The Myth of Religious Violence: A Review of William Cavanaugh’s Book

Written by Vincent Andrew Drausinus McCoige.

William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence sets out to deflate the titular myth, that religion is a uniquely violent social force, both throughout history and across cultures. In doing so, he manages to critique the modern secular liberal concept of religion as a definable sociological category, and gestures towards a more holistic mode of analyzing the origins of violence in society. However, Cavanaugh repeatedly stops short of following through to the implications he suggests. This can be considered as either a credit or a fault, though it would be certainly more satisfying to at least a philosophical view if Cavanaugh were to present bolder arguments.

His reason for attacking this myth is the danger he sees in using it to analyze contemporary social relations. In condemning violence we term “religious”, one is tempted to ignore or even legitimate violence we term “secular”. He also points to the myth’s use to justify secular violence against those deemed inappropriately religious: “It is dangerous because it helps to marginalize, and even legitimate violence against, those forms of life that are labeled religious. What gets labeled religious and what does not is therefore of crucial importance.”1 This distinction of religious versus secular labels, he argues, is untenable.

The overall structure of Cavanaugh’s book is to first show the anatomy of the “myth of religious violence” based upon the arguments of nine different contemporary authors, primarily in the social sciences. They argue that religion is a unique source of violence due to its absolutism, divisiveness, and irrationality. In order to argue against this thesis, Cavanaugh points out that in order for one to prove that religion is more violent than the secular aspects of social life, one must first have some coherent, trans-cultural and trans-historical essence of religion. His next section seeks to prove this to be an impossible task, by showing by historical and anthropological evidence that there is no such universal essence to religion, demonstrating that the concept of religion that we employ which opposes “the secular” is a uniquely post-Enlightenment Western liberal concept, with no bearing on other cultures, or even on the premodern West.

Cavanaugh then presents a genealogy of the myth in two parts, by first showing how we came to this modernist concept of religion, then pointing to the so-called Wars of Religion as a “creation myth” for the modern secular state. This section relies heavily upon the earlier demonstration that a trans-historical and trans-cultural essence of religion is untenable. Without the earlier argument, this section would devolve into a sort of genetic fallacy, as it could just as well function as a study in the history of ideas as it could as a deconstructive genealogy. By showing first that the novel concept of religion is untenable, the narrative explanation Cavanaugh gives serves to show how and why the myth is persistent if it is as obviously false as he claims. This leads to his final section, where Cavanaugh points to the modern Western liberal use of the myth, both in domestic and foreign policy, by marginalizing those who fail to sufficiently separate the religious from the secular, both within and without the West.

The strongest aspect of Cavanaugh’s argument is his demonstration of the lack of a universal essence of religion. Drawing upon Durkheim’s functionalist method of defining religion and the critical school of religious studies, he shows that an essentialist definition of religion cannot include Tharaveda Buddhism and Confusionism, while excluding communism and secularism. Most importantly, he shows that the ancient and medieval concepts of religion in the West do not align with the modern secular concept, nor do non-Western theopolitical concepts. For instance, he points to the ancient notion of religion as a practical social relationship rather than a matter of doctrine: “For Augustine, the right ordering of social relations must include worship of the true God; this is true religio. But religio as a general category is found in all manner of social relations, both rightly and wrongly ordered. For Augustine and the ancient world, religio is not a distinct realm of activity separate from a secular realm.”2 Religio in the ancient world involves a vast array of rightly-ordered social relationships, including ordering to God. There is no notion of the religious as a private matter of personal belief, separable from “secular” or civic concerns. Due to this lack of conceptual distinction, which Cavanaugh also traces through the medieval West, as well as other cultures in the more modern world, applying the modern concepts of the religious and the secular cannot be used to make sense of the socio-theo-politics of any society but the modern secular West.3

Perhaps the weakest part of Cavanaugh’s argument, or perhaps only the most frustrating to this reviewer, is his tendency to hold back from strong or controversial conclusions. For the largest example, his entire project is deconstructive, deflating this particularly false and dangerous myth, through a common method in use by a major school within religious studies. He stops short of even speculating as to a positive construction of a theopolitical framework to replace the secular paradigm supported by this myth. The closest Cavanaugh comes to a positive solution is his hope to more accurately analyze violence within society: “We must restore the full and complete picture of violence in our world, to level the playing field so that violence of all kinds is subject to the same scrutiny.”4 In doing so, he hopes that we will cease to marginalize and excuse violence against those who do not conform to the modern secular paradigm, and especially to recognize secular violence as just as much in need of legitimation as what we term “religious” violence. It seems at this point near his conclusion that he is poised to propose an alternative, perhaps a reunification of the social division between the secular and the religious, or perhaps even something as simple as an explanation of the causes of social violence.5 In another instance he seems to come daringly close to implicating Protestant Christianity in the formation of the secular paradigm, especially in his discussion of Locke’s norms for religious toleration among all but Catholics.6 In fact, the descriptions he draws upon of the modern secular definition of religion are strikingly Protestant in formulation, with religion being most importantly “an interior and universal impulse…a system of doctrines, intellectual propositions that could be either true or false,”7 echoing the Protestant emphasis on faith over religious practice in the more classical sense. Of course, much to my disappointment, Cavanaugh makes no such connection explicitly, instead staying within the historical and sociological realm of what is strictly provable, avoiding anything speculative or overly controversial.

Overall, Cavanaugh does an exemplary job deflating a terribly common myth that religion is inherently violent, and an almost entirely pervasive understanding of religion as conceptually separable from secular politics. As much as I may wish he had gone further into the speculative, the work he does is immaculately detailed and nearly unassailable, essential reading in this reviewer’s opinion for anyone interested in having an intelligent discussion of the place of religion in modern politics.

Full Citation:

William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, 1 edition (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). The book is available on Amazon.

  1. Cavanaugh, 6
  2. Cavanaugh, 64
  3. I should like to note here as well that there are subcultures within the modern secular West which do not make this distinction between the religious and the secular to the normative standards of the culture at large. These subcultures, such as the Catholic Church with its theopolitical vision, or the Menonites with their isolation from the modern secular world, both of which Cavanaugh mentions in his last section, suffer marginalization due to their failure to conform to modern secularism, by means of the titular myth.
  4. Cavanaugh, 230
  5. Oppenheimer’s distinction found in The State (1908) between the “political” means and the “economic” means could be a useful distinction to apply here, if Cavanaugh is familiar with it.
  6. Cavanaugh, 82-83
  7. Cavanaugh, 72

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Anarchy and Islam

Written by Davi Barker.

I’ve met Muslims of every school of anarchist thought from anarcho-socialists to national-anarchists. Prominent among them are Hakim Bay’s “ontological anarchism” and Yakoub Islam’s “post-colonial anarcho-pacifism” but this is my story.

Since about 2008 I’ve used the username “TheMuslimAgorist” on various message boards and social networking sites. Before that my anarchist leanings were largely private. It was a caller to Free Talk Live named “Gene the Christian Anarchist” who inspired me to come out. He expressed many of my own views on government, specifically that governments don’t factually exist. They are just people doing things. I’m ambivalent about the word “anarchist” because of the associations it has for most people, so I briefly used the term “nonarchist” before settling on “agorist” which is essentially a market-anarchist, “agora” being Greek for “market.” I like that it’s a word that most people are unfamiliar with, so I am free to define myself on my own terms.

In some abstract sense I have been both an anarchist and a Muslim since I was child, though I was unaware of either. I was an anarchist in the sense that I have never accepted illegitimate authority. I was the kid in elementary school who would not stand for the pledge of allegiance and the teenager in the punk rock regalia. I was a Muslim only in the sense that I have always sought a direct connection with God without any intermediary. I believed in God as far back as I can remember, which is interesting because my parents were not religious at all, and I received no religious instruction. In those days my anarchism and my Islam were not philosophical. I didn’t even know what to call them. They came from my gut.

This brings us to my first foundational concept. I believed this before I converted to Islam but I had no word for it. Muslims call it “fitra” which is the concept that we are born good. There is no doctrine of original sin in Islam. By contrast I call this concept “original virtue.” Muslims believe in an innate predisposition to truth and virtue. So, part of preserving our original virtue is trusting our earliest preferences and natural instincts. To me this suggests that evil and corruption are not innate but behaviors learned through propaganda or aggression.

This concept perfectly compliments the science in the video series “The Bomb in the Brain” by anarchist philosopher Stephan Molyneux and leads inexorably to the parenting style he advocates. He argues that violence in society, including the state itself, is an expression of childhood trauma. In fact, he suggests that many social vices like drug abuse and promiscuity that religious conservatives think should be addressed with aggression are actually caused by aggression against children. In other words, a society in which children were free to reach adulthood with their original virtue intact would likely exhibit the righteous conduct desired by religious people, whether it was religious or not. If you extrapolate forward and imagine a population composed of such adults you arrive at a society characterized by non aggression.

In college I was infected with many collectivist ideas, but I was also mildly obsessed with Ron Paul. There was a lot of contradiction in my thinking but it was invisible to me because I hadn’t thought very critically about it. It was actually my conversion to Islam in 2006 that motivated me to begin a deeper intellectual inquiry to clarify my thinking about both religion and politics.

It’s actually easy to find the non aggression principle in the Quran, “There shall be no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256). Scholars say this verse is only prohibiting forced conversion, but the surrounding verses concern creed not proselytizing, so I see no reason not to apply it universally. The Arabic word “din” actually means “complete way of life” not just “religion.” It seems to me that a complete way of life with no compulsion means a religion, a family life and even a political order with no compulsion. Actions which are coerced have no moral value, and the aim of Islam is to place moral value in every action, so coercion can never accomplish this.

It’s also easy to find the free market in the Quran, “Do not consume one another’s property unjustly, except that there be trade amongst you by mutual consent.” (Quran 4:29) “Thou shalt not steal” implicitly presumes property rights. Islam is a religion of commerce, in fact before Muhammad’s prophethood he was a successful merchant. In early Islamic society the scales of justice were also icons of commerce, and the merchant was regarded as one of the most beneficial people in society, because it was recognized that commerce was the source of material wealth, including the wealth that people gave in charity.

As a Muslim espousing a liberty perspective I found a lot of hostility online from people insisting the Quran commanded violence against non-Muslims. The favorite of anti-Muslim demagogues and Islamic extremists alike is the so-called Verse of the Sword which reads, “Fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them” (Quran 9:5). It looks bad right? But the verse just before it reads, “Your peace treaties are not dissolved with those pagans who have not aggressed against you,” and the verse just after it reads, “if one amongst the pagans asks you for asylum grant it to him and escort him to a place of safety.”

If you read the entire chapter it tells the story of a specific pagan tribe that murdered a group of Muslims. Permission was given to retaliate against the aggressors, but no one else. This is what I found with every instance of violence in the Quran. It was always a defensive measure, which does more to confirm the non aggression principle than violate it.

During his life all prophet Muhammad’s followers consented to his political leadership voluntarily and individually, face to face. He never claimed the authority to legislate over people who did not consent, and the Jewish and Pagan tribes of Arabia maintained their own independent legal systems. In other words, he never established a regional monopoly on law. But when he died a split occurred over who should be his successor. Those who followed Muhammad’s cousin Ali became the Shiites, and those who followed Muhammad’s closest adviser Abu Bakr became the Sunnis, but there was a third group which argued that they had only made oaths to Muhammad, so they would not follow either leader. They were the Kharijites. To them every individual was responsible for their own salvation, and they demanded complete political independence because they felt they should have no master but God. So there was a school of anarchist thought in Islam from the outset.

It’s easy for me to romanticize about the Kharijites, but history remembers them as the fanatics of their day. Sunnis and Shiites traveling in Kharijite territories would actually wear Christian crosses because the Kharijites took seriously the Quranic injunction to respect People of the Book, but they would kill Sunnis and Shias as heretics. It’s possible that they’ve been maligned by historians just as anarchists are maligned today, but there’s no way to know and I’m not particularly interested in resurrecting some long dead minority sect of Islam. The fact remains that for most of Islamic history there has been an Islamic state. Even if I can find the seeds of anarchist and libertarian thought looking into the past is a bit like walking into a mirage. So, recently I’ve taken a more evolutionary approach.

It is reported in the Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, which is a compilation of widely accepted prophetic sayings that Muhammad said, “I will remain among you as long as God wills. Afterwards there will be my successors who follow my guidance… Then there will be a reign of oppressive kings… Then there will be a reign of despotic tyrants.”

For non Muslims this likely means little more than the writings of Nostradamus, but for Muslims it is clear that it has already progressed to kings, and hard to argue it hasn’t progressed to full blown tyrants. So, for Muslims who accept this prediction any attempt to reform government could only result in further tyranny. If rulers inevitably become tyrants, then the only acceptable course of action for people concerned with justice is to stop installing rulers and begin to explore stateless alternatives to social problems. The reality for Muslims today is that this is less an intellectual exercise and more a practical necessity, especially in light the tenuous hold the current tyrannies hold over their people.

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Trump Sends Property Rights Up in Flames

Written by Laurence Vance.

Alongside of Catholicism and Protestantism, the primary religion in the United States is not Islam or Judaism but the American civic religion. The Pledge of Allegiance is the creed of this religion and the American flag is its chief symbol.

In the American civic religion, the worst sin that an American can commit is to refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag or to desecrate it. Federal law contains numerous provisions regarding the use, handling, display, and disposal of the flag.

After some college students recently burned American flags on their campuses, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted, “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”

Outrageous statements like that from Trump are commonplace and can ordinarily be ignored. But this one is different. The main problem with Trump’s flag-burning statement is that many Americans — especially many flag-waving conservatives — no doubt agree with him that nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag.

There are a number of problems with Trump’s statement regarding flag-burning, and one in particular that is not being addressed.

First of all, the government cannot strip from a natural-born American citizen his citizenship just because he commits a crime. In the case of Trop v. Dulles (1958), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that citizenship is not a license that expires upon misbehavior. Citizenship can only be voluntarily renounced. I note also that mass murderers and those who try to assassinate presidents are not stripped of their citizenship. It is nonsensical that they could retain their citizenship while flag-burners are stripped of theirs. But that is not the only thing that is nonsensical. What would happen to an American who is stripped of his citizenship? Would he be deported for being an illegal alien? Where would he be sent? What if no country would take him? Could he stay in the United States if he was issued a green card or a visa?

Second, in some cases, the government considers it perfectly proper to burn an American flag. According to U.S.C., Title 36, Chapter 10, §176(k), “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”

Third, flag-burning (unless it violates someone’s rights while it is being done) — like gambling, prostitution, ticket-scalping, and not wearing a seatbelt or helmet — is a crime in search of a victim. Every real crime needs a tangible victim with measurable damages. The only thing harmed by burning a flag other than a piece of cloth is someone’s sensibilities.

Fourth, the Supreme Court already decided the flag-burning issue more than twenty-five years ago. Criminal penalties for acts of flag desecration were once contained in state and federal law. They were struck down in the case of Texas v. Johnson (1989). In 1984, Gregory Johnson burned an American flag in front of the Dallas City Hall in protest of Reagan administration policies. He was tried and convicted under a Texas law against flag desecration, sentenced to one year in jail, and fined $2,000. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction and the state of Texas appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Johnson’s favor. The Court ruled that flag-burning was symbolic speech protected under the First Amendment. Congress responded by passing the Flag Protection Act of 1989, which stated that “whoever knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any flag of the United States shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.” The Flag Protection Act was then struck down by the Supreme Court in the case of United States v. Eichman (1990). Shawn Eichman and others burned an American flag on the steps of the U.S. Capitol after the Flag Protection Act took effect. Although charges against Eichman and the others were dismissed by a federal district judge, U.S. attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Eichman’s favor. The Flag Protection Act was declared unconstitutional because “its asserted interest is related to the suppression of free expression and concerned with the content of such expression.”

Since that time, Congress has come close to passing a proposed amendment to the Constitution to circumvent the Supreme Court and criminalize flag-burning. A resolution for such an amendment was actually passed several times in the House, but always failed in the Senate. It should be noted that this is a bipartisan issue — on both sides. In 2003, Republican House member Ron Paul opposed a flag-burning amendment on the House floor. In 2005, Democrat Hillary Clinton, who was then a senator from New York, co-sponsored a bill, as an alternative to a constitutional amendment, to ban flag-burning in some situations.

Fifth, and most important, laws to prohibit flag-burning violate property rights. In spite of the rulings of the Supreme Court, flag-burning has nothing to do speech, expression, the First Amendment, or even flags, and everything to do with property.

In a free society, anyone can burn anything he owns on his own property. But, for the sake of argument, and because of Trump’s controversial remarks about flag-burning, we can use the example of a flag.

In a free society —

  • It is lawful for anyone to burn his own flag on his own property.
  • It is lawful for anyone to burn his own flag on someone else’s property with permission.
  • It is lawful for anyone to burn someone else’s flag with permission on his own property.
  • It is lawful for anyone to burn someone else’s flag with permission on someone else’s property with permission.
  • It is not lawful for anyone to steal a flag from a government entity, business, or individual.
  • It is not lawful for anyone to trespass on someone else’s property in order to steal, transport, or burn a flag.
  • It is not lawful for anyone to commit arson.
  • It is not lawful for anyone to burn a flag he owns on public property if in so doing he violates zoning, permitting, pollution, or burning laws.

Whether anyone thinks that burning a flag is desecration, abominable, or unpatriotic is irrelevant. Whatever message that the flag-burner wants to send is irrelevant. Whoever is offended by the sight of a flag’s being burned is irrelevant.

Laws against flag-burning are ultimately an attack on property rights. And as former congressman Ron Paul reminds us,

Freedom of speech and freedom of expression depend on property. We do not have freedom of expression of our religion in other people’s churches; it is honored and respected because we respect the ownership of the property. The property conveys the right of free expression, as a newspaper would or a radio station. Once Congress limits property rights, for any cause, no matter how noble, it limits freedom.

Trump is sending property rights up in flames.

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The Solemnization of Marriage: Or, My Mom the Felon

Editor’s Pick. Written by Sarah Skwire.

The state has a long history of involving itself in the spiritual practices of its citizens. The English Reformation, the time period with which I am the most familiar, is filled with such moments. For example, in 1536 Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s first minister, vicegerent in spirituals and vicar general of the newly created English Church, began to issue injunctions to the clergy of England. Among other things, they were to defend royal supremacy and abandon pilgrimages. His 1538 injunctions encouraged iconoclasm—the destruction of images of saints in sculpture or painting—prohibited the burning of candles for saints and for the dead, and required that an English copy of the Bible be put in every church for parishioners. The Elizabethan Act of Authority (1559) forbade the use of any prayer book but the approved Book of Common Prayer.

Indiana, at the moment, is having a reminder of precisely this sort of spiritual meddling by the state. According John Murray at the Indianapolis Star the laws that are causing the furor “generally address perjury on a marriage license application and attempts to perform marriages not allowed by law.” While the laws have been on the books in Indiana since 1997, at least, they are receiving renewed attention because of the contemporary legal debate over same sex marriage. My interest in the law is particularly focused on section 7, which states that a person who “knowingly solemnizes a marriage of individuals who are prohibited from marrying” can be hit with a 180-day jail sentence or $1,000 fine.

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The State Is A Religious Institution

Editor’s Pick. Written by Michael Suede.

On the website, the question of whether government is necessary or not was put up for debate. One of the responses that was given in favor government being a necessity says:

Without an enforcing government to have justice and keep the peace, I do believe that the human race would turn on itself and descend into chaos. Our personalities and even our families lend themselves towards governance. Without it, we would have no organization, no services, and no police. Education would be spotty, we would be thrown back into a stone-age like existence.

As a promoter of anarcho-capitalism, I encounter these arguments a lot. They are purely religious arguments. There is no proof behind any of the claims, only a lot of assumptions that are based on blind faith. Belief in the state really is nothing more than a religion; and I believe it is one of the most destructive religions around.

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Nationalism, the Bane of the Modern Age

Editor’s Pick. Written by Robert Higgs.

Everyone, it seems, has a hollow space in his makeup. Perhaps he has no faith, no hope, no charity; no sense that he is basically a lord or a priest or a peasant; no comfort in knowing his personal latitude and longitude in the great scheme of things; no ethical compass to give him his bearings and help him navigate between what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad.

As religion’s hold on the Western man’s mind has diminished during the past several centuries, replaced by a cold scientific sense that, at bottom, everything is just a lot of lifeless particles and electrical currents or, in many cases, replaced by nothing at all, this empty space has dilated. Into the vacuum of ethical emptiness and absent personal identity has rushed nationalism. More and more people answered the question, “What are you?” by saying “I am a Frenchmen,” or a German, or an American, or whatever. State rulers, of course, actively strove to encourage such mass identification because it rendered the masses easier to exploit, plunder, and command. The culmination came in the world wars, when scores of millions submitted to kill and to die in the service of nationalism.

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