Just War and Jihad in Ithaca
by Bill Cooke
The following article is from the Secular
Humanist Bulletin, Volume 20, Number 4.
Committee for the Scientific
Examination of Religion (CSER) is back in business. In the early days of the
Council for Secular Humanism, CSER was one of its most important sections. It
has been inactive for a while, but is now back on the intellectual map. Much of
the credit for this goes to R. Joseph Hoffmann, a distinguished scholar of early
Christianity and a longtime associate of CSH. After teaching abroad for many
years, Dr. Hoffmann is back in the United States, and this conference was a
tribute to his organizing skill and intellectual prowess. He has attracted some
very prominent scholars as Fellows of CSER, and several of them attended this
event, which took place on the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, New York, on
Paul Kurtz opened
the conference and outlined the work of the CSER. Then, in a talk called
“Positioning the Question of ‘Religious’ Violence,” Dr. Hoffmann set the
intellectual tone for the weekend with an excellent opening address on the
question of religious violence.
address was presented by Dr. Pauletta Otis, Senior Fellow for Religion in
International Affairs at the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life in Washington,
D.C. Dr. Otis argued that there is a religious element to every major conflict
in the world at the moment, not least because religion provides an explanation
for birth, life, death, and the eternal verities. She also noted how ignorant
people are about the religion they claim to belong to, at which point most of
the religious studies scholars in the audience groaned in agreement.
Not only is
religion ever-present in the conflicts of the world, but Dr. Otis also noted
that the greater the degree religion is involved, the longer, bloodier, and more
lethal that conflict will be. This is because religious beliefs are not amenable
to rational solutions. The emphasis has to be with finding common beliefs.
theme that emerged among the more capable speakers was the recognition that the
links between monotheism and violence are far from accidental. Hector Avalos, a
scholar in religious studies at Iowa State University and a Fellow of CSER, made
this point central to his presentation. Dr. Avalos distinguished between two
types of violence: what he called
somatocentric, or violence
against the body and
pneumaocentric, or violence on
Avalos argued, is inherently violent by virtue of its tendency to separate
people up into those who believe, who are good, and who do not, who are not
simply wrong, but wicked. Monotheism creates scarce resources, and so it is
pretty well inevitable that these should be fought over. These scarce resources
Inscripturati— the reduction
to writing of what is believed to be authoritative information about
supernatural forces. This creates pressure of this scripture versus another
scripture. (See for example, Deut 18:20; 28:58; 28:59.)
space—a space is more
valuable from surrounding space for religious reasons, eg. Jerusalem or
distributed on the basis of religion (Deut 7:1). This is often given as the
justification for genocide on behalf of God’s people.
Salvation—a commodity with
long-term benefits (John 14:6).
concluded that it is wrong in all circumstances to commit violence for a scarce
resource that doesn’t exist or can’t be verified to exist. Dr. Avalos
acknowledged his debt to Dr. Regina Schwartz, who spoke to the conference later
in the day. Dr. Schwartz, author of
The Curse of
Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism, is a professor of religion at Northwestern University and the
director of the Chicago Institute for Religion, Ethics, and Violence. She also
spoke of the inherent tendency to violence in monotheist religions. Among her
many interesting points was the observation that the notion of possession is
essentially fictional, so saying that we “possess” God by virtue of the
excellence of our faith, or by whatever other means, can easily end up
justifying any sort of violence and intolerance.
The theme of the
inherent violence in monotheism was continued by Dr. Carol Delaney, Professor of
Social and Cultural Anthropology at Stanford University. Referring to the story
of Abraham, Dr. Delaney said that the traditional account of Abraham as being
about the transition from human to ritual animal sacrifice is no longer tenable.
The story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is a story about the trial
of his faith and obedience. It is still used in this way in contemporary Israel.
What this story ignores is that Isaac also belonged to his mother. But, as the
story is presented, she counts for nothing, because the Abraham story all about
his seed and who best represents it. These traditions are inherently
patriarchal. It is not a question of merely replacing them with matriarchal
values but of imagining something beyond monotheism.
This approach to
monotheism did not go unchallenged, although it seemed to me the challenge was
very weak. Dr. Bahar Davary, a religious studies scholar at Hobart and William
Smith Colleges, dismissed the link between monotheism and violence as
“simplistic” without giving much in the way of justification why this should be
the case. Her defense of monotheism was prefaced with an eccentric definition of
religion as the “existential involvement with reality.” This understanding of
religion seemed staggeringly unsatisfactory to me. She was also happy to declare
secular humanism as a religion, brushing aside objections that such a move flies
in the face of what secular humanists themselves actually say on the subject.
This seemed an odd approach for someone who also condemned the “textual
violence” done to Islam.
The other main
theme discussed at the conference was the vexed question of what constitutes a
“just war.” This is an ancient theme, going back at least to St. Augustine
(354–430 c.e.). Much of the debate
focused on how we can tell whether a war is just or not. The surest approach to
this question came from Dr. Joyce Salisbury of the University of Wisconsin, and
an Executive Board member of CSER, who made the eminently sensible point that we
can only really know whether a war was “just” or not once it is over and we can
see how it panned out. In this way, we can see that the First World War was not
a just war. The shameful peace, which led to another war, and the shallowness of
the real differences between the combatants undermine any claim to that war
being just, despite the widely held belief at the time that it was. The Second
World War, by contrast, can still be seen as a just war, even though the peace
that followed was imperfect. Nazism was such an evil that war against Hitler was
war in a good cause.
The main weakness
of the conference was that the
theme, though part of the conference title, attracted a lot less discussion than
those on violence in monotheism and just war. This was a shame. However, this
was an exceptionally interesting conference, and it bodes well for the return of
the CSER to playing an active role in the academic study of religion. SHB
Bill Cooke is
International Director of the Center for Inquiry–Transnational
and a Fellow of the
Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion.
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