The Problem is Religion – but not in the way we think

ReligieThe terror attacks in Brussels on Tuesday have once again raised questions about the relationship between religion and violence. In today’s post, Erin Wilson reflects on these issues, exploring key arguments made by Prof William Cavanaugh during his recent lecture in Groningen and book The Myth of Religious Violence

On Tuesday this week, ISIS claimed responsibility for two terrorist attacks that took place in Brussels, one at the airport and one at Maelbeek metro station. Thus far, 31 people are confirmed dead and 300 injured.[1]

On that same day, it just so happened that the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain was hosting a talk by Prof William Cavanaugh, asking the question ‘Does religion cause violence?’ The lecture theatre was packed, many people deciding to come at the last minute, following the events of Tuesday morning.

Cavanaugh related the story of giving a similar talk at another university in the US. On his way to the lecture theatre, he noticed one of the posters advertising his talk. Underneath the question, ‘Does religion cause violence?’ an enterprising student had written simply: ‘Duh!’

The idea that religion is somehow more prone to violence than any secular value system or idea structure is extremely pervasive in contemporary Euro-American contexts. Indeed, it is arguably the idea that underpins the rules and institutions that govern our liberal democratic societies. Religion causes violence, therefore in order to live peaceably together, we must privatize religion, exclude it from public life and in this way limit its chaotic and violent effects. From this perspective, religion is clearly the main problem, and secular political orders are the solution.

This argument rests on a basic assumption that is also at the heart of contemporary liberal democratic orders – religion is the thing that people will disagree about most vehemently and violently, the thing that they will be most unwilling to compromise over, that they will hold absolutist views on and that will ultimately lead to them giving their own lives and taking the lives of others to defend and protect. That is why religion is so dangerous, because people will always disagree more strongly and violently over it than anything else. That is why we require secular, liberal, democratic political orders, to protect us from the extremism of religion.

Cavanaugh outlines several problematic assumptions that sit behind this line of argumentation.[2] The first is the idea that people are more likely to kill and be killed for religion than for other systems of thought or belief. A brief survey of twentieth century history highlights that this is clearly not the case, with millions being put to death under Stalinism in Russia and communism in both China and Cambodia. Yet, we do not even have to resort to such extreme political ideologies. Nationalism has also been one of the main ideas that has contributed to millions of deaths in the last three hundred years. Giving one’s life for one’s country has become a widely accepted noble act, going to war to defend a country’s honour and security an act of patriotism, service and sacrifice to be lauded. This idea has somehow become accepted as more rational and more logical than going to war in the name of religion.

A second and related flaw in the idea that religion is more prone to violence than secular systems of thought and belief is the assumption that people will more violently disagree over issues to do with religion than over anything else. Over and above politics, economics, healthcare, gender, sexuality, the environment, religion is what fundamentally divides people. Therefore we have to remove it from the public sphere so that we can have reasonable, rational conversations about the other issues that we disagree on.

But why do we assume that religious disagreement is somehow prior to or more important or significant than all these others issues and convictions that we also disagree on? Violence has erupted as a result of deeply held convictions on all sorts of issues – the violence against suffragettes in the early 20th century, violent protests and responses to protests against the Vietnam war, the ‘Battle of Seattle’ in 2000 between anti-neoliberal protesters and police, the Zapatistas in Mexico, hate crimes perpetrated against the LGBTI community – the list goes on. If we look at the arguments and justifications provided by terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda in the 2000s and ISIS today, many of their grievances are political – the indiscriminate bombing of military and civilian targets alike by Western powers, uncritical support for the Israeli state, the imposition of sanctions that lead to starvation and otherwise preventable deaths amongst civilians.

Some will argue that the violence perpetrated in response to these other issues is often motivated by religious belief. Of course, religion may well be part of the reasons that people resort to violence. It would be difficult to argue that religion did not feature at all in the logic of ISIS, but if we look at the arguments that the terrorists themselves articulate, it is equally difficult to argue that religion is the main reason why they do what they do. In focusing solely on religion, we run the risk of missing other issues and problems contributing to the eruption of and resort to violence. Consequently, we also miss potential alternative ways of dealing with and responding to the violence.

This highlights a third problem with the idea that religion is more violent than secular worldviews – how can we clearly distinguish between what is ‘religion’ and what is not? As Cavanaugh highlighted in his book and lecture, the category of ‘religion’ is often defined by reference to the worship of a god or gods. But this would then exclude some systems of thought that are often included under this term, such as Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism. In response, some thinkers expand the category of religion to a reference to the transcendent rather than just to god or gods, but then this requires that nationalism and certain forms of Marxism, for example, also be counted as ‘religion’, which many would disagree with. We think that there is something special and clearly identifiable about ‘religion’, but when explored closely, ‘religion’ is often a shifting category. When the categories themselves shift, it is difficult to sustain a coherent argument.

And this is where ‘religion’ is the problem, but not in the way we often think it is. ‘Religion’ is the problem because we in Euro-American contexts have made it the problem. We have interpreted our history in such a way as to argue that there is something that we can label as ‘religion’ and that it is the fundamental thing that divides people. We make ‘religion’ and ‘religious people’ into something that is clearly identifiable, that is fixed and unchanging across time and space, so that we can contain them and exclude and marginalize them from politics and public life. But in doing so, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people are identified and defined by others according to only one aspect of their identity for long enough, they will soon start to identify themselves according to this characteristic. If this feature of their identity is the main justification for excluding and marginalizing them from politics and public life, then that will also soon become the main source of their resentment and form a major component of their resistance. Perhaps if we stop treating religion as the problem, it will stop being the problem. Perhaps if we acknowledge that many things, not just religion, divide people and can lead to intolerance and violence, we will begin to find alternative pathways through the seeming impasse between ideologies of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies University of Groningen

William Cavanaugh is Professor and Director of the Centre for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago.

Professor Cavanaugh’s lecture was the first in the series ‘Religion and Conflict’. Two more lectures are planned in the series on 29 March and 5 April.


[2] William Cavanaugh. 2009. The Myth of Religious Violence. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Additional sources on the religious/secular divide and its problematic aspects include, amongst others:

Asad, T. 2003. Formations of the Secular. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Casanova, J. 2011. ‘The Secular, Secularisations, Secularisms’ in Calhoun, Craig, Mark Juergensmeyer and J. VanAntwerpen (eds). Rethinking Secularism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press

Hurd, E.S. 2008. The Politics of Secularism in International Relations. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Lynch, C. 2011. ‘Religious Humanitarianism and the Global Politics of Secularism’ in Calhoun, Craig, Mark Juergensmeyer and J. VanAntwerpen (eds). Rethinking Secularism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press

Wilson, E.K. 2012. After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan


3 Replies to “The Problem is Religion – but not in the way we think”

  1. It would appear that conflict in the broadest sense is the default human condition. Thus the question becomes “What are the motives, both individual & collective, which produce physical, verbal & psychological violence?”
    All the convictions & issues which generate conflict are man-made constructs specific as to time, place, culture etc. They are malleable under challenge because they are ultimately based on an acceptance of uncertainty. This is equally true for the beliefs of faith groups who attempt to interpret their religious texts in the light of current experience.
    The basic problem appears to lie with religious & other fundamentalists who crave the absolute certainty of their interpretation of religious & secular texts. Ultimately secular law adapts, fundamentalist religious dogma, essentially mysterious, obscurantist & open to multiple interpretations, simply endures. All social groups have a dilemma at their heart, namely how to deal with those who do not share the orthodoxy; the very people who bring dissenters need cherishing & protecting. Religious & other fundamentalists cannot reconcile this dilemma. That is their weakness & the wellspring of the violence they perpetrate.

  2. I am very interested in this subject, though not a scholar.

    In America, we delude ourselves when we think we have what we call “separation of church and state.” If one drills down through the secular language of most of our laws and societal norms, one can often find an underlying religious connection, usually biblical. For a broad example, there are our laws and norms surrounding murder, based in the Old Testament teaching that “thou shall not kill.” A more current example are the arguments used to limit legislation that protects those in the LGBTQ communities, where anything other than vanilla heterosexuality is “unnatural” or an “abomination,” referring back to Leviticus.

    For me, then, part of the solution is to first remove the delusion. One cannot repair what is broken if one does not see and understand the root cause.

    Does this mean a more severe banning of any religiously based laws and norms? Not for myself. If religion were to adapt or evolve its most foundational tenets, such as “you shall not commit murder” as opposed to the Old Testament commandment, then religious ideas could coexist with the secular.

    In America, this adaptation or evolution expresses in the general ideas held in what we call spirituality. Most who consider themselves spiritual tend to look for commonalities rather than differences, unity rather than separation. A spiritual person can even find unifying ideas between themselves and atheists through science, like redefining the term God to mean the creative energy that forms matter.

    Another part of our problem here, as elsewhere, is a return to fundamentalism. This is the equal and opposite of spirituality, which refuses to allow religious ideas to adapt or evolve. While spirituality finds unity, fundamentalism divides.

    I do not have a complete solution, but merely offer another perspective on the question.

    1. Hi Annie,

      Thanks so much for your comments and your interest in the blog and this topic. I don’t think any of us have a solution, though as you say maybe just acknowledging our own biases and talking about the issues and problems is a solution in itself. Anyway, thanks again!

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