Approaching Religious Violence: Part One

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Suzanne Schneider in The Revealer:

At first glance, it may not seem like religious freedom and religious violence have much to do with one another; indeed, they appear to most of us as antithetical. This fact makes it all the more interesting to note the way in which these concepts are historically intertwined. Briefly stated, we can trace the origin of both back to 17th century struggles over who, or what, could exercise political authority. These conflicts (often erroneously referred to as Europe’s “religious wars”) were in fact less about dogma than the exercise of sovereignty, and more specifically, the early modern state’s attempt to wrest political control from the Catholic Church. It was only by depriving ecclesiastical authorities of their coercive powers that individual states were able to secure, in Max Weber’s famous terms, a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within their territories.

The long and bloody process of executing this power transfer necessarily entailed redefining, or rather inventing, religion as a distinct element of human experience: simultaneously inner-facing and other-worldly, i.e. defined in terms that did not compete with state sovereignty. Martin Luther’s theological revolution became central to this process, not least because he established the principle of separation between spiritual and temporal powers and emphasized the importance of private faith over public works. A person’s inner world, still an epistemological infant in Luther’s day, would become increasingly real as the decades passed. Most importantly for our purposes, it was in this emerging realm of individual consciousness that “true religion” would come to reside.

The term appears in two important works of seventeenth century political theory: Thomas Hobbe’s Leviathan and Baruch Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, published in 1651 and 1670, respectively. It may seem that these seminal texts are completely incompatible: Hobbes has often been described as a theorist for despotism, while Spinoza is regarded as a proto-democratic thinker who holds a place of privilege in the history of liberal thought. There is much nuance lost in such descriptions, of course, but my primary interest at present is how Hobbes and Spinoza thought about the relationship between religion, state sovereignty, and individual freedom. In this context, I find fascinating their respective invocations of “true religion” to mean something quite different than the actual religious practices of their time. If the reader is willing to follow me down this conceptual rabbit hole, I think we will find that their propositions regarding the nature of “true religion” are still very much in circulation.

True religion, as the concept appears in both texts, is an abstract entity that is neither the possession of any single group nor reducible to any particular form of religious practice.

More here.

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