Given certain conditions, Christianity, Islam, and other faiths can and do contribute to violence.
But what is implied in the conventional wisdom that religion is prone to violence is that Christianity, Islam, and other faiths are more inclined toward violence than ideologies and institutions that are identified as “secular.” It is this story that I will challenge here. I will do so in two steps. First, I will show that the division of ideologies and institutions into the categories “religious” and “secular” is an arbitrary and incoherent division. When we examine academic arguments that religion causes violence, we find that what does or does not count as religion is based on subjective and indefensible assumptions. As a result certain kinds of violence are condemned, and others are ignored. Second, I ask, “If the idea that there is something called ‘religion’ that is more violent than so-called ‘secular’ phenomena is so incoherent, why is the idea so pervasive?” The answer, I think, is that we in the West find it comforting and ideologically useful. The myth of religious violence helps create a blind spot about the violence of the putatively secular nation-state. We like to believe that the liberal state arose to make peace between warring religious factions. Today, the Western liberal state is charged with the burden of creating peace in the face of the cruel religious fanaticism of the Muslim world. The myth of religious violence promotes a dichotomy between us in the secular West who are rational and peacemaking, and them, the hordes of violent religious fanatics in the Muslim world. Their violence is religious, and therefore irrational and divisive. Our violence, on the other hand, is rational, peacemaking, and necessary. Regrettably, we find ourselves forced to bomb them into the higher rationality.
Read the whole thing. It’s from a talk he gave in 2007 at Harvard Divinity School. I found the link at Jake Meador’s blog. For some reason, it reminded me of the spittle-flecked fanaticism Jesse Bering demonstrates in this unhinged rant against Chick-fil-A, which was actually published on Slate. Here’s why it brought Cavanaugh’s insights to mind. Excerpts:
If it’s not already perfectly clear, I’m firmly on the side of the latter. That is to say, on the side of good and the side of sanity. …
There is, of course, the little problem of God, so often the common denominator in human conflicts. Cathy’s thunderous sermon about the hazards of upsetting this irritable arbiter of our souls resonated with the religious right. So let us deconstruct Cathy’s words to see if we might better understand their seduction:
I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist
at Him and say ‘we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage’
and I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant
attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.
Cathy does at least preface this by saying, “I think,” but otherwise this to me is the hoary language of a man who has little familiarity with texts that were not [ahem] dictated by the Almighty and who has therefore missed out on so many infinitely more talented and intelligent authors, those who were more godly than God. On opposing sides of that yawning moral crevasse dividing liberals and conservatives, a gap that has widened several new inches by this surprise Chick-fil-A quake, the rhetorical turns of phrase we find in Cathy’s Armageddon script tend to mean very different things. For instance, for liberals, “prideful” would be read in this context as “scientifically literate,” “arrogant attitude” is perhaps best translated as “open-minded,” and “audacity” means simply, “the courage to think for oneself.”
… Let Aug. 1, 2012, go down as a day of infamy and national disgrace. On that day, at-risk gay youth all over this country watched as an endless, self-righteous trail of Americans wrapped itself round and round Chick-fil-A franchises across the land.
The point of his essay was to say that religious people like Chick-fil-A executive Don Cathy are not just stupid, they’re dangerous and shameful to our country. Going to Chick-fil-A was analogous, in a culture war sense, to bombing Pearl Harbor (a day of infamy). You can see the mindset here laying the groundwork for measures to be taken against these irrational religious nuts, who must be brought back through foul-mouthed insult (read the whole thing) to a higher rationality.
Mind you, verbal violence is not the same as physical violence. Still, it’s interesting to observe the willingness of Bering to use scalding, highly emotional language to proclaim himself a rationalist, and to utterly demonize Christians who don’t share his view on same-sex marriage as crazy, God-drunk troglodytes. This is the kind of language that is no better than what you see from wild-eyed preachers on the other side. Bering, who doesn’t officially believe in demons, seems to have found them. In both cases, this kind of hysterical discourse, if repeated often enough, prepares people to do violence. As the reader who sent me a link to the Bering piece wrote, “This really is about the clash of absolute truths and I think shows the inherent flaws in liberalism.”
Meaning, I suppose, that liberalism has no way to mediate satisfactorily between two irreconcilable truth claims.