Religion and Violence (Horror)

It should be obvious that there is, of course, no single or linear-causal relation between religion and violence. As argued by Religious Studies scholars, this is a modern secular myth. Attentive to difference, one could note that there is civil religion and uncivil religion, a religion that respects people and one that does not, a religion of humility and kindness and a religion of supremacy. But this fine distinction does nothing to explain the pronounced correlation between religion and social exclusion or for the phenomenon of religion as a non- unique form of social violence. Viewed analytically, religion is a force and power of social cohesion that exacerbates social conflict, a force or power of group cohesion that exacerbates inter-group and intra-group violence. Religion is a source of social division and dissolution, and, at the same time, a force of social formation.

The impossibility of separating religion from society is what makes the problem of religious violence so acute. The academic study of Religious Studies will have always recognized that religion is not something simply private. At the core of religion is the group. The group is its ground. And at the core of group life is violence. Group life is structured by external and internal lines of difference by which the group seeks to extend the territory of its range and power. In this respect, the violence of religion is ordinary, not uniquely religious.

The relation between religion and violence is primarily social and historical, but not simply. Unique to religion as such and to religion as a source of violence is the structure of spiritual valuation, the special intensification that religion brings to group life and by extension to group violence. Religious rites and representations symbolize the social life of the group in the form of a supplement. As understood by Derrida, a “supplement” can both complement its object or overtake and replace it.

As a supplement, religion crystalizes the social practice of group life and group power into a normative or superior order that is set apart from the society into which it secretes itself, which it seeks to represent. But religion is not simply homeostatic. What Durkheim called the negative cult is also aggressive. Under conditions of conflict, as an elementary form of human society, religion attracts violence which it shapes and stamps with the special aura of the holy before the presence of the will of God and the gods. Religion is a nexus that sharpens the force of social violence into a distinct and sacred schematic.

Religious violence and ordinary (profane) violence constitute two overlapping modalities. There is ordinary group-creating violence and group-maintaining violence. And there is religious violence. Ordinary group violence is directed towards a primary political or economic purpose. Ordinary group violence us supposed to further the interest of the group and of vested group actors in the name of the group. Religious violence is symbolic, mediated through symbols. Religious violence is like a circle. Like religion itself, religious violence spins around its own axis, which makes it hard to stop.

The still influential counterargument by William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (2009) is against the notion that religion promotes violence in any unique way. He claims that this is a myth, and then calls it “a variation on the idea that religion is an essentially private and nonrational human impulse, not amenable to conflict solving through public reason” (p.121). Cavanaugh’s is the popular and convenient line in critical religious studies and conservative religious discourse. The point is to argue that religion and society are not separate, while wanting to distinguish non-violent from violent forms of religion. This is the nub of the argument. The claim by Cavanaugh is that there is no religion that “harbors an unchanging impulse toward absolutism” and that “to blame violence on religion as such makes it difficult or impossible to distinguish good theology from bad theology, or peaceable forms from malignant forms” (p.229).

The problem with this argument becomes evident assuming its central thesis. Religion and religious violence are especially volatilizing not for being private and irrational but precisely because religion and religious violence constitute social mechanisms. But these mechanisms conform to an internal logic or code. In a similar way, “good” and “bad” religion are distinct one from the other without, however, being separable. Violent and non-violent religion belong to the same social genus and spiritual matrix, both steeped in the power of the sacred. Good religion is good when it is able to contain the power that saturates religious social structure. Good religion is only good when it is itself contained by non-religious authorities and actors, held in check, and folded into larger rubrics of the common good. Bad religion is absolute when pushed and pushing against constraining limit.

In On Suicide Bombing, Talal Asad sets out to understand why people in the liberal west are so horrified by the spectacle of suicide bombing. Asad sets out to blur the difference between the religious violence of the suicide bomber and the secular violence of the liberal state, even as he establishes a basic distinction between the one and the other. According to Asad, what one might otherwise call religious violence has two aspects. First, the violence of the religious suicide bomber is the “the collapse of social and personal identity” and the “dissolution of form.” Second is the transmutation of violence into a schema of religious redemption (p.3, emphasis added). In this act of deconstruction, Asad speaks to the western response to acts of terror inspired by political Islam, while rooting it in the very sacrificial structure of Christian theology.

Reading him against the grain of his own critique of western liberalism, Asad provides a theoretical resource with which to understand the phenomenon of religious violence as a special form of horror. In religious violence, “perhaps what horrifies [the liberal imagination] is not just dying and killing (or killing by dying) but the violent appearance of something that is normally disregarded in secular modernity: the limitless pursuit of freedom, the illusion of an uncoerced interiority that can withstand the force of institutional disciplines.” Writing in an romantic vein against iberalism, Asad argues that liberalism “disapproves of the violent exercise of freedom outside the frame of law.” He goes on to state that liberal law or the modern law of the secular state “itself is founded by and continuously depends on coercive violence.” From this he concludes that there is no real difference between the just war of liberalism and the so-called evil acts of religious terrorism (pp.91-2; emp added).

But the argument trips itself up if, in fact, it is true that secular violence is bound up in law and legal structures, which religious violence works to “dissolve,” “transmute,” or otherwise suspend. We see this dissolvent-transmuting dynamic at work in the State of Israel today under the pressure of an ultra-rightwing and ultra-religious government. As Asad could have predicted, liberal Israelis and liberal Jews in the Diaspora are horrified at the attack against secular society by religious zealots and Haredi reactionaries who now hold critical levers of political power in Israel. And I think he explains why. Israeli state structure is secured and maintained by power and is no less violent than religion. But liberal or ordinary violence works towards liberal or ordinary ends that are pragmatic. In contrast, political religion and religious violence are rooted in a value scheme that is higher than the ordinary life of the larger society. The political-symbolic violence of uncivil religion starts in the magical circle, and extends out into the world as an assault against the rule of secular law and liberal norms, against economic and state structure itself, in order to secure the religious rule and domination of the circle as it take over group-life.

Subject to dissolution and transmutation, the state is a secular institution, while, for its part, the holiness of religion is a force set apart from the ordinary life into which it intrudes. This can be tracked in actual time and place. Religious sites and times constitute special zones of conflict. Holidays, temple sites, etc. are always marked by contestation, a fulcrum of violence in society. In Israel and in Palestine, the Temple Mount and Hebron are flashpoints in ways that an ordinary place like Tel Aviv is not; particularly around holidays like Passover and Ramadan. Under conditions of social stress and conflict, these turn into hot points at hot times. Religions signify and symbolize, always meaning “more” than life itself. A violent and truly horrifying thing is when religion takes over and seeks to transform society into the crystal image of its own sharply drawn circle.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Religion and Violence (Horror)

  1. dmf says:

    It’s a mistake to reify Religion as some-thing that acts or has qualities, better to examine the impacts of rhetorics/acts, even if one is to take a more classic theological position then better to talk in terms of the relations between God(s) and people.

    • dmf says:

      to add a bit to this, to whom or what should we look to in order to grasp the qualities/impacts of a Religion, what would we compare them to to ascertain whether or not they are representative and by what means?

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