Writing at America Magazine, Catholic theology professor William T. Cavanaugh makes a strong case for doing away with the simplified notion that religion causes violence. In point after point, example after example, he builds up to this:
The crucial point is this: people devote themselves to all sorts of things. People treat all sorts of things as their religion. With regard to the question of violence, people kill and die for all sorts of things; there is no good reason to suppose that people are more inclined to kill for a god than for a flag, for a nation, for freedom, for free markets, for the socialist revolution, for access to oil and so on. In certain contexts, ideologies of jihad or the sacrificial atonement of Christ can lend themselves to violence. In other contexts, belief in the free market or in Greater Russia or in the United States as worldwide liberator is what releases killing energies. If the biblical critique of idolatry is on the mark, there is no essential difference between the two, between religious and secular causes. There is no religious/secular distinction in the Bible. In the Middle Ages, the religious/secular distinction was a distinction between two types of clergy; it meant nothing like what we mean by it now. The way we now use the religious/secular binary is a modern, Western invention; it does not simply respond to the nature of things.
Instead of saying that religion causes violence and secularism doesn’t, Cavanaugh argues for a blame-everyone alternative which is “empirical” and “case by case”:
It must be repeated—though it should go without saying—that nothing justifies the violence done in the name of Islam or any other faith. My point is simply that nothing justifies violence done in the name of secular faiths either, and that there is no essential difference between the two kinds of faith. Both are based on pre-rational narratives of belonging and deliverance. A sound approach to violence avoids making sweeping statements about religion, as if we knew what that was, and adopts a more empirical, case by case approach, on a level playing field between religious and secular ideologies and practices.
I agree wholeheartedly with Cavanaugh’s logic in “The Root of Evil” — there is no way to blame religion as such or secularism as such for violence while exonerating the other one. But at the same time, it doesn’t follow that one must remain silent about religion leading to certain kinds of violence much more than secularism, and secularism leading to certain kinds much more than religion. Or noticing that there are different levels of consciousness, some of which are more prone to violence than others, particularly if they are at the Red stage of cultural evolution, whether they are secular or religious. Tribalism is tribalism, and people in a survival-of-the-fittest mindset will act violently when pushed whether they are surviving in the name of a god or ideology or nothing in particular. At the same time, there is a form of pacifism which is distinctly postmodern, and it can be found among secular hippies and liberation theologians. It makes sense to analyze the pacifist’s predisposition towards violence by means of the common Green qualities.
What Cavanaugh doesn’t completely do is look beyond the binaries he opposes, he simply sets them aside for a moment and then asks that we pick them up again and hold them a little more lightly and play with them more carefully. That’s fine, but it’s still comparing religion to secularism. It’s when you begin to see both religion and secularism as varieties of an evolutionary spiral of unfolding — completely balanced with the empirically rigorous attention to keep our feet planted on the ground — that you might take a giant leap towards peace and progress.