June 17, 2006
Faith is no more likely to provoke bloodshed than secular ideologies, which come with their own share of absolutism, divisiveness and irrationality.
IN THE 1940s, Jehovah's Witnesses in the US were beaten, tarred, castrated and jailed because they believed that followers of Jesus should not salute a flag. Historian Martin Marty cites this 50 years later. To him it is evidence that religion has a particular tendency to be divisive and therefore violent.
He writes that it "can be perceived by others as dangerous. Religion can cause all kinds of trouble in the public arena." For Marty, religion refers not to the ritual pledging of allegiance to a flag, but only to the Jehovah's Witnesses' refusal to do so.
There is clearly something wrong here. Surely the obvious conclusion is that fanatical nationalism can cause violence. Why does Marty blame religion? Marty is seduced by, and helping to cement, a myth so deeply rooted in Western society that it may be impossible to dig out, and that is the myth that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence.
Combating this conventional wisdom was the theme of an important international lecture by American theologian William Cavanaugh at Melbourne University this month, and I largely follow his argument.
This myth plays a valuable role for secularists. It helps them marginalise Christians and demonise Muslims, and creates a blind spot about violence by the West. It confirms an "us" (the rational, peace-making, secular West) against a "them" (violent fanatics in the Muslim world). To quote Cavanaugh: " Their violence is religious, and therefore irrational and divisive. Our violence, on the other hand, is rational, peace-making and necessary. Regrettably, we find ourselves forced to bomb them into the higher rationality."
Most religious believers have bought this myth, too. They try to fight it by two arguments. First, they say that violence in the name of religion is really usually about politics or economics. Second, they claim that people who perpetrate violence, by definition — the Crusaders, for example — are not really religious. Australian Muslims constantly say this of terrorists: "These people aren't really Muslims, because Islam is a religion of peace." I understand their predicament, but the argument doesn't work.
First, it's impossible to separate religious motives from the rest to make religion innocent. So the first argument by defenders of religion shares the same flaw as the myth itself. How can you separate religion from politics in Islam when Muslims themselves make no such separation?
Second, it may be true that the Crusaders misappropriated Christianity, but they claimed it as their motive. Christianity can't be entirely excused. That's because it's not just a set of doctrines, it's a lived historical experience distinguished by the observable actions of Christians. So religion can and does contribute to violence. Where the myth is wrong is in saying religion is more violent than secular ideologies.
The argument has two prongs: to show how the myth is incoherent, and to show how it became so widely believed.
It's incoherent because the division between the religious and secular is artificial. It's a modern, Western invention to separate religion from culture, politics and economics. Scholars agree that it's impossible to define religion. Must it include belief in God or gods? If not, you can include Buddhism and Confucianism, but a whole lot of "secular" beliefs sneak in too, such as nationalism, which has been called the most powerful religion in the US.
The sociologists, political scientists, historians, theologians and others who have written since 9/11 attacking religion as violent just pretend this difficulty does not exist. Then they claim religion is prone to violence because it is absolutist, divisive, and/or irrational. They ignore overwhelming evidence that secular ideologies and institutions can be just as absolutist, divisive or irrational.
Their problem is that when they try to separate secular from religious violence, they refute their own distinctions. Marty, for example, lists five "features" of a religion, and shows how politics shares all five: both focus our ultimate concern, both build community, both appeal to myth and symbol (for example, national flags, war memorials), both use rites and ceremonies and both demand certain behaviours. In showing how closely intertwined the two are, Marty ends up demolishing any theoretical basis for separating them.
Mark Juergensmeyer, in his influential Terror in the Mind of God, says religious violence is particularly relentless because believers elevate it to a "cosmic war". But he admits that so do those involved in ideological and ethnic violence and he admits secular nationalism is a religion. How many Christians would be willing to kill for their faith? How many would be willing to kill for their country? Surveys in America show that the nation-state attracts far more absolutist fervour than Christianity. Many Christians there endorse slaughter on behalf of the nation as necessary, even laudable.
If this myth about religious violence is incoherent, why is it so widely believed? Because it's so useful. In domestic politics, it helps silence religious believers, who are told their faith is a private matter and must be kept out of politics. In foreign politics, the myth helps reinforce and justify Western attitudes, especially towards Muslims.
It helps frame the clash-of-civilisations world view, which says Muslims hate the West partly because they haven't been able to separate religion and politics. If you accept this, it helps the "us and them" attitude and lets the West sanitise its own actions. If Americans can write off Muslim resentment as irrational, they don't have to scrutinise their dealings with Muslims. Worse, it helps the clash of civilisations become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Imagine if President George Bush had called 9/11 a crime rather than a war, if the West hunted Osama bin Laden merely as a murderer. It would have given a much better sense of perspective and not let militants persuade other Muslims that this is a war against Islam.
But many in the West believe in such a war. Author Sam Harris ( The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason) actually suggests that if an Islamist regime gets nuclear weapons the West may need to launch a nuclear first strike. In other words, if we have to slaughter millions by a first strike, it will be the fault of the Muslims and their crazy religious beliefs. Harris says Muslims would misinterpret this "self-defence" as a genocidal crusade and plunge the world into a nuclear holocaust. To avoid this, he suggests the West will have to impose "benign dictatorships" on Muslim countries. And his book has been endorsed by such academic luminaries as Alan Dershowitz, Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer.
One doesn't have to be naive about either Islam or Christianity to see the danger of this secular myth. Harris may be an extreme example, but the myth of religious violence is still helping to shape policy in Western governments.
Zwartz is religion editor of The Age.
Thanks to our brother who sent this article last year.
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