Cavanaugh’s article “The Violence of ‘Religion’: Examining a Prevalent Myth” gives an interesting definition of religion which he then goes throughout the paper to criticize. He also writes a critique of the secular liberal view that “religion is violent,” which, before reading this article, I had never thought about. The article gave me a new perspective which I will discuss throughout this paper.
Cavanaugh begins his article stating “one of the most prevalent myths in Western culture” that widespread religion causes violence, or is at least a significant contributing factor in many conflicts of human history. At the end of his long list of ‘violence done by religions’ he says that the definition of “religion” isn’t clear. He says that “religion and culture” often get grouped together but are never distinguished from one another. He goes on to admit that there are numerous religions which support that violence is helpful and necessary but the attempt to divide them into “religion” and “secular” phenomena and claim that the former is more prone to violence isn’t helpful.
I think the definition of religion that’s being criticized, that religion and culture have become indistinguishable from one another makes sense and there are many examples of it in daily life. For example, when people in the west talk about the middle east, we tend to call the people there “Muslims.” We don’t call them “Iraqi’s” or “Afghan’s,” which would indicate their culture and where they’re from. Instead, we identify them only as their religion.
That leads into Cavanaugh’s main critique of the secular liberal view that religion is violent. On page 7 Cavanaugh says that he’s trying to separate out a category called “religion” which is prone to violence because it’s absolutist, divisive, and non-rational, compared to a ‘secular’ reality that’s less prone to violence, presumably because it’s less absolutist, more unitive, and more rational. He goes on to give a list of ideologies, practices, and institutions that have been known to support violence under certain conditions but says this, which I found to be the most important line in his article thus far: “what is not helpful is the attempt to divide the above list into ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ phenomena, and claim that the former are more prone to violence.”
I somewhat agree with Cavanaugh’s argument that religion causes violence because it delegitimizes certain kinds of violence (namely Muslim) and legitimates other kinds of violence (namely, secular western ideals). I do agree that certain cultures are delegitimized and I do agree that others are legitimized, but I don’t agree that it’s mainly secular ideals that cause ‘violence in religion.’ Actually, I believe the problem is between non-secular westerners and non-secular non-westerners.
If we’re going to argue that Muslim’s “haven’t learned to privatize matters of faith” we should also argue that non-secular western culture hasn’t, either. Cavanaugh states that Muslim culture, for example, is absolutist, divisive and irrational, whereas western culture is modest in its claims to truth, unitive, and rational. I don’t agree with this.
Westerners have a skewed view of Muslim’s. Because of the terrorist attacks and our media portraying Muslim’s badly, we lump all people of the Muslim faith as extremists (and even terrorists). For this reason I don’t think it’s fair to say that Muslim cultures haven’t learned to privatize matters of faith or to call them irrational. If we apply the same standards to a non-secular western culture, for example, Christians, they can also be called irrational and be accused of not knowing to privatize matters of faith.
To illustrate my point I’ll use the example of anti-abortionists. In the United States there is an underground terrorist organization called the Army of God. It has been responsible for a substantial amount of anti-abortion violence. In addition to numerous property crimes, the group has also committed acts of kidnapping, attempted murder, and actual murder. Law enforcement officials have found the Army of God Manual, which is a tactical guilde to arson, chemical attacks, invasions, and bombings. This group is clearly a non-secular monotheistic terrorist group, so why don’t we view all non-secular monotheists as terrorists (as we do Muslims)?
To summarize, I do agree with Cavanaugh that religion oftentimes gets confused with culture and that the two are intertwined. I also do agree that some religious violence is deemed acceptable, whereas other religious violence is delegitimized. The point I do not agree with is that it’s the secular western groups causing the problems. I believe the “clash of religion” or “culture wars” are caused both in part by non-secular western groups as well as non-secular non-western groups.
Going back to Cavanaugh’s critique of the secular liberal view that religion is violent, I do agree. I believe the majority of secularists view certain groups in certain religions to be violent or the cause of violence in the past but I don’t agree that secular liberals think religion as a whole is violent. I’m certain there are some ignorant secular liberals that do believe that all religion is bad because it causes violence but I don’t believe it does. Muslim’s view suicide bombers in their religion the same way we view the members of the Westboro Baptist Church; that is, every religion has extremists but as a whole they aren’t violent or necessarily “bad.”