The Myth of Religous Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict

The Myth of Religous Violence - Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict

After a long period of research, public debate, and several highly insightful article publications, William Cavanaugh is finally putting to print his work on the mythos of religious violence and the agressive rise of the nation-state. For over 15 years, Cavanaugh has written on and off on this topic. Perhaps most well known remain: ‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the StateKilling for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is not the Keeper of the Common Good, and Sins of Omission: What ‘Religion and Violence’ Arguments Ignore. According to Amazon, Cavanaugh’s new book is currently scheduled to be released this September.

It appears that Cavanaugh will be presenting a more nuanced engagement with the various themes raised by these (and other) earlier interventions. Put briefly, in his essay for the Radical Orthodoxy reader, Cavanaugh argues that “The soteriology of the modern state is incomprehensible [. . .] apart from the notion that the Church is perhaps the primary thing from which the modern state is meant to save us.” The so-called ‘Wars of Religion’ of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe acted as a key epoch in the larger mythos that gave rise to the creation of the state itself.

According to this standard narrative account:

“When the religious consensus of civil society was shattered by the Reformation, the passions excited by religion as such were loosed, and Catholics and the newly minted Protestants began killing each other in the name of doctrinal loyalties. [. . .] The modern secular state and the privatizations of religion were necessary, therefore, to keep the peace among warring religious factions” (“The City”, p. 188).

In response, Cavanaugh suggests

“The ‘Wars of Religion’ were not the events which necessitated the birth of the modern State; they were in fact themselves the birth-pangs of the State. These wars were not simply a matter of conflict between ‘Protestantism’ and ‘Catholicism,’ but were fought largely for the aggrandizement of the emerging State over the decaying remnants of the medieval ecclesial order” (“A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House”, p. 398).  

Therefore, in justifying the existence of the state based on this mythology, the social contract theorists (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) fully endorsed and perpetuated the notion that it is necessary to (1) restore humanity to individuality, and (2) protect the individual from the violence of intolerant religion, personified concretely in the Roman Catholic Church. In other words, the state is supposed to save us from a violence that resulted from the process of its own formation.

Cavanaugh contends that the privatization of Christian practice was already well underway in the invention of the modern category of “religion” itself. In the Christian tradition of the Medieval Ages, religio was viewed not as a system of beliefs, but as virtue, one which  directs a person to God through the ethical and liturgical formation of members into the Church. However, in modernity religio was bifurcated from its ecclesial context and was slowly redefined: first as an internal universal impulse common to all, second as a propositional system of beliefs, third as demonstrable moral truths absent any particular theological, social, or ecclesial formation, and fourth, having been reduced from any material context other than the private conscience of the individual, religion was converted into a tool of state power. As Cavanaugh concludes,

“The concept of religion being born here is one of domesticated belief systems which are, insofar as it is possible, to be manipulated by the sovereign for the benefit of the State. Religion is no longer a matter of certain bodily practices within the Body of Christ, but is limited to the realm of the ‘soul,’ and the body is handed over to the State.”

In this way, “the creation of religion, and thus the privatization of the church, is correlative to the rise of the State” (“A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House”, p. 405).

Within many academic theological circles, this hypothesis has become somewhat of given presupposition. Of course, Cavanaugh’s project has not been without critics as well. However, to be fair while his articles have been powerful and compelling, they lack the space to fully ground the argument in the degree of historical specificity necessary to persuade those more expert in the field. Since he is going after a bedrock dogma surrounding the presumed origins of our contemporary western social imaginary, such a project demands a bit more attention to details.

In this light, Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence will very likely prove to be an extremely important book. Oxford University Press‘ descriptive blurb provides a clean summary of what we have to look forward to.

“The idea that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence is part of the conventional wisdom of Western societies, and it underlies many of our institutions and policies, from limits on the public role of religion to efforts to promote liberal democracy in the Middle East. William T. Cavanaugh challenges this conventional wisdom by examining how the twin categories of religion and the secular are constructed. A growing body of scholarly work explores how the category ‘religion’ has been constructed in the modern West and in colonial contexts according to specific configurations of political power. Cavanaugh draws on this scholarship to examine how timeless and transcultural categories of ‘religion and ‘the secular’ are used in arguments that religion causes violence. He argues three points: (1) There is no transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion. What counts as religious or secular in any given context is a function of political configurations of power; (2) Such a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion as non-rational and prone to violence is one of the foundational legitimating myths of Western society; (3) This myth can be and is used to legitimate neo-colonial violence against non-Western others, particularly the Muslim world.”


About Ben Kautzer

I am currently dwelling in the intangible space of the between. Having finished my MA in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham, I decided to take a bit of a break, return to California, and start applying for PhD programs. That process is finally drawing to a close. This Fall I will be commencing my doctoral research in political theology at either the University of Nottingham, Durham, or Bristol. As of yet, that future still remains (uncomfortably) uncertain. My recent academic pursuits tend to focus on political theology (ecclesiology, ethics, politics, liturgy), biblical theology (scriptural narrative, hermeneutics, philosophy of memory and historical method), and Continental Philosophy (especially phenomenology). View all posts by Ben Kautzer

One response to “The Myth of Religous Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict

  • Upcoming Conference: Nurturing the Prophetic Imagination « musings east of the city

    […] On March 24-26, Point Loma Nazarene University will be hosting a four-day, interdisciplinary conference entitled: Nurturing the Prophetic Imagination. This promises to be an exciting and stimulating event, drawing a diverse and distinguished ensemble of plenary speakers (not to mention something like 70 additional session papers). Particularly noteworthy is the panel session wherein Nate Kerr, Rosco Williamson, and William T. Cavanaugh will discuss Cavanaugh’s new book, The Myth of Religious Violence.  […]

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