Doesn’t religion cause killing?

by Scott Youngren

Doesnt-religion-cause-violence“If a person doesn’t think that there is a God to be accountable to, then what’’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?” –Convicted serial murderer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer

The idea that religion causes violence is taken as an almost self-evident truth in many circles.  Atheists often use this as a justification for embracing a “secular” lifestyle and belief system that does not acknowledge the existence of God.  But there are big problems with this line of reasoning.  Religious scholar William T. Cavanaugh writes in The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict:

“What would be necessary to prove the claim that religion has caused more violence than any other institutional force over the course of human history?  One would first need a concept of religion that would be at least theoretically separable from other institutional forces over the course of human history. …The problem is that there was no category of religion separable from such political institutions until the modern era, and then it was primarily in the West.  What meaning could we give to either the claim that Roman religion is to blame for the imperialist violence of ancient Rome, or the claim that it is Roman politics and not Roman religion that is to blame?  Either claim would be nonsensical, because there was no neat division between religion and politics.”

“It is not simply that religion and politics were jumbled together until the modern West got them properly sorted out.  As Wilfred Cantwell Smith showed in his landmark book, The Meaning and End of Religion, religion as a discrete category of human activity separable from culture, politics, and other areas of life is an invention of the modern West.”

“…The first conclusion is that there is no trans-historical or trans-cultural concept of religion.  Religion has a history, and what counts as religion and what does not in any given context depends on different configurations of power and authority.  The second conclusion is that the attempt to say that there is a trans-historical and trans-cultural concept of religion that is separable from secular phenomena is itself part of a particular configuration of power, that of the modern, liberal nation-state as it is developed in the West.”

Thus, it is impossible to establish which conflicts were caused by “religion” and which conflicts were caused by “politics” or “culture”  because such categories have no intrinsic meaning, but rather, are human inventions…


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