Of Many Things

There is an old chestnut, still circulating among agnostics, secularists and even a few believers, that goes something like this: “I don’t believe in God/organized religion. Look at all the violence religion has caused. Take the Middle East; those people have been killing each other for years.”

The last part is certainly true. As I write this column, the bloody battle between the Israelis and the Palestinians is entering its 15th day (for two very different perspectives on that conflict you might read pages 12 and 29 of this issue side-by-side). As for the first part of that statement, I am reminded of something my philosophy teacher, W. Norris Clarke, S.J., used to say: When something is presented as obvious or indisputable, it is usually either insignificant or wrong. The cocktail party indictment of religion as the cause of violence, while significant, is wrong—certainly if we take it at face value.


First, the statement is a post hoc argument that confuses correlation with causality, a fundamental but not infrequent error of logic. Second, the argument is an example of the fallacy of exclusion, which involves focusing attention on one group’s behavior and assuming that the behavior is unique to that group, when, in fact, the behavior is common to many groups. One contemporary American theologian, William T. Cavanaugh, has examined these statements about religion and violence in detail. He has concluded that they are part and parcel of what he terms the “myth of religious violence”—“the idea that ‘religion’ is a trans-historical and trans-cultural feature of human life, essentially distinct from ‘secular’ features such as politics and economics, which has a peculiarly dangerous inclination to promote violence.”

Let’s be clear: Professor Cavanaugh does not argue “that religion either does or does not promote violence” but rather that we should question the widespread belief that religion and religious pluralism are inherently prone to violence.

Professor Cavanaugh points out that the semantic evolution of the term religion parallels the evolution of the nation-state. As the nation-state evolved, the term religion also evolved. A term that in the Middle Ages simply referred to monastic or virtuous living took on a new meaning in the early modern period. Religion was then “defined as personal conviction…which can exist separately from one’s loyalty to the state.” In this way the modern meaning of the term reflects a series of historical movements through which the state consigned the church to a sphere of activity defined and policed exclusively by the state, ostensibly justified by the myth of religious violence. In effect, Leviathan broke up Christendom into bite-size pieces and then consumed it, ostensibly for its own good.

As Cavanaugh has shown, while the 17th-century “wars of religion” were complicated phenomena with multiple causes, they were fought primarily for king and country and not, as is often thought, for doctrinal purity. The wars were, in effect, the birth pangs of the nation-state. One eventual casualty was the Society of Jesus. “The most important factor” in the late 18th-century suppression of the Society of Jesus, writes Thomas Worcester, S.J., in this issue, “was the centralizing agendas of the Catholic monarchies.”

The restoration of the Society of Jesus in 1814 was also instigated by the Catholic monarchies, only this time they wanted the Jesuits to rescue them from the forces of liberalism. It was already too late, of course: the Western monarchies were doomed, destined to give way to the great democratic, secular states we know today, who, ironically, possess more sweeping and lethal powers than Louis XVI ever dreamed of.

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Roberto Blum
4 years 8 months ago
That the statement "religion causes violence" probably is not always true. Violence has many causes, political, economic, social and of course, personal. However it also seems true that the monotheistic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- are prone to initiate and pursue violence. The conviction they have that each religion's God is the only true one sets their followers in the path of intolerance and violence against those others that do not accept their specific God and set of beliefs. Although the war between Israeli Jews and Palestinians is not caused primarily by religion, the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine in 1948 is undoubtedly a major condition for the violence engulfing the Middle East and the Islamic world. Polytheistic societies such as those of the ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, etc. and now the Hindi and other animist or polytheist religions of course fight and go to war but it is not because of their religious beliefs. They seem to be much more tolerant regarding religion than those that believe in one all powerful God.
Rick Fueyo
4 years 8 months ago
Very well reasoned, Fr. Matt. There are not doctrinal wars. An article of "faith" in the context of conflict becomes no more than a badge of identity, of tribal distinction. Thank you for this insight.
4 years 7 months ago
Dear Fr Malone Usually I eagerly study your column with deep appreciation for your insights. But this time there must have been ceremonial incense distorting your view on religious violence. Your cite Cavanaugh saying that wars "were usually fought for King and country and not, as is often thought for doctrinal purity". I do not believe this explanation applies to the Muslim on Muslim violence between Sunni & Shia and their subsects in Iraq.The Muslim fundamentalists of ISIS attacking the Yaziidis appears only doctrinal because the Yazidis have neither territory not resources worth attacking. Wasn't the violence in Northern Ireland doctrinal not political in its foundation? In our own country violence against Catholics and Jews doesn't have a "King and country" basis. Violence between nations may be hiding under the mantle of "King and country", but intra national violence e.g. civil wars do not. I hope you will re consider this issue with clearer eyes and talk about religious sectarian violence as a problem to be acknowledged so that it can be dealt with. Respectfully Larry Donohue M.D.


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