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The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of ModernConflict

William T. Cavanaugh
Published by Oxford University Press in 2009

In his gloss on the Creation account in Genesis, the author of John’s Gospel narrates the Christian origins of existence: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (1: 1-3, NKJV). When Genesis and John are read together, grounds for the trinitarian Christian doctrine of creation emerge; God the Father generates and sustains all matter through His Son and in the Holy Spirit, which hovers over the waters of “the deep” before the creation of the universe (Genesis 1: 2).

In his Dialogue With Trypho, Justin Martyr suggests the presence of the Logos or Word within those men who sought truth even before the Incarnation of the Son as Jesus Christ, notably Moses, Socrates, and Heraclitus; to Justin, the pagan world contains prefigurations of the Christian revelation. Likewise, the symbol of the Cross permeates the world in such away that without it “the things in this world could [not] be administrated or have any community”; intimations of the Cross can thus be seen from inanimate objects such as the boatsail and digging tool to the living human form that stands crosswise, “erect and having its hands extended.”1

These remarks may serve as an appropriate, and unabashedly Christian, preliminary to William T. Cavanaugh’s book-length rejection of a certain habit very fashionable in today’s academic circles; namely, “the idea that religion causes violence” (15). This notion is a myth because it rests on the assumption that “religion is a transhistorical and transcultural feature of human life, essentially distinct from ‘secular’ features such as politics and economics, which has a peculiarly dangerous inclination to promote violence” (3). According to the myth, Christianity remains confined within the sphere of “religion,” which must not be thought of as mixed up with “secular” pursuits. Such a separation, so jarringly discordant to the views of a Justin Martyr, “helps to construct and marginalize a religious Other, prone to fanaticism, to contrast with the rational, peace-making secular subject…Our violence, being secular, is rational, peace-making, and sometimes regrettably necessary to contain their violence. We find ourselves obliged to bomb them into liberal democracy” (4). Of course, in our current political context this “Other” appears as quintessentially Islamic, targeting the representatives of another so-called “religion” that, like the Christian doctrine of creation and incarnation, tends to spill over the boundaries we construct around the totality of human existence in an all-encompassing vision of the One God and final Prophet.

Cavanaugh demonstrates, in his first chapter entitled “The Anatomy of the Myth,” that attempts to establish a direct causal connection between religion and violence fail because they are “hobbled by a number of indefensible assumptions about what does and does not count as religion” (16). Cavanaugh sorts the arguments of a variety of prominent scholars across disciplines, among them pluralist theologian John Hicks, historian of religion Martin C. Marty, sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer, and political theorist David C. Rapoport. He shows that the very definition of “religion” cannot be sustained according to the criteria that these authors set up. Cavanaugh categorizes the work of these authors according to three common characteristics that supposedly reinforce the notion that religion directly causes violence: religion is “absolutist,” “divisive,” and “insufficiently rational” (17-18). Cavanaugh’s in-depth exploration of these three claims, and the work of the authors that propose them, shows that in each case the definitions of “religion” eventually lose all consistency and coherence, and are equally applicable to devotion to “secular” institutions such as the liberal state or nation. The phenomenon of militant nationalism particularly defies scholarly attempts to separate neatly the religious from the secular: “Secular nationalism…can be just as absolutist, divisive, and irrationally fanatical as certain types of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Hindu militancy” (55). At the end of the chapter, Cavanaugh advocates a scholarship that would examine the particular “conditions under which ideologies and practices of all kinds turn lethal” (56). In other words, each act of violence would need to be subjected to a rigorous historical examination on its own merits, disrupting the obsessive reiteration of religious violence as the more sinister variant of its “rational” secular counterpart.

The book’s next chapter traces an etymology of the term “religion” and attempts to show that “the attempt to say that there is a…concept of religion that is separable from secular phenomena is itself part of a particular configuration of power, that of the modern, liberal nationstate as it developed in the West” (59). Augustine supplies the earliest example of the Latin term religio, which indicates the type of worship that, for the ancient bishop of Hippo, only properly applies to “the one God as revealed in Jesus Christ”; for Augustine, “the impulse to worship is found in all human beings as the inchoate longing for their Creator, whom [he] understood to be the Holy Trinity” (63).

Augustine’s thought, tuned to the same pitch as that of Justin Martyr, declares that no aspect of human existence, no sphere of human endeavor, can evade the totality of the Christian revelation. On the contrary, the Christian view of creation and existence outlined above demonstrates that Christianity cannot be confined to the realm of “religion,” but rather expresses an ultimate truth that draws every aspect of human existence into itself. To the Christian, Christianity is not simply a religion, but reality itself, trinitarian in structure, proclaiming the omnipresence of an invisible Creator who continually acts through His Son the Word, by the agency of a Spirit that unwaveringly speaks to all men who seek truth.

With the advent of modernity and the rise of the liberal nation-state, the Christian vision of existence and its externalized order become gradually internalized, separated out from state-sanctioned legal institutions of knowledge or power as the private and purely reflective space of faith. Beginning with the Renaissance mystic Nicholas of Cusa and culminating in John Locke, the process of a “transfer of power from church to state” can clearly be observed, paralleled by what Cavanaugh, following John Bossy, terms the “migration of the holy from church to state” (174). In the third chapter on the Thirty Years War, often famously indicted as being one of the historical events that definitively offers proof that “religion causes war,” Cavanaugh demonstrates in painstaking detail the interference of the state, in its support of the nobility, at every turn in the key events transpiring there, and collapses the notion that religion bears the heaviest burden of guilt for the catastrophic violence of those times.

Thus, “what we have is not a separation of religion from politics but rather the substitution of the religion of the state for the religion of the church” (177). Theopolitics mutates into a theology divorced from and totally secondary to the aims of politics. Instead of a view of existence that centers around a particular theological understanding of the cosmos, the newly “sacralized” state apparatus now irresistibly pulls every aspect of existence into its own rapidly-revolving orbit. At this point, Cavanaugh is modern enough to point out that “the separation of church and state is…important enough to uphold for several reasons, some of them theological”; however, he urges that “the triumphalist narrative that sees the liberal state as the solution to the violence of religion needs to be abandoned” (179). What has followed is not a steady dissolution of violence in favor of a more rational and peaceful order, but a substitution, a kind of regime change, that mobilizes coercive force primarily in the interests of the state.

If the trinitarian Christian form of envisioned reality espoused by Justin Martyr and Augustine does not apply to other faith traditions, Cavanaugh reveals in an analysis of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism that in each case these “religions” are inextricable from the discourses that surround them in their respective cultures. The notion that these faith traditions belong within an autonomous and separate sphere entitled “religion” is shown to have been formed and sustained from the perspective of Western colonial powers. In his final chapter, “The Uses of the Myth,” Cavanaugh repeats his now-familiar thesis: “the myth of religious violence is a form of Orientalist discourse that helps to reinforce a dichotomy between the rational West and other, more benighted cultures—Muslims, especially— that lag behind” (194).

Cavanaugh’s work is an important contribution to religious studies not least because it reminds the reader of the poverty of the term “religion” when describing the world’s great faith traditions. These traditions are not simply one interior impulse in man among many, but serve as the means to organize the entirety of human endeavor around an interpretation of a world that often appears to our senses threatening, confusing, and fragmented. There is certainly a danger in these traditions that renders them far from innocent of the acts of violence done in their name, as Cavanaugh himself reminds us: “it is impossible to separate religious from economic and political motives in such a way that religious motives are innocent of violence” (5). The myth of religious violence, more of a “blind spot” than a consciously-held agenda to Cavanaugh (230), may in fact have gained such prominence because it promises a rescue from the dark specter of a “religious” vision of the world that often invokes and enacts cosmic conflict with tangible weapons on all-too-human bodies. The myth initially served to caution humanity against the assertions and abuses of power caused by the assumption of absolute certainty in a God-sanctioned “just war.” However, Cavanaugh shows that the myth has long overstepped its original intention; now, the aims of the nation-state and its own “just wars” have become no less sacred because of their “secular” character.

Cavanaugh indicates that his stated intention is not to present an “alternative theopolitics” of his own, that the “purpose of the book is negative: to contribute to a dismantling of the myth of religious violence” (12). However, such a theopolitics would doubtless need to be conjoined with a theorist that Cavanaugh mentions and just as quickly drops; in discussing the work of David C. Rapoport, the discussion turns to René Girard, whom Rapoport employs to show the supposed connection between religion and violence. For Girard, Cavanaugh explains, social orders are often maintained through violence, whether religious or secular. Girard’s analysis itself again makes a neat separation of “religious” from “secular” impracticable, and at the same time advances the notion that “Jesus Christ, the victim who ends all sacrifice, is the key to undoing violence” of all kinds (41, author ’s emphasis).

Cavanaugh’s aim, like Girard’s, is a Christian one, to “defuse violence” with the end of “turning some enemies into friends” (230). It is not for all that an uncompromisingly pacifist stance, for Cavanaugh notes that “this does not mean that all violence is therefore morally equivalent” (230). In the end, Cavanaugh seems to suggest that perhaps some violence may be unavoidable, so long as there is a willingness to “agree to call fouls committed by any and all participants and to penalize them equally” (ibid.). However, if the Christian “religion” describes the very nature of existence, the revelation of Christ’s sacrifice then becomes a fundamental element of the human experience, especially if one recognizes, as Cavanaugh seems to, that peace-making may, in the end, not be something worth killing over, but rather dying for.

Cite this article
David J. Rosenberg, “The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:1 , 109-112


  1. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, vol. 1. Philip Schaff, ed. (William B. Eerdman, 2001),282-3.

David J. Rosenberg

David J. Rosenberg, Germanic, Slavic, and Semitic Studies, Universityof California, Santa Barbara