Approaching Religious Violence: Part I

Battle of White Mountain, Peter Snayers, 1620

Battle of White Mountain, Peter Snayers, 1620

By Suzanne Schneider  

Judging from mainstream media coverage and policy reports, the world today is engulfed in the inextinguishable flames of something called religious violence. Though more often invoked than defined, “religious violence” appears to many as a self-evident phenomenon – a category of particularly barbaric behavior that is responsible for a wide range of atrocities, usually perpetrated in the name of Islam. Reflecting this sense of obviousness, notably few public figures have stopped to question whether religious violence is a useful category through which to apprehend upheavals in the world around us. For instance, is it possible to attribute the rise of ISIS to the Islamic textual tradition while leaving material factors—ranging from the location of oil resources to social media networks, insurgency theory, and the Syrian civil war—mostly unaccounted for? Posed in such stark terms, the absurdity of such an approach becomes evident, and yet the public still encounters a slew of self-appointed experts who read verses from the Qur’an as if there is nothing left to explain.

The obviousness of religious violence within popular discourse finds its inverse within academia, where many scholars of religion have abandoned “religious violence” as a meaningful or useful term on account of the ambiguities embedded in the concept of religion itself. How can we separate religious concerns from economic or political ones and thereby attribute acts of violence to religion alone? It is this difficulty of isolating religious motivations from all others that has led scholars like William Cavanaugh and Talal Asad to suggest that, as a concept, “religious violence” tells us more about the politics of Western countries than it actually explains the actions of al-Qaeda or Boko Haram. How then do we account for the enduring appeal of religious violence as an explanatory device?

In an attempt to address this question, this article—the first in a three-part series—will explore what we talk about when we talk about religious violence, and how this conceptual apparatus came to be. Along the way, we will examine the peculiar position of religious violence within the tradition of political liberalism, explore concrete historical case studies, and reckon with the different paths that politicians, pundits, and pontificators have followed in coming to terms the phenomenon.


Broadly speaking, we can group approaches to religious violence into four general categories, the rough outlines of which are no doubt familiar to many:

1) Religious violence is not truly religious, but a perversion of genuine religious truths. When President Obama states that ISIS does not speak in the name of Islam, or argues that “a small fraction of Muslims propagate a perverted interpretation of Islam,” he is merely articulating the widespread liberal sentiment that true religion is peaceful, charitable, and innately good;

2) Religious violence is particular to Islam, whose texts and traditions cultivate a “culture of death” that is uniquely fanatic. Ever popular among American neoconservatives and their intellectual heroes, this approach tries to erect an absolute boundary between good and bad religions, and argues for the exceptionalism of the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular. For example, Marco Rubio’s insistence on viewing politics as a “clash of civilizations” finds a natural corollary in his view of religious violence as a problem with Islam.

3) Religious violence is an inherent part of all religious systems, which are fundamentally irrational and divisive. That said, Western countries have advanced socially, scientifically, and politically because their residents have largely abandoned religion for secularism, and the inability or unwillingness to do the same plagues the Muslim world as a whole, leading to reactionary violence against the march of progress. So-called New Atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have done much to popularize this view; and finally,

4) Religious violence not a meaningful or useful term on account of the theoretical difficulties recounted above. This approach—which treats religion and thus religious violence as a historical object with no essential nature, an embedded phenomenon that is expressed differently across time and place—is as prevalent in academic circles as it is absent in popular ones.

Lest the reader think that this is a conceptual exercise of little concern to everyday Americans, we should remember that differing views of religious violence serve to justify very particular actions – whether it is a ground war in Syria or diplomatic relations with Iran. And while many social phenomena are characterized by a gap between academic and public discourse, the consequences of this particular gap, insofar as they relate to the deployment of American military power and diplomatic strength, threaten to be uniquely catastrophic.

Having established the lay of the land, this article will examine the liberal view that religious violence is a perversion of an otherwise upright tradition (The first view described above. The other views will be addressed later in this series). Where does this idea come from? What does it assume? And why does it matter? Answering these questions will take us far afield from digital caliphates and drone strikes, as this contemporary liberal view in fact has its roots in the capital-L tradition of Liberalism of which even Ted Cruz is (however unwittingly) a part. This is the liberalism of free speech and free markets, and of course, freedom of religion.


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.

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.

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. As Hobbes famously defined his terms: “Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION; not allowed, SUPERSTITION. And when the power imagined is truly such as we imagine, TRUE RELIGION.”[1] True religion is thus something quite distinct from either official creeds or popular practices, and Hobbes was revolutionary in his recognition that what we name something (e.g. religion vs. superstition) had almost nothing to do with innate truth and everything to do with power.

Of course the term itself is much older, appearing in the fourth century writings of St. Augustine, whose “Of True Religion” (De Vera Religione) argued that—amid the presence of pagans, Jews, Manicheans, and Christian schismatics—only the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church had right to this title. It is important to note that, for Augustine, the question was which group possessed the “true religion,” not (as for later thinkers) what true religion was composed of or where within a person it resided. It was only during the second half of the seventeenth century that the contemporary liberal view of religion—e.g. there is a universal category of human experience called religion that is essentially good even if its practitioners are sometimes confused—emerged in concert with a bundle of other ideas about politics, subjectivity, and sovereignty.

One of the most striking elements of Leviathan is Hobbes’ argument that, not only should there be no separation between spiritual and temporal authority, but that the sovereign ruler must also be the chief interpreter of religious doctrine within his kingdom. In other words, the state must establish and regulate its subjects’ religious practice in order to prevent competing allegiances from thrusting the commonwealth into civil war. In an obvious rebuke of papal claims, Hobbes argues that the true religion of Christ has no rightful juridical or coercive power. He structures this argument by first attributing to God “a twofold kingdom” composed of natural and prophetic laws:

natural, wherein he governeth as many of mankind as acknowledge his providence, by the natural dictates of right reason; and prophetic, wherein having chosen out one peculiar nation (the Jews) for his subjects, he governed them, and none but them, not only by natural reason, but by positive laws, which he gave them by the mouths of his holy prophets.

Yet the laws of Moses were obligatory for the Jews alone. Other peoples have no obligation to obey them, “by any authority, but his, whose commands have already the force of laws; that is to say, by any other authority, than that of the commonwealth, residing in the sovereign.”[2]

Indeed, he argues, nothing that Jesus did or taught “tendeth to the diminution of the civil rights of the Jews, or of Caesar… The kingdom he claimed was to be in another world: he taught all men to obey in the meantime them that sat in Moses’ [i.e. the lawgiver’s] seat.” True religion thus defined is indifferent to positive law and rather prescribes that the Christian obey his temporal sovereign, who alone could give religious doctrines the force of law. It therefore followed that no universal church existed that could claim authority over believers or meddle in the affairs of rulers. Rather, there were only individual Christians “in the dominions of several princes and states; but every one of them is subject to that commonwealth, whereof he is himself a member; and consequently, cannot be subject to the commands of any other person.”[3] Finally, lest anyone protest that such a political order might threaten the salvation of true believers, Hobbes asserts that the only religious doctrine one must uphold is that “Jesus is the Christ,” and thus “to die for every tenet that serveth the ambition, or profit of the clergy, is not required.”[4] Because “internal faith is in its own nature invisible” (and the true nature of God incomprehensible anyway), the subject could and should obey the outward orders of his sovereign.

The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes; engraving by Abraham Bosse

The frontispiece of the book Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes; engraving by Abraham Bosse

Thus Hobbes accepts Luther’s definition of religion as internal, faith-based, and non-juridical, but does so in order to subordinate the spiritual to the temporal and argue that such an arrangement represents nothing less than God’s true design. Simultaneously, he defines true religion in increasingly abstract terms as that which is compatible with natural reason, and whose dogma consists of little more than a belief in Jesus Christ. “We are not to renounce our senses, and experience; nor our natural reason,” but rather employ them “in the purchase of justice, peace, and true religion.”As Hobbes depicts it, true religion is both increasingly abstract and indifferent to the sovereign’s monopoly on the use of force.

“True religion” also appears prominently in Baruch Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise. Far from a guidebook for absolutism, the text has been described as “a manual for the maintenance of a peaceful political community constituted by diverse religious beliefs.”[5] Yet, much like Hobbes, Spinoza also begins his argument with a presumed division between right reason/divine natural law and revelation/positive law, the latter of which was binding only on Israel during the period of the commonwealth. Importantly, divine natural law is synonymous with true religion, being nothing other than the dictates of right reason. The giving of laws through prophecy was thus intended to serve communities like the Israelites, who were deficient in the natural light of reason, rather than function as universal commands. “Since they did not know the existence of God as an eternal truth, i.e. that God exists and that God alone is to be adored, they had to understand it as a decree.”[6]

Building off this distinction, Spinoza argues that this prophetic positive law lost its binding status after the fall of the Jewish commonwealth; nor was Christ’s mission to replace the old laws with new ones. “Christ, as I said, was sent not to conserve a commonwealth and institute laws, but to teach a universal law alone.” This universal law is both simple and abstract: “that there exists a supreme being who loves justice and charity, and that, to be saved, all people must obey and venerate Him by practicing justice and charity toward their neighbour.”[7] However, as he argues, because “God cannot be conceived as a prince or legislator enacting laws for men,” justice and charity “can only receive the force of law and command via the authority of the state.”[8] It follows that temporal authorities are needed to promote the practice of both virtues, as “God has no special kingship over men except through those who exercise government.”[9]

Given this line of argumentation, it is not surprising to see Spinoza’s ultimate recommendation remains remarkably close to that of Hobbes: “those who hold sovereign power are the defenders and interpreters of sacred as well as civil law…they alone have the authority to decide what is just and what is unjust, what is pious and what is impious.” And similarly, Spinoza too questions “what if the sovereign commands something which is against religion and the obedience which we have promised to God by an explicit agreement?” Is the individual free, or at least morally justified, to disobey his ruler in such instances? Spinoza notes, much like Hobbes, that we must “obey God when we have a certain and undoubted revelation but that people are very prone to go astray in religion and make many dubious claims that result from the diversity of their understanding.”[10] As he continues:

“It is therefore certain that if no one were obliged by law to obey the sovereign power in matters that he thinks belong to religion, then the law of the state would depend upon the different judgments and passions of each individual person. For no one would be obligated by the law if he considered it to be directed against his faith and superstition, and on this pretext everyone would be able to claim license to do anything.”[11]

In other words, while Spinoza believes it is in the best interest of rulers to grant their subjects freedom of thought and expression, that freedom is limited by the stipulation that it not contest sovereign authority. Believe what you like, but do as your ruler says. Much like the argument in John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration,” the condition for religious freedom is that religion forfeit any right to legal or coercive power. In other words, religious freedom can exist only insofar as religious violence is forbidden.

As indicated in this brief survey, true religion was defined in these early modern texts as that which plays nicely with the state – stripped of its juridical function, its dogmas reduced to “natural law” and “right reason.” Hobbes’ social contract theory resides at heart of this conceptual rearrangement, namely, that entering into civil society requires the transfer to a sovereign authority of certain individual rights that existed in the state of nature, the private right to force being chief among them. Not only does “true religion” have no legitimate claim to temporal authority, but religion so defined necessarily becomes a private interest. Far from being a theological construct, true religion emerged from this historical period as that which the modern state will allow.

My goal here has not been to provide a definitive genealogy of “true religion,” as there are undoubtedly other ancestors to trace within Western political thought, to say nothing of the conceptual worlds of other traditions. Yet I do think these texts demonstrate the theoretical reconfigurations that were integral to producing the contemporary view that religions are essentially peace loving and directed toward the universal good. As far as I know, these two works were among the first to articulate the notion of true religion as an abstract entity that exists independently of people’s actual beliefs and practices. With time, this logic would of course find proponents within Islamic societies as well. It appeared most famously in the writings of the late nineteenth century Egyptian reformer, Muhammad ‘Abduh, who accused the Muslim masses of neglecting true Islam – which was, in his view, essentially rational, progressive, and just: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” Perhaps needless to say in the days of ISIS, the practice of differentiating between a pure, essential form of religion and the actual practices of its adherents can be a rather violent and intolerant one.

Far from being a theological construct, true religion emerged from this historical period as that which the modern state will allow.

It has been with these reflections in mind that I have looked apprehensively on President Obama’s well-intentioned attempts to distinguish between ISIS and “true Islam.” Within the context of a pluralistic tradition—there are four recognized schools of Sunni law alone—that lacks a clear interpretive hierarchy, who could possibly adjudicate what true Islam is to begin with? Why must we still pretend that there is a unified, abstract thing called Islam that is essentially stable across place and time? In the context of a Donald Trump presidential run, there is an argument to be made that liberal appeals to “true Islam” may indeed be a pragmatic necessity. But the overarching logic of true religion is deeply flawed, assuming on one hand that religions are fixed traditions whose “truth” is easily identifiable, rather than hotly contested, and that this “truth” consists in acquiescing to the demands made by the secular state. Which raises the question as to whether anything that we label as “religious” could—no matter how justified the cause—oppose the modern state without seeming illegitimate.

I hope it is clear from this rather cursory overview that talking about religious violence, particularly that in the contemporary Middle East, is a practice that comes laden with discursive baggage about how religions are supposed to act, assumptions that were forged in the very particular context of the early-modern European state. This is not to say, for instance, that religions should have the coercive power of the medieval Church, or that secular politics are only available to Euro-Americans. But we should at the very least know the limits of our chosen vocabulary and unpack why religious violence seems so much more intolerable to many Western observers than the everyday violence, often equally unjustified, of the state: religious violence has come to represent both a violation of “true religion” (which is voluntary, peace-loving, etc.) and a threat to the social contract.

The next article in this series will examine rather different approaches to the question of religious violence, which nonetheless share certain foundational assumptions with the liberal view, particularly with regard to the idea that religions are abstract essences rather than embodied historical objects. It is on this conceptual territory that we find much overlap between figures whose ideological proclivities are otherwise quite distinct. Strange bedfellows indeed.


[1] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. Edited by J.C.A. Gaskin. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). 37.

[2] Ibid., 237.

[3] Ibid. 311-312

[4] Ibid. 334.

[5] Anya Topolski, “Spinoza’s True Religion: The Modern Origins of A Contemporary Floating Signifier,” Society and Politics 8:1 (15). April 2014. 43.

[6] Benedict de Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise. Edited by Jonathan Israel. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). 63.

[7] Ibid., 182.

[8] Ibid., 241.

[9] Ibid., 239.

[10] Ibid., 206.

[11] Ibid.


You can read part 2 of “Approaching Religious Violence” here.


Suzanne Schneider is the author Politics of Denial: Religious Education and Colonial Rule in Palestine(forthcoming) and is currently working on a book about religious violence and the modern Middle East. She is the Director of Operations and a Core Faculty member of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, a non-profit education and research center, and a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Religion and Media. Suzanne received her Ph.D. in 2014 from the Department of Middle East, South Asian and African Studies and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University.

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