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THE MYTH OF RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE *

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By Paul Allen

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The Montréal Review, June 2015

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The Sacrifice of Isaac (1603) by Caravaggio. (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)

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Recently, I stumbled across an ad for an interfaith event advertised in a local church bulletin. The notice began with these words: “Although religion has tended to cause wars and strife throughout the millennia, religion can now become the solution if we all declare that no matter which religion we follow, we recognize that we are all God’s children.”

I was immediately struck by this group’s acceptance of a myth, the myth of religious violence. You would think that a multi-faith group planning some coordinated programming would not plug the idea that faith is violent. Isn’t this sort of admission fatal to the acceptance of religious faith in Canadian society? If religious people believe that religions cause violence, then who could possibly object?

But, in fact, the myth of religious violence is just that: a myth. It’s a fable that ties together disparate facts and judgments of history that doesn’t pass the test of fair-minded scrutiny. Since 9/11, the myth of religious violence has taken on the status of unquestioned wisdom, a set of ideas that comedians impart to susceptible audiences and that politicians purvey to great advantage. Increasing unfamiliarity with the history and claims of various religions in our society suggests that atheist pundits have willing ears to hear how religion supposedly threatens our way of life.

But, in fact, the myth of religious violence is just that: a myth. It’s a fable that ties together disparate facts and judgments of history that doesn’t pass the test of fair-minded scrutiny.

Few have engaged in the difficult task of digging into the truth of the matter. But thankfully, new scholarship has emerged to challenge this myth.

I begin with Chicago theologian William Cavanaugh, who tackles this question head-on in his book The Myth of Religious Violence. The take-away message may sound odd, but it is the key: We cannot genuinely distinguish between religion and other spheres of life. The historical record suggests that the religious/secular divide is not easily separated into distinct component parts. This is certainly true with respect to overlapping motivations within individuals.

Our own spiritual needs, family of origin traits, culturally determined beliefs and mixture of hot and lukewarm loyalties to our own religious tradition (or none) are complex psychological threads. So, if there is no separation of religion from everything else inside our heads, how much more this is true in society at large.

Historically then, did European colonizers do violence to aboriginal peoples because of Christian zeal or despite it? The role of religion was not altogether causal. Certainly, it did serve as one part of a whole, a convenient pretext. But gold, fur, land and nationalist fervour played the lead roles between the 15th and 19th centuries as the rise of the European nation state dramatically filled the vacuum left by the 14th century demise of the papacy and the overthrow of absolute monarchies.

Christian missionaries were complicit in others’ crimes, though were seldom the authors of those crimes. For the victims of course, this distinction is meaningless. But for understanding the place of religion in the 21st century, it matters a great deal.

The historical record suggests that the religious/secular divide is not easily separated into distinct component parts. This is certainly true with respect to overlapping motivations within individuals.

Internationally renowned scholar of religion Karen Armstrong has waded into the debate with her book Fields of Blood. Based on exhaustive textual and cultural analysis, beginning with organized religion’s emergence in ancient agrarian societies, comes this summary: “Large-scale violence was not linked with religion but with organized theft.” As Armstrong says, simply having adversaries requires that every idea, including religion, be deployed as a part of one’s strategy of establishing the myth of the enemy’s monstrosity.

The so-called Wars of Religion (1618-48) in Central Europe are often the touchstone for arguments in favour of keeping religion out of politics because of religion’s alleged ability to render politics violent. Yet, these wars are better understood as a series of disputes between rival princes seeking greater autonomy from the Holy Roman Emperor.

For long periods, Catholic France and the Catholic Hapsburgs were vehement enemies. Popes sometimes withdrew support for the Catholic Hapsburgs despite the common Protestant threat. Lutheran princes never attacked Calvinist princes despite heaps of rivalry, while Catholic/Protestant alliances flourished by the dozen. At one point, Catholic Spain supported the French (Protestant) Huguenots against France while Cardinal Richelieu himself would sign a treaty with Lutheran Sweden in 1631.

So, even at the height of these wars, religion was a background inconvenience, not the sole predictor of who would fight whom. And even where religion plays a more decisive role, it is not uniquely violent. The secularism of the French Revolution and the Christian support for the crusades are equally bloodthirsty. Envy and greed necessitate whatever ideological excuse along the road to plunder.

Yet, famous ex-Montrealer cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, writes that violence has decreased dramatically since the 17th century. He credits the European Enlightenment — a trigger for secularization — literacy and cosmopolitanism. His claim is based on data such as the rough comparisons between the percentage likelihood of warrior deaths among young males in hunter gatherer societies in contrast to our society. We moderns are blessed with peaceful coexistence relative to our ancestors.

Now, we would expect Pinker, who is a prominent atheist, to reproach religion for being over-implicated in pre-17th century historical violence. But apart from the odd snide remark, he barely tries. I think the reason is this: lack of evidence. The real reasons for the relative decrease in violent death over the past few centuries are those Pinker cites: The rise in professional military armies, increased international trade and a broadening of the standards of justice in civil law. The latter is itself rooted in medieval church canon law.

A better perspective of history views hyper-nationalism and warfare methodology as the key factors in determining whether human societies are violent or peaceful. Religion is not a key factor. Religion did not cause violence, human nature is to blame for using it to foster violence.

A better perspective of history views hyper-nationalism and warfare methodology as the key factors in determining whether human societies are violent or peaceful. Religion is not a key factor. Religion did not cause violence, human nature is to blame for using it to foster violence. Yes, religious people should feel guilt over specific incidents of hate and bloodshed in which their tradition is implicated. Reparations are certainly due to victims and their families from religious bodies that were persuaded or coerced, lightly or forcibly, into compliance with violent deeds.

Fortunately however, such deeds occur at a far lower rate than many people believe.

* This article originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette.

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Paul Allen is associate professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Concordia University.

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