On the Myth of Religious Violence: An Interview with William T. Cavanaugh

William T. Cavanaugh is Professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. Cavanaugh is a well-published theologian; his works include Torture and Eucharist (1998), Theopolitical Imagination (2003), and Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (2008). His most recent book, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, appeared in 2009 with Oxford University Press. This work is notably not theological; rather, it is similar in spirit to the critical genealogies of “religion” penned by Talal Asad, Russell McCutcheon, and Tim Fitzgerald. In this book Cavanaugh dismantles the myth that “religion” is fundamentally violent; he does so via an immanent critique of the most popular arguments in support of this myth. However, he then goes on to show how this myth has been enlisted in support of, e.g., American militarism in the Middle East—for what better justification for war against “religious fanatics” is the idea that their “fanaticism” makes them fundamentally prone to irrational violence, in contrast to the righteous “just wars” of western democracies? As Cavanaugh puts it, “In the West, revulsion toward killing and dying in the name of one’s religion is one of principal means by which we become convinced that killing and dying in the name of the nation-state is laudable and proper” (4-5).

Craig Martin: I found the most poignant line in the book to be the quotation just above. Can you comment on this idea and the political stakes that motivated you to write this book?

William T. Cavanaugh: A speech given by a Department of State official four years into the occupation of Iraq condemned those “who try to achieve their goals through the use of violence.” His target was Sunni and Shi’ite partisans. Journalist Rami Khoury remarked on the speech: “as if the US had not used weapons when invading Iraq.” The myth of religious violence works so that secular violence just doesn’t seem to count as violence. As I illustrate in the book, one of the primary motivating myths behind the spread of secular social order—by military means if necessary—is the idea that only secular social orders successfully solve the problem of religious violence. So the US spends more on its military than all the other nations of the world combined, but we are much more interested in talking about someone else’s violence. Despite all the current talk about drastic budget cuts, the military budget is off limits, in part because our violence isn’t violence. It goes by other, more honorable, names, like peacemaking and patriotism.

CM: It’s my understanding that this book is quite a departure from your other work as a theologian. If I hadn’t known you were a theologian, I never would have guessed it from this. How does the agenda of this book fit in with your prior work? Was it difficult to write in a different mode? This book to some extent builds off of Russell McCutcheon’s work, and he is one of the most trenchant critics of the place of theology in the academy. What do you make of that?

WC: McCutcheon is concerned that Religion or Religious Studies departments are really hiding places where theology is covertly done. His project in exposing the ideologies attendant to the category “religion” is to rid the academy of theology once and for all. I don’t think this is either desirable or possible. I think that critique of the term “religion” reveals the ubiquity of worship. The reason that it is so hard to distinguish “real” religion from the religion of nationalism, for example, is that, as Durkheim saw, people treat all sorts of things as sacred. Political theory and theology are inseparable; to try to banish theology from the university is to ignore the fact that we are all doing theology, including those in the so-called social sciences.

My previous theological work is all about showing the inseparability of theology and politics, both revealing the covert theologies of state and market, and the latent politics of Jesus in Christian theology. I wrote this book without any overt theology because I wanted to appeal to a secularist audience with historical arguments that can be assessed on their own terms. But from another angle, the theological theme of the book, though I don’t mention it explicitly, is idolatry. People spontaneously worship all kinds of things, flags and money among the most prominent of them. Where I depart from Durkheim is that I think that there really is a God, and that we can try, tentatively and humbly, to discern true worship from idolatry. One of the signs of true worship, I think, is the attempt to eschew violence.

CM: Have you gotten much feedback about the book yet? Do you have an idea of how it is being received? Is it being read by the audience you hoped to reach?

WC: The book is being read in the theological world, but I’m happy to report that it seems to be getting out into other disciplines as well. The historian Brad Gregory did a nice review of it, it has been featured in Historically Speaking, and it has been reviewed in several international relations journals. There will be a conference on the book at Dartmouth in May 2012, and I might be the only theologian there.

CM: What part of the book are you most proud of? What are you least satisfied with?

WC: I would say that I am most pleased with Chapter 3, where I really feel like I did my homework and dug into the historiography of the so-called “Wars of Religion.” There are 311 endnotes in that chapter, which at least illustrates my appetite for tedium. I’m sure historians will find things with which to disagree, but I think I made a plausible case, at the very least.

If I could revise the book now, I would make it clearer in Chapter 2 that I do not embrace a functionalist view of religion. Several reviewers already have missed my disavowals in the conclusion of that chapter. I think the battles between substantivists and functionalists over whether, for example, Confucianism and nationalism are really religions miss the point. I would call myself a constructivist; the really interesting question is under what circumstances and why some are convinced that Confucianism, for example, is a religion, and others are vehement that it is not.

CM: Like you, I want to hang onto the usefulness of “ideology critique” (in this book you criticize what you call “secular ideology” in the subtitle of the book). However, ideology critique is often viewed as passé in some quarters of the field, as it is seen to imply an opposition between illusion and reality and to presume some sort of positivist, direct access to reality (e.g., how can you unmask illusions unless you have some sort of privileged access to the reality behind the mask?). How would you respond to an objection along those lines?

WC: As I say in the introduction to the book, the best way to unmask a myth or an ideology is to show that it does not do what it says it does. In this case, the myth of religious violence does not reduce violence but masks it. The myth of religious violence can only be undone by showing that it does not have the resources to solve the problem it identifies, which is the problem of violence.

At some point the critique of the critique of ideology runs out of gas. Of course it is true that access to reality is rarely direct, but if we have no ability to say that some ideas are true and some false, then we are really screwed.

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2 Responses to On the Myth of Religious Violence: An Interview with William T. Cavanaugh

  1. Cris says:

    Splendid interview Craig. Thanks for the heads up on this book, which I will now have to get. Another book near and dear to your heart will be reviewed this coming week over at my place…..

  2. Pingback: ধর্মীয় সহিংসতার মিথ - shahitya.com

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