The Root of Evil: Does religion promote violence?

William T. Cavanaugh, July 16, 2013

The Boston Marathon bombings have fed fears of terrorism and also given new encouragement to one of our society’s preferred ways of dealing with the fear of terrorism: we assign it to the realm of the irrational, to which we oppose the rationality of our own society. The revelation that the perpetrators were Muslims from a part of the world that harbors Islamist militants has refueled one of the most persistent themes in public discourse in the West, the idea that religion has a tendency to promote violence. A spate of articles with titles like “Did Religion Motivate the Boston Bombers?” (The Washington Post) and “Boston Marathon Bombing Suspects Seen as Driven by Religion” (The Associated Press) appeared in the aftermath of the explosions.

What the bombers’ motivations were exactly has yet to be pieced together and may never be fully known. What drives a young man to blow up strangers is most often a volatile cocktail of hormone-saturated ingredients, not always fully transparent to the bomber himself. What is known, however, is that a version of Islam played some role in the Tsarnaev brother’s worldview. This fact is generally regarded as sufficient to count the Boston Marathon bombings as one more grim episode in a long history of religion-related violence. It is common in the secular West to run through a list of such episodes—the Crusades, the Inquisition, Aztec human sacrifices, the European Wars of Religion, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and so on—and conclude that religion has a peculiar tendency to lend itself to violent acts.

There is no denying that faith traditions like Christianity and Islam can and do contribute to violence. Some form of Islam appears to have been present in the mix of the Tsarnaev brothers’ motivations. It will not get Islam off the hook to say that they were not good Muslims, just as it will not get Christianity off the hook to say that the Crusaders were not really Christians because they did not understand the true message of Jesus. Islam and Christianity are not just sets of doctrines but lived experiences that are constituted in part by what people make of them.

We can grant the commonsense observation that Christianity and Islam and other faith traditions can contribute to violence. The conventional wisdom, however, goes beyond this to claim that religion has a peculiar tendency to promote violence—that is, religion is more inclined toward violence than secular ideologies and institutions. In other words, the idea that religion causes violence depends on contrasting religion with something less prone to violence. That something is the “secular.” Religion is thought to be especially prone to irrationality and fanaticism and absolutism, all of which are root causes of violence, in ways that secular realities are not. It is for this reason that secular societies like our own have tried to tame religion by removing it from the public sphere and erecting high walls between church and state. The Boston bombings seem to provide more evidence for the wisdom of taming religious passions.

Religion and Nationalism

The more we burrow into the motivations of the Boston bombers, however, the more complicated the matter becomes. The brothers’ homeland of Chechnya has indeed become a hotbed of Islamic radicalism. The last decade saw spectacular and horrific attacks by Chechen rebels on a Moscow theater and an elementary school in Ossetia. Traditionally, Sunni Islam in Chechnya has been peaceful, with a strong Sufi presence. Some scholars think that the Chechens converted to Islam from the 16th to the 19th centuries in part to gain Ottoman support against Russian invaders. Russia officially annexed Chechnya in the early 19th century, and Chechen rebels have fought numerous rebellions over the last two centuries trying to break free from Russian domination.

The latest iterations of such rebellion were sparked by the breakup of the Soviet Union. Chechens hoped to secure their independence just as other former Soviet republics did, but their drive toward independence was crushed by two brutal Russian military operations that included direct attacks on civilians. The Russian government saw Chechnya as part of Russia, though now less than 2 percent of its population is Russian. Russia also wanted to discourage other ethnic minorities from seeking their independence. The brutality of the Russian response has inflamed Chechen nationalism, which in the last two decades has been mixed with Islamic jihadism of a Wahhabi strain.

In the media coverage surrounding the Tsarnaev brothers, the role of religion will continue to be debated at length; the role of nationalism will be passed over in silence. There will be no debates over the fanaticism caused by devotion to the idea of a Chechen nation, nor the violence caused by Russian insistence that Chechnya remain a part of greater Russia. Why is this so? Why does devotion to jihadism strike us as peculiarly dangerous, while the much better-armed devotion to Russian national pride strikes us as mundane and generally defensible? Why do we prefer to talk about the Tsarnaev brothers’ relation to Islam and not about their stated political opposition to the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan?

Westerners are fascinated by the nexus of “religion and violence.” War on behalf of nationalism and freedom and oil and other such mundane secular matters hardly counts as violence at all. At the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Qatar in 2007, nearly four years into the U.S. occupation of Iraq, David Satterfield, senior adviser and coordinator for Iraq in the office of the U.S. Secretary of State, gave a speech condemning those in Iraq “who try to achieve their goals through the use of violence.” As the journalist Rami Khouri sardonically commented, “As if the U.S. had not used weapons when invading Iraq!”

Nothing, of course, justifies the Boston bombings. My point is simply that we prefer to locate “religious” causes of violence and become quite incurious when “secular” causes like nationalism are in play. Why? Because we are accustomed to dividing life into separate religious and secular spheres. We have been habituated to think that devotion to one’s religion is fine within limits, while public patriotic devotion to one’s nation is generally a good thing. We are appalled at violence on behalf of religion, but we generally accept the necessity and even the virtue of killing for one’s country.

Are these two kinds of violence—religious and secular—really such different things? There is a growing body of scholars who question whether the binary distinction between religious and secular is as obvious as we tend to assume it is. There are many scholars, for example, who consider nationalism a religion. It is marked by solemn rituals of sacred communion, salvation from peril and blood sacrifice on behalf of the collective body. Carlton Hayes’s book Nationalism: A Religion represents one such approach. Braden Anderson writes, “Nationalism is itself a type of revivalist religion.” According to Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle, “nationalism is the most powerful religion in the United States, and perhaps in many other countries.” Robert Bellah has identified the public religion of the United States as “civil religion,” invoking a generic “God” and based on a heavily ritualized devotion to the salvific role of the United States in world events. Traditional religions like Christianity and Judaism are still practiced in the United States, but they belong in the private realm, though they often lend significant support to the public cult of civil religion.

If nationalism is a religion, what does this do to the idea that religion has a tendency to promote violence? That idea depends on a sharp line between religious and secular ideologies and institutions. But if a “secular” thing like nationalism is a religion, then the line becomes blurry, and the notion that religion causes violence begins to fall apart.

The Meaning of Religion

We are clearly dealing with two different definitions of religion here. In modern Western societies, we tend to assume that religion refers to forms of worship that explicitly invoke a God or gods. This approach is called a substantivist approach because it is based on the substance of people’s beliefs. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and a few others qualify as “world religions.” Nationalism, Marxism, capitalism and so on are not religions because they do not refer directly to God or gods. They therefore belong in the category of “secular.” Secular ideologies and institutions are generally thought to be more mundane and rational, less absolutist, than beliefs that invoke otherworldly gods. For many people, this explains why religion is more prone to violence than secular things.

When we begin to examine the substantivist approach to religion, however, significant problems appear. Some systems of belief that are usually considered religions—many forms of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, for example—do not refer to God or gods. Substantivist approaches tend to deal with this problem by finding a more inclusive term than god—the transcendent, supernatural, transempirical, salvific and so on—to define what qualifies as a religion. But the more inclusive the defining term is, the more difficult it is to exclude things like nationalism from the category of religion. Is nationalism not also transcendent? Are not all values transempirical? Why exclude godless Marxism from the category if godless Buddhism is included?

The second approach to defining religion deals with this problem by simply expanding the category to include nationalism, Marxism, capitalism and other so-called “secular” ideologies and practices. This approach is called “functionalist” because it defines religion not according to the substance of what people say they believe but by how something actually functions in people’s lives. In 2001, when California’s recently deregulated electricity supply system experienced rolling blackouts, an economics professor who had been one of the architects of the deregulation was quoted in The New York Times expressing his conviction that the free market always works better than government regulation: “I believe in that premise as a matter of religious faith.” A substantivist would say he is only speaking metaphorically. A functionalist says it makes no difference if he thinks it is a metaphor or not; what matters is the way he behaves, that is, the way free market ideology actually functions in his life. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. If it acts like a religion, it is a religion. If people pledge allegiance to a flag, salute it, ritually raise and lower it and are willing to kill and die for it, it does not much matter if they acknowledge it is only a piece of cloth and not a god.

This approach should not seem exotic to a Christian; it is the basic approach taken in the Bible. The Bible is not interested, as functionalists are, in coming up with a definition of religion. But like functionalism, the critique of idolatry that is found everywhere from the First Commandment to the Book of Revelation is based on the recognition that people treat all kinds of things as if they were gods.

Sometimes the Bible criticizes the Israelites for mistaking empty idols for real gods. More often, however, the problem of idolatry is not one of belief but of behavior. Idolatry is not so much a metaphysical error as misplaced loyalty, a lack of trust in the one true God. In the First Book of Samuel the Lord equates the Israelites’ request for a king with serving other gods, for they have rejected the Lord from being king over them (8:7-8). Isaiah accuses the Israelites of putting their trust in horses and chariots—military might, in other words—rather than the Lord (31:1-3). Jesus says we must choose between two masters, God and wealth (Mt 6:24). Paul warns the Philippians of those for whom “their god is their bellies” (3:19). Such people presumably do not believe that a deity resides in their breadbasket. Most commonly from a biblical point of view, idolatry is not mistakenly believing that something mundane is a god, but rather devoting one’s resources and energies and life to serving something that is not God. Whether or not one claims to believe in the biblical God is not the crucial point.

The crucial point is this: people devote themselves to all sorts of things. People treat all sorts of things as their religion. With regard to the question of violence, people kill and die for all sorts of things; there is no good reason to suppose that people are more inclined to kill for a god than for a flag, for a nation, for freedom, for free markets, for the socialist revolution, for access to oil and so on. In certain contexts, ideologies of jihad or the sacrificial atonement of Christ can lend themselves to violence. In other contexts, belief in the free market or in Greater Russia or in the United States as worldwide liberator is what releases killing energies. If the biblical critique of idolatry is on the mark, there is no essential difference between the two, between religious and secular causes. There is no religious/secular distinction in the Bible. In the Middle Ages, the religious/secular distinction was a distinction between two types of clergy; it meant nothing like what we mean by it now. The way we now use the religious/secular binary is a modern, Western invention; it does not simply respond to the nature of things.

The Heart of the Matter

So why was this binary invented? It has to do with the separation of church power from civil power in the modern state. After the civil authorities triumphed over ecclesiastical authorities in early modern Europe, the church would be in charge of something essentially private called “religion,” and the state would be in charge of public, “secular” affairs. The history is a long and complicated one. What is important for our present purposes is to see how the religious/secular divide functions in our public discourse about violence. It serves to draw our attention toward certain types of practices—Islam, for example—and away from other types of practices, such as nationalism. Religion is the bogeyman for secular society, that against which we define ourselves. We have learned to tame religion, to put it in its proper, private place; they (Muslims, primarily) have not. We live in a publicly secular and therefore rational society; they have not learned to separate secular matters like politics from religion, and so they are prone to irrationality. We hope they will come to their senses and be more like us. In the meantime, we reserve the right periodically to bomb them into being more rational.

The idea that religion causes violence, in other words, can be used to blind us in the West to our own forms of fanaticism and violence. When we label our own devotions as secular, we tend to treat them as if they were not the subject of violence at all. We are endlessly fascinated by the violence supposedly hardwired into Iran’s Shiite Islam; we prefer not to dwell on the Shah’s 26-year reign of U.S.-supported secularist terror. We remember that the ayatollahs imposed an Islamic dress code when the Shah was ousted in 1979; we forget that the first shah imposed a secular dress code in 1924.

It must be repeated—though it should go without saying—that nothing justifies the violence done in the name of Islam or any other faith. My point is simply that nothing justifies violence done in the name of secular faiths either, and that there is no essential difference between the two kinds of faith. Both are based on pre-rational narratives of belonging and deliverance. A sound approach to violence avoids making sweeping statements about religion, as if we knew what that was, and adopts a more empirical, case by case approach, on a level playing field between religious and secular ideologies and practices. Wahhabist Islam will not escape scrutiny in examining the Chechen conflict, but neither will secular, Russian nationalism. Forms of evangelical Christianity may be relevant to American military adventures abroad, but more so are secular, Enlightenment forms of salvation narrative that fly under the dangerously ambiguous banner of “freedom.”

The myth that religion promotes violence depends on dividing the world up into us and them, the publicly secular and the publicly religious, the rational and the irrational. The irony is that violence feeds on such binaries. To do away with such binaries is one small step toward peace

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