Last night I had the privilege to be at a dinner with a speaker who had come to St. Scholastica in
for a talk titled, “The Myth
of Religious Violence”. He admits early on that there have been and still are
people who abuse religion to promote violence. His thesis is a much more
complex historical analysis of how we view religion today and how we justify
violence. It has some very simple errors too. Duluth,
When I had a chance to ask Mr. Cavanaugh a question after the talk, I found that he is very interested in reducing violence in the world and believes that one way to do that is to examine empirically (he used that word), what it is about religions that promotes violence and what in religion helps to build community and promote peace. Also, to be fair, and “level the playing field” as he says, we should apply those same standards and same questions to things like nationalism, something else that we know can be used to promote a strong secular society or can be used to get people to kill.
I thanked him for his time and said I think we are heading for the same goal, just along different tracks. I wanted him to have the experience of a respectful interaction with a non-theist, and I wanted to give others a chance to ask questions. Because, here’s the thing, I could have spent the rest of the night ripping his childish arguments apart. He may want to examine religion empirically, he may even believe he is doing it, I have to take him at his word, but once he starts doing that examination he does a horse shit job of it. He appears as a scholar who says “level the playing field”, but right underneath that is a big baby screaming that life is not fair.
He discussed Hinduism and Native American spirituality, two “religions” that before the modern definition of “religion” were just ways of life. For these indigenous people, their spiritual life was their life. Everything from how to plant their fields and build their homes to what caused the rain was tied into beliefs about how the world works. Beliefs that were arrived at through definitively non-empirical methods. He thinks it is funny that modern Europeans at first recognized this, but then proceeded to define which parts of their life were the religion and which were not. He also thinks it was a way to exert power over them by saying the things we, the colonizers, say are religion can only be done in your private life. We, your new government, will say what you can do in public life.
What he never addresses is, isn’t that what governments do? Whether they be theocracies or Kings anointed by Popes or spiritual circles or democracies, leaders decide when they will punish you for public behavior that is anathema to what they consider civil and right. What is different and new in our modern world is that citizens expect to have some say about those rules. He kept using the phrase “imposing our western liberal values” on the rest of the world. Those values are freedom of speech, equal pay for equal work and respect for the dignity of all. They are not strictly western, liberal or even modern.
When he talks about how the modern world defined certain aspects of social life that used to be normal, that were used to guide ancient people in decision making, but now we now call religion, what I hear is that people realized, through empirical means, that they were allowing their lives to be guided by superstition. In the past people saw no distinction between how we decided what to eat, who we slept with, how we choose our leaders and their superstitious beliefs in what was above the clouds because that’s all they knew, that’s what they were taught.
It is difficult to go back into history and determine what the Pope or King or Priest or peasant believed. It is just as difficult to know what Mr. Cavanaugh believes, because I have yet to here him say anything specific about his religious beliefs. In the end it is less important what those individual beliefs are, and more important what is actually true.
When Galileo looked to the heavens and realized his spiritual leaders were wrong, he knew he had a problem. Before that, we can hope that people who believed the earth was the center of all things were not lying, it was just what they knew. The concept of their being a religious belief different from a scientific belief would not have occurred to them. After that, if they were intelligent enough to examine the evidence but insisted on teaching what they thought their God had told them, then they were teaching a lie. It doesn’t matter what kind of belief you call it, it matters that you can demonstrate the truth.
We know some people did lie. We know because we have a Pope who outwardly said he was an atheist. In Cavanaugh’s world, people like that can’t exist. He talks about the Roman word “religio” which covered many daily habits, habits we would call “secular” today. He talks about the Medieval world, where being part of a “religious order” referred to certain types of Orders. If you weren’t in one of those you were “secular”, you could still be a monk, you just weren’t in one of those orders. He leaves no room and no place for non-believers. And, if you look for atheists in Medieval Europe, you’ll find their words in the notes made by the inquisitors who were deciding if they should be burned at the stake. They weren’t published, they didn’t have public meetings, they didn’t have a YouTube channel.
I hate to be in a position of defending violence, but under the right circumstances, if my country, the one that states all men are created equal in its founding documents and has since improved on that statement to include women and non-white people who don’t own land and is still debating this and hopefully will continue to openly discuss these issues of human rights and human dignity, if that country was really threatened by a theocracy or a charismatic dictator, I would kill to defend it. I would kill, and risk dying for Mr. Cavanaugh’s right to worship whatever the hell he wants because we are living in a country where he has agreed to allow me to not worship at all.
I hold that right as sacred, it defines who I am and I find it completely reasonable to defend it. Freedom isn’t free. I have considered the path of the complete pacifist and I admire those who would hold that ground while a tank rolls over them, but every legal system has a provision for self defense, even the laws of Moses. If Cavanaugh and I were to sit down and examine every war throughout history I expect we would agree 99% of them were unjust. If we were to discuss why they were unjust or what justice means, we’d probably end up poking each other in the eye because we couldn’t agree at all.
Cavanaugh never says what he would like the world to look like because I think if he tried, his entire thesis would fall apart. It is easy to say the word “religion” has a modern meaning. Most words mean something different from what they meant 500 years ago. It’s easy to say we have privatized religion, because we have. I can think of many great reasons for doing that. Cavanaugh never addresses them, he just quote mines Harris and Hitchens and scoffs at their worst arguments, arguments that many atheists distance themselves from. He says nationalism is just as bad or worse than religion at promoting violence, but he never delineates when nationalism goes wrong or acknowledges the value of the modern nation state that gives us clean drinking water and defined borders so we can negotiate peace and so we can live under a rule of law.
When he talks of what I guess he thinks is a better time, when we all lived a spiritual life, I wonder how he thinks this could be applied to the modern world. Does he imagine Barack Obama addressing the nation on national television saying, “Ladies and gentleman, our friends and allies in the
Mideast face a grave threat, but last
night I had a dream. I dreamt that a beam of white light shown upon the White
House and a pure energy of love and forgiveness flowed through that light. Then
a dark cloud appeared over northern Iraq and I knew it was our bombers
and our aircraft carriers that must carry that light to them.” They would be
swearing in Joe Biden before he finished the next sentence.
I have no problem using myth and story to express an idea. What I have a problem with is abusing that language to promote violence. It is too easy to do. If our president spoke that way, we would have the additional burden of first interpreting his vision and his symbolism to understand what he was justifying then we could start the reasonable conversation about dealing with innocent people being caught in the middle of a conflict partly caused by ancient beliefs in who is destined to control the land and partly caused by recent actions by us to control the resources just below that land. Fortunately, we live in a world where language like “God told me we must smite the enemy” can be questioned without the act of questioning first being considered godless, which 500 years ago meant evil. It was something that you could only express in private and even then, there were no laws protecting your right to express that thought. Your friends or family might call you out and label you a heretic which had much worse consequences than being unfriended on Facebook.
In the last question of the night in front of the audience, a friend of mine asked about how he figured we could allow for the irrational and superstitious beliefs of religious people to be tolerated and even incorporated into daily life. My friend acknowledged that not all religious beliefs are irrational, but when they are, they are the end of rational conversations. Examples could be given about allowing foreigners to cross our borders for work, or allowing same-sex couples equal rights, or a woman having control over her body, or the right to make an end of life decision. Cavanaugh responded that what stops conversation is when one person decides that the other person is irrational. If two people come into a conversation and one concludes the other is irrational based strictly on the knowledge that they are religious, then the conversation is over, it never gets started. He says we can open conversations and prevent violence by entertaining others' beliefs.
My friend recognizes the difference between rational and irrational and happens to find a lot of irrational beliefs in religion. Cavanaugh also apparently recognizes the difference between rational and irrational, but gives a lot more leeway to belief systems. I don’t know what he considers rational because he doesn’t discuss it. He also doesn’t discuss how one can have a rational conversation with an irrational person. The only thing left to discuss is specific beliefs and how those beliefs inform actions. The world has been moving ahead with that for 500 years. Mr. Cavanaugh apparently wants to reverse that.