Is religion good or bad? This sound bite of a question dominates much of what passes for public discussion of religion in the United States. When the soi-disant New Atheists took the bestseller lists by storm in the first decade of the new millennium with titles like The End of Faith (2004), The God Delusion (2006), Breaking the Spell
(2006), and God Is Not Great (2007), it was because they focused almost exclusively on the capacity of religion to generate violence. This wasn’t surprising, considering that since 9/11 we have lived in a world newly conscious of the geopolitical power of piety. Defenders of faith have of necessity adopted the same focus, albeit to opposite ends. “The idea that religion has a tendency to promote violence is part of the conventional wisdom of Western societies,” writes William Cavanaugh in his revealingly titled The Myth of Religious Violence (2009). Karen Armstrong sharpens the point in the opening paragraph of Fields of Blood, her new inquiry into the relationship between religion and violence: “Modern society has made a scapegoat of faith.”
If by “modern society” Armstrong means the New Atheists and their handful of vocal followers, then maybe she is right. But her claim should seem either polemical or naïve to anyone living not only in the United States, where a large majority of citizens believe in heaven and hell, but also in countries governed by parties with names like the Christian Democratic Union (Germany) or the Pakistan Muslim League. A visitor from outer space (or a reader of surveys) might be forgiven for thinking—as he, she, or it tours the burgeoning churches of the former Soviet bloc; skims the blogs, newspapers, and TV channels of the Islamic world; or listens on a universal translator to the speeches of politicians across Europe and the Americas—that modern society is, to the contrary, a haven for the faithful. But even assuming that religion is increasingly powerful rather than embattled, the polarizing question at the center of Cavanaugh’s and Armstrong’s broadsides remains important: Is the promotion of violence inherent to any religion, or is violence committed in the name of religion a mutation or betrayal of an inherently benevolent faith?
The question is a very old one, but it began to be asked with a new urgency in the 16th and 17th centuries, when emerging theological differences between Catholics and Protestants provided a rallying cry for wars that would decimate Europe. Observers like the Flemish humanist Justus Lipsius (1547–1606) thought themselves to be in the midst of a new and bloody alignment between faith and fratricide, a pairing in which religion was not innocent: “Good Lord what firebrands of sedition hath religion kindled in this fayrest part of the world? The chiefe heads of our christian commonwealths are at strife among themselves, and many millions of men have bin brought to ruine and do dayly perish, under a pretext of piety.” This violence led many hallowed names of what might loosely be called the Enlightenment—Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire, Hamilton, Jefferson—to puzzle over the proper relation between piety and politics. The conclusions of their troubled cogitations left many traces, perhaps none more consequential than those in the Constitution of these United States.