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Religion and Violence

(A version of this appeared in Quadrant, December 2007)

As incendiarists Hitchens and Dawkins make a fiery duo: the blaze they lit is burning merrily, the sparks fly up, and their books sell well. It’s another matter entirely whether Roger Scruton will succeed in either smothering the flames, or suffocating the authors, in a mephitic cloud of anthropology.

Writing in last August’s UK monthly Prospect, Scruton said that dealing with the dogmatic certainties of the HitchDawk camp required that three questions be answered first:

What is religion?
What draws people to it?
And how is it tamed?

With the greatest respect, I’d say the opposite. I’d say that as we try to shore up the civilized world against external bombers and internal vandals, the very last thing we need is a glorified academic seminar on “the anthropology of religion”—a phrase that occurs both in the prefatory gloss for Scruton’s article and throughout its text.

The uses of erudition

Nevertheless “The Sacred and the Human” contains much of interest. Opposing Hitchens’ view that religion “poisons everything” and provokes conflict, aggression and war, Scruton argues that “religion is not the cause of violence but the solution to it. The violence comes from another source, and there is no society without it [that is, without religion] since it comes from the very attempt of human beings to live together.”

For Christians familiar with the Sermon on the Mount this will hardly come as a surprise. But feeling that his opponents needed to be overawed, and hoping to put them in their place, Scruton then called up an army of post-Enlightenment thinkers in support—Jacobi, Schiller, Schelling, C.F. Dupuis (author of Origine de Tous les Cultes, ou Religion Universelle, 1795), Georg Creuzer (author of Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker, 1810–12), Hegel, Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, Frazer, Durkheim, Freud, not to mention more recent writers like Georges Bataille and Mircea Eliade, along with his favourite contemporary religious theorist René Girard (author of La Violence et le Sacré).

What effect all this had on the enemy is hard to say, but I expect it had very little. All said and done, this is exactly the sort of abstract over-intellectualised treatment of religious matters Team HitchDawk loves. They thrive on that sort of thing—it makes a useful distraction.

Let’s keep our eyes on the ball: the only reason anybody’s talking about “religion and violence” is because of one specific religion, Islam, and because of the confused and inadequate response to the depredations of Islamic extremists by their accommodating Western hosts. Why obfuscate matters by avoiding specifics and launching into the history of all religious practices, in toto, from the Fall of Man to the Fall of Baghdad?

Back to The Golden Bough

Any sensitive reader of either An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, or England: An Elegy, or the final chapter of Gentle Regrets, will come away with a feeling that Roger Scruton is one of our most thoughtful and eloquent cultural critics.

Open them where you will, consult almost any passage you choose, and he delights, persuades and enlightens. There’s a book with the title The Russian Tradition by the author Tibor Szamuely that devotes 376 pages to the rise and hellish triumph of Russia’s revolutionary intelligentsia; but Scruton’s three pages on this subject in An Intelligent Person’s Guide are almost as illuminating in themselves.

Whether it’s the contrast between sentimental fantasising and disciplined imagination, or the simultaneous rise of aesthetics and the decline of religion, or the musical massaging of the Spice Girls’ soundtracks, Scruton is not just worth reading—his comments are among the best on offer.

But even distinguished thinkers have their flaws, and England’s leading conservative philosopher has his. Despite its brilliance, there are abundant signs in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture of the same failings to be found in his Prospect article—a self-destructive anthropological tendency that loses its erudite way.

To start with there’s an organic theory of culture that is plainly and poignantly autobiographical. For Scruton, membership of a tribal group sharing the same religious convictions, and bound by the same religious authority, is the foundation of a healthy and natural human existence. Belonging to such a communion is everything. Not belonging, or being excluded or ostracised, is a fate almost worse than death.

Membership of a solidaristic tribal order is what life in a healthy culture means; and while expounding this view Scruton draws parallels between the cults described by Frazer in The Golden Bough and the Christian Eucharist:

The core of ‘common culture’ is religion. Tribes survive and flourish because they have gods, who fuse the many wills into a single will, and demand and reward the sacrifices on which social life depends.(p5)

This tribalistic community knows itself collectively as “we”, congregates at a shrine, and through sacrificial atonement redeems the fallen, restores their integrity, and reunites them with the community at large.

Then comes The Golden Bough:

Such a pattern is not observed everywhere, of course. But it lies deep in our own tradition. It can be found throughout the ancient world—in the cults of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis, for example, and of Diana at Ephesus—and forms the core experience of the Christian Eucharist. (p6)

The tribal world

In the second chapter of An Intelligent Person’s Guide Scruton says much that is wise and much else that is doubtless true. His account of funeral rites and birth ceremonies would be happily accepted by most anthropologists, while the combination of intelligence and literary grace lifts his writing to a higher level than anthropology alone allows.

He tells us that the rites of passage that accompany initiation, marriage and the awakening of the tribe from peace to war “are all experienced collectively, as revelations of the tie of membership. That is how the agony of a death is overcome by those who survive it: death is regarded as a transition to another state within the community.”

The dead, he goes on, join the congress of ancestors, and therefore remain in communication with the living: “In marking this transition as ‘sacred’, the tribe is lifting death to the supernatural level, and endowing it—as it endows marriage, birth, and war—with divine authority.” (p8)

Communal life, tribal life, corporate life in the sense of the eternal corporation of the unborn, the living, and the dead, are here eloquently evoked. Yet the result of tying a defence of Christian civilisation to (1) Sir James Frazer’s collection of ethnographic curiosae in The Golden Bough, and (2) the political ideal of tribal solidarity, soon becomes painfully clear.

First, in the cause of “the anthropology of religion” the entire 2000-year Christian epoch is assimilated to a hodge-podge of Attic temple cults and Roman augury, of treacherous oracles and spiteful spirits—being instantly reduced to the same nondescript level of significance.

Second, despite the lusty tribal enthusiasm it always excites, the ideal of indivisible politico-religious unity in the name of “culture” has one huge disadvantage: it makes the military sins of Caesar also the sins of the City of God. Analytically, it becomes difficult to distinguish political from religious action. Practically, it lumbers religion with all the culpabilities of the state.

This is made to order for Team HitchDawk. Scruton’s unitary vision of society/state/religion allows Hitchens to equate ancient theocracy and modern totalitarianism. A kind of monolithic despotic unity is obviously just around the corner once you start idealising tribes, war, and sacred and inviolable territory under the management of divine kings, and the author of God Is Not Great is not slow to draw his conclusion:

For most of human history, the idea of the total or absolute state was intimately bound up with religion … Whether we examine the oriental monarchies of China or India or Persia, or the empires of the Aztec or the Incas, or the medieval courts of Spain and Russia and France, it is almost unvaryingly that we find that these dictators were also gods, or the heads of churches. (p231)

What is meant by ‘violence’?

Then there’s the little matter of “violence”. What on earth does the word mean? The vague usages in the daily news? The meanings of the welfare world where little more than an exasperated mother’s slap is implied? When is the defensive use of force legitimate, whether domestically or in international affairs? Are we talking about internal tribal rules or external relations? Should force perhaps be seen as ethically neutral? Is coercion inseparable from social order of any kind? What is a just war and how is it defined?

Rhetorical sentences like “religion is not the cause of violence but the solution to it” are treated in Scruton’s article as if they require no unpacking. Yet even a poorly informed secularist intuitively feels that “violence” inadequately describes the act of sacrifice, in whatever circumstances and at whatever cultural level, when subtle nuances of motive and belief and ritual are essential to understanding what is taking place.

Scruton himself does not exactly describe sacrifice as “violent”. Yet his respectful discussion of Jean Girard’s theory of scapegoating, his suggestion that the death of Christ is a transcendental form of the religious killing of goats as offerings by Middle Eastern tribes (the crucifixion is seen as a climactic development of more primitive rites in which “Christ’s submission purified society and religion of the need for sacrificial murder”), his view that sacrifices of this kind “solve the problem of violence” in human societies—plus some throwaway lines about Nazis and communists and their hecatombs of victims—cumulatively produce, by adjacency and insinuation, a vast blur of associations.

* * *

But let’s cut to the chase. What all “religion” might do and what all “violence” might be are fatal distractions, all too happily exploited by HitchDawk and Co. It’s futile to get drawn into public debates with professional atheists about the meaning of abstract sociological notions looked at in the unlimited perspective of the past 5000 years. The real question today, as every man in the street knows, is not the anthropological seminar-room “What is religion?” question. It’s “What should we do about militant Islamism today?”

In the sort of books produced by Hitchens and Dawkins the Crusades are the usual point of departure for one-sided historical accounts coupling Christianity and “violence”. Indeed, Dawkins takes this so much for granted that he can’t even be bothered discussing the matter (“In this book, I have deliberately refrained from detailing the horrors of the Crusades”). Hitchens however regards the opportunity as too good to pass up, and on page 35 drags the Iraq War into the argument. The gist being that there’s nothing to choose between Christians and jihadis, and that the modern atrocities of the latter could be seen as a delayed but appropriate response to “the bloodstained spectre of the Crusaders”.

This attitude is widespread. Moreover, as Paul Stenhouse points out in a valuable recent study, “The Crusades in Context”, Hitchens’ “bloodstained spectre” is absurdly seen as the result of unprovoked Christian aggression. It is claimed that “five centuries of peaceful co-existence” between Muslims and Christians were brought to an end by deranged sword-waving Soldiers of the Cross, terrorising, killing, burning and sacking decent, respectable, peace-loving Muslim communities.

More than this, the Crusaders are being presented in schools as the original terrorists. As a Year 8 textbook in the Australian state of Victoria has it: “Those who destroyed the World Trade Centre are regarded as terrorists … Might it be fair to say that the Crusaders who attacked the Muslim inhabitants of Jerusalem were also terrorists?”

Why the Crusades took place

No it wouldn’t be fair. Nor would it be true. In the story Paul Stenhouse tells, the 463 years between the death of Muhammed in 632 AD, and the First Crusade in 1095, were extremely dangerous for Christian Europe. Instead of peace there were unrelenting Islamic wars and incursions; Muslim invasions of Spain, Italy, Sicily and Sardinia; raids, seizures, looting of treasure, military occupations that lasted until Saracen forces were forcibly dislodged, sackings of Christian cities including Rome, and desecrations of Christian shrines. And be it noted: all this went on for 463 years before any Christian Crusade in response to these murderous provocations took place.

Sixteen years after the death of Muhammed, in 648 AD, Cyprus was overrun. Rhodes fell in 653, and by 698 AD the whole of North Africa was lost. In 711 Muslims from Tangier crossed into Spain, set their sights on France, and by 720 AD Narbonne had fallen. Bordeaux was stormed and its churches burnt in 732. As Gibbon emphasised, only the resistance at Poitiers of Charles Martel in 732 saved Europe from occupation, and arrested the Muslim tide.

From 800 on, incursions into Italy began. In 846 a Saracen force of 10,000 landed in Ostia, assaulted Rome, and sacked and desecrated the Basilicas of St Peter and St Paul. In 859 they seized the whole of Sicily. After capturing a fortress near Anzio, Muslim forces “plundered the surrounding countryside for forty years”. In southern France at the end of the ninth century they held a base near Toulon from which they ravaged both Provence and Northern Italy, and controlled the passes over the Alps, robbing and murdering pilgrims on their way to Rome. Genoa was attacked in 934 and taken in 935. In 1015 Sardinia was taken, occupied, and held my Muslim forces until 1050.

In 1076 the Seljuk Turkish capture of Jerusalem finally exhausted the patience of Islam’s victims in Christian Europe. Only then were concerted moves begun to drive back the infidel, launch the First Crusade, and retake Jerusalem.

On deeps and detritus

Which best nails the canard that “religion poisons everything” and that it is the main cause of “violence”? A scholarly examination of Islam’s fierce military expansion that eventually, after 463 years, provoked the counter-militancy of the Crusades? Or a philosophical trawl through the oceanic deeps and limitless intellectual detritus of the anthropology of religion? The answer seems fairly obvious. So why would anyone choose the latter in the British journal Prospect?

Various reasons suggest themselves, but none so much as the fact that it is now impossible, in Britain, to state plain truths about the nature of Islam on the one hand and the contrasting nature of Christianity on the other. Martin Amis’s suggestion that no-one can any longer “say anything is better than anything else” is to the point. A hierarchy of value is ruled out. Everything exists on a level plain. And no religion is better than any other.

The result being that one cannot even state plainly that where Islam spread by the sword, Christianity mainly spread by precept and example and the peaceful proselytising of missionaries—many of whom contributed through their notes, journals, and correspondence, to what has become known in our time as “the anthropology of religion.”

Posted in Civilization.