Professors consider nature of religion
By Abbie Kouzmanoff, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, May 14, 2012
American and European university professors gathered this weekend to debate the controversial concept of religious violence during a three-day conference hosted at the Rockefeller Center May 11-13. Panelists tackled the question of whether religion is inherently violent as addressed in William Cavanaugh’s book “The Myth of Religious Violence,” according to conference director and government professor James Murphy.
Cavanaugh presented his core argument in a keynote address, and panelists then presented their own opinions and findings, with commentary from Dartmouth professors. Cavanaugh argued that religious violence is often used to deflect attention away from the prevalence of nonreligious violence in the modern world, according to Murphy.
“Cavanaugh’s argument is that the notion of religious violence is a story we cling to because it hides unpleasant things we don’t want to face: nonreligious violence, violence done to spread democracy or to spread capitalism or to spread empire or the other kinds of sources of war such as nationalism or Marxism,” he said in an interview with The Dartmouth.
Modern liberal states claim that religious violence and the religious wars in early modern Europe were a destructive and chaotic problem that has since been solved by the creation of the secular state, Murphy said.
“According to them, we now have controlled religion and violence by privatizing religion and stripping it of any political power, and that’s why we now have such happy societies that aren’t dominated by crazy religious violence,” he said. “So our violence now with the Middle East is rational and intelligible, but their violence is religious and crazy.”
Murphy said that various atheists have argued against religion by claiming that it is inherently violent. This argument, however, does not adequately address the violence enacted by Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin, he said.
Cavanaugh explained that these atheists make the case that Nazism and communism are themselves religions.
“Obviously that’s just meant to cover up the embarrassing fact that a lot of violence in the world is not religious,” he said.
Murphy said that the topics discussed at the conference can help us question nonreligious violence, as well as the definitions of both violence and religion. He said that the conference was relevant to the current conflicts in the Middle East and showed that violence cannot be explained by religion in this region anymore than it can be elsewhere.
There remains a lot of disagreement about the very nature of religion and violence, government professor Lucas Swaine said in an interview with The Dartmouth.
Swaine said that the panel on which he served sought to determine if there is something uniquely violent about Islam, a question that is important and relevant to the world today.
“Many seem to think that Islam is a violence-prone religion, both in terms of its doctrinal elements and in terms of the actual behaviors of Muslims,” Swaine said. “My fellow panelists and I tried to work through these issues productively.”
Rice University history professor Ussama Makdisi said that many people make assumptions about Islam that lead them to believe it is uniquely violent, but that it is “absurd” to assume that Islam is more violent than any other religion.
Because Cavanaugh’s book incorporates a “rich mix” of fields, the conference was able to bring together philosophers, sociologists, historians and theologians in an interdisciplinary setting, Murphy said.
“This conference shows how disciplinary knowledge can be brought to bear on issues of permanent moral and intellectual importance,” he said. “A conference like this addresses important live topics of major importance. It’s the liberal arts in action.”
Swaine said that the conference engaged scholarship on a broad range of topics in both religion and conflict, tending to issues from historical, philosophical and theological angles.
The conference was sponsored by the Daniel Webster Project in Ancient and Modern Studies and was organized by geography department administrator Kelly Woodward.