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Religion and violence

Religion leads to violence. Dogma divides, experience unites. We hear such things all the time, but are they true?

The answer isn’t obvious. There have been religious wars and persecutions, but also non-religious and anti-religious ones. It was secular ideologies, after all, that led to the political catastrophes of the last century, and the most successfully murderous of the ideologies was explicitly atheistic. Besides, dogma is everywhere. PC, and American constitutional law, would be incomprehensible if there were no dogmas in American public life. “Religion leads to violence” is itself dogma.

The argument that religion is essentially violent is that it is non-rational, and can’t be satisfied by anything limited, so religious disputes can’t be compromised and proceed to the last extremity. The argument is not nearly as good as it sounds. Every social order is based on commitments that can’t be proven; the “democratic faith” is a faith like any other. And the religious sense that the thing we need most is something that transcends every finite good seems at least as likely to moderate as inflame political passions. Men need to have heaven somewhere, and if they think it can’t be found in heaven they’ll try to set it up here on earth. That can be dangerous.

The real concern about religion and violence, however, is not the abstract nature of religion in general but something far more specific. Religion is a threat not to peaceful social order in general, but to the liberal order in particular. The advanced liberal order achieves peace by deciding all serious issues nonpolitically, as questions of economic management, human rights, expert social policy, constitutional law, international treaty obligations and so on. We are all free and happy under advanced liberalism because there are no conflicts, and the reason there are no conflicts is that everything has already been decided for us.

For such a system to work the people have to accept what’s done without questioning it in any way. If questioning were possible, then the reality of conflict would have to be recognized, and advanced liberalism functions by denying that legitimate conflict is possible in any serious matter. The problem with religion is not that it is unreasonable, but that it gives its adherents a perspective independent of that provided by the liberal state, and that, for liberalism, is intolerable. The illegitimacy of religion, insofar as it suggests answers different from the liberal answers, has therefore become a non-negotiable principle. If it were legitimate then something would have to be discussed, and the whole game would come to an end.