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The Myth of Religious Violence: An Interview with William Cavanaugh

From: Historically Speaking
Volume 12, Number 2, April 2011
pp. 10-11 | 10.1353/hsp.2011.0015

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Theologian William T. Cavanaugh's The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2009) seems to have generated more interest within American intellectual culture than in academic historical circles, although Christopher Shannon discussed an earlier version of Cavanaugh's argument in the January 2011 issue of Historically Speaking. To provide readers with an opportunity to encounter Cavanaugh's most recent thinking on religious violence and related matters, senior editor Donald A. Yerxa interviewed him in December 2010.

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From The Inquisition: Its History, Influences, and Effects (Dublin, 1849).

Donald A. Yerxa:

What is "the myth of religious violence," and how did it originate?

William T. Cavanaugh:

The "myth of religious violence" is the idea that religion is a transhistorical and transcultural feature of human life—essentially distinct from "secular" features such as politics and economics—and has a peculiarly dangerous inclination to promote violence. Religion must therefore be tamed by restricting its access to public power. The secular nation-state then appears as natural, corresponding to a universal and timeless truth about the inherent dangers of religion. The myth originates, unsurprisingly, in political theorists whose purpose is, in one way or another, to legitimate a state free from the direct influence of ecclesiastical authority. The earliest versions of the myth I've found are in Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, all of whom presented the problem of violence in European society as being religion's fault, and the remedy some version of the modern state.


Would you briefly summarize your analysis of the so-called "wars of religion" in the 16th and 17th centuries?


The tale of the "wars of religion" in Europe serves as a kind of creation myth for the modern state, much as the Hebrew Genesis or the Babylonian Enuma Elish show how order was imposed on chaos by a powerful God or gods. The basic idea is that, after the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics were killing each other because religious difference is peculiarly prone to produce or inflame violent passions. So the state had to step in as peacemaker and marginalize religion from political power. It's a story that gets told over and over by contemporary political theorists like John Rawls, Richard Rorty, and a host of others. The problem with the story is that it ignores the historical record. In my book I list over forty examples of Catholics and Protestants collaborating—or Catholics killing Catholics or Lutherans killing Lutherans—in the so-called "wars of religion." These are not isolated instances; in the case of the Thirty Years' War, the entire second half of the war was essentially Catholic France versus the Catholic Habsburgs. One might conclude that these wars were really about politics, not religion, but it is important to see that there was no such neat separation between religion and politics until it was created toward the end of this period. To blame the wars on either "religion" or "politics" is an anachronism. The idea, therefore, that religion was the problem and the state was the solution is simply false. As I show, drawing on the best histories of the era, the rise of the sovereign, centralizing state over against more local forms of governance and privilege was perhaps the principal cause of the wars, not the solution. As José Casanova has suggested, the wars in question might best be labeled the "wars of early modern European state formation," not the anachronistic "wars of religion."


In your book you write, "The rise of the modern state did not usher in a more peaceful Europe, but the rise of the state did accompany a shift in what people were willing to kill and die for." Please describe this shift.


According to the standard narrative, the passions of religion were tamed and marginalized in favor of a more modest, liberal politics. One of the problems with this narrative is that the advent of the liberal state came more than a century after the close of the so-called religious wars. The end of these wars saw the solidification of the absolutist state in Europe. People might no...