Book Review: “The Myth of Religious Violence” by William Cavanaugh

William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence (hereafter MRV) examines the oft-perpetuated notion that religion causes violence. Cavanaugh levels an attack against this notion that comes in two primary directions: 1) He argues that “ideologies and institutions labeled ‘secular’ can be just as violent as those labeled ‘religious’”; 2) He argues that the “twin categories of religious and secular” are constructs which are used to “provide secular social orders with a stock character, the religious fanatic, to serve as enemy” (3-5).

Violence in the name of…

Cavanaugh first turns to the analysis of violence. He argues that rather than just declaring “religion” violent, people should engage in an empirical study. In analyzing various “ideologies, practices, and institutions” like “Islam, Marxism, capitalism, Christianity, nationalism, Confucianism, secularism, Hinduism…” “A careful examination of the varieties of each [worldview] and the empirical conditions under which each does in fact support violence is helpful and necessary. What is not helpful is to divide the above list into religious and secular phenomena and then claim that the former are more prone to violence… such a division is arbitrary and unsustainable on either theoretical or empirical grounds” (16).

Next, Cavanaugh analyzes three ways that religion is supposed to be tied intrinsically to violence. These are that “religion causes violence because it is (1) absolutist, (2) divisive, and (3) insufficiently rational” (17-18). MRV follows several important thinkers who argue from each camp. Cavanaugh concludes that:

[T]here is no doubt that, under certain circumstances, particular construals of Islam or Christianity contribute to violence… Where the above arguments [about the intrinsic ties of religion to violence]–and others like them–fail is in trying to separate a category called religion with a peculiar tendency toward violence from a putatively secular reality that is less prone to violence. There is no reason to suppose that so-called secular ideologies such as nationalism, patriotism, capitalism, Marxism, and liberalism are any less prone to be absolutist, divisive, and irrational than belief in, for example, the biblical God (54-55).

The Myth of Religion

In a very real sense, MRV could just as easily be titled The Myth of Religion. Cavanaugh argues extensively for the conclusion that “Within the west, religion was invented as a transhistorical and transcultural impulse embedded in the human heart, essentially distinct from the public business of government and economic life” (120).

The attempt to define “religion” has “nothing close to agreement among scholars…” (57). In fact, “[t]here is a significant and growing body of scholars… who have been exploring the ways that the very category religion has been constructed in different times and different places… Religion is a constructed category, not a neutral descriptor of a reality that is simply out there in the world” (58). Following Jonathan Z. Smith, Cavanaugh states, “religion is not simply found, but invented. The term religion has been used in different times and places by different people according to different interests” (58).

Cavanaugh argues towards these conclusion through multiple lines of evidence. First, the concept of religion itself is different across different times and places. The Western notion of religion is not mirrored in other cultures (61). Yet even in the west, the concept of what denoted “religion” evolved. The concept was used simply to mean “worship” in the past (63). Through the medieval period, religion basically just meant “rites” or “piety”: religion was “not a universal genus of which Christianity is a particular species” (64-65).

Thus, religion was “invented in the West.” Now it has come to mean a “universal genus of which the various religions are species” (69). Part of this development was due to a need in the Reformation to demarcate differences between the varying schools of thought (72ff). When moderns use the concept religion in a universal fashion, such as Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) did, the problem “is that it is unfalsifiable. In constructing an a priori religion in the minds of all people, Herbert [and those like him] has made his theory impervious to empirical evidence. All evidence is seen and interpreted through the lens of his religious view a priori” (77). “There was a time when religion, as modern people use the term, was not, and then it was invented” (81).

MRV then outlines two ways to define religion, either through a substantavist–one which focuses on the content of religion–or functionalist–which focuses on how a practice functions–approach. The problem with a substantivist definition is that “even if one were able to come up with a coherent, transhistorical, and transcultural definition of religion which would include things like Christianity and Confucianism and Buddhism and exclude things like Marxism and nationalism and capitalism, it would not tell us anything worthwhile about the cuases of violence. Indeed, to exclude [the latter three] a priori from an investigation of violence in the service of ideology in fact distorts the results of any such study” (105). Functionalist definitions fare slightly better because they define religion in such a way that “‘if it looks like a religion and acts like a religion, then it is a religion’” (109). This approach is capable of including things like the American Civil Religion.

Thus, Cavanaugh states that “there is no transhistorical or transcultural concept of religion. Religion has a history, and what counts as religion and what does not in any given context depends on different configurations of power and authority… the attempt to say that there is a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion that is separable from secular phenomena is itself  part of a particular configuration of power, that of the modern, liberal nation-state as it developed in the West (59).

What does this mean for violence and religion? Cavanaugh proposes a test:

The crucial test, however, is what people do with their bodies. It is clear that, among those who identify themselves as Christians in the United States, there are very few who would be willing to kill in the name of the Christian God, whereas the willingness, under certain circumstances, to kill and die for the nation in war is generally taken for granted (122).

The Creation Myth of the Wars of Religion

The story goes that, after the Protestant Reformation divided Christendom along religious lines, Catholics and Protestants began killing each other for holding to different doctrines. The wars of religion… demonstrated to the West the inherent danger of public religion. The solution to the problem lay in the rise of the modern state, in which religious loyalties were marginalized and the state secured a monopoly on the means of violence…

This story is more than just a prominent example of the myth of religious violence. It has a foundational importance for the secular West, because it explains the origin of its way of life and its system of governance. It is a creation myth for modernity (123).

Following the lines of thinking of Voltaire, John Locke, and others, Cavanaugh argues that the myth of religious violence is perpetuated in order to marginalize that which is considered religious and give rise to the nation-state. According to this myth, “All theological religions are to be tolerated, provided they do not interfere with the obligations of citizens to the state…” (129). The myth is that religion is divisive and that they “fight over doctrines or ‘religious creeds’” so that “the state steps in to make peace” (130).

Cavanaugh shows that this myth is indeed false. The “wars of religion” had any number of motivating factors. The use of this story is not so much to tell a truth as it is a means by which to legitimize the nation-state. He argues towards these conclusions by showing that many “wars of religion” were in fact wars of economy, wars of power structures, and the like. He notes four primary factors for this myth to work: that combatants were motivated by religious difference, that the primary cause of war was religion, that religious causes are analytically separable from political, economic, and social causes at the time of the wars, and that the rise of the modern state was not a cause of the wars (141-142). He then analyzes each of these in turn based upon the historical record and shows that these all fail to account for the actual history of the “wars of religion.” In fact, the opposite is true in each case (142-177).

“We must conclude that the myth of the wars of religion is finally incredible, which is to say, false” (177).

The Uses of the Myth

Perhaps the most challenging and paradigm-shifting portion of the book is that which focuses upon the uses of the myth of religious violence. Cavanaugh argues that the myth is so perpetuated because of its usefulness.

First, he analyzes the use of the myth in building the “wall of separation” between church and state. He examines a number of supreme courses and how the myth of religious violence was used to favor the constructed notion of “secular” over that of “religious” (183ff).

The myth of religious violence is used to create a religious “other” which can then be exploited, coerced, and denigrated. “[R]eligion–or more precisely, religion in public–is what the liberal nation-state saves us from” (192). History is revised in order to show how religion is that which causes violence, while the secular nation-state is that toward which we should turn for salvation.

Oddly, it is permitted, encouraged, and sometimes even required to give devotion to the nation state, while this is not religious. “We are all Americans, and devotional exercises [the pledge of allegiance, venerating of the flag, etc.] meant to instill love of our country are unitive, not divisive. Such exercises, however, are not religion. Patriotism, in this world view, is defined over against public religion. To allow that patriotism might be a type of religion and might carry its own dangers of violence would threaten the very basis of our social order” (192).

On a functionalist definition of religion, however, nationalism counts as religion. “American religion” has “saints (the founding fathers)… shrines (Independence Hall)… relics (the Liberty Bell)… holy scriptures (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution)… martyrs (Lincoln)… inquisition (school boards that enforce patriotism)…” and various religious festivals (Flag Day, the Fourth of July) (117). Nationalism is prevalent in many countries. Religion is privatized, secular nationalism is standardized and enforced. Not only that, but “Only the nation-state may kill” (118).

Again, Cavanaugh’s point ties into his earlier discussion: the ties to violence must be an empirical study based upon ideologies, not one based upon constructed categories of religious and secular. These categories are faulty in-and-of themselves. Furthermore, they undermine the possibility of the empirical study of violence. Nationalism and secularism–ideologies in other words–can be every bit as violent as some ideologies called “religion.”

The myth is also used to hide possible “secular” causes for war. Al Qaeda is specifically religious, and the West is all too happy to use this to ignore the fact that its own mistakes in installing regimes in the Middle East has caused the rise of absolutist, controlling states (202ff).

Worst of all, the myth of religious violence has been used to carry out violence against the religious other. Those who perpetuate this myth often use it in order to legitimize violence against the religious person, who, after all, is irrational and incapable of reason due to their religious beliefs. Sam Harris is a prime example of this notion. He argues that “There are other ideologies with which to expunge the last vapors of reasonableness from a society’s discourse, but Islam is undoubtedly one of the best we’ve got” (HarrisThe End of Faith, 136, quoted in Cavanaugh, 214). Furthermore, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them… Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of peaceful means of persuasion while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others” (Ibid, 52-53, quoted in MRV 213). Notice how this works: the religious other is that which is unreasonable and violent; in order to stop their violence, it may be ethical to kill them for their beliefs. Harris is not the only one who perpetuates this ideology. Cavanaugh cites a number of other thinkers who have utilized the myth of religious violence in this fashion.

Killing for religion is bad, killing for the state is often good (219). As Cavanaugh states, “The myth of religious violence thus becomes a justification for the use of violence. We will have peace once we have bombed the Muslims into being reasonable” (215). This analysis of violence again plays off the myth of religious violence: “Violence labeled religious is always irrational, particularly virulent, and reprehensible. Violence labeled secular, on the other hand, no matter how regrettable, is often necessary and sometimes even praiseworthy for the job it does defending us from religious violence” (216).

Violence feeds on the need for enemies, the need to separate us from them. Such binary ways of dividing the world make the world understandable for us, but they also make the world unlivable for many. Doing away with the myth of religious violence is one way of resisting such binaries, and, perhaps, turning some enemies into friends (230).


It is rare that one comes across a book that forces them to rethink just about everything they have thought about a specific issue. William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence is one of those books which will challenge readers on every level of the discussion. It has an extremely broad scope, but argues convincingly and with a depth that seems almost indefeasible.

The myth of religious suffers a number of serious defects. It assumes an unwarranted division between the constructed categories of “religious” and “secular,” it oversimplifies the justification for violence, it is a clear example of a creation myth used for the founding of the nation state, and most alarmingly it is used to justify violence against the religious other.

The myth of religious violence may live on on the popular level, but Cavanaugh has dealt its death blow. Whether it takes 50 years or never happens, the myth has been destroyed.

The review has been lengthy, but that is due to the importance of this topic. I will be expanding on and elaborating Cavanaugh’s ideas over the course of the next 1-2 months. Check back here, where I will post links to future posts, or be sure to follow the blog to catch the posts over the coming weeks.

Finally, I want to say that this book was a gift from an anonymous donor from this site and I must say Thank you, you have been a huge blessing! It was so delightful to receive a book out of the blue, and to have it be so fantastic was another reward.

Be sure to check out the original post here.


William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (New York: Oxford, 2009).



DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About J.w. Wartick

Christian Apologetics and Philosophy of Religion are J.w.'s passions, and God continually opens new opportunities for him in this area. He has been accepted to Biola University to work towards a Master’s Degree in Christian Apologetics. J.w. is a student member of the Evangelical Philosophical Society and the Evangelical Theological Society.


Book Review: Revelation by Richard Swinburne, Hope’s Reason: A Journal of Apologetics, Volume 1, p. 5-8.

“Past, Probability, and Teleology,” Hope’s Reason: A Journal of Apologetics, (2010-2011 Volume 1) p. 67-78.

  • IgtheistMorgan

    Certainly, religion can mask an underlying desire to commit imperialism and so forth, but believers can certainly cite passages from their holy books to justify violence. Please, counter those in the Tanakh that plead for genocide and such and Yeshua’s false dilemma that we are either for or against him, when many are indifferent. Please. get someone like Harriss to comment on this topic here for a fuller discussion.
    Thank you for this excellent essay,J.W.!
    Skeptic Griggsy, Carneades

  • Tom Gilson

    This is a superbly crafted overview, J.W. I think I’m going to want to buy this book.

  • Pingback: Oxford University Press book asks: does religion cause violence? « Wintery Knight