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The Myth of Religious Violence

We all know the story. Europe in the 17th century was torn apart by the Wars of Religion. Then, after several decades of extreme violence, people decided to put religious differences to one side, and to come together in the rational, secular, liberal, tolerant state. We then exported this model of rational civilisation to the rest of the world, which is slowly accepting it, despite being backward, irrational and prone to religious violence (that means you, Muslims).

This is the foundational myth of the modern secular state. And like all myths, it is not entirely true. Its falsehood – or limited truth – can blind us to our own irrational violence.

Ecstasy plays a key role in this myth. Ecstatic experiences were central to the Christian conception of human nature and human society. Ecstasy was the ladder which connected humans to the divine. But in the 17th and 18th century process of secularization, ecstasy was rebranded as ‘enthusiasm’, and deemed a mental illness and a threat to public order. Enthusiasm was the ‘anti-self of the Enlightenment’, the enemy of reason. Ecstasy has to be locked up or banished if the rational liberal secular order can exist.

The pathologisation of ecstasy began in the 16th-century Reformation. Martin Luther mocked the monastic practice of trying to reach ecstasy through contemplation – monks and nuns were lazy fools getting rich off the gullible masses. You can’t get to heaven through your own contemplative efforts, only grace can save you. It is dangerous to rely on personal revelation or visionary experience, you should only rely on Scripture. Luther lambasted Anabaptist peasants for using personal revelation as a justification for violent revolution, calling them ‘enthusiasts’.

Cranmer and Cromwell (pictured either side of Henry VIII) waged a war on ecstasy in the interest of state power

His critique of the Church was used by kings in their attempts to seize power and money for their fledgling states. Henry VIII, for example, embraced the Reformist cause to increase his own power in England. His advisors, Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, used a Lutheran critique of monasticism to close down almost all the monasteries and nunneries in England and seize their assets. This is what secularisation originally meant – the transfer of assets and power from the church to the state.

Cranmer and Cromwell waged a war on ecstasy. When a Catholic nun called Elizabeth Barton prophesized against Henry and Anne Boleyn, she was hanged for treason. Thomas Cromwell declared: ‘If credence should be given to every such lewd person as would affirm himself to have revelations from God, what readier way were there to subvert all common wealth and good order in the world?’ Cranmer took the traditional invocation of the Holy Spirit out of the Book of Common Prayer. The Holy Spirit was deemed a threat to public order. Religion was reduced to a series of propositions, set by the state, which people must publicly affirm…or else.

In the 17th century, both Catholic and Protestant thinkers warned against ‘enthusiasm’ or any claim to personal revelation. It was a threat to reason and public order. One sees the political usefulness of this critique particularly in Thomas Hobbes’ remarkable polemic, Leviathan, published in 1651. Like a 17th-century Richard Dawkins, Hobbes rails against people who let their imagination carry them away, so that they start imagining fairy tales of God or angels or fairies speaking to them and telling them what to do. Such enthusiasts may then persuade the ignorant mob, who then disturb the public order and threaten the state.

This polemic against religious ecstasy is grounded in Hobbes’ materialism. We are material automatons. There is no such thing as a ghost in the machine or a Holy Spirit ‘out there’, no way any spirit could enter our bodies. Imagination is merely ‘decaying sense’, not some sort of ladder to the divine as medieval contemplatives believed. Medieval scholastics thought human nature was double – matter and soul. But this is nonsense. We are just matter.

Hobbes’ materialism is tied to his politics. In medieval Christendom, humans’ double nature (body and soul) was reflected in the double authority of the Church and the State, the kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of Earth. But Hobbes insists we mustn’t set up a ‘ghostly authority against the civil’. This is to set up a ‘kingdom of fairies’. There can be only one power, one authority, one kingdom – the state. The state is the true kingdom of heaven, and we owe it total allegiance. As for religion, that can be reduced to the basic proposition that Jesus is Christ. Who doesn’t accept that?

Hobbes is unusually outspoken in his denunciation of religious enthusiasm, but one finds a similar idea in Enlightenment thinkers like Locke, Hume and Shaftesbury. Religious enthusiasm is a threat to public order. Religion should be confined to the private sphere, while the public sphere remains secular, rational and polite. Ecstasy is not all bad, as long as it stays a private individual experience. This is what the Romantic Sublime is essentially – a private, individual experience. But enthusiasm is very dangerous when it’s collective, and when it spills over into the public sphere. We don’t want to go back to the 17th century, to those terrible Wars of Religion. We owe our primary allegiance to the secular, rational state.

This story is still very active today. It defines how we think of Islamic terrorism. Some reference to the Wars of Religion often appears in defences of western secularism and attacks on Islamic irrationalism. The story goes something like this: ‘We went through a period of religious violence in the 17th century until we invented the rational secular state, and everything calmed down and got better. Religion leads to violence, it causes more wars than anything else. If only you Muslims could evolve out of your religious irrationalism and embrace western rationalism. We will defend secularism from your irrational attacks, and support secular regimes in the Middle East. We will bomb you into rationalism.’

There are several problems with this ‘myth of religious violence’, as the historian William T. Cavanaugh calls it. Firstly, as Cavanaugh explores, it’s not an accurate account of the Thirty Years War, which was only dubbed the ‘Wars of Religion’ in the Enlightenment. Those wars often pitted Catholics against Catholics and Protestant against Protestants, in an ever-shifting series of battles which have more to do with the breakdown of the Hapsburg empire and the emergence of autonomous states than religious enthusiasm. As Peter Wilson concluded in his recent history, the emergence of the secular state wasn’t the antidote to the Thirty Years War – it was the cause of it.

Secondly, ecstasy and enthusiasm didn’t go away in the rational secular state. It took new forms, such as the capitalist ecstasy of the South Sea Bubble. Its most obvious new form was nationalism – the ecstatic worship of the state and state power. You can see this ‘migration of the Holy’ to the secular state in the French Revolution, in the cult of Napoleon, in the totalitarian worship of Hitler and Stalin, and – in a less extreme but no less powerful way – in American civil religion and the cult of the Star-Spangled Banner. Secularism didn’t really privatise religion, it created a new religion of the state.

Nationalist enthusiasm can be just as brutal, irrational and aggressive as medieval ecstatic movements. Nationalism caused far more wars and loss of life in the 19th and 20th centuries than monotheism. We think of secularism as tolerant and peaceful, but it often means state absolutism of a very brutal kind. That’s certainly what it meant in the Middle East, with the Hobbesian regimes of Ataturk, Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, or Hafez al-Assad. Today, Western societies are in danger of reacting to Islamic terrorism by embracing a particularly nasty nationalism, as peddled by Putin, Trump and Le Pen. Who, faced with such Leviathans, would not yearn for God?

Secularism is often tied to an aggressive materialism which many people – including me – find suffocating, soulless and unreal. If you want to win the battle of ideas with Islamic extremism, you cannot simply preach secularism, nationalism and materialism. That will not do the job. People will always yearn for a transcendence beyond the human, particularly the young, the poor and the oppressed. We need to create and protect spaces for transcendence in secular liberal cultures, so that young people don’t feel they have to go to violent extremes to find it.

ISIS and the recurrent virus of apocalyptic beliefs

Probably the worst idea in the history of religion is the End Times. It’s caused more bloodshed than any other religious belief. It’s still around, costing lives – the ideology of ISIS is soaked in apocalyptic expectation, as a new book by William McCants explores. It’s amazing that the big religions have survived so long, considering how often their followers’ totally certain prediction of the End Times turned out to be totally wrong. The Apocalypse has been announced many thousands of times over the last five millennia. And here we still are. Yet still the faithful declare the End.

What makes us keep falling for it? Perhaps it’s some inherent human frailty – in times of stress, psychologists suggest, humans are more likely to leap to strange or deluded interpretations and predictions, and we cling to them harder when faced with death. When the world is uncertain, when our position in it is threatened, we are more likely to believe someone who says they know exactly how this will play out. I remember when I had PTSD getting obsessed with palmistry and then astrology for precisely this reason.

Apocalyptic thinking goes deep into our psychology. Think of the mythical books and films we love in the 20th century, and their idea of the One who it is predicted will come to save us via a Final Showdown with Evil (in Dune, the Matrix, Harry Potter, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones).  How satisfying those stories are to us – a clear narrative, with a beginning, middle and end, and clearly-divided Good Guys and Bad Guys.  Candy for the soul.

But when played out in real life, such stories are a killer. They make the deluded of ISIS think that, because we’re in the End Times, anything goes – sexual slavery, mass executions, the beheading of elderly museum curators. Normal rules are suspended. All enemies must be wiped out.

The idea of the End Times goes back at least as far as 500 BC, when Zoroastrians started to talk of an environmental collapse and a final confrontation between Light and Darkness before a perfect age for the righteous. Judaism also came to expect the coming of a Messiah, a new King, who will utterly smite Israel’s enemies, liberate Jerusalem, and then rule in a perfect age where ‘the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them’.

Jesus was certain the End Times were just around the corner: ‘these things will come upon this generation’, he is quoted as saying in the Gospel of Matthew. ‘There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’ St Paul was also certain the End Times were nigh. The general Christian expectation of the End of Days led to a proliferation of apocalyptic texts in the first and second centuries, with one particularly florid vision – Revelation – eventually being accepted into the Canon, despite the misgivings of some Church Fathers.

But the End Times didn’t happen. Instead, much to everyone’s surprise, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Nobody predicted that! Then the Roman Empire got sacked by Goths, leading to another bout of apocalyptic fever. But life went on. Then Mohammad saw an angel, who told him of a coming apocalypse when the Al-Mahdi would descend from heaven, riding a white horse and accompanied by Jesus, to utterly smite Islam’s enemies (particularly the Jews) and liberate Jerusalem . This Messianic expectation fired up Islam for one of the most extraordinary military expansions in human history. But they didn’t conquer the world, and the Mahdi didn’t come. Life went on.

Follow me!
Follow me!

All through the Middle Ages, societies would be suddenly convulsed by apocalyptic expectations. A monk, knight, shepherd or vagrant would announce they had received a vision from God – often they claimed to have found an ancient prophetic text or to have received a personal letter from Jesus – and they were destined to liberate Jerusalem, convert the Jews, and usher in the thousand-year reign of the saints (hence such movments were often called ‘millenarian’). Again and again, from the 11th to the 14th century, such people persuaded thousands to follow them to Jerusalem or somewhere nearer, often massacring Jews along the way. Usually they and their followers were executed, starved, or died in battle. And still the End Times didn’t happen. Life went on.

Throughout the tectonic shifts of the Reformation, many people believed they were living through the End Times, and the leading figures of the day – Martin Luther, the Pope, the Emperor, Henry VIII, whoever – were either the Saviour of Christendom, or the Anti-Christ. This being the End Times, normal rules were suspended – the enemies of the True Faith must be purged from the Body Politic, and the poor old Jews converted or massacred. This 150-year religious fever culminated in the Thirty Years War, a long orgy of violence that killed roughly a third of the German population. And still the End Times didn’t happen. Life went on.

Finally, by the end of the 17th century, people in western culture were fed up with apocalyptic predictions. After 2000 years of false alarms, after thirty years of apocalyptic warfare ended in stalemate, people started to doubt that the End Times were actually upon us. As life became more stable and prosperous, people’s focus shifted from the End of Days to making life slightly more pleasant here on Earth. The ecstatic predictions of prophecy gave way to the cautious predictions of science.

3pi-dab-0047-02Where before an apocalyptic prophet could be guaranteed a listening, now they became objects of ridicule. When French Huguenot prophets arrived in London in 1706, and started to go into apocalyptic spasms in the streets, they were laughed at, and even inspired a puppet show at Bartholomew Fair. This sort of ‘public raillery’ was the best antidote for such enthusiasm, declared the Earl of Shaftesbury. It worked much better than suppression, which only further agitated their melancholic self-importance.  From that point on, apocalyptic prophets became figures of fun, pity, and medical interest – they evolved into the comic stereotype of the lonely nutter wearing a sandwich-board, announcing the End is Nigh.

There were still many apocalyptic movements during and after the Enlightenment, like the Jansenist convulsionnaries of 1727, a group of End Time ecstatics who went into spasms until a violent beating calmed them down (see the illustration below); or the Seventh Day Adventists in the US, led by William Miller, who announced the End of Days would arrive on 1843. It didn’t (this is known as The Great Disappointment), but that didn’t stop the movement – every day I walk past one of their churches on the Holloway Road. But such apocalyptic Christian cults tended to be marginal and relatively harmless.

The strange sado-masochistic rituals of the Jansenists in 18th century Paris

Whenever Christianity becomes ecstatic, it involves an expectation of the End Times. The Pentecostalists of the early 20th century, for example, thought they were granted miraculous powers like speaking in tongues as a sign of the Second Coming. As the Church of England becomes more charismatic, some church leaders also nurse apocalyptic hopes. Pete Greig was the youthful leader of a 1990s charismatic revival, which he wrote about in Red Moon Rising. The title comes from a verse in the Book of Joel predicting the End of Days – Greig apparently thought his revival was a Sign of the End Times. But it wasn’t. Life went on.

My next book argues that we need to find a place for ecstasy and altered states of consciousness in modern rational society. But apocalyptic expectations are the most troubling aspect of ecstasy. So often, what has really fired up ecstasy is the belief: ‘the old order has passed, here comes a New Jerusalem!’ And that belief is not confined to theists, by the way. In different forms, it inspired the ecstasy of the French Revolution, or the worship of Hitler, or even the dot.com bubble (in which the New Jerusalem became the New Paradigm). ‘Atheism is not exempt from it’, remarked Shaftesbury. ‘For, as some have well remark’d, there have been enthusiastical atheists.’

I suppose the ecstatic belief that things can be radically better can be a good thing, and can help to drive change. What is dangerous is the totally certain expectation that a final apocalypse is at hand and that the human population can be neatly divided into sheep and goats. That’s a horrible idea, one that has been proven wrong over and over and over again, as the unhappy survivors of ISIS will soon discover.