Religion, Violence and Agriculture?

So I skipped Philip Jenkins and my friend David Holcomb to hang out with my family this weekend, but I could not pass up a chance to hear one of my biggest influences, William Cavanaugh, speak. I mentioned before that he inspired my Eucharist as Eat-In post as well as the series on his book Being Consumed. His topic was “Violence and the Religious/Secular Distinction.” Let’s see if it eventually ties back into agriculture.

One of the things that draws me to Cavanaugh is his clarity. The to remain unnamed Baylor professor that presented a paper before him was eloquent and intellectual, but I could not get his point. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what he was saying. All of the sentences coming out of his mouth were grammatically correct and coherent, but there was no real focus, no feeling of purpose. Cavanaugh on the other hand is like a laser that cuts through all the foggy intellectualism and brings a clarity of vision and purpose to bear on his subject. He is what intellectuals should be if they wish to serve any larger purpose in the world. Now that I’m done heaping praise…

His forthcoming book on which his talk was based seems to have three main theses:

  1. The religious/secular distinction is neither real nor helpful
  2. There was no recent resurgence of religion that proved the secularization thesis wrong. Religion just migrated from the church to the nation-state
  3. The myth of religious violence is a tool that enables the state to legitimate violence by drawing a distinction between religious and secular violence

Cavanaugh deftly cuts through a lot of the arguments on both sides about violence and the religious/secular distinction, by pointing out how notoriously difficult it is to define religion. Many seek to create a distinction that points out the difference between state and religious violence, but their definition of religion is broad enough to include ideologies such as capitalism, marxism and nationalism.

Cavanaugh used a 1940s court case against Jehovah’s Witnesses as an example. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were charged with not participating in the Pledge of Allegiance in school. The court found that national cohesion and patriotism trumped the free exercise of religion in this case. The Supreme Court later overturned this case, but the language used in this case to make an artificial distinction between our national civil religion and all other forms of religion continues. The argument is still made that the use of God in our founding documents, patriotic songs and official government occasions and ceremonies as somehow fundamentally different from the use of the word God in religion.

So, it should be clear that Cavanaugh is arguing against the notion that the secularization thesis, that humanity would eventually evolve past religion and it would disappear completely, was somehow defeated because this amorphous thing called “religion” made a resurgence. The secularization thesis was defeated because it was always wrong and religion migrated from the church to the nation state as the church privatized religion and accommodated to the surrounding culture.

Finally, Cavanaugh argues that the religious/secular distinction is used to create a myth of religious violence that somehow legitimates state violence against religious extremists because the one is fundamentally different than the other. If his thesis is correct, this is nonsense. The truth is that we must use these constructs to continue to legitimate violence be dehumanizing and “othering” the people that threaten us in some way, whether its actual physical harm or more of an ideological threat.