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Does Religion Cause Violence? (Book Review)

There is no shortage of new books on the relationship between religion/theology and violence. Does Religion Cause Violence? is the second from last in an eight-volume series called “Violence, Desire, and the Sacred” published by Bloomsbury, and it contains proceedings from the 2016 “Violence in the Name of Religion” conference in Melbourne, Australia at which over a dozen scholars spoke.

The series is a contemporary exposition and interaction of the thought of René Girard. The appendix of the volume contains a short three-page summary of Girard’s thought for those who are unfamiliar with it. Girard provided insight into the relationship between religion and violence according to his unique anthropology. He argued that people have psychological “mimetic” desires that ultimately terminate in envy and rivalry between individuals. These accumulate, infect society, and threaten to break down the social order. The escalation of this conflict then becomes focused on a single individual or group chosen by the social whole, who becomes a scapegoat for discharging the conflict. Hostile desires of “all against all” become “all against one” (230). The victim of this sacrifice becomes sacred (even divine) because of how crises give way to peace, and because of how essential the victim is for regularly keeping violence in check. Fundamental aspects of religion emerge from this whole repetitive process, such as prohibition (things not to be done), myth (narratives and stories), and ritual (procedures of how to deal with violence).

The implications of this theory are numerous and profound, and that is the focus of the collection. Consider first what this theory suggests about the nature of primitive religion. “Girard’s position is not that religion motivates violence,” one author (Hodge) writes, “but that violence gives rise to and is remedied by the cultural functioning of religion. The original function of religion according to Girard was to mitigate and minimize violence in order to prevent social collapse and to stabilize human societies” (44). This is very different from the contemporary “myth of religious violence,” which William Cavanaugh critiques in the first chapter. In this popular view, there is a transcultural and transhistorical essence to religion that separates it from politics and economics, and this core “has more of a tendency to promote violence than secular phenomena have” (8). Both with and without help from Girard, Cavanaugh argues that all the premises of this perspective are invalid.

A second implication of Girard’s theory is that because of the basic retraining function of religion, a society that rejects all religion is in serious danger. As Hodge put it, “While the injustice of scapegoating the innocent has certainly become evident to modernity, this moral advance comes at the expense of weakened cultural protections. It leads to the possibility of unrestrained, ‘apocalyptic’ violence, according to Girard” (42). And Girard seems to have been right. The post-religious era of the twentieth century gave birth to the most violent century in human history. “Both Hitler and Stalin were hostile to religion” Girard himself writes, “and they killed more people than all past religious wars combined” (19). It is the loss of sacrifice, “the only system able to contain violence, which brings violence back among us” (18).

The third implication of Girard’s theory is that  “the functional equivalent of archaic religion is still operative in many societies” (16). This is seen most evidently in the judicial system, which shares the same function of sacrifice (to put a final end to the conflict). It is also seen in the modern nation-state. “From the beginning, religions and politics (or the state) have been in competition for the management of violence and their relationships have rarely been peaceful” (71). In one of the most fascinating chapters, Dupuy argues that nuclear bombs now play the role of the sacred: “We must not be too close to the sacred, because it would release the violence that it keeps in check, like a Pandora’s box; we must not be too far from the sacred, because it protects us from our own violence” (103). The bomb is our own “violence exteriorized in the form of a nonhuman entity,” which threatens our own survival (103). Today’s nation-states can’t live with nukes, and can’t live without them.

The fourth implication of Girard’s theory is what it suggests about Christianity. According to Girard, what happened with Jesus is that “religion overcomes its origins: the innocence of the victim is revealed, the scapegoat mechanism is exposed, and human desire is shown to be distorted and diverted from its true source in God the Father’s gratuitous and self-giving love” (231). Christ is the crucified and risen victim: “The gospels’ recognition of the injustice and self-sacrifice of Jesus’ death saw them relocate the experience of the transcendence in the nonviolent love of Jesus, rather than in the violence of the mob” (43). Given the incarnation, “This radical immanence combined with an absolute transcendence—both infused with gratuitous love for the other—is the ultimate antidote to violence” (51).

Hodge suggests that this radical immanence is something that modern Islam struggles with (51). The contentious topic of “Islamic extremism,” “violent extremism,” and “Islamicism” is the subject of the last half of the book. A number of Islamic and religious studies scholars probe this heated debate, some arguing that the pertinent passages of the Qu’ran have been misapplied or misunderstood. Others address the evolution of the term “jihad,” contend with Girard’s definitions of religion and provide corrections, and explore the ideological and cultural DNA of ISIS—all in excellent scholarship and writing. As a Rothbardian libertarian and teacher of world religions, I found Asma Afsaruddin’s chapter “Islam and Violence: Debunking the Myths” particularly fascinating, especially as she centers her argument on the principle of non-aggression within the context of the Qu’ran and Islamic history. Other essays specifically interact with Afsaruddin’s arguments.

The book provides a good balance to Violence and the World’s Religious Traditions (Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts, Michael Jerryson, eds., Oxford University Press, 2016). Together, these two volumes provide readers with remarkably concise and contrasting perspectives on religion and violence. The only disappointment in this volume is its stiff price tag (over $100) for a 228-page collection of articles.

This review was originally published on Reading Religion.

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