When I was a younger scholar searching for an academic position, I was asked by an historian during an interview reception whether I was a Christian. Puzzled, I answered, “Yes.” “Then, would you kill in the name of Christ?”
Now shocked (but admittedly quite bemused and intrigued), I responded, “No.”
The historian smiled, having sprung his “trap,” and asked, “Then how can you say that you are serious about your faith, if you are not willing to do the most difficult thing you can be asked to do?” At this point, other faculty members noticed that this individual was alone with me and moved to whisk me away.
I later spoke with this individual again. I might summarize his argument as follows: “If you really believe that your faith is absolutely true, then you are duty bound to spread that message at any cost (even violence). Tolerance is an abrogation of one’s religious duty (and love of neighbor, since you are essentially helping consign those you tolerate to hell)—tolerant Christians, therefore, are not serious Christians.” My response came naturally. “I am serious because I actually listen to what Jesus said.” After all it is hard to imagine how one can genuinely justify violent behavior in the name of a faith that promotes such maxims as “blessed are the peacemakers” or “do not repay evil with evil.” He remained unconvinced.
What draws me to this story is not its shock value. Rather, I am interested in why he was unconvinced by my response. He was not calling religious folk hypocrites for not practicing what they preach. Rather, the premise behind his rejection was the assumption that violent religious extremism is the face of vital expressions of religion in the modern world. This conflation of religious violence with religious vitality, I would argue, did not allow him to take religion (mine or anyone else’s) as a genuine human phenomenon. I am further drawn to this anecdote because I do not think that this individual’s argument is an anomaly in our current cultural climate or in the academy. And this worries me. I am worried that religion’s new found popularity is premised on ideas that ultimately undermine our ability to take religion and religious people seriously.
If religion is alive and well in the current American consciousness, it is not hard to see why. Since the late-1970s, government officials, businesspersons, journalists, and academics have had no choice but to notice conservative, often reactionary, forms of “fundamentalism” rising as a phoenix from the ashes of religion’s quite exaggerated death. The formation of the Islamic republic in Iran, calls of jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, mass suicide at Jonestown in Guyana, and the formation of the Moral Majority in the United States were but a few examples of renewed religious activity in the world at that time. Fast forward to 12 September 2001, the day after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington; suddenly the vitality of religion in the modern world seemed terrifyingly obvious to all Americans.
In fact, since 9/11 a new popular truism has replaced the idea that religion was a passing stage in human history. Religion has now morphed into something reactive, militant, and violent. More to the point, it has become something too dangerous to ignore. For the year 2006, the top two stories about religion, as ranked by American journalists, concerned religion and violence. The top story of the year was the worldwide violent Muslim reaction to the cartoons about Muhammad published in Denmark. The second was Pope Benedict XVI’s indelicate use of a quotation linking Islam and violence (Religious Studies News, May 2007). More and more college courses on religion and violence have proliferated over the last decade to meet student interest and demand. These courses do not explore theodicy, such as theological reflections after the Holocaust; rather, they are exploring the nature of resurgent religion as a violent force in modern society. You can add to this a myriad of popular cultural despisers of religion, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens making similar claims. Even scholarly works on the relationship between religion and violence have gained popular notice. Both Terry Grose and Bill O’Reilly interviewed Wake Forest professor Charles Kimball, author of When Religion Becomes Evil. This book was also named by Publisher’s Weekly as the top religion book for 2002. Political Scientist Benjamin R. Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld was a New York Times Bestseller. And Mark Juergensmeyer’s Terror in the Mind of God was named world expert’s choice by the Washington Post. This collection of examples suggests that people are paying attention to religion, and especially to its violent manifestations.
Despite the boon such interest might have for religion departments jockeying for precious tenure lines, I feel uneasy about it, in part because religion’s new popularity seems to rest on the very conflation that the historian assumed when he asked if I would kill in the name of Christ: religion is vital only when it is open to the commission of violence. This conflation, I believe, helps undermine Americans’ ability to take religion seriously in the academy, in the classroom, and in the public arena. I also believe that those of us who research, teach, or promote proper religious engagement in our society must challenge the academy and the culture to approach the current popular interest of religious violence with suspicion lest it undermine his or her role as a scholar, a teacher, and a citizen.
Before I examine my specific objections, let me be frank. My suspicion of and worry about the idea that violent religious actions evidences vital religious faith comes from a commitment to a Christian humanism. Of course, one need not be a Christian to be a humanist, nor are all Christians committed humanists. However, I would argue that a humanism that is Christian finds its foundation in the doctrine of the incarnation. Since God became human we recognize the inherent value of all human beings. Further, if humanity has God-given value then the Christian in the academy should recognize that all things human and affecting humanity are worthy of study. Conversely, we must resist the temptation to dehumanize or dismiss someone or some human activity as “the other,” implying that they are not worthy of fair investigation. The term “human” implies that on a very basic level there is the potential to understand someone else because we share a nature with that someone else. With the Roman poet Terence, the Christian humanist asserts that “I am human so nothing human is alien to me.” In the end a Christian in the academy studies human beings and human activities with fairness and charity with an aim to see the truth about them as much as possible. All this is to say that the Christian humanist is not interested in religion simply because he or she is religious or believes in God; rather, religion also has importance because it is a human phenomenon.
Having given this far too brief sketch of Christian humanism, I would like to make a few modest observations about why I think the modern infatuation with religious violence hinders our ability to take religion seriously.
First, the scholar should be suspicious with the popular conflation of violent religion with vital religion without arguments and evidence supporting such a position. Neither the claim that religious vitality is best measured by violent actions nor that religion is inherently violent are self-evident. However, too often these ideas are posited without reflection. I want to be clear: I am not suggesting that violent religious extremism does not exist. I am also not intimating that violence has not been done in the name of religion or has not been justified by using genuine pieces of religious traditions. However, such admissions are not the same as creating a compelling case that vital religion is violent.
Theologian Miroslav Volf’s distinction between “thin” and “thick” religion provides a helpful framework to show what would be needed to make a compelling claim that vital religion is necessarily open to violence. Volf develops what he calls “thin” religion from Cliff ord Geertz’s concept of “thin description,” in which an ethnographer imputes meaning to observed actions, events, or symbols with little or no reference to the cultural systems that created them. According to Geertz, an ethnographer describes “thinly” when she attempts to understand some cultural activity out of context and without reference to the very culture, traditions, and communities in which it actually functions. Analogously, Volf argues that those who practice (and I would add observe) religions “thinly” take certain ideas and practices of a religion and overemphasize or exaggerate them without reference to the tradition as a whole and as believed and practiced over time. The “thin” practitioner or observer, therefore, ultimately creates a caricature of the religion in question. Religion in these cases has not been taken seriously.1
Volf, however, suggests that truly vital faith is not “thin” but rather “thick.” According to him, practitioners of “thick” religion are truly engaged and serious about the faith they profess to believe, because they consult and engage their religion’s full tradition over its history (Volf 2002). In order to show that a violent action is the result of “thick” practice, one must show that such violence is a necessary result from a careful and broad engagement with the religious tradition in question by the majority of the adherents of the faith over its history. Admittedly, Volf does not make the strong claim that no violent religious actions are “thick.” However, his distinction between thick and thin religion creates a burden of proof upon those who would simply posit that violent religion is vital religion. Further, simply observing that religious individuals have done violent acts throughout history does not adequately meet the burden of proof with a level of depth and sophistication that should satisfy scholarly inquiry over this question.
I would similarly assert that religion’s inherent violence is not self-evident. I believe that William Cavanaugh has rightly argued that any claim of religion’s inherent violence would need to show successfully that religion (rather than, say, emerging nationalism, economic interests, or personal lust for power) was uniquely decisive in a violent event or pattern of violence (Cavanaugh 2004). This would require first that a clear definition of religion is employed that did not assume religion’s violence. More importantly, such a claim would need to take religion seriously by determining whether the violent act was “thinly” or “thickly” practiced in the manner described by Volf. Finally, one also would need to make a comparative study across history to see if indeed religion seemed to have a decisively violent nature. The onus to prove an argument remains with the arguers in this case, especially since all of us could provide a myriad of counterfactuals, like Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, or King. Of course, I am not saying that such a study could not in theory be done; however, I have yet to see an argument made with a preponderance of evidence based upon a broad examination of the world’s religious traditions to make such a general claim about “religion” compelling.2 Anything less than such a study is anecdotal (or, worse, simply reflects the nightly news) and does not take religion seriously in a manner worthy of our academic communities.
Next, I think that the fixation on religious violence challenges our ability as teachers to take religion seriously in the classroom. It seems to me that this fixation is symptomatic of a culture that consumes violence and violent images to cure its boredom. Philip Rieff, in his classic The Triumph of the Therapeutic, noted that “a social structure shakes with violence and shivers with fear of violence not merely when that social structure is callously unjust but also when its members must stimulate themselves to feverish activity in order to demonstrate how alive they are” (2006, 8). If general members of our society feel “alive,” as Rieff says, by participating in or watching violence, we educators feel alive when our students show interest of any kind in our subject. However, we cannot be satisfied with what I will call the “Da Vinci Code syndrome.” The “Da Vinci Code syndrome” usually sounds something like this: “Well, Dan Brown may mislead people through a clever conflation of fact and fiction, but at least students are asking questions about these subjects for once.” While I agree that any question is better than no questions, I also believe that teaching students to ask good questions is better than waiting for them to ask any old questions. I worry that we educators depend too much on popular interest generated by titillating current events, exaggeration of facts, or outright misinformation, hoping these things will bring our students to the academic table of discussion. Instead, we must help students develop the skills to undertake the patient study by which they may interpret the world. I know this is idealistic and may never be fully realized; however, I have too much experience with students who by simply aiming to pass a class manage to fail it. In other words, lacking ideals is the surest way never to reach them (even in those occasional students who make teaching immediately worthwhile). Popularity is a fickle lover. Focusing on religious violence may draw students’ interest, but the notice will be fleeting and likely will leave the learning shallow.
Finally, the conflation of religious vitality with violent religious extremism challenges the ability of our culture to take religion seriously in the public sphere. Insofar as the reason to study religion is tied to its violent manifestations in the modern world, it ultimately makes religion a civic problem that needs a cure rather than a natural human endeavor that might contribute positively to society as a whole. Using the religion-is-violent thesis, the cultural despisers of faith argue that the vitality (and hence the danger) of any religion that proves itself resistant to the corrosive acids of modernity is its adherents’ unwavering and unreasonable commitment to its own “truth.” Enlightenment thinkers called this form of commitment “enthusiasm.” Enthusiastic commitments that grant assent to beliefs not proved by the light of unaided reason provided the mythic explanation of the so-called “wars of religion” that ravaged Europe’s population at the hands of Protestant or Catholic armies during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. According to such thinkers, one could avoid religion’s deadly vitality by tempering one’s assent to any religious proposition in proportion to its reasonableness. Perhaps not surprisingly, these thinkers wished to push traditional religious propositions from the category of truth and knowledge to the realm of private individuals and their opinions. Further, it was argued that the easiest way to save civil society from religion’s enthusiastic potential was to extricate it from the public sphere. Those convinced by such a view would certainly find compelling one of my colleague’s bumper stickers, which reads, “The last time we mixed church and state, people were burned at the stake.”
By not challenging the conflation of religious vitality and violent religious extremism, we encourage individuals and societies either to exploit religion by attempting to harness the unbridled passion it supposedly possesses or to neutralize it by privatizing or disenfranchising it. In the words of historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, “Whenever it has any use of belief, our age presses religion into the service of power. The rest of the time it banishes faith from any position of authority” (Quoted in Rieff 2006, vii). Neither religion’s manipulators nor its civilized detractors wish to see a full ﬂ edged tradition engage the culture in which it resides. Its enthusiasm, they argue, is just too potent. Although much more should be said, let me simply state that the Christian humanist should not be satisfied with a view of religion that ultimately encourages the chaining of God’s blessing to the service of the state or barring religious voices from the public sphere. The manipulator encourages misunderstanding in order to funnel religious vitality away from its divine focus. Religion’s detractors seek to create a litmus test of disbelief in order to protect themselves from their own caricature of men and women of faith.
In the end what is lost is the very positive role that religion might play to help our social ills or perhaps must play in a world plagued by “thin” religion. Vital faith, as de Tocqueville observed, has the potential to challenge our American materialism and individualism that corrode our social fabric. Such religion demands that we feed the poor. It claims that, rather than consumers, we are human beings with more value than our credit line or checkbooks. It challenges the powerful by tending to the oppressed. A vitally religious person may even put his or her life on the line to expose injustice or protect the innocent. If we banish religion from the public sphere, we should rightfully wonder whether we will be able hear the call of the next Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr. And wouldn’t that be our loss and to our discredit? Further, if we banish religion from the public sphere, we banish those most able to expose “thin” religion and encourage “thick” religion in a world that is increasingly turning to religious resources to express their dissatisfaction with political injustice, social inequality, and economic disparity. In this sense the real danger may be not taking religion seriously by refusing to engage it on its own terms. As R. Scott Appleby recently observed, the best hope for reducing violent religious extremism resides within those deeply committed to religion itself. “They would be,” he suggests, “de facto cultural and religious ambassadors armed with the most essential tool in the diplomat’s repertoire: insight” (2007, 40).
I have argued that by focusing on violent manifestations of faith our members of our culture do not ultimately take religion seriously. Further, we have a duty as intellectually honest scholars to challenge “common wisdom” that conflates religious vitality and violent religious extremism with weak and anecdotal claims. Rather, we must demand arguments with compelling evidence. As teachers we must encourage our students to value the patient search for truth about the nature of religion over the excitement of titillating details we hear in news stories. And as citizens we should be careful not to banish religious individuals or groups from the public sphere based upon their faith. To do so will leave us with fewer motivated individuals to address the serious social, political, and economic ills facing our society and, worse, may leave us without representatives that would be most able to converse with those religious people we increasingly seem to fear and misunderstand the most in a post-9/11 world.3
J. Michael Utzinger is Elliott Associate Professor of Religion at Hampden-Sydney College, Virginia. He served as a Lilly Fellow in the Arts and Humanities at Valparaiso University between 1999–2000.
1 Volf discusses practice not observation; however, I believe his use of Geertz could be applied to observers as well as practitioners.
2 Some studies have been done on monotheistic faiths, although they too have been seriously criticized, obviously suggesting that such arguments are not self-evident. For a recent example, see Gnuse 2007.
3 A version of this paper was presented at the Lilly Fellows Reunion Conference in Indianapolis in June 2007. The author wishes to thank Robert Benne, Scott Huelin, Jana Bennett, James Simms, and Saranna Thornton, all of whom made helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
“Religious Newswriters Identify Year’s Top Ten Religion Stories.” Religious Studies News 22:3 (May 2007): 11.
Appleby, R. Scott. “A Radical Solution.” Foreign Policy, 160 (May/June 2007): 40.
Cavanaugh, William. “The Violence of ‘Religion’: Examining a Prevalent Myth.” Kellogg Institute for International Studies Working Papers, no. 310. University of Notre Dame, March 2004.
Gnuse, Robert. “Breakthrough or Tyranny: Monotheism’s Contested Implications.” Horizons 34:1 (Spring 2007): 78–95.
Rieﬀ, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith aft er Freud. Wilmington: ISI, 2006.
Volf, Miroslav. “Christianity and Violence.” Boardman Lectureship in Christian Ethics, Boardman Lecture XXXVIII, University of Pennsylvania Department of Religious Studies, Adam Graves, ed., 1 March 2002. (repository.upenn.edu/boardman/2)