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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.

Postcard from Antwerp

I’m writing this from a cafe in Antwerp, at the end of my first mini book tour abroad, having spent the last week doing talks and interviews in Amsterdam and Antwerp. My Dutch publisher, Regine, has been putting a lot into the promotion here – there’s even going to be a poster campaign around the country. The poster-slogan will be ‘Like Alain de Botton…but with hair!’ I went to the Antwerp book fair yesterday and was gratified to see one of the posters, above an enormous pile of books.

Regine also set up eight or so interviews in the last week with newspapers, magazine and radio. The photoshoots were a bit weird for me – I’m not very photogenic, and just about the only good photos of me in existence were taken by my friend Claudia on the Camino de Santiago – in fact, one of her photos from that trip is on the Dutch cover and another is on the South Korean cover.

The interviews were also quite…um…direct. It was strange to get personal questions lobbed at me like ‘how is your love life?’, ‘do you believe in God?’ and (my personal favourite) ‘have you really recovered from mental illness?’ What can you say to that? ‘No, I still live perched on the edge of madness’.

In Amsterdam, I met Stine Jensen, who is the young face of philosophy in Holland (though she’s actually Danish). She has a real portfolio career – teaching literary theory in the university, writing a philosophy column, appearing on radio, and even hosting her own philosophy TV show, called DusIkBen. She told me she’s about to launch a philosophy show for kids, called DusIkBen Junior. She also has a new range in philosophical gifts – she is launching a ‘conversation box’ in time for Christmas, with quote-cards by Nietzsche, Kierkegaard etc, to stimulate better family conversations this Yuletide.

The Dutch are very into self-help

The Dutch are immensely into self-help, psychology and practical philosophy – perhaps even more than us. One of their most popular magazines is called Happinez. Practical philosophy is perhaps not quite as big there as in the UK (I think we’ve developed something quite special in that respect) but it’s not far behind. Alain de Botton, for example, is very popular here, and is often on TV. His lifestyle-design approach to philosophy works perfectly in Dutch culture, which is very secular, middle class, and house-proud.

Why should the English and the Dutch be so hot on practical philosophy? I guess it’s a part of our Protestant culture – that sense of trying to improve our selves, rather than relying on God or the Church or great prophets like Marx and Rousseau. We are more practical people, suspicious of intellectual prophets. And both our cultures are quite private and individualistic. We don’t want others intruding into our lives. We don’t like the enforced community of religious societies – we want self-help advice, not commandments and diktats.

But the flip-side of that, perhaps, is that our cultures can be quite individualistic and uncaring for the poor and marginalized. You’re suffering? That’s on you pal! Take care of yourself. As someone put it to me, the Dutch are very tolerant – we don’t care what you do. Perhaps practical philosophy / self-help can also be quite individualistic and uncharitable, compared to Christianity. I wonder again whether practical philosophy can be more than personal self-help, whether it can create genuine caring communities, where people don’t just tolerate each other, but care for each other. Could be a philosophy group where people know each other, care for each other, love each other. Sounds like an invasion of your privacy? Well, that’s the whole point.

And could such groups really change society, to make it less unequal and more caring? I don’t know, but it seems to me we can’t afford to retreat into private Epicurean communes of the affluent, arranging our beliefs like so many scatter cushions. Stine Jensen asked me, why are so many English philosophers from fairly privileged backgrounds? Good question. Because we have a very unequal education system…we need to admit that, and think how to improve it.

De Rode Hoed

I visited two practical philosophy organisations while here, one in Antwerp and another in Amsterdam. The one in Amsterdam is called De Rode Hoed (the redhead), which hosts ideas discussions every evening or so. It’s a beautiful converted ‘secret church’. There’s another philosophy place recently opened in Amsterdam, called Brandstof. It’s aiming, I think, to be the Dutch version of the School of Life, and is organising a big one-day event on December 1 with lots of Brits from the School of Life coming over, including Alain de Botton, Roman Krznaric, Philippa Perry, and me. The British invasion!

In Antwerp, meanwhile, I gave a talk at an unusual place called The Searching Deer, which hosts monthly talks by visiting philosophers. I love the Searching Deer, it has a philosophical doorbell…



Even the wine is philosophical:

Michel de Montaigne wine


I stayed in the guestroom there, which had a large mural of Nietzsche on the wall and a statue of a strange woman in the bathroom.

In Antwerp, there was a strange woman in my bathroom.


The place was set up by Eddy and his wife. They go on book-holidays where they follow in the footsteps of their favourite writers, while lugging a suitcase full of that writer’s books – last year they followed in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf around the south of England.

I’m off back home this evening, tired but happy. Thanks to my wonderful Dutch publisher, Regine, and also to Wilhemina for organising such a great and busy programme. Regine is really a perfect publisher to have – good at her job, eager to promote you, and not in it for the money. After I gave my talk at De Rode Hoed, she gave me a big hug and said ‘I’m so proud of you!’ That’s the type of publisher she is. Next week the book comes out in Germany. I haven’t any events or interviews set up there yet, but am hoping some will happen.


In other news:

Someone has set up a ‘well-being bank’ in Hartlepool where people can swap good deeds.

Here’s an interesting article on how the Coalition’s idea of ‘Health and Well-Being Boards’ can be used as a vehicle for Socratic discussion, in this instance between prison inmates and prison officials about improving prisoners’ mental health and well-being.

Could the Quantified Self or ‘digital well-being’ market be worth $2 trillion? Sounds like colossal hype to me.

Here’s a piece in Newsweek by my friend Peter Pomeranzev about the Dalai Lama’s new book, which claims that ethics classes could save societies from moral corruption.

Here’s a great article from Aeon about how scientific investigation into hallucinogenics is bringing western rationalist materialism up against some ‘squirmy questions’ about God and the spirit realm. Can we steer through the Scylla of neural reductionism and the Charybidis of Woo-Woo?

Check that the philosophy you use is free range. Force-fed industrial philosophy can be cruel and harmful, plus the product is less nutritious.

Once again a physicist said philosophy has lost its bite, and once again it provoked a lot of soul searching among philosophers – some of whom agreed that the academicization of philosophy may have actually impoverished it rather than improved it. I tend to agree – we need to free academic philosophers from their chicken-coops. We need free-range philosophers.

People are worried that the government’s new EBACC has completely ignored the arts, including art, theatre and philosophy. All the good stuff! Here’s a letter written by some eminent artists to the government.

Here’s a piece by The Education Elf on a new RCT testing a whole-school intervention to improve children’s well-being through Positive Behavioural Interventions and Support. They use these techniques in 16,000 schools across the US, and the study found that it works – sort of.

OK, I’m off home now. Looking forward to sleeping in my own bed, though I will miss the taciturn lady in the bathroom.

See you next week,