Reading Cavanaugh on the Invention of “Religion”

One of the books I’m working through now is William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence. If you’re open to a little heresy (not heresy directed toward Christianity, but toward religion-like phenomena like nationalism, capitalism, Marxism, etc.), check it out. His contention is not that it is never the case that a cultural phenomenon we’ve been trained to call “religion” (e.g., Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc.) resorts to or is complicit in violence. Rather, he is arguing that because the boundary lines between “religious” phenomena and “secular” phenomena are so arbitrary (and of recent Western vintage), they are of little use in ascribing greater tendencies toward violence in “religion” than in, say, “nationalism.”

Here’s a choice paragraph (p. 120-1):

“’The West,’ ‘modernity,’ ‘liberalism,’ and so on are not simply monolithic realities, but are ideals or projects that are always contestable. Part of the function of ideology, however, is to present these projects as based on essential realities that are simply there, part of the way things are. As we saw in Locke’s writings, the religious-secular distinction is presented as embedded in the immutable nature of things. In fact, however, this distinction was born with a new configuration of power and authority in the West and was subsequently exported to parts of the world colonized by Europeans. Within the West, religion was invented as a transhistorical and transcultural impulse embedded in the human heart, essentially distinct from the public business of government and economic life. To mix religion with public life was said to court fanaticism, sectarianism, and violence. The religious-secular divide thus facilitated the transfer in the modern era of the public loyalty of the citizen from Christendom to the emergent nation-state. Outside the West, the creation of religion and its secular twin accompanied the attempts of colonial powers and indigenous modernizing elites to marginalize certain aspects of non-Western cultures and create space for the smooth functioning of state and market interests.”

Here in the US our civil religion is very closely tied to our Christianity for all but a few baptist (“small ‘b’ baptist,” as James Wm. McClendon, Jr. would say.) sects and groups we usually consider way beyond the pale like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Which kind of religion results in more deaths each year? Which inflicts more violence around the world?

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2 Responses to Reading Cavanaugh on the Invention of “Religion”

  1. Sean Perry says:

    In reality, no single religion could guarantee us a place in Heaven. In the end, what matters is how we a treat other people.`-~

  2. Colton Diaz says:

    actually it doesn’t matter what Religion you may have, as long as you treat the other person right.:~`

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