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Just War and Jihad in Ithaca

by Bill Cooke


The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 20, Number 4.


The 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 November 5–7.

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.

The keynote 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.

An interesting 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 the soul.

Monotheism, Dr. 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 include:

  • 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.)

  • Sacred space—a space is more valuable from surrounding space for religious reasons, eg. Jerusalem or Ayodyha.

  • Group privilege—privileges being 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).

Dr. Avalos 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 jihad 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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