I have been arguing in previous posts, following William Cavanaugh and many other recent scholars of religion, the claim that ‘religion’ as a concept ought not be regarded as static or transcendent entity. I have qualified that by including Spinoza’s account of ‘non-philosophical’ thought for a more liberally tolerant society. Cavanaugh’s work is compelling because he gives us a rationale for ideological factors as to why this may be the case for so many people living in Western nation-states. But I am not convinced that just because ‘religion’ has become a scapegoating mechanism to legitimate nation-state violence that people who commit violence in the name of religion are doing the same thing as people who commit violence for faith in nation.
I think there are older roots, but the problem for people who think about religion in the 21st century is that we need to unpack the notions of religion that were specific to how people understood it at various different times. It is clear that Carl Schmitt essentialized religion in the same way he wanted to essentialize as “other” the alien nation states that give identity to his concept of the political. This tendency to essentialize, was characteristic of the twentieth century that was the cousin to fascism.
We can frame this as a tension between religious essentialism and the history of ‘religion,’ ‘religions,’ and ‘religious studies.’ An intersection between structuralism (or essentialism / phenomenological approaches to religious experience) and history manifests what might be characterized as the problem of the twentieth-century: a tension between vertical, sacred time, and horizontal, secular time. This tension was brilliantly, even if over-simplistically, pointed to by Mircea Eliade’s inadequate book, The Sacred and the Profane.
The monolithic view of religion as static and unchanging has given us conflicting views on the notion of monotheism as well as produced the very notion of religious studies. Drawing on late nineteenth century scholars such as Friedrich Max Müller, David Chidester has traced the emergence of religious studies as an academic discipline to the process of European colonization. The category of religion was used to distinguish between practices of indigenous peoples and the official citizenship introduced by colonizers. Chidester writes,
Imperial comparative religion merged knowledge and power, not in any simple social physics of cause and effect, as if the study of religion could cause imperial expansion, but in the ways in which knowledge about religion and religions circulated through the networks of empire. As we have seen, that knowledge could be used to support empire, but it also accompanied empire in its circulations through colonized peripheries, such as South Africa, in ways that simultaneously enabled and destabilized the production of knowledge about religion and religions in imperial comparative religion. Alternative knowledge, shaped by local factors, was also produced. (312)
Because of this, Chidester says that we cannot simply dismiss the terms “religion” and “religions” because they are historically produced. Rather, we should use attention to those very terms to track change over time. With Chidester’s words in mind, I want to turn attention to more recent conceptions of the development of religion in relation to the state, and the particular discussion of monotheism’s part.
Much recent work has focused on the idea that religious violence is caught up in the very idea of monotheism. There is something to this argument. Marcel Gauchet’s The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, for example,argues that the idea of transcendent religion arises in Mesopotamia and Egypt 3000 years ago with the first states, that the state becomes more formalized with emergent monotheism, and culminates with the more recent “rational religion” that presents itself as the very overcoming of religion itself. Gauchet writes,
the fundamental paradox of religion is both to gain self-possession by consenting to dispossession, by turning away from the goal of dominating nature and to legislate on our own behalf in favor of another goal, namely that of securing an identity defined and controlled at every step. (7)
The “dispossession” we consent to, according to Gauchet, while echoing Spinoza’s idea of democracy and the state of nature, comes in the form of an acknowledgement of inheritance and ancestry. The ancient world’s large projects such as Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids are partially accounted for in this view. Gauchet goes on:
Religion in its pure state is drawn into a temporal division that puts the present into a position of absolute dependence on the mythical past, and guarantees the irrevocable allegiance of all human activities to their inaugural truth. At the same time it ratifies the non-appeasable dispossession of human actors from what gives substance and meaning to their actions and gestures. The key to inter-relationship between religion and society, as well as the secret of the nature of the religious, lies in its radical conservation which structurally combines co-presence to the origin with disjunction from the originary moment, combining unstinting conformity to what has been definitively founded with a separated foundation. (25)
In this view, both the individual and the state here are figured within a founding violence that preserves through conservation (religio) while enacting dispossession through the setting aside (sacred). An inattentive reading might confuse Gauchet’s poststructural approach with the structural binary between sacred and profane at work in Eliade. But poststructuralism is at least partly characterized by its unwillingness to observe meaning synchronically; a diachronic and historical method is necessary.
Gauchet’s work then tends to be of more lasting potential than, say, Rodney Stark’s One True God. Stark begins strong relying on an economic, cost-benefit approach to religion that I associate with rational choice theory. By chapter three he diverges from his main thesis and, while I don’t think Stark intends it, minimizes persecution of Jewish people by Christians during the late medieval era. Stark ends with an interesting take on the formation of American “Civic Religion” while illuminating aspects of Adam Smith’s take on the Reformation. Stark’s book is pre-9/11, yet it tends to align Christianity and Judaism against Islam, at least implicitly, focusing especially on “secular” Jews in the United States. While some of the information is good, the initial claims about monotheism get lost in the mix. Still, Stark concludes,
Nowhere does religious apathy and alienation prevail so widely, and nowhere is there a greater potential for religious conflict, than in societies where one religious body attempts to maintain a monopoly. The key to high levels of religious commitment and religious civility, is not fewer religions, but more. (259)We might characterize Stark as the neoliberal view of religions – expand in plurality to maintain healthy competition, no one gets too powerful and everyone is happy. Not just more religions but more Gods will help destroy the negative effects of monotheism. I read this as wishful thinking.
According to Gauchet’s historical and poststructural view, monotheistic religion does give us the notion of citizenship and a transcendent concept of governance. During the Enlightenment, rational religion’s attempts to overcome ‘religion’ itself amounted to further attempts to separate the founding act of the nation-state from past myths. This accounts for the emerging figure of the irrational enthusiast, extremist or schwarmerei on the one hand, and the patriot on the other hand – and the “terrorist” somewhere in between.
Deterritorialized “terrorists” can be anywhere, inducing a constant state of exception where liberals are asked to cede liberties for strong decision-makers. In that sense, I think Cavanaugh is correct to claim that the myth of religious violence is produced by the emergence of the modern nation, but we should also be aware that the concept of “religion” itself is not static.
However, as important as Cavanaugh’s claims are, clearly there are earlier examples of religious violence that are especially important for the current global political situation. Here is where the apocalyptic and persecuting tradition enters, or as I have alluded, “apocalyptic desire.” In other words, it is not only a matter of “institutionalized religious violence” versus “nation-state violence.”
As Thomas Asbridge makes clear in his detailed account, The First Crusade: A New History: The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity and Islam, masses of religious genocide occurred well before the development of modern nation-states or the Protestant Reformation. Religion, as Spinoza and Machiavelli both note, was used to galvanize forces and to create political stability. Asbridge writes, “the First Crusade was not utterly abnormal, but an extreme product of concerns common to all ages of human society: the need to contain mankind’s innate appetite for violence; and the desire to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ warfare” (21).
According to Asbridge, while Islamic armies had conquered Jerusalem and other Christian territories, the region had been relatively stable for several centuries with the main conflicts occurring between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. In fact, had it not been for the in-fighting among Muslims, the rag-tag bunch of European Christians would have never made it to Jerusalem. While later Crusades were less and less successful, the technique of galvanizing for religious causes became somewhat of a European tradition.
As R. I. Moore details in his book of the same title, this was The Formation of a Persecuting Society. It is here that I believe we can look for the true roots of the state of exception, rather than in the narrative of emergence from a state of nature developed by early modern political theorists. Moore details the policies of the Catholic Church as it determined various enemies that needed eradication: heretics, Jews, and lepers. Moore notes,
Nor, and this is perhaps the crucial point, does it seem that other civilizations evolved to such perfection the essential mechanism which made this continuous growth possible: the construction of a rhetoric and apparatus of persecution capable of being turned at will from one category of victims to another, including if necessary those invented for the purpose. (151)
In Making War in the Name of God, Christopher Catharwood traces this history from medieval Europe all the way into the conflicts in the 1990s between Bosnians and Serbs. In a sense, he contrasts Lifton’s argument that cults like Aum Shinrikyo are doing something new. Catharwood writes,
the world, despite the scale of events in New York and Washington DC, did not change on 9/11. Rather (and I am adding to my own interpretation here), what happened was that, tragically, America found itself caught up in a conflict that has lasted over a thousand years, and which has a strong likelihood of remaining around for a long time to come. (169)
Indeed, there is reason to believe that an increasingly globalized world will also accompany an increasing amount of religious people, though as Olivier Roy and Joshua Ramos note, this does not amount to a simple “return of religion.”
Concluding Reflection on The Contemporary Situation
Is the idea of the “death of secularization” merely a secularized version of apocalyptic rhetoric where the fear of death is held as a reason for liberal democratic society to change its ways? Eric Kaufmann’s demographic studies in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth lead one to believe there is some truth to the idea that secular democratic society is waning. According to him the rapture will take place slowly over about the next seventy years.
For every liberal democratic citizen from a secular background like myself, who has prioritized the value of education over family, and who supports a woman’s right to choose when and where she will have children, there is an exponentially growing number of religious people in religious communities intending to populate the planet with their values. By sheer numbers alone, according to Kaufmann, people like me will die out, lonely as Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. As Kaufmann says,
Moderate faith is being squeezed by both secularism and fundamentalism, its contradiction. Furthermore, the titanic struggle between secularism and fundamentalism takes place on a battlefield tilted in favour of faith. We inhabit a period of ideological exhaustion. The great secular religions, with their utopian dreams, have lost their allure. Relativism and managerialism rise in their stead. (269)
Kaufmann’s words, though written as a secularist lament, strikingly echo Carl Schmitt’s anti-liberal thinking during the Weimar period. The fears will likely cause violence between secular and religious folks. This is partly because, as Hector Avalos argues in Fighting Words (and building on some of the rational choice theories that inspired Rodney Stark), religious violence is caused by the perception of scarce resources, especially with respect to sacred space.
Avalos makes a good case for the inherent violence in Abrahamic religions, but his argument will not be convincing to believers of “essentialist” versions of any of those traditions. While his scholarship is thorough, its emphasis on scriptural analysis. Although well done, leads one to wonder who Avalos’s intended audience is. He counters trends in academic “apologies” of religion well, but, while he at least gives a definition of religion, that concept is rather monolithic and unchanging.
Even though I tend to agree with a lot of what Avalos says, he risks another kind of essentialism with his term ‘religion.’ He ends his book with the situation between Israel and Palestine saying, “Islamic violence against the West will not be resolved unless the Israel situation is solved” (377). Avalos calls for the U.S. government to induct religious education programs to better understand global politics and to combat religious people’s tendencies to cause violence over the scarcity of resources that do not tangibly exist (378).
On a similar note, Jean-Pierre Filiu’s Apocalypse in Islam appears to take up the task Avalos calls for, tracing the history of apocalyptic thinking in Islam. It is for the most part an informative book for “westerners” to understand the geography, politics, and recent historical events that have created a variety of actors and interests in the Middle East. It destroys all monolithic conceptions of Islam that appear in media in the west.
Most interestingly, Filiu has a good literature review of innovations in the very old apocalyptic literatures in religions “of the book.” We see the stereotypical scapegoating as a production of modern consumerism itself, even as the “extremist” elements blame the so-called “West.” He covers the Islamic clerics who denounce such literatures too. In doing so, Filiu shows how much apocalyptic Islamist literature corresponds to and interacts with Christian millenarian literature (and, less stated, gnostic and mystic traditions).
Filiu ultimately sees the “radical Islamist” varieties as breaking from their Christian counterparts calling for global war. Disturbingly, Filiu characterizes an ongoing persecution of the “eldest brother” of the religions “of the book.” He says, “Christian and Muslim enthusiasts of apocalypse all agree on one fundamental thing, namely, the extinction of the Jewish people following Jesus’s reappearance on earth” (197).
When combined with the writers on the Crusades and Kaufmann’s claim that religiosity will continue to grow, as well as even Avalos’s call to attention to Israel, the situation looks grim. It is especially grim because much of the money and United States support for Israel comes from two powerful myths, the first one related to a well-known Christian millennial eschatology and the second stemming from Cavanaugh’s description of the myth of religious violence.
Christian religious violence will thus continue to demand United States support for Israel while the manifestation of Nazism as fanaticism, often linked to a so-called Islamic genocidal tendency toward Jews, will keep quiet a rapidly decreasing population of weak conceptions of liberal values of tolerance. That is, unless U.S. policy makers are able to overcome their fear of history and their mistaken assumptions about secularization that lead them to tacitly support Christian religious violence in U.S. foreign and domestic policies.
We have domestic examples of this problem. Sociological studies of religion in the United States show a blurring of categories of “religious” and “spiritual” and a widespread avowal of “Golden Rule” Christianity. Nancy Tatom Ammerman’s early work on religious fundamentalism brought her into public notoriety as a critic of the F.B.I.’s handling of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in the early 1990s. At the time she argued against common views of Koresh’s followers as hostages, highlighting how difficult it is for outsiders to understand the sincerity of faithful people.
Drawing on this past, Ammerman has more recently developed a well-funded study of religion in every day lives of Americans. In Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes Ammerman had a team of researchers track almost 100 people trying to make sense of how they engaged with religion in their daily lives through interviews, personal journals, and even asking informants to take pictures with cameras and describe them. Ammerman makes the seemingly tautological claim that people who practice within faith-based communities leads to more ‘spiritual’ lives. But her point is that practice deepens one’s sense of spiritual well-being.
Implicitly, it is not so much a matter of the popular dichotomy between spiritual and religious as it is exposure to, and consistent engagement with, religious community that produces an individual’s religiosity. Ammerman concludes: “It is that fundamental recognition of a “more than ordinary” dimension in life that is the common thread running through all the spiritual stories we have explored. It is sacred and it is transcendent, and this sacred consciousness constitutes the domain sociologists of religion can and should be studying” (292).
While Avalos might balk at the reliance on a notion of transcendence as a non-material resource, Ammerman’s study shows that many mainstream folks are heading down a religious path just as Kaufmann’s demographics predict. It is here that I want to address the “ideological exhaustion” to which Kaufmann, echoing Carl Schmitt’s critique of liberal democracy, refers. I want to couple it with the ideology critique that William Cavanaugh proposes, and which has provided a lot of framing for me in this essay. I will do this by returning briefly to the discourse of Political Theology.
While Political Theology has different and more specific variants as a term in Christian discourse, the rise of interest among scholars has occurred since the late 1980s. This has also accompanied questions concerning the nature of religious discourse in the public sphere, particularly in the post 9/11 era. In the early years after the attacks, the Italian philosopher of aesthetics, Giorgio Agamben, built on Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology, calling the post 9/11 era an extended state of exception.
Accompanying this, according to Agamben, is the disappearance of a certain European notion of transcendence in favor of more immanent views, especially in relation to bulky legal apparatuses that cannot function in states of exception. These “leaderless” states imply an “absent throne” (or perhaps a puppet-throne) and a return to nature, the pre-political, or the perennial. Agamben names this, building from Schmitt, explicitly in the bookState of Exception, saying,
The immediately biopolitical significance of the state of exception as the original structure in which law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension emerges clearly in the “military order” issued by the president of the United States on November 13, 2001, which authorized the “indefinite detention” and trial “by means of military commissions” (not to be confused with military tribunals provided for by the law of war) of non-citizens suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. (3)
Essentially, Agamben argues that since 9/11 the United States has been in a state of exception where legal apparatuses are constantly suspended because the deliberative process is too slow to react to states of emergency. This would continue into the Obama administration and particularly the debates over use of drones and the President’s use of military power in Libya during and after the Arab Spring.
In specific connection to the discourse of Political Theology, Agamben and other intellectuals have been taking a scrutinizing look at the foundations of liberal nation states in attempts to make sense of economic collapses and large-scale humanitarian problems. The place of religion in relation to politics and the public sphere is central to the discourse.
Many, like philosopher Jurgen Habermas, feel that what liberal democracies need is an “awareness of what is missing” with regard to shifting views about secularization. Along with Habermas, philosophers such as Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, as well as a younger generation – Judith Butler, Giorgio Agamben, Simon Critchley, and Paul Kahn – have in the past decade engaged increasingly with the role of religion and ethics in the public sphere. In general, this amounts to a willingness to engage with religious thinkers in public forums.
Habermas’s discussions with Joseph Ratzinger (before he became Pope) evidence this when he says, “Indeed, a liberal political culture can expect that the secularized citizens play their part in the endeavors to translate relevant contributions from the religious language into a language that is accessible to the public as a whole” (51-52). Much of the work presented in this paper shows that liberal philosophers like Jurgen Habermas are doing a lot of wishful thinking. It also shows a forgetting of foundational liberal thinking like Spinoza, for whom religion has always had a place in society and needs no translating.
Liberals like Habermas are losing control over media production, dissemination, and control. That is partly why both Europeans and some Americans are so afraid of refugees. Similarly, the academy is losing its intellectual base as a home for secularized freedom of thought, speech, and intellectual experimentation because the historical roots of liberalism have been forgotten by taking dogmatic approaches to a secularization narrative that was not necessarily meant to be anti-religious. This is coupled with the masking mechanism of the myth of religious violence, which protects state violence while producing essentializing and trans-historical notions of religion.
But not all political-theological work has taken on such tepid liberal democratic posturing and dogmatic acceptance of a long-lost narrative of secularization. When we look at a radical thinker like Spinoza we see an early and foundational thinker of liberalism in favor of democracy. Spinoza’s idea of both democracy and what later came to be the Enlightenment had little to do with a process of secularization, nor did it reject religion.
Spinoza assumed religion would keep its place in liberal society, that it would continue to speak to those who did not want to philosophize or who were not able. Spinoza advocated for a “true” democracy as closest to a state of nature, and for him, a state of exception would not be a return to a Hobbesian state of nature of all out war. His Jewish background allowed his thinking a freedom from the eschatological salvation narrative present in later Enlightenment figures like Kant and Hegel.
Many of the thinkers addressed in this essay have had something implicit to say about religion, religious violence, and the state of the “West” as a seat of secularism as if it were a matter of a binary separation of secular and religious. Cavanaugh, like so many others in the field of religious studies, have been saying for a long time that such divisions are inaccurate and not useful.
It is true that the United States government in policy-decisions, criminal justice, and military strategizing, have had a costly ignorance about religion. But more difficult is a cultural amnesia about the foundations of liberalism and why they came to be. I suspect this has to do with an ongoing acceptance that persecution and genocide are somehow okay if tragic. It is something that continues to affect Indigenous peoples around the world through the ongoing inclusion of Christian ideologies such as the Doctrine of Discovery in legal apparatuses.
So long as that remains true, there is something to Carl Schmitt’s claims about theological concepts at work behind the scenes. This is a eurochristian worldview. The lesson of liberal democracy ought to be that they do not need to be there and that religion is not backward or irrational or any more violent than the state use of violence. The call to violence itself ought to signal the inequity of power and self-determination.
For fundamentalist Christians, it has been more than okay to advocate for ongoing Jewish genocide while touting the sacredness of the holocaust in the Second World War as the only sacred and true holocaust and the state of Israel as the essentialized vision of Jewishness (as if Jews like Bernie Sanders did not count!). I have tried to suggest here that a deeper examination of the liberal tradition that focuses on Jewish thought as opposed to an eschatological vision of an apocalyptic state of exception might be one way to weaken the ongoing persecuting society.
Another way, though less discussed here, would be a thorough deconstruction of the eurochristian myth of civilization as man emerging from a state of nature. When we unpack such ideologies, we see that indigenous people have long been cast as beasts living in a state of nature, incapable of holding property and dependent as “wards of the government.”
We see the poorest people in the world suffering the most injustice and restrictions on liberties. A truly “liberal” society would give up its reliance on the myth of religious violence and take responsibility for its own illegitimate violence. It could start by recognizing on political maps the many separate and sovereign nations within the territories called the United States. It could also show the world why politics like Donald Trump’s are an embarrassment and a threat to liberal democracies everywhere. It could hold a political community and media that allows Trump to get as much attention as he does accountable for their absolute neglect of civic responsibility and for trying to bring about an apocalyptic impulse as a death wish, because they have no sense of creativity in addition to an amnesia for the poetics that established liberalism in the first place.
Finally, if Americans (and others around the world) are too compelled to believe that a state of exception is a true state of nature, it is because they have not acknowledged and lost contact with the ways Indigenous people lived for thousands of years before so-called eurochristian civilization. This is not a call for romantic longings for an un-alienated state of nature that exists in the eurochristian imaginary. It is a call to attention to the ongoing effects of imperial power and colonization, of wars that uphold unjust states, and the Lethe of a society where acquiring higher education is indentured servitude to a tacitly eurochristian apparatus of violence and extraction.
We need to reject an oversimplified and essentialist idea of ‘religion’ as merely an outdated breeding ground that produces violent fanatics. Such thinking only comes from a lack of education and intellectual laziness. But this does not necessarily mean a “return” to religion at the seat of public policy. Rather, it means decoding the eurochristian violence that produces a persecuting society as it globalizes its economic offspring. One big problem in current American politics has been an emboldening of rightwing and far-rightwing investment in eurochristian “values” for imperialism and violence at the level of the state in both domestic and foreign policy.
A John Lennon-inspired utopic imaginary of no religion isn’t going to work either. As Spinoza said, not everyone is a philosopher, but given broad access to education and having the ability to live and thrive once educated will be necessary for any semblance of liberal democracy to exist. It is not a “choice” about religion versus liberal democracy, as Eric Kaufmann suggests. It is about the value of education to sustain memory, communication, ethics, and human thriving; it is about separating these values from profit and inequitable power distributions that will determine our ability to forestall the impulse toward apocalyptic violence, states of exception, and mono-maniacal sovereigns.
Roger Green is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens (2019) and the recent dissertation Ayahuasca in the Wake of the Doctrine of Discovery (2020). He has collaborated musically with Anne Waldman on Untethered I (Fast Speaking Music 2017). He is also contributor to an edited collection by Miguel A. De La Torre, The Colonial Compromise: The Threat of the Gospel to Indigenous Worldview (2021), which celebrates Tink Tinker’s career and teaching. He’s currently co-authoring a book with Tink Tinker on eurochristian worldview.