It’s been almost a year now since Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker published his 700+ page book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes. As the title implies, Pinker’s optimistic thesis is that the large-scale violence which permeates human history is finally on its way out. The reason? Reason. Thanks to a steady decline of ancient superstition and the proud heritage of the scientific revolution, so the story goes, human beings are now destined for a future of peace. The secular has won the day, and we are better for it.
This is one kind of humanism, to be sure. After all, if humanism is to mean anything, it is that solidarity and peace is both a possibility and a goal to which we ought to strive ardently. For Pinker, this means shedding religion once and for all–but are his terms clear? Certainly a robust humanism should acknowledge the vital resources of reason in contemporary discourse. What is less certain is the stark distinction that academics like Pinker tend to make between reason and faith, secular and religious.
One of the foremost Christian scholars writing on religious violence today is William Cavanaugh, who now teaches at DePaul University in Chicago. Perhaps his most important work to date is The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. In this book, Cavanaugh argues that the “religious” realm of life is actually a recent invention of the modern nation-state. In fact, he argues ironically that these recent “secular” governments have actually worked to conceal violence under the guise of a necessary retaliation to dangerous “religion”.
But how does he get there? For starters, Cavanaugh recognizes that religion as a concept might be entirely useless if it cannot explain anything in particular. The question, “What is religion?” is a difficult one–maybe even an impossible one to answer. As he remarks:
A survey of religious studies literature finds totems, witchcraft, the rights of man, Marxism, liberalism, Japanese tea ceremonies, nationalism, sports, free market ideology, and a host of other institutions and practices treated under the rubric “religion.” If one tries to limit the definition of religion to belief in God or gods, then certain belief systems that are usually called “religions” are eliminated, such as Theravada Buddhism and Confucianism. If the definition is expanded to include such belief systems, then all sorts of practices, including many that are usually labeled “secular,” fall under the definition of religion. Many institutions and ideologies that do not explicitly refer to God or gods function in the same way as those that do. The case for nationalism as a religion, for example, has been made repeatedly…
Of course, if religion means everything, then it means nothing. If it is so easy to acknowledge religion as a culprit of violence, then why can we not understand religion in the first place? The answer, according to Cavanaugh, is a dubious one:
[H]istory is subordinated to an essentialist account of “religion” in which the religious Others cannot seem to deal rationally with world events. They employ guilt by association. They have paranoid visions of globalization. They stereotype, and blame easy targets, when their lives are disrupted by forces they do not understand. They blow simple oppositions up into cosmic proportions. Understanding Muslim hostility toward America therefore does not require careful scrutiny of America’s historical dealings with the Muslim world.
Put simply, if religion becomes synonymous with a dangerous ideology that simply rejects the careful, reasoned world of the secular, dialogue is a losing game. The vast and complex theological and philosphical traditions that created it become unnecessary; for what good is it to understand nonsense? Unfortunately, for the secular West, many times the only answer left is force.
From a Christian Humanist perspective, there is much that is to be commended in the recent movements of scientific, secular humanism. The spirit of scientific inquiry bears with it a powerful dose of optimism and progress. This is a great good, as the wonderful advancements of the scientific revolution have proved over and over again. Still, though, it is impossible to have a robust sense of peace with others and ourselves if we cannot be clear about the theological and philosphical underpinnings of our language. This is the important task set before a vibrant and impactful humanism.