A piece by Mark Lilla in yesterday's New York Times Magazine called "The Politics of God" lays out the case for the irreconcilable differences between the Islamic world and the West. Islamic societies and their inhabitants, Lilla argues, can't distinguish between politics and religion, and as a result the West can't communicate with them. Ours is a rational worldview, he argues, while theirs is irrational:
Islamists, even if they are learned professionals, appear to us primarily as frustrated, irrational representatives of frustrated, irrational societies, nothing more. We live, so to speak, on the other shore. When we observe those on the opposite bank, we are puzzled, since we have only a distant memory of what it was like to think as they do. We all face the same questions of political existence, yet their way of answering them has become alien to us. On one shore, political institutions are conceived in terms of divine authority and spiritual redemption; on the other they are not. And that, as Robert Frost might have put it, makes all the difference.The bulk of Lilla's article is a history of "political theology" in Europe and the United States, which I won't get into too much. Lilla's article is of particular interest primarily because it comes on the heels of a much better article in a much lower-profile publication that points out many of the flaws in the logic of arguments like Lilla's, and the ease with which those arguments can be brought to bear in justifying violence and bloodshed. That article was William T. Cavanaugh's "Does Religion Cause Violence?", which appeared in the Spring/Summer 2007 issue of the Harvard Divinity Bulletin. The article is not available on the HDB's website, though a slightly different version, delivered as a lecture at the University of Western Australia and the University of Melbourne last year, is available here (plus an audio recording here). It is without question the best response I've yet read to the prejudiced claim, stated in some circles as a basic principle that needs no empirical support, that religion and violence are inextricably linked.
Cavanaugh's argument begins by establishing that defining religion is a tricky thing—but those who contend that religion leads to violence generally gloss over their definitions rather than explore complexities that may weaken their argument:
the problem with the "religion and violence" arguments is not that their working definitions of religion are too fuzzy. The problem is precisely the opposite. Their implicit definitions of religion are unjustifiably clear about what does and does not qualify as a religion. Certain belief systems, like Islam, are condemned, while certain others, like nationalism, are arbitrarily ignored.
[...] Consider the case of the preeminent historian Martin Marty. In a book on public religion, Marty argues that religion has a particular tendency to be divisive and therefore violent. When it comes to defining what "religion" means, however, Marty lists seventeen different definitions of religion, then begs off giving his own definition, since, he says, "[s]cholars will never agree on the definition of religion." Instead Marty gives a list of five "features" that mark a religion. He then proceeds to show how "politics" displays all five of the same features. [...] In offering five defining features of "religion," and shows how "politics" fits all five. He is trying to show how closely intertwined religion and politics are, but he ends up demolishing any theoretical basis for separating the two. Nevertheless, he continues on to warn of the dangers of religion, while ignoring the violent tendencies of supposedly "secular" politics.
Turning to another author, Cavanaugh finds that even those who accept some complications to their definition of religion can make the same sort of error:
In his book Why People do Bad Things in the Name of Religion, religious studies scholar Richard Wentz blames violence on absolutism. People create absolutes out of fear of their own limitations. Absolutes are projections of a fictional limited self, and people react with violence when others do not accept them. Religion has a peculiar tendency toward absolutism, says Wentz, but he casts a very wide net when considering religion. [...] Wentz should be commended for his consistency in not trying to erect an artificial division between "religious" and "secular" types of absolutism. The price of consistency, however, is that he evacuates his own argument of explanatory force or usefulness. The word "religion" in the title of his book—Why People do Bad Things in the Name of Religion—ends up meaning anything people do that gives their lives order and meaning. A more economical title for his book would have been Why People Do Bad Things. The term "religion" is so broad that it serves no useful analytical purpose.
Cavanaugh extrapolates from Wentz's use of "absolutism" as a defining motivator of violence, finding that "secular" motivations will generally beat out "religious" ones:
If a person claims to believe in the Christian God but never gets off the couch on Sunday morning and spends the rest of the week in obsessive pursuit of profit in the bond market, then what is "absolute" in that person's life in a functional sense is probably not the Christian God. Matthew 6:24 personifies Mammon as a rival god, not in the conviction that such a divine being really exists, but from the empirical observation that people have a tendency to treat all sorts of things as absolutes.
Suppose we apply an empirical test to the question of absolutism. "Absolute" is itself a vague term, but in the "religion and violence" arguments it appears to indicate the tendency to take something so seriously that violence results. The most relevant empirically testable definition of "absolute," then, would be "that for which one is willing to kill." This test has the advantage of covering behavior, and not simply what one claims to believe. Now let us ask the following two questions: What percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christians would be willing to kill for their Christian faith? What percentage would be willing to kill for their country? Whether we attempt to answer these questions by survey or by observing American Christians' behavior in wartime, it seems clear that, at least among American Christians, the nation-state is subject to far more absolutist fervor than Christianity. For most American Christians, even public evangelization is considered to be in poor taste, and yet most endorse organized slaughter on behalf of the nation as sometimes necessary and often laudable.
The problem here—one of the only flaws I see in Cavanaugh's entire essay—is that the term "absolute" is essentially tautological: "That which causes people to commit violent acts is that for which people are willing to commit violent acts." Nevertheless, it's far more useful to have a tautological definition for what causes violence than to have a deliberately obfuscating one, so the use of "absolutism" is a much better start than attempting to create a distinction between "religious" and "secular" violence.
Having established the argument that religion causes violence is based on faulty or nonexistent definitions, Cavanaugh goes on to explore the hidden assumptions and necessary ends of the argument: by creating a category of bad, "religious" violence, the argument opens the door to excusing, condoning, and even encouraging "secular" violence.
The story is told repeatedly that the liberal state has learned to tame the dangerous divisiveness of contending religious beliefs by reducing them to essentially private affairs. In foreign policy, the conventional wisdom helps reinforce and justify Western attitudes and policies toward the non-Western world, especially Muslims, whose primary point of difference with the West is their stubborn refusal to tame religious passions in the public sphere. "We in the West long ago learned the sobering lessons of religious warfare and have moved toward secularization. The liberal nation-state is essentially a peacemaker. Now we only seek to share the blessings of peace with the Muslim world. Regrettably, because of their stubborn fanaticism, it is sometimes necessary to bomb them into liberal democracy." In other words, the myth of religious violence establishes a reassuring dichotomy between their violence—which is absolutist, divisive, and irrational—and our violence, which is modest, unitive, and rational.
Cavanaugh argues that it's no coincidence that books like Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great, Sam Harris' The End of Faith, and Mark Juergensmeyer's Terror in the Mind of God are bestsellers at a time when the U.S. is at war in the Muslim world. Indeed, Harris has written in support of the use of torture in the War on Terror, and Hitchens is a vocal supporter of the Bush Doctrine. These authors' books serve to sell the ideals of imperialism and endless war to a left-wing audience that might otherwise be pacifistic. In boiling down the motivations of Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias to exclusively religious factors, these writers create a simplistic picture of global politics that fits well with the black-and-white worldview of the Bush White House. Regarding Mark Juergensmeyer, Cavanaugh writes:
The problem with Juergensmeyer's analysis is not just its sanitized account of colonial history, where America just happens to find itself associated with bad people. The problem is that history is subordinated to an essentialist account of "religion" in which the religious Others cannot seem to deal rationally with world events. They employ guilt by association. They have paranoid visions of globalization. They stereotype, and blame easy targets when their lives are disrupted by forces they do not understand. They blow simple oppositions up into cosmic proportions. Understanding Muslim hostility toward America therefore does not require careful scrutiny of America's historical dealings with the Muslim world. Rather, Juergensmeyer turns our attention to the tendency of such "religious" actors to misunderstand such historical events, to blow them out of proportion. Understanding Iranian Shiite militancy does not seem to require careful examination of U.S. support for overthrowing Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and for the Shah's 26-year reign of terror that was to follow. Instead, Juergensmeyer puzzles over why "religious" actors project such mundane things as torture and coups and oil trading into factors in a cosmic war. Juergensmeyer's analysis is comforting for us in the West because it creates a blind spot regarding our own history of violence. It calls attention to anti-colonial violence, labeled "religious," and calls attention away from colonial violence, labeled "secular."
Mark Lilla's article in the New York Times Magazine makes no straightforward statements in support of preemptive wars in Muslim countries. Indeed, Lilla himself may be a pacifist—he doesn't say. But nevertheless, his article's clear-cut distinction between irrational Muslims and the rational West contributes to a narrative of intractable opposition that encourages conflict between the societies. This is colonialism—it depicts Muslims as savages who can't take care of themselves, and need either a paternalistic guiding hand or a violent iron fist to keep them under control. Lilla's closing paragraph sinks to the lowest depths of imperialistic pomposity:
We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder: we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible's messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men.Ironically, the distinction between rational West and irrational Islam turns our current conflicts into a Holy War, an absolutist conflict between eternal foes—theocracy vs. democracy, sane reason vs. insane faith—instead of the petty, worldly struggle it really is. Lilla may not make this leap, but others are more than happy to. Cavanaugh closes his essay with a passage on Sam Harris' The End of Faith:
In a chapter entitled "The Problem with Islam," Harris writes: "In our dialogue with the Muslim world, we are confronted by people who hold beliefs for which there is no rational justification and which therefore cannot even be discussed, and yet these are the very beliefs that underlie many of the demands they are likely to make upon us." This is especially a problem if such people gain access to nuclear weapons. "There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons... In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe." Muslims then would likely misinterpret this act of "self-defense" as a genocidal crusade, thus plunging the world into nuclear holocaust. "All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world's population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher's stone, and unicorns."
In other words, if we have to slaughter millions through a nuclear first strike, it will be the fault of the Muslims and their crazy religious beliefs. Before we get to that point, Harris continues, we must encourage civil society in Islamic countries, but we cannot trust them to vote it in. "It seems all but certain that some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary to bridge the gap. But benignity is the key—and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both. While this may seem an exceedingly arrogant doctrine to espouse, it appears we have no alternatives."
Never mind that American support for dictators who were "better than the alternative" is precisely what led to the current situation in both Iraq and Iran. But I digress.
Harris' book is a particularly blunt version of this type of justification for neo-colonial intervention, but he is by no means isolated. His book is enthusiastically endorsed by such academic superstars as Alan Dershowitz, Richard Dawkins, and Peter Singer. Indeed, Harris's logic is little different in practice from the Bush Doctrine that America has access to liberal values that are "right and true for every person, in every society," that we must use our power to promote such values "on every continent," and that America will take preemptive military action if necessary to promote such values. Today the U.S. military is attempting, through the massive use of violence, to liberate Iraq from religious violence. It is an inherently contradictory effort, and its every failure will be attributed in part to the pernicious influence of religion and its tendency toward violence. If we really wish to understand its failure, however, we will need to question the very myth of religious violence on which such military adventures depend.
The specter of Harris's support for "benevolent dictators" hangs over Lilla's imperialistic closing statements. But this support for suppressing religious freedom, both at home and abroad, lurks underneath much religion-and-violence writing. By straining at the gnat of "religious violence," America in general (and the left in particular) is swallowing the camel of colonialism and even, in Harris's case, fascism. It's similar in many ways to the unintended consequences of the MacKinnon-Dworkin antipornography laws in Canada, which had support from a number of feminist leaders. Once the laws were enacted, the first to be prosecuted were owners of gay and lesbian bookstores. Anti-religious writers like those Cavanaugh critiques make a similar leap, allowing themselves to be co-opted into the greater evil of imperialism.
Read the rest of William T. Cavanaugh's "Does Religion Cause Violence?" here. Please.