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.