Judith Shklar, Ronald Dworkin and Charles Larmore, cite the “wars of religion” to prove the necessity of the modern secular state. Modern liberalism is founded upon the view that religion is the chief threat to political harmony and freedom.

With the end of the cold war and the rise of “religious” conflict in Bosnia and throughout the Islamic world, the belief that religion is the key source of violence has spread dramatically. Now many conservatives, such as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, argue that religion, especially Islam, poses a unique threat to world peace. They see a fundamental conflict between Judeo-Christian and Islamic religious civilizations and they expect that the frontier between these religions will be a locus for violent conflict for many years to come. Eliza Griswold’s new book The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam, describes this emerging world-wide conflict in explicitly religious terms.

What is it about religion that causes so many people to associate it with violence? William Cavanaugh in his recent book The Myth of Religious Violence identifies three main arguments: religion is said to be uniquely absolutist, divisive, and non-rational. First, religion is described as uniquely absolutist in the sense that religion makes claims about the ultimate nature of reality and of moral value. Religious beliefs are uniquely comprehensive and dogmatic: they offer believers a strong and certain worldview. John Hick, Charles Kimball, and Richard Wentz all argue that religion is essentially absolutist in its claims. Second, religions are often described as uniquely divisive in the sense that religious identities are based on a very strong distinction between “us” and “them”. Many religions profess intolerance of all other religions. Normally, religious identities are mutually exclusive: very few people consider themselves to be both Jewish and Muslim or both Christian and Hindu. Martin Marty, Mark Juergensmeyer and David Rappoport all argue that religion is uniquely and essentially divisive. Third, religion is often described as fundamentally non-rational. Religious believers are uniquely prone to violence because their beliefs so often lead them to fervor, rage, passion, fanaticism, and zeal. Bhikhu Parekh, Scott Appleby, and Charles Selengut all argue that religion is essentially non-rational.

Perhaps the most influential argument for the proposition that religion is essentially violent comes from the literary critic and anthropologist Rene Girard. Beginning with his classic book Violence and the Sacred, Girard has argued in a 40-year series of books that religion arose in history in the form of sacrificial violence and scapegoating. He argues that the function and purpose of religion has always been to create social harmony by directing the violence of the group toward a single sacrificial victim – either a person or, later, an animal. He also claims that biblical religion uniquely attempts to expose this religious mechanism of sacrificial violence and to defeat it; but he concedes that even religions inspired by the Bible have misunderstood its most basic teaching and participated in scapegoating violence throughout history.

It is easy to see how these qualities of absolutism, divisiveness, and non-rationality are mutually reinforcing. If the claims we endorse are comprehensive and unqualified, then they are likely to divide us from others, and if these absolute and divisive claims concern our most basic identity, then they are likely to be held with passionate zeal. Conversely, passionate zeal is likely itself to be divisive and lead to absolute and unqualified claims. We can also easily see how absolute, divisive and passionate beliefs can lead someone to violence. Absolute claims do not admit of compromise or negotiation; divisive identities make empathy or even impartiality difficult; and passionate beliefs often burst the bounds of rational self-control.

Thus, at the level of conceptual analysis, these qualities of religious belief do seem likely to foster violence. And there is certainly lots of empirical evidence that people, movements, and governments inspired by religious motives have fomented a great deal of violence in the past and continue to foment violence in the present.

But the key issues here must be put more precisely: First, is there something uniquely and specifically religious about violence? Second, does the concept of religion help us to explain violence? Third, how do we account for the widespread belief that religion is uniquely violent?

First: is religion uniquely violent? At a conceptual level, most of the authors who argue that religion is absolutist, divisive, and non-rational also concede that seemingly secular ideologies, such as fascism, nationalism, and communism, are just as absolutist, divisive, and non-rational as any religious beliefs. So there is nothing uniquely religious about absolutist, divisive, and non-rational belief. And Rene Girard also concedes that the quest for social harmony by means of scapegoating particular individuals or groups is not limited to religion. Indeed, we find plenty of scapegoating violence associated with fascism, nationalism, and communism. As for empirical evidence, the secular ideologies of the twentieth century led to more killing than all the religious violence in world history combined.

Thus, both conceptually and empirically, there does not seem to be anything uniquely religious about the causes of violence. Many of those who argue for the religious nature of violence accommodate these facts by describing fascism, nationalism, communism, and capitalism as kinds of religions. But this expansion of the concept of religion raises our second question: does the concept of religion help us to explain violence? The fact that every author has his own definition of religion, some of which include Marxism and Nazism, while others do not is disturbing. If we cannot agree upon what counts as a religion, then the concept of religion cannot help us to explain violence. Since some kinds of Buddhism and Confucianism make no reference to any god and since Marxism offers a transcendent view of the meaning of history, there seems to be no way to define religion that can exclude Marxism but include Buddhism. The very notion of religion seems to be too imprecise to illuminate or explain anything about violence. For example, although the “wars of religions” in early modern Europe are often described as showing the necessity of the modern secular state, many historians deny that these wars were about religion at all.

Indeed, William Cavanaugh’s investigation of the concept of religion suggests that:

1) our notion of religion as a genus whose species are Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc is a modern, European idea which emerged only after the 17th century.

2) The description of Shintoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Animism, etc as “religions” was imposed by European colonial powers against the objections of the colonized peoples, who often denied that their cultural practices were “religions.” The idea that non-Western cultures must have something corresponding to our notion of “religion” may just be an imperial fiction.

Finally, if secular ideologies are evidently just as likely to foment violence as religious ideologies and if the very notion of religion is impossibly vague, then how do we explain the pervasive belief that religion is uniquely violent? Perhaps by blaming religion for violence, we conveniently ignore other sources of violence. Cavanaugh offers this illustration from the liberal Protestant historian Martin Marty who, in Politics, Religion, and the Common Good, describes how, during the 1940s, members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the United States were castrated, beaten, tarred and feathered, and imprisoned without being charged. Why? Because they refused to salute the American flag in public schools. What lesson are we to learn from this violence? According to Marty, the lesson is: “Religion can cause all kinds of trouble in the public arena.” Here we see the function of the myth of religious violence: to divert attention from patriotic, imperialist, ideological, and other kinds of secular violence.


Conference Program

Keynote Address

Religious Violence as Modern Myth

Friday, May 11, 2012 – 6:30 pm

By: William T. Cavanaugh



Panel 1: What is Religion?

Saturday, May 12, 2012 – 9:00 am

Is there any way to define religion with sufficient precision to illuminate its relationship to violence? How has the concept of religion evolved over time? Is religion an inherently Western concept?

Timothy Fitzgerald, University of Stirling (Scotland)
Richard King, University of Glasgow

Commentator: Ehud Benor, Dartmouth College


Panel 2: Is Violence the Origin of Religion?

Saturday, May 12, 2012 – 11:00 am

Rene Girard has developed an influential theory of sacred violence. Is sacrificial killing and scape-goating the basis of religion or of culture more generally?

Michael Kirwan, Heythrop College, University of London
James Murphy, Dartmouth College

Commentator: John Ranieri, Seton Hall University

Panel 3: Is Religion Uniquely Violent?

Saturday, May 12, 2012 – 4:00 pm

Religious beliefs are often described as absolutist, divisive, and non-rational. Are these qualities equally characteristic of secular ideologies? Or does religion pose a unique threat?

Carolyn Marvin, University of Pennsylvania
Ronald Weed, University of New Brunswick

Commentator: Benjamin Valentino, Dartmouth College

Panel 4: Were the Wars of Religion about Religion?

Sunday, May 13, 2012 – 11:00 am

Ever since the Enlightenment, intellectuals have argued that the early modern “wars of religion” prove the necessity for the separation of church and state. But historians have long argued that the wars of religion were not fundamentally about religion, but about nationalism and state-building. Indeed, several leading contemporary historians argue that our notion of religion does not apply to the conflicts within early European Christendom.

Brad Gregory, Notre Dame
Barbara Diefendorf, Boston University

Commentator: Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia, Penn State

Panel 5: Is there something uniquely violent about Islam?

Sunday, May 13, 2012 – 2:30 pm

Radical Islamic clerics often claim the authority of the Koran for violent jihad against their enemies, leading many Western scholars to conclude that Islam poses a unique threat to global peace today. These Western scholars assert that just as Christianity was defanged by the separation of church and state, so Islam must become privatized. But do Western distinctions between church and state make sense in an Islamic context? Yet, most Muslims believe that Islam is essentially a religion of peace.

Ussama Makdisi, Rice University
Andrew March, Yale University

Commentator: Lucas Swaine, Dartmouth College