William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Hardback, 285 pp, $49.95.
In the beginning was religion, and only religion.
Now religion was irrational, absolutist, and divisive, and so chaos was on the face of the earth. Religion drove kings mad. Because of religion, because religion was all, Catholics killed Protestants, Protestants killed Catholics, and both Protestants and Catholics killed pagans across the seas. And darkness covered the face of the earth.
And from the darkness, far in the West, came the Liberal State, and the Liberal State said, Let there be light. And there was light. And the darkness was afraid.
And in the Liberal State there was no religion. And the Liberal State called itself Secular. And it was so.
And the Liberal State said, Let us divide religion from life, and, lest the darkness return, let us place between religion and life a firmament that cannot be crossed. Let us bury religion deep in the heart of man, where it can do some small good but no harm. And let us make religion innocuous and rational.
And the magicians and sorcerers and court prophets shouted and said, All you have commanded, so shall we do.
And it was so. And the Liberal State saw that it was good.
And peace dripped like honey from the rock and flowed like wine from the mountains. Lions supped with lambs. All nations rejoiced in the Liberal State, for its mercy endures forever.
And still the darkness grew strong. It wept and called itself Beck. It raged and grew a beard and called itself bin Laden.
And the Liberal State said, The darkness has grown strong and will soon be as one of Us. We must grow stronger, for we are light and light must triumph over darkness.
And the Liberal State said, Eternal vigilance is the price of secularity.
And all the peoples said, Amen, and Amen. Most of them, anyway.
Now there came a man whose name was Bill, bearing a stack of books written by the magicians and the sorcerers and the court prophets.
And Bill said, The Liberal State lies. The Liberal State pretends save us from chaos but it does not. The Liberal State creates the chaos.
And Bill laid the stack of books before them and said, Not one of you knows what religion is.
And the Liberal State said, Religion is man’s relationship with God.
And Bill said, What about Buddhists?
And the Liberal State stuttered and said, No, no. We mean religion is ultimate concern.
And Bill said, Then are your own nationalisms and statisms, your own Marxisms and capitalisms and socialisms all religions as well.
And the Liberal State cleared its throat nervously and said, No, no. We mean religion is whatever a man is worth dying or killing for.
And Bill answered and said, Then saying “religion causes violence” is saying “things we consider worth killing for lead to killing.” Enough of your tricks and incantations! Sophist!
And the Liberal State was abashed, as were all its magicians and sorcerers and court prophets.
And Bill answered and said, None of you has named religion for all times and for all places. No such name exists.
And the Liberal State answered and said, Religion is private and interior, dogmatic and creedal.
And Bill said, In the beginning it was not so. By your own myth, it was not so. Many religions have no books or creeds or dogmas. Many religions are public and exterior. Your naming of religion dawned from the West. The name “religion” as you use it is not true in all times and in all places. Away with your acrobatics, for they have made many dizzy.
And Bill answered and said, for he was wroth, Generation of vipers! By pointing to the bad violence of those you name “religious,” you ignore other violence, the “good” violence that you yourselves commit.
And the Liberal State said, Yes, but people do bad things in the name of religion.
And Bill said, Yea and verily. People do violence in the name of religion. I have not been sent to deny that “religious” people are violent. I have not been sent to say that “secularists” do just as much violence as religious people, though that may well be true. I have been sent with one message: Your naming of “religion” dissolves into nothing, and nothing that has dissolved can help us understand why men act with violence.
And the Liberal State was the more thoroughly abashed. And the magicians murmured and some slipped quietly away.
And yet the Liberal State spoke again and said, But what of the wars of religion? Did We not learn our lesson? Did We not come to save the world from the violence of religion?
And Bill pointed to the stack of books and said, The wars of religion were not so. The books lie, and the truth is not in them. In these wars, members of the same church killed one another, members of different churches fought together. You believe these wars were religious and not something else because you are naming something “religion” that did not then exist.
And Bill answered and said, for he burned with anger, These wars were not religious wars, but wars to build your power. Kings pretended to fight for religion, while they killed rivals to make themselves stronger. Kings pretended to fight for religion, while they fought the church, taking power and property from the church. You, the State, are not savior but the bringer of violence.
And the Liberal State was silent, knowing that Bill spoke the truth.
And Bill answered and said, The name “religion” you use was invented during the “wars of religion,” invented to help you build a firmament between religion and life, and to make it look as if you were the savior. “Religion” as you describe it was not the cause but the result of the “wars of religion,” as was the name “secular.”
And Bill answered again and said, The states built from the rubble of these wars were confessional states and absolutist states. The Liberal State came much later, but you justified yourself by convincing everyone that they had saved Europe from religion.
Now only a few sorcerers and magicians and court prophets remained.
And still the Liberal State continued and said, If you are right, then why do so many fear, love, and trust us as Savior? Can so many people be so wrong?
Now Bill had thought long and deeply about this question. He meant to trap the Liberal State in this trap. He smiled a cunning smile and said, Who benefits? Who profits from your lie?
And he answered and said, You profit! Your naming of religion is useful to you. By it, you allow people to do some things in public, things you name “secular.” And by it, you do not allow people to do other things in public, things you name “religious.” By it, you pretend that you are protecting us from violent “religion” so that we will love you. By it, you stir up patriotic zeal that looks just like “religion” but which you name “secular.” By it, you demand that young men offer their lives as sacrifices to you, while telling us that other young men who offer their lives as sacrifices to God are nutty. By it, you encourage large crowds to wave flags at fighter jets, but do not allow small crowds of children to pray at school. By it, you prove that the West is superior to the rest. By it, you excuse yourself for dropping bombs on all the rest who have not learned about the firmament established between religion and life, all who are not as you are.
And he looked, and behold, the Liberal State was gone, and only one of the sorcerers, magicians, and court prophets remained.
And the one remaining magician said, If the Liberal State does not save us, who will? What shall we do to be saved?
But the words of Bill were ended.
And the remaining magician looked and, behold, the land was filled with the bodies of Bill’s enemies.
And he said, For a pacifist, Bill leaves a lot of carnage behind.
And the remaining magician, an American one, answered and said, What about the First Amendment?
And another voice, not the voice of Bill, answered and said, The Constitution does not know what religion means. The Liberal State has established its religion, a religion named “secular,” and woe be to the heretics. And America is the most Liberal of the Liberal States.
And the remaining magician, the American one, answered and said, What about the war on terror?
And another voice, not the voice of Bill, answered and said, It is a religious war, a war between the religion named “secular” and the religion named “Islamicism.”
And the one remaining magician, the American one, answered again and said, If the Liberal State does not save us, who will? What shall we do to be saved?
And another voice, not the voice of Bill but a voice from heaven, answered and said, Kiss the Son, lest He be angry.
Nothing to see here, folks! Move along, move along . . .