Myth Busters. Myth #3: Religion Tends to Cause Violence. Therefore, Religion should be Contained by the Secular Nation State, which is Inherently less Violent.

Early in the last decade Mark Juergensmeyer of the University of California, Berkeley, published a book titled Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence.  The cover had three pictures: Shoko Asahara, Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Laden.  One would expect that, if the author is to illustrate the book so entitled by putting three pictures on the cover, he would select people who actually believed in a supreme deity.  Curiously, out of the three people only one, Osama bin Laden, claimed to believe in God.  This is a noteworthy instance of the confusion widespread in Western society regarding matters of religion and violence.

The roots of the confusion go all the way back to the so-called “wars of religion” of the seventeenth century.  Catholics and Protestants, says the widespread narrative, were unable to sort out their religious differences by peaceful means.  This resulted in what later became known as the Thirty Year’s War, which devastated entire regions of Europe.  People saw the need to contain violent religious impulses in order to preclude another war of religion.  The result was the emergence of the European secular nation state that was supposed to keep those impulses in check.  However, in other parts of the world, particularly in Muslim countries, these violent religious impulses continue to run wild.  Most notably, Iranian theocrats keep nurturing those impulses while racing toward the creation of their own A-Bomb.  The only way to stop this frightening prospect is to arrange for replacing Iranian theocracy with a secular government.  This narrative assumes that there is a transcultural phenomenon, religion, which causes violence.  This phenomenon can be separated from other spheres of society, such as politics and economics.  Given that religion causes violence, this separation is highly desirable.

During the past two decades these assumptions have been challenged by several important scholars.  Particularly, the subjects of religion and violence are treated by William T. Cavanaugh of DePaul University in his groundbreaking book titled The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict published by the Oxford University Press in 2009.  Cavanaugh examines in depth the historical record of the Thirty Year’s War.  He gives numerous instances of warfare between people of the same faith, such as frequent wars between Catholic France and the Holy Roman Emperor.  In fact, the latter half of the war was mostly a fight between Catholic France, on the one hand, and the Catholic Habsburgs, on the other.  On the Protestant side, Lutheran Swedes demolished the Lutheran city of Copenhagen.   French Cardinal Richelieu gave his support to the Lutheran Swedes in their fight against the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Pope supported the Swedish-French alliance.   And, of course, mercenaries sold their services to the highest bidder: Ernst von Mansfield worked first for the Catholic Spanish, then for the Lutheran Frederick V, and subsequently switched sides several times.  In light of these facts, is it really plausible to claim that the Thirty Year’s War was a “war of religion?”  It seems political and economic interests were at least just as significant in causing the war, and it is at best unclear whether the birth pangs of the emerging secular nation state would be a more sound description of the Thirty Year’s War than “wars of religion.”

But the problem goes even deeper than whether religious or political considerations were decisive in causing the war.  The very idea of religion as distinct from the secular is of fairly recent making.  Before the Enlightenment, as John Milbank famously noted, there was no “secular.”  The creation of the secular did not begin in earnest until after the Thirty Year’s War.  This is why it is so challenging to separate theological from political and economic factors in determining what caused the war.  One would find it just as challenging to separate theological from political and economic factors in examining the regime of Iranian theocrats.

The relevant question for our purposes is whether the emergence of the secular nation state led to a decline in violence.  There are those who maintain that violence is indeed on the decrease.  For example, Steven Pinker of Harvard points that we no longer brand or flay people, break people on wheel or burn cats alive for entertainment (  However, there are others like Ian Kershaw of the University of Sheffield who speaks about progressive increase in violence over the last two centuries (  The worst wars between 1815 and 1914 were the Crimean War (1856-56, 400,000 dead) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71, 184,000 dead).  The First World War brought more than 8,000,000 military casualties and, according to some estimates, about 5,000,000 civilian deaths.  The Second World War came with at least 40,000,000 casualties, about 27,000,000 civilian.  Note the dramatic increase in the percentage of civilian casualties, which cannot be attributed solely to the perfecting of technology for mass killing, such as bombing.  This increase certainly reflects the overall brutalization of warfare.  Add to the mix the Chinese Cultural Revolution (40,000,000 deaths), the victims of Stalin’s famine terror unrelated to World War II (20,000,000), the Pol Pot Genocide in Cambodia (1,500,000 – 2,000,000 people), the Armenian genocide (850,000 – 1,500,000 victims) and the picture becomes even grimmer.  Kershaw cites the blending of popular sovereignty with nationalist ideology as the most crucial factor in the eruption of violence after 1919.

Of course, the nineteenth century was the time when the secular nation state emerged in full force.

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  1. Interesting narrative Andrey. Is there any connection to the rise of secular nation state and religious persecution? It seems Christians are being persecuted at high rates around he world.

  2. Andrey Shirin

     /  February 5, 2013

    Thanks, Tom! Persecution for people’s faith was certainly a significant part of all the atrocities mentioned in the blog and then some. Determining the scope of religious persecution more precisely depends on how religion is defined. The funny thing about religion is that no one knows exactly what it is.


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