Weaponized Apophaticism and the Question of Religion: Some Remarks on William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence

William T. Cavanaugh is well known in certain political theology (or “theopolitical” as some Christian theologians like to refer to it) circles because of his 1998 book Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ. The book is a very interesting study of the Catholic Church in Chile during Pinochet’s regime and details the theological background to the political relationship between Church and State. At times, though I’m willing to hedge here, it isn’t clear in the book if Cavanaugh doesn’t secretly think that the Eucharist is a more revolutionary act than, say, workers organizing to provide for themselves and resist Pinochet’s Chicago School led neoliberalism. It certainly has been used in that way by some of Cavanaugh’s enthusiastic readers and even, dare I say, mis-used in that way by members of the Radical Orthodoxy/Red Tory movement. His mix of Foucault and Roman Catholic radicalism does give the impression of a strange conservative anti-Statist and anti-Capitalist form of thinking. Still, I would feel uncomfortable simply regulating Cavanaugh to this pit of vipers since his own work is overwhelmingly negative in its approach (I’ll explain the meaning of this more below) and his own attempts at positive proscriptive political statements often are undertaken with great care and a deep grounding in a tradition of non-violence.  Weirdly, if I can indulge in a bit of biography before moving on to the more substantive comments, reading Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist was the reason I decided not to convert to Roman Catholicism when at the age of 19 I decided to leave the Church of the Nazarene. Simply stated the book broke any romantic illusions I had about the Roman Church. It seemed to me as compromised and fucked up as anything American Evangelicalism had going for it. Regardless of the beauty of its liturgy or the depth of its intellectual tradition, I just couldn’t imagine ever converting. Perhaps if I grew up in a Roman Catholic culture I’d engage with it in some sense (and in fact I do), but why would I ask permission to be a part of something that had a hierarchy I’d struggle against for the rest of my life? And, worse yet, refused to acknowledge its awful crimes towards, not just others, but its own adherents? Perhaps not the outcome hoped for by Cavanaugh…

Cavanaugh’s newest book, The Myth of Religions Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, is really a fuller development of an argument he laid out in a somewhat popular article he wrote entitled “‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House': The Wars of Religion & The Rise of the State” [pdf]. In both cases the point is to challenge the “creation myth” of secular liberalism, which states that the modern state arose in response to the irrational and endless violence waged in the name of religion. As he states in Myth, “What I call the “myth of religious violence” is the idea that religion is a transhistorical and transcultural feature of human life, essentially distinct from “secular” features such as politics and economics, which has a peculiarly dangerous inclination to promote violence.”Cavanaugh argues against this myth through four chapters that attempt to deal with different aspects of the ideology. The first chapter lays out all the different aspect of the myth, namely its reliance on a largely unexamined theoretical separation of the religious and the secular and the hypocritical definition of violence. The second chapter, the most interesting to me, deals with the questionable “invention of religion” that treats religion as a genus that specific religions are species of. The third chapter lays out a few historical issues with what is often taken, though not be academic historians, to be commonplace knowledge about the wars of religion (this largely supplements the original article). And the fourth deals with the way this myth has been used in America to shore up a civil religion taken to be secular against a private religion taken to always be teetering on the verge of violence. He also looks in this chapter at the way theories of religious violence have been used to justify violence against Muslims as harbingers of an irrational civilization that refuses to separate mosque and state.

Cavanaugh’s book can be placed alongside a number of recent post-secular works of theory (he uses Asad and Masuzawa, but unlike them his is an unrelentingly negative work. In each chapter the goal is not to provide some better theory of religion and violence, or even a new theoretical framework for thinking about questions generally treated under that academic pursuit, but simply to negate through reasonable doubt the power of the prevailing “myth”. In many ways I’m very sympathetic to this project and I also appreciate the time that Cavanaugh devotes to discussing the ways that the secular has been deployed, by racists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchins, against the “Islamic world”. Still – you knew there was going to be one, in fact I expect this ‘still’ is why you’re reading – there is something about Cavanaugh’s use of postsecular negation that raised questions for me and that exist more generally regarding the Christian use of postsecular theory. The first thing that bothered me was that, though he often defends Islam against people like Harris, he also takes pains to emphasize that he’s not saying “religion is off limits” or that he’s not out to just defend religion (sometimes he says “Christianity” and sometimes just “religion”, despite doubting its existence or at least showing reasonable doubt regarding its existence as a genus, and rarely “Islam”). Yet the first instance of this hedging it is in fact Islam that is used as the example of a religion that can be interogated: “I think that the separation of church and state is generally a good thing. On the other side, there is no question that certain forms of Muslim beliefs and practices do promote violence.”

Now, Cavanaugh is clear that Christianity is up for debate too (namely the relationship between violence and the sacrifical atonement of Christ), but I’m still troubled by the presentation of Islamic countries in relation to America. He basically seems to accept that countries like Iran and movements like Palestinian liberation are a theopolitical mixture that can be identified as Islamic. Yet, his description of America as a largely secular country that has felt the need to separate out Christian religious commitments from civic commitments seems like a bait and switch. While, yes, America seems to have a civic religion that goes into full swing when America goes to war, it does so with a whole army of clergy. I was recently corrected in a class when I claimed that Sao Paulo was the largest Catholic diocese in the world. Instead, the student told me, it was the Diocese for the Military Services, USA. I’m not sure he’s correct, but it certainly is a fact that in terms of territory this is the largest diocese and further more that, while the Pope and other religious leaders came out against the war in Iraq, many Catholic leaders in the US alongside of evangelical leaders supported the war very vocally with appeals to the Christian tradition and scripture. What is it that allows Cavanaugh to label the theopolitics of the Islamic world as such and to claim that the American system of civil religion is not Christian?

I’ll end with a general remark that applies broadly to Christian uses of the postsecular event. If you follow Asad or any number of other postsecular theorists you know that the term “religion” was primarily used to separate out religions from Christianity. The roots of this go back to Hegel more than anyone else. Yet, we know have Christians trying to use the postsecular event, which was initially a violent anti-colonial struggle against Christo-secular imperialism. My worry is that the negative uses of postsecularism are being turned into a kind of general weaponized apophaticism in Christian theology. I say general because this form of apophaticism has been used for some time against Western science, but now it’s being used in a political register. Not simply by Cavanaugh, who again I think is more careful than many of those who use his work, but also by right-wingers who generally support imperialism! In these instances the question of religion is used to argue for a place for the Church as Authority in public life. This is happening in different forms throughout Europe, but most obviously in the UK where these anachronistic forms of authority still hold a great deal of power. My question, then, is how will this weaponized apophaticism play out with regards to the question of religion in relation to the foreign policy of countries that begin to speak in a more mixed economy of the state and Church/Mosque? And furthermore, why lies behind Christian theologians deploying this weaponized apophaticism without dealing with this rather obvious question? Or is there a reason why this weaponized apophaticism isn’t turned on Christianity itself?

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13 Responses to “Weaponized Apophaticism and the Question of Religion: Some Remarks on William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence

  1. Alex Says:

    Great post, I use this book a lot when I talk about various attempts to kill theories of religion, and relate this to the market/economics etc. Often for plundering sources!

    With regards to the point about Iraq and so on, I am sure you are aware that he wrote specifically about the US Catholic theologians cheer leading for it. I guess his response would be insomuch as they claim that Bush is a higher authority than the Pope on such matters, then they have ceased to be truly Catholic. The same he would probably say of American religion – yes, it is Christianity, but not real Christianity – he does a Hauerwas style calling out. And so we move onto the well known true Scotsman fallacy. Fact is the real question is thus avoided: surely there is something in Christianity that permits this to occur, some weakness that allows this? Cavanaugh and so on like to, for obvious reasons, claim it is some alien intrusion, but secularism is the child of Christianity. One can notice this move in recent RO attempts to bring in Islam as the bad guys – Scotus was wrong, but only because of the intrusion of alien theology from Islam and so on – thus Christianity is kept as a sterile tradition in terms of the source of the problem.

    My major critique of the work is that undercutting the notion of religion so strongly in an attempt to dissolve the possibility that it might cause violence and staving of the standard liberal myth ultimately prevents you from saying anything about the good role of religion as Cavanaugh would surely want to do ultimately. He wants to get rid of his cake and then eat it. Or maybe Cavanaugh might not do this, but I am absolutely certain that people taking up this book politically will want to – the retreat of religion from the public sphere is the cause of the problems of society, but, at the same time, it is near impossible to say what religion is?

    For the record, anyone arguing that high Anglicianism is anything against the status quo of capitalism, the state and whatever should have watched that embarrassing spectacle yesterday – a Royal, bloody, Wedding. While at the same time the social centres, squats and activists actually attempt to prevent the dissolution of civil society and the rolling back of the gains of the welfare state were rounded up and thrown in gaol for thought crime, or pre-crime – those threatening community guardians! – despite the fact no one was planning anything to do with the pathetic feudal spectacle. Of course, in the distributist fairy land the monarchy is also a bulwark against capitalism, to which I can only add – is this the capitalism that irrationally spends £25 million on policing alone for a royal wedding while simultaneously cutting benefits for the disabled and making them have to go through humiliating biopolitical tests? If this is the best we have against capitalism then fuck, wow.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Thanks for this. Torture and Eucharist had a big, though ambiguous influence on me as well, but I haven’t kept up with his later work. I find that the lingering influence for me is what you call that apophatic side of things, the questioning of what “religion” really is and in particular the questioning of its supposedly privileged link to violence. My question in light of your post is whether the apophatic method here is “separable” from its Christian deployment — i.e., is there a pre-weaponized apophaticism that is still useful.

    My assumption based on my own experience is that this is the case — or at least I don’t think I’m engaging in apologetics when I draw on his negative critique. In my online debates with most “purely secular” people, however, it seems like they sometimes experience my arguments as though they were apologetics.

  3. Wilson Says:

    Could you save the deployment for particular cases? As in, the common usage of the Wars of Religion to justify laicite is lazy history first and foremost. Apart from the broader argument post-secular argument, this is still a valid point to make and to receive broader articulation than was found in the “A Fire Strong Enough…” article.

    And so the problem then becomes how a strong(er) history (Cavanaugh is still moderately weak on the history in not allowing for Christian logic within the conflict) can be misappropriated to justify the reactionary logic of the weaponized form of apophaticism.

  4. Brad Johnson Says:

    Oh, and yes, fantastic post, Anthony.

  5. Patrik Says:

    I like Cavanaugh, he has influenced me a lot. THe only thing I worry about is if he places to much emphasis on “religion” as something that “should” be essentially private, that is, that the creation of the concept of religion is part of a project to push religion into the private sphere. That this is the case with modern liberals like Rawls is clear, but Cavanaugh seems to want to make refer this notion to the enlightenment thinkers and thus to all (Christian) religion in modernity. Ward argues, correctly I think, that religion never was very private, at least not before the latter part of the 20th century. It seems that Cavanaugh here, while critical of the type of position Rawls represents, in fact accepts his history writing.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I had never read the “Fire Strong Enough” article before, and reading it just now, I was expecting it to be more convincing — the idealization of the medieval structure is too strong, I think, for his rhetorical purposes. It’s a case where it’d take some minor surgery to extract that apophatic side from the apologetic.

  7. Sonja Says:

    This post is hot, Anthony. Very insightful. Lots of it resonated with me because I recently read Masuzawa’s book, but your first paragraph had a particularly personal resonance because I converted to Catholicism and am now thinking some of the same things that you did when you read Cavanaugh’s book.

  8. Remy Says:

    this is a great post! I’ve been dwelling on these issues for well-nigh 2-3 years now for my PhD and surprisingly, there’s not much out there that engages productively with this book. My sense is that it draws together a group of thinkers (Asad, Fitzgerald, Masuzawa, McCutcheon) who for all their impact haven’t really permeated the ‘commonsense’ of how many academics think about religion, especially not here in Australia where there’s still an implicit whiggery underneath the surface.

    I’ve found the work useful in thinking against a major school of thought in Australia (and UK I think) – the Anglo-Foucauldian liberals for whom any strong critique of liberalism is immediately castigated as “otherworldly” and “Christian” (e.g. Hunter, Bennett, du Gay, etc). At the heart of their work is the premise that bureaucracy and liberalism is an ongoing, pragmatic project to secure peace against warring religious factions, which they’ve extracted from Reinhart Koselleck’s work.

    On apophaticism, i’m wondering if this type of work more helps to historicise secularity more, so bringing to the fore the theological genealogy of different modes of secular reason. I agree with Adam that it can appear to be apologetic to some. Yet I wonder whether taken to the end, this line of work is symptomatic of a hankering for a ‘Discourse of the Master’ over the dominant ‘Discourse of the University’. (Alasdair MacIntyre, whose work I appreciate, is a classic example of this path)

  9. Brad Johnson Says:

    I deleted my comment from earlier morning because I realized tonight it made very little sense. Let me try again. If I understand Anthony’s critique, the apologetic element is the result of the abiding idea that there is a “really true” aspect to any particular religion, and that this is what remains after all the bullshit is stripped away. The trick, as I see it, is not so much in dissuading ourselves re: the need and/or inevitability of this “really true” essence at the heart of our religions, but in convincing ourselves and others of the capacity to re-make the very grounds of this “really true” essence. I suspect that the weaponization of even this remade essence may never quite leave us. But if even this apophatic remainder can be remade, i.e., if it isn’t just there waiting to be found and in some way pronounced, it seems to me both conceivable & necessary that we identify ways to use this weapon in fundamentally different ways in a post-secular context. Whether one can get to this without first a kind of civil war within any particular religion is a different story.

  10. Darren Says:

    Anthony, I’m definitely sympathetic to what you are doing in this post. I think a good example of the right-wing use of weaponised apophaticism may be Oliver O’Donovan, who rather explicitly argues for a return to Christendom, *properly* understood of course. I’m sure readers could augment this with many examples. But my question is with your use of “anachronistic forms of authority”? It would seem that to the Christian theologians using post-secular thought to argue for a new imperialism (usually under the label “missions”, where this time we’ll get it right) Church as Authority is the only NON-anachronistic form of authority insofar as Christ is Ascended Lord. The State and other forms of authority are only non-anachronistic inasmuch as they make room for the Church to perform its mission. This in fact is O’Donovan’s argument.

    So I’m wondering what you mean by anachronism here? Anachronistic with regards to what? I just worry that your insight, which I take to be an important one, will lose any traction with those at all working with the Christian tradition, as believers or not, even if they recognize that there is a problem with Christianity that allows it to be used in destructive ways. Because, you know, Christ as Lord is pretty central to the whole undertaking.

    Lastly, after reading Brad’s comment, I’m struck that what he is calling for from those who would remake essence to the left, so to speak, has been done by the right in almost lockstep fashion for far too long. This is not to decry Brad’s suggestion but to realize that it must be taken up seriously by those of us on the left. (Kind of like how the Republicans are always praised for their being so disciplined as a party while the Democrats are a fractious useless bunch.)

  11. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I can only respond with this rather militant statement, anachronistic with regards to the belief in the Lordship of Christ in a way where the Lordship comes to overdetermine the messianicity Christ.

  12. Messianic & “Religion” Link Post / Open Thread « An und für sich Says:

    [...] Weaponized Apophaticism and the Question of Religion: Some Remarks on William T. Cavanaugh’s T… [...]

  13. Aaron Rathbun Says:

    Thanks for posting this.


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