It is, alas, a story we hear almost everyday. A “terrorist” straps explosives to his body and walks into the crowded market to cause mayhem. Or “Holy Warriors” fight endless battles to prevent the spread of democracy in their homelands. When we see these things, we shake our heads and lament that in the name of God, these people not only commit terrible crimes, but resist the very things—democracy and liberalism—which will bring them the same peace and prosperity that we enjoy. We have no doubts about how these events are to be interpreted, for we know that misdirected and irrational violence is part of our own history, a history from which we were rescued by the liberal state, and the separation of religious and temporal affairs.

But what if our understanding is wrong? What if the nation-state was not the cure but the cause of the wars that we term “religious”? In other words, what if all that we “know” isn’t so, is in fact a myth used to justify the nation-state and marginalize certain kinds of discourse, most particularly “religious” discourse? This is the theme of William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence.

We know the story very well: after the Reformation, Europe fell into a murderous cycle of sectarian violence, from which we were rescued by the nation-state, which cordoned off “religious” concerns from the temporal order, imposing a political tolerance on the contending faiths while concentrating on building prosperous kingdoms (at first) and then liberal democracies, in which the religious realm was kept separate from the secular. It is this story which provides us—all of us, whether “left” or “right—with the framework by which we view both domestic and international events, and most particularly the Muslim world.

But is this story a history or a myth? Prof. Cavanaugh contends that it is a myth, one that simply does not conform to the facts of history. In support of this thesis, he makes a number of remarkable claims:

  • Religion in not a severable category from cultural political, and economic life. In fact, “religion,” as we understand the term, is a creation of the modern West, and would have been unintelligible to previous ages and cultures.
  • The modern state precedes the so-called wars of religion, Indeed, the “wars of religion” weren’t about religion at all.
  • There has been a transfer of the sacral from the religious order to the political. Far from separating religion from the state, the modern state creates its own sacred space, with its own rituals, hymns, and theology, and its own universal mission.

The universal mission of this new Church is mainly tied up with practical solutions to particular problems that are elevated to the status of transcendent truths. As Alasdair MacIntyre put it:

The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf… [I]it is like being asked to die for the telephone company.

If Cavanaugh is correct, then his thesis should profoundly effect the way we view the world, or rather, the story we tell ourselves about how the world works. Humans always tell themselves stories about how things are; it is the only way to organize information into a coherent whole. But it does help if the story bears some relationship to the way the world is, or was; if its details can in general be correlated with some actual history. In this case, the story does not correspond with reality. Even if we allow that religion is not something severable from the rest of life and culture, can we go along with Cavanaugh’s claim that religion itself is a modern invention?

The moderns would hold that “religion” is a trans-cultural, trans-historical reality, a universal genus of which “Christianity,” “Hinduism,” and “Islam” are particular species. The problem is, any attempt to define this genus in such a way as to include what the moderns want to include and to exclude what they wish to exclude turns out to be contradictory. Nationalism is no less a cult than Catholicism. Including a belief in God would exclude many major “religions.” One might attempt to limit religion to the “transcendent,” but ideas such as “the nation” or “liberty” are transcendent ideas, as are all values. Hence, there is no coherent way to distinguish “religious” from “secular” violence. What counts as “religious” or “secular” in any given society always depends on the configuration of power within that society. Indeed, the demarcation of the “religious” sphere is itself an expression of secular power, a political act.

Our concept of “religion” was simply unknown to the ancients. There is no word in Greek, Latin, Egyptian, Aztec, Chinese, or the Indian languages that precisely corresponds to our term. The Latin religio, “re-binding” referred to the rites which bound the social order together, and would include anything from the Japanese tea ceremony to the Greek rites of hospitality, to the temple rites of the various gods. When Augustine wrote De Vera Religione, “Of True Religion,” his subject was not Christianity. Rather, it was about worship, which can be given either to the creator or to the creation. True religion is directed toward the creator alone, and religion is not something contrasted with a secular realm. In the City of God, Augustine uses the term religion to refer to the worship of God, but he finds the term ambiguous, because:

In Latin usage…”religion” is something displayed in human relationships, in the family (in the narrower and wider sense) and between friends; and so the use of the word does not avoid ambiguity when the worship of God is in question. We have no right to affirm with confidence that “religion” is confined to the worship of God, since it seems that this word has been detached from its normal meaning in which it refers to an attitude of respect in relations between a man and his neighbor.

When we turn to a work like Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, we would expect it to be concerned with what we call “religion,” but Thomas uses the term only once. Religion is one of the nine virtues that are a part of justice; it is that part which renders to God what is due to God and refers to the rites and practices that offer worship to God. It is not a term that designates a sphere of human activity that stands apart from some other sphere, called the “secular.” Indeed, the terms “religious” and “secular” in the middle ages normally referred to the two orders of clergy, those bound to monastic vows and those which were a part of the diocesan structure. The different “religions” were Benedictine, Cistercian, Dominican, etc.

If there is no analytical severable category of “religion,” then the idea of the “wars of religion” from which we were saved by the secular state can’t be correct either. The neat narrative of a struggle with Catholics on one side and Protestants on the other simply doesn’t work out. The framework of the 30-Year’s War was a struggle between three Catholic monarchies, the French and the two branches of the Hapsburgs. Prof. Cavanaugh gives of 10 pages of examples that run counter to the standard narrative: Catholics allied with Protestants against Catholics, Protestants allied with Catholics against Protestants, Protestants battling Protestants, etc. Obviously, the facts exceed the narrative.

Nor was the rise of the modern state the solution to the problem, it was the cause. Long before the Reformation, the state was expanding its power at the expense of the Church. The taxing of the clergy, the consolidation of ecclesial courts into civil ones, intrusion into the educational system, the replacement of the Church’s charities with the welfare state, and royal control of clerical appointments were some of the signs of the expanding power of the state. The Reformation itself was part of this process, since so many of the “reformers” were more than willing to replace the pope with the prince to enforce a confessional conformity. The Reformation depended on lay power, and gave a justification for that power. The biggest source of power is always property, and the wealth of the Church was a tempting target. In 1524, King Gustav Vasa of Seeden welcomed the Reformation because it allowed him to transfer the tithes from the Church to the crown, and three years later he appropriated all Church property, nine years before Henry VIII did the same. In France, “secularization” meant the transfer of Church property to the crown.

But this confessional conformity required that local privileges and independence to be overturned. The Catholic Monarchs desired absolutism as much as did their Protestant counterparts. Charles V made war against the Protestant princes, with the help of at least some Protestants, in an attempt to turn the Holy Roman Empire into a centralized, sovereign state. In France, the crown attempted to unite the country under un roi, une foi, une loi, which required a war against the nobility. The nationalized churches became part of a clientage system, so much so that Pope Julius III could write to the French King Henry II, “You are more than pope in your kingdoms.”

After the state caused the wars, its apologists proposed the state as a solution. Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau saw a strong state (or even a state religion) as a necessity. After all, membership in a religion was voluntary, but membership in the state was compulsory, and the state required a degree of conformity. It is not that the new state would be intolerant. On the contrary, it would enforce religious “tolerance,” but only for a “religion” shorn of any civil interests. Religion was to be a private passion—or fantasy—one which would not be allowed to serve as a source of resistance to the totalizing state. Hence, Catholics were excluded from this tolerance, not because of bigotry, but on the quite rational grounds that the Catholic Church could never confine itself to being a “religion” that could be conveniently domesticated and striped of its civil and economic concerns. This church could never fit into the truncated category of religion, and hence could not be compatible with the modern state. The actual trajectory is that first the state was “sacralized” by absorbing the powers of the Church, and then the state was “liberalized” by being tolerant of the “religions,” but only insofar as they present no genuine opposition to the power of the state.

Seen in this light, the so-called “separation of church and state” is a complete sham. As Robert Bellah put it, the state becomes “an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion” that “has its own seriousness and integrity and requires the same care in understanding that any other religion does.” the real issue is where we place what Cavanaugh calls our “lethal loyalties,” which have been transferred to this new religion and its universal mission: the imposition of democracy and market economics on the whole world. None of us would think of killing for the faith, but killing for the state becomes “patriotism.” It was in the trenches and the gas attacks of World War I that Wilfred Owen discovered the price of this new religion in “the old lie, Dulce et Decorum est, pro patria mori.” And of course, what we die for, we also kill for.

The actual trajectory of history is that the state absorbed the powers of the church, and then “solved” the problems this creates by offering “tolerance” to any church which would become a “religion,” a domesticated, private fantasy that could pose no challenge to secular authority. As Christians, our best response is to accept the role that Hobbes and Locke assigned to us: permanent outsiders, to be viewed with suspicion at best and persecution at worst. This new state, actually just another cult, rationalizes some forms of violence and condemns others. We are horrified at the violence of those whose countries we invade, but “shock and awe” over Baghdad is a regrettable, but rational form of violence in a noble cause; in the end, it will bring free trade, democracy, and better phone service.

The obedience that the state requires is total, and dissent is worse than traitorous, it is unpatriotic. Every combat soldier instinctively recognizes the truth of Randall Jarrett’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, and tells his own version of the grim joke:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.


  1. For me, Cavenaugh’s thesis crumbles as soon as I reject his first claim – that there’s been no such thing as ‘holy’ beliefs that are recognizable as such across cultures and times, and then breaks down further when he fails to differentiate the liberal, secular state and the expectation it should condemn ‘religious violence’ (Spanish Inquisition, St. Bartholemew’s Day Massacre, Crusades 1-9) from preceding states’ endorsement.

    From what you’ve written, Mr. Medaille, it also seems that both you and he buy into a surprisingly progressive approach to history (‘The actual trajectory of history is that the state absorbed the powers of the church’) – rather than recognizing that states have been alternately co-opting and abdicating religious/spiritual roles since Sumer.

    I must be missing something? Are his arguments purely semantic?

  2. Certainly makes sense in the context of Sheikh Osama. His own writings (in Messages to the World) make it clear that he’s not fighting for Mohammed as such. He sees himself as a champion of the Arab ‘nation’ (in the ethnic sense), attempting to reunite the ‘nation’ that was artificially divided by the Brits around 1920. For Osama, Mohammedanism is just the fuel to get Arabs riled up enough to break the modern states.


    I really wonder how this notion that “Democracies don’t war” (as Idiot Bush puts it) came to be conventional wisdom. The founders of America understood human nature far more accurately, as Federalist #6 shows; and even the most cursory observation of modern reality shows it to be false.

  3. rather than recognizing that states have been alternately co-opting and abdicating religious/spiritual roles since Sumer

    This only makes sense if such a distinction between state and religious/spiritual roles existed in the time of Sumer. Can you offer any historical evidence such a distinction existed back in Sumer, rather than being an anachronistic projection of confused modern categories that simply didn’t exist until they arose as Cavanaugh has described in the origins of the modern State?

  4. Sure – the rulers of the city-states of Sumer were for a long time the ‘Ensi’ and also served as the priests or religious leaders – later they were replaced by the ‘lugal’, king like figures whom they became subordinate to. For a very outdated and not terribly good book, but which contains a great deal of primary texts:

    My quibble with Cavenaugh’s argument is that he (seemingly) agrees with the notion that history is progressive and resorts to straw manning the liberal argument via a semantic trick… rather than beginning with the premise that people are flawed and our (secular and religious) institutions are flawed and imperfectable – and always have been.

  5. Mr. Medaille,

    I think you (and the Mr. Cavanaugh) are generally right to claim that the modern division between “secular” and “religious” is artificial, and the result of modern epistemological prejudices (the insatiable drive to categorize, etc.). But I have trouble following your argument past these initial claims, and especially have trouble with your conclusion. Namely, you seem to suggest that rejecting the separation of church and state amounts to a refutation of Horace’s flavor of patriotism. But Horace lived outside of modernity, did he not? How does your argument even touch his notion of patriotism?

    Perhaps you mean to suggest that his thought was a precursor to modern notions of civic religion. If so, will you please substantiate the idea that a willingness to die (and kill) for one’s country is a quintessentially modern stance. To be honest, I am under quite the opposite impression. It seems to me that the love of home and country – including a willingness to die in defense of one’s home, if necessary – is one of the most fundamental and natural of human allegiances, and one that transcends the modern-premodern divide. (Of course this allegiance has been denounced as “irrational” by countless modern intellectuals, but the tendency persists.) Perhaps your point is meant to address the new scale of modern, technological warfare? Or perhaps I’ve just misunderstood your point. In either case, clarification would be much appreciated.

    Jonathan Green

  6. Cavanaugh’s claim is not, “that there’s been no such thing as ‘holy’ beliefs that are recognizable as such across cultures and times,” but that the cordoning off of metaphysical beliefs from the shared (i.e. political, social, and economic) life of the community into a strictly individualistic and powerless sphere is virtually unknown within the human civilizations prior to the emergence of the modern state. More than that, his main point is that secular modernity’s claim to stand above metaphysics is a ridiculous fraud, that it simply displaced the old metaphysic(s) by imposing its own new (and far more totalizing than what it displaced) dogmatic narrative through force.

    The book above is well worth reading. For a quicker take, see Cavanaugh’s earlier essay-length presentation of his argument:

    or you can listen to a talk he gave on the topic, “The Empire of the Empty Shrine,” at the very bottom of the page here:

  7. Jonathan,
    The claim is not that secular modernity is different from what came before. Precisely the opposite, the claim is that secular modernity’s claim that it is different is simply and obviously false. Secularism is more Pax Romana than the liberation and freedom it claims to be. Within this argument, the separation of church and state is not the freedom of conscience and thought it presents itself as. It is, instead, the subjugation of all competing metaphysics to its own dominant narrative. As in Rome, we are free to worship whatever gods we like…so long as we burn our incense to the emperor and take up the sword in his name when he calls on us to do so.

  8. I enjoyed many of the insights here, but I’m confused by the article that contains the idea that we would not kill for faith, but that killing for the state is patriotism. Because the maxim used, that what we die for we kill for, implies that we DO kill for faith. Or at least that saints and martyrs would kill for their faith, which seems an odd conclusion. Perhaps this just means that the maxim is bad, or perhaps that there is much too rosy view here of the relationship between faith and killing.

  9. Matthew, that poorly worded. Perhaps it should have said, “What they ask you to die for, they really mean kill for.”

    Jonathan, it is certainly a duty to defend your family and neighbors from attack; it is not your duty to become a threat to somebody else’s family and neighbors. That is neither dulce nor decorous.

    Martha, I don’t see the slightest bit of historical “progressivism” in Cavanaugh’s work; if you read that into the review, it is the fault of the reviewer, not the work reviewed. When I point out that history followed a certain path, I only mean that’s what it did, without implying at all that is what it had to do. It could have been different; there is no determinism here.

  10. Isn’t Cavanaugh’s book at heart really about how best to merge moral rights with legal rights with regard to property as power? William of Ockham’s dispute with Pope John XXII in the 14th century was supposedly won by Ockham whose arguments ironically laid the basis for the secular state:-

    • that religious believers have the right to state and argue their opinions in opposition to the views of religious leaders and councils even though their opinions may prove wrong;

    • that religious believers have the right to state and argue their opinions in opposition to the views of religious leaders and councils even though their opinions may prove wrong;

    • that no part of a religious organization is infallible;

    • that a religious leader or council that tries to impose wrong teachings upon the members of the religion, or seriously abuses the rights of religious members or non-members, can be deposed;

    • that the powers of secular governments are not dependent on a religion’s approval;

    • that the rights of unbelievers (for example, any governmental rights they may have, and their property rights) should not be affected by the establishment of a particular religion;

    • that secular rulers are not ‘absolute’ but must respect the rights of their subjects;

    • that a tyrannical ruler, religious or non-religious, may be deposed.

    Today we would perceive that both John and William had important arguments:-

    Whether the sovereign power is secular or ecclesial it has to be accountable to the people not merely through voting but also with regard to control over property which also has power. Jeremy Rifkin in his book “The Empathic Civilization” quotes Leslie White’s law that human “culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased.” See Wikipedia:-'s_law

    Rifkin argues that the success of “energy capture” is directly linked to the evolution of communication systems such as the invention of speech, writing, printing, telephony, radio, television, computers and the Internet, etc. all of which act as part of a controlling central nervous or directing system. For human culture to continue to successfully evolve (bearing in mind that property is “captured or stored energy”) requires the maximum autonomy for human beings to combine collectively, or cooperatively, and this requires sovereign powers of “whatever flavor” to merge moral with legal rights with this “combinational autonomy” objective in mind. To allow property to be used in a solipsistic manner as the Wall Street banks have recently done is, for example, a negation of this “combinational autonomy.”

  11. I’m grateful for this review, else I would have missed a reading on my favorite subject: Fallacies found in history.

    I take a practical view, one I first found in the writing of Robert A. Heinlein (everyone’s favorite author to love or hate around politics, political and military theory and history), paraphrasing:

    Nations always go to war for practical reasons, whether simple self-defense or complex self-interest. However, young men and women require high ideals to put their lives at risk.

    That, for me, defines the interface and conflict between secular and religious, sticking to the semantics Mr. Médaille has introduced. The question becomes, at any moment in history and for any nation or location, which side is in control of the balance, and which side of the balance dominates?

    I see the traditional monarchies as the religious side of the balance, especially those monarchs who claimed divine mandate or approval, a practice taken to ridiculous lengths in the Roman Empire and apparently carried on by its Christian successors. I see the “atheist” regimes equally on the religious side, for the same reasons cited above and in the semantic context I’m trying to stick with: communism, Marxism, Leninism et al are just as much religions in the “high ideals” sense as any theism. Indeed, the entire argument over what is or is not a religion is a symptom of the fact that each side of the argument is threatened by its identical twin, different only in cosmetics and cultural milieu. The point, one I feel cannot be overused, is that religion is just one part of the tool set used by nations to control, manipulate, send to war and oppress their peoples.

    However flawed it has become, however arguable its choices might be, the republic founded by our revolutionaries embodies the attempt to mitigate that conflict. It doesn’t replace a religious control with a secular one (something introduced later as a corruption of the original), or relegate religion to secondary status. It did, in fact, try to keep the republic in that middle place between the two extremes, by pulling the teeth it found to be dangerous wherever it could. It placed, philosophically, the ultimate authority of government in the hands of the citizens. It gave them immediate, non-violent recourse to replace its governors. It defined the realms of governance as distinct entities, and made it a high crime for one entity to try to usurp the power of any other entity, then guaranteed the existence of an organ of the citizens — free speech and the free use of it by journalists — capable of uncovering just such a crime.

    I could go on, but there is one point that needs stating, in my opinion, over all the rest: Our republic cannot stand without the exact same, minimal fulfillment of citizen obligation, which is to add one’s voice to the governance, at any level. We have, right there in the Constitution, all we need to prohibit the same sorts of tyranny we decry in the rest of the world. If we don’t fulfill our part of the bargain, then we deserve ever tyrant we get, whether secular or religious.

  12. Martha, I didn’t read the book, but if what one of the reviewers writes is true, then what we would understand as “political” and “religious” offices were united in Sumer with the temple occupying a central place in society to the extent where scholars have called it a totalitarian theocracy. Ancient rulers were even deified.

    The point is that modern folks like us make the distinction between activities deemed “political” and those deemed “religious,” but if all of reality falls under a totalizing vision of life as it did for Sumerians, the distinction of religion and politics is, at a certain level and especially for ANE societies, invalid. The “state” didn’t “co-opt” or “abdicate” spiritual/religious roles because political and spiritual roles were unified and understood as such.

  13. Thank you for bringing this to light! Again and again I have found that the secular narrative is so pervasive that I recognize it only when someone calls out an element of it. Even if the person calling the secular on the carpet is wrong, at least the word is out and thoughtful people may make of it what they can.

  14. Cavanaugh’s book is extremely interesting, but his reliance on pomo/constructivist arguments makes me pretty antsy. Sometimes he feels like a baptized Foucault.

    For example, the argument that religion is a “constructed” category. Most of his attempts to problematize a coherent definition of religion rely on bringing in faiths like Buddhism, which are normally recognized as world religions but which lack the supernatural content we associate with, for example, the Abrahamic faiths.

    I think the easiest way out of the difficulty is to acknowledge that most of the Buddha’s teachings fall into the realm of philosophy and psychology, which are in some cases joined with a folk religion that regards Buddha and/or certain Buddhists as divine beings.

    I don’t think this distinction can readily be dismissed as a western construct, since it even basic familiarity with the Buddhist corpus will show that folk Buddhist beliefs usually differ quite distinctly from the beliefs expressed in, say, the Pali Tipitaka. Cf. Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s admission that there is really no such thing as reincarnation in Buddhism (since there is really no such thing as a “soul” in Buddhist cosmology) and you will get a sense of the sometimes dramatic disparity between folk Buddhism and Buddhist doctrine.

    Even if previous ages might not have made the distinction between religion and the rest of culture, certainly this does not obligate us also to not make the distinction? Certainly there was no such thing as “economics” per se until the modern era, yet we can meaningfully analyze the economic realities of, say, an ancient Greek polis.

  15. I have not read the book, but from the review, it seems to make some powerful arguments that religion was/is not the only cause of “religious” wars. I would like to make the following points:

    Humans group into alliances/tribes based on many things and have been doing so long before the modern nation-state. One such tribal affiliation is religion. Some of those tribes have required members to kill for it. The modern nation-state does use its own sacred space, rituals, etc to function in a sacred manner, but that was true long before the modern nation-state. The Roman Legion used its eagle standard in much the same way, for example. It’s also true of many other sorts of tribes. An American street gang requires loyalty to the death and has sacred symbols, rituals, hymns [rap songs], theology and its own mission.

    I agree that religion was not the only factor in the religious wars, but that is not the same as saying that they weren’t about religion at all. Tribes can go to war for many reasons. In modern times the problems in Ireland were a mix of ecomonics, politics and religion at the least. No, people didn’t fight about theology in that conflict, but your tribal affiliation of Protestant or Catholic played a big part. The Sunni/Shia conflict within Islam is more than just about religion, but it is about religion too.

    The image of the modern nation-state as unmanageable is only somewhat true. The US went to its most recent wars by vote of its representative government. Those may have been very bad decisions and may even have been based on lies by part of the government, but isn’t that still better than relying on a king/queen, dictator making those decisions? Your argument that Christians should remain as outsiders has merit and certainly there are strong religious arguments against taking anyone’s life. I don’t think WWI could in anyway be argued to be a just war, but what about WWII. It was more than just a nation-state that was at stake there.

  16. George, part of CAvanaugh’s point is that what constitutes the “boundary” between the religious and secular realms is largely a matter of the particular power arrangements of any given social order.

    Fly-Slayer, I agree that it is very much a post-modernist argument, but I also think that postmodernism provides many useful analytical tools, even if I don’t always care for the way that they use those tools.

    Franklin, I think there is a big difference between monarchism and royalism, the major one being that the later vests all authority in the royal person, while the monarch is at the summit of a diverse set of authorities have a legitimacy that even the monarch cannot completely challanges.

    Bruce, good tie-in to Ockham. He was a many of many razors, and not all of them simple, some of them deadly.

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