On Religion and Violence by Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor

The 20th century has been marked in a horrifying way by “categorical violence”-a violence directed against people on the basis of their belonging to a certain group. Categorical violence has three distinguishing features: excessiveness, the discourse of purification and a ritual element.

There are two views of the cause of categorical violence which I wish to dispel. One is that it arises from religion. This view is inaccurate for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that most of the atrocities that can be characterized in this way have been produced by ideologically atheist regimes.

The other view, which is socio-biological, claims that categorical violence is atavistic: either it is in our genes and, through the civilizing course of culture, we put it behind us, or it arises in certain religious, cultural or metaphysical forms that we have since left behind us. However, this account addresses neither the persistence of nor the reason for categorical violence.

Throughout history, categorical violence has been powered by a metaphysical meaning that is embodied in the notion of the good. The quest to attribute meaning to death and suffering is a recurring theme in many religions. Thus, pre-axial civilizations present a universe inhabited both by spirits that are benign and give succor, and by spirits that are malign and wreak violence. Destruction, in short, was thought to be part of the divine. In later religious forms, good and evil are not necessarily part of the same universe; rather, the major spiritual force is good, while violence is explained in terms of punishment for wrongdoing or as the necessary basis of atonement.

Warrior cultures deal with violence by facing down the fear of destruction and accepting the possibility of violent death: fear no longer paralyzes, but exhilarates. An example is the SS-Totenkopfverbände, Hitler’s elite Death’s Head Unit. American war correspondent Chris Hedges writes of this exhilaration in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning:

The godlike empowerment over other human lives and the drug of war combine like the ecstasy of erotic love so to let our senses command our bodies. Killing unleashes in us dark undercurrents that see us desecrate and whip ourselves into orgies of destruction. The dead, treated with respect in peacetime, are abused in wartime.

And the Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar, referring to the Hindu and Muslim leaders of the factions that ignited ethnic-religious conflicts, comments in The Colors of Violence: “The excitement of violence becomes the biggest confirmation that one is physically still alive-a confirmation of one’s very existence.”

Where the warrior “high” is given a metaphysical and religious meaning, this form of violence may be worked out in such modes of action as the holy war, the crusades or sacrifice. Or it may be worked out, as René Girard has done, in the scapegoat phenomenon, whereby a society projects what it wishes to be rid of onto a certain person or group, and then expels or kills the bearer.

Scapegoating arises from the identification of a contrast case, the impetus for which is the desire to feel good about ourselves by identifying a group of people lacking our morals or virtues and in relation to whom we look good despite our actions.

Where societal anxiety is caused by uncertainty as to why things are going wrong, the impetus to identify a contrast group onto which we can project, and which provides an explanation or “face” for, the root of the problem, is stronger. The classic situations are anty-Semitism and the witch hunt craze.

If this contrast case serves to define a cause for societal problems, our action against it serves to reaffirm that we are really good. The powerful attraction of the “scapegoat operation” is that it makes a society, a culture or a civilization feel positive about itself. While it can be the basis for effective collective action, it also involves targeting another, be it an internal other (with expulsion) or an external other (with a holy war).

Scapegoating does not rest safely in the medieval or early modern past. The progress of civilization is sometimes also regress and increased savagery. The shift from pre-axial to axial civilization bore witness to a massive moralization of our sense of the godly and the divine. But precisely this moralization gave the scapegoat operation a much more murderous form.

John Keegan, in A History of Warfare, describes the largely ritualized character of early forms of war. As civilization progressed, we began to think instrumentally and rationally about violence: we must have a goal-namely, the removal of a group from our territory. Although we justify this act as undertaken only when absolutely needed, our rationalization actually increases the violence.

Witness the French Revolution and the Terror, which bore the three features of categorical violence: excessive violence, the discourse of purification and the quasi-ritual element.

There are two perspectives on how the French Revolution and the Terror could happen despite the progress of civilization. One is that they were a throwback to the tradition of popular rebellion in ancient regime France. The middle-class deputies in Versailles were horrified by the excessive violence and the carnivalesque parading of the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s heads on spikes to great hilarity during the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. Yet two weeks later they decided to rewrite the event and treat it as the rising of the sovereign people-as July 14 has been celebrated in France ever since.

In fact, the revolution depended on that popular violence. Storming the Bastille forced the Royal Swiss troops to retreat. As a consequence, the revolutionary leaders were forced to give more weight to this event. One reason for the Terror, then, is that the leaders in Paris felt they had to go along with it. There is a wonderful line from Danton in 1793 who is thinking back to September 1792 and the outbreak of popular violence: “Soyons terrible pour dispenser le peuple de l’être” – let up practice terror so that the people do not have to. In other words, they are our followers, yet we must follow them.

The second account of the Terror examines the actual discourse of Robespierre and his compatriots. They had a deep, ideological investment in ideas of purity. Anything that went wrong was somehow caused by a “complot.” As a result, people who looked suspect could be targeted.

In reality, the phenomenon of the Terror happened as a marriage of these two accounts: the leaders appropriated the thrust of the popular revolt and, in rationalizing and sanitizing it through severe, moralistic ritual, they gave it their own justification. These middle-class, enlightened revolutionaries were horrified by the elements of popular carnival. That they nevertheless took up and used the whole force of the revolution, then, is difficult to understand. Earlier, when a new constitution was being voted on, Robespierre voted against the death penalty for the new republic. So what happened here? Strange things….. The person who does not think the death penalty should be part of the new republic also thinks the path to this new republic must go through blood. It is so pure it cannot have the death penalty, but it is so pure that it cannot tolerate the impure elements that are standing in its way. A whole liturgy surrounds the modern republic, which is supposed to be the most advanced, rational and enlightened form of the body politic.

The crucial corresponding idea to popular sovereignty is nations; the concomitant expression of categorical violence is ethnic cleansing. The idea that people should rule themselves requires that we invent a new collective agency called “the people” or “the nation”, which is the subject of the will that is expressing itself in ruling itself. And this notion of “the people” has been closely attached to the notion of a certain territory. A terrible new dilemma-a new kind of legitimacy challenge – is created which did not exist in earlier, less enlightened regimes. The existence of an important minority on a territory which either cannot be or refuses to be assimilated into the nation comes to constitute a legitimacy threat in a way that did not exist in the era of empires, where the co-existence of different cultural and religious groups was understood in hierarchical terms: empires are empires; therefore other people are here. Now suddenly the presence of other peoples on our territory becomes a terrible problem, which results in the phenomenon witnessed over the last 150 years of forcing minorities to become part of a majority, such as the Turks trying to force Kurds to become Turks. If assimilation fails, ethnic cleansing, in all its terrible forms, may arise.

Thus a new field for this kind of categorical violence has been opened up-one that is made the greater because it is moralized. The framework for understanding modern nations and nationalism is the notion that there are many nations, each has its legitimacy, they often recognize each other and they live together in peace-as against the bad, old days of empires when people were trying to take one another’s territory. The fact that there is a perfect moral solution on the horizon-namely, we all respect each other’s identity and do not make war-also means that an identity threat on the part of the minority can be turned into an accusation of some kind of aggression: this minority is doing the terrible thing of threatening our identity. What starts off being an identity threat is then parleyed into a life threat: a certain minority enacts an atrocity in one village, the story migrates and what was seen first as an identity threat rapidly escalates. They are really after us.

A more broad-scale, more savage, more relentless and more merciless violence arises out of the rational, enlightened world. The higher and more truly good the goal is, the higher are the stakes. Paradoxically, the very fact that we are working for a republic that is so good and so humane that it would not have a death penalty somehow makes it look right to deal with utmost severity with those who stand in the way of this great advance. The very fact that we are fighting for a world in which all national identities on their own territories are safe and accept others in amity makes it possible, even justified, to deal with the people who are a treat. There is at one and the same time a disconnect between the goals and the actual struggle, between no death penalty here and killing a lot of people there, between peaceful coexistence here and ethnic struggle there. Yet at some level they can be linked in a justification.

But the rationalization of the killing is not the whole story. There is a recurrence of the basic scapegoat operation with its original motivation-namely it gives us, the agents, a sense of goodness, virtue, unity, power. Projecting everything that potentially leads to the disaggregation of our nation or republic onto these enemies and then showing our deep commitment to this good by fighting against them creates a sense of our fundamental goodness and power.

Underlying this rationalization is another mechanism, a virus that has existed in many forms. Killing the host does not kill the virus. The virus recreates itself and colonizes a new form. This will explain why categorical violence crops up in different ideological frameworks, religious and a-religious.

Let us imagine, therefore, a totally objectified, disengaged, distancing and scientific view of how a population could be improved. In the Soviet Union, Bukharin spoke about manufacturing communist man out of the human material of the capitalist age. In Canada, there was the “civilizing mission” of the aboriginal residential schools. This distancing is based not on good and evil but on objectification: we are agents and they are an inert mass that needs to be destroyed or re-shaped. More deeply, this objectifying stance stokes up our sense of our own moral and intellectual superiority, which is the superiority of the agent. Yet, when resistance is encountered from the “material,” the discourse of good and evil recurs. There is no way out.

How can this tendency be circumvented?

We need another kind of shift in our way of operating and thinking, which is orthogonal to the different ideological doctrines. The shift is not just from one doctrine to another, but from one register of the human good to another. On the one hand, there is the insight of shared imperfection: in the words of Shatov in Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, we are all to blame. On the other is the realization that we must work together.

Witness the charismatic leadership of Nelson Mandela, one of the great figures of the 20th century who, in a situation which could have spiraled downward in an almost endless vendetta, renounced the right of the victim to extract the full weight of punishment. Why? Because he saw very clearly that if everyone does not work together to build a new kind of South Africa, everyone will be the losers.

This sounds obvious, but it is not. Consider the reactions to 9/11, particularly those of the major government of the major republic not terribly far from here. The first reaction was, why is this happening? Because people hate freedom. Because there are people who are evil. In a television interview, Jean Chrétien said, maybe there are some things we are doing wrong that are creating the conditions whereby people want to take these kinds of actions. When the interview played on FOX TV, all hell broke loose. How did people, like Rudy Giuliani, respond? You are justifying the actions.

This is an interesting move. Nothing is on the table except the good and evil account. If you put anything else on the table, you are undercutting that account, which is equivalent to saying you are giving a medal to Bin Laden. What is behind this thinking? It makes a certain sense of, we are right, we are great, we are together, we are powerful, we are perfect. People need that. Some ideologies need that more than others. That is what drives people to define the military response to 9/11 as a “war on terror.” However, thinking of it as a war on terror is the biggest shooting of ourselves in the foot imaginable. It is totally blind. Because nine-tenths of dealing with terrorism has to be changing hearts and minds in various parts of the world. That cannot be done by war. That cannot be done without working with those people.

If you break in with reality, you are accused of justifying. If only a moralistic framework is allowed, then it is absolutely morally unacceptable to think in other terms. What is speaking here is the same voice as the scapegoat mechanism through history and it can colonize anything. They stand for good values, most of which we stand for too. What will save them is the realization that there is a danger awaiting all of us and it can be suicidal not to notice it.

Religion and violence? No, it is not religion but rather a deep set of mechanisms and operations that colonize religions at various times. We have to be aware of it, step outside of it, make an orthogonal move of recognizing co-responsibility for what has gone wrong and take co-action to set it right.

“On Religion and Violence”
Abridged Public Lecture by Charles Taylor,
The Chancellor Jackman Distinguished Visitor in the Arts