‘“Religion” and “the sacred”: a note for historians following the Martin Place siege’, Honest History, 18 January 2015
In a recent column in the Fairfax press, Crispin Hull made some comments on religion and violence in the light of the hostage drama at Martin Place. Hull’s remarks display his trademark provocative style. He is certainly not alone in the media in his willingness to make sweeping characterisations about the nature of ‘religion’ and its intrinsic connection with violence. While this terminology may be taken as commonplace by many of Hull’s readers, I would argue that it requires critical attention and should not be taken for granted.
Martin Place siege aftermath (Sydney Morning Herald)
Historians have a vocation of unpicking the complexity and particularity of the events that have shaped human society and culture. They should be especially cautious about using ‘religion’ as a generic, acultural and ahistorical category for their research. They should also be careful of assuming a straightforward connection between religion and violence. Working with such assumptions may conceal from view some significant dynamics.
Help is at hand. The characterisation of ‘religion’ and its connections to violence has been the subject of research and controversy by anthropologists and theologians. Some empirically-grounded insights from those disciplines disturb the confident simplicity of the religion-violence assumption. These writers have concluded that the concept of ‘religion’ – as an ahistorical, acultural category of social life that can be distinguished from the ‘political’ – did not exist before the 16th century.
In the various ‘ways and traditions of being in the world’ – my preferred substitute term for ‘religion’, and a term which points to the issues of tradition and practice – the roots of social creativity and community-building are intertwined with practices and perceptions that can generate communal violence. Which social outcome prevails depends upon the communal choices people make in appropriating the specific tradition within a given social context. The Civil Rights movement in the United States in the 1950s and 60s is a good example of how peaceful, morally-directed political engagement, rooted in the Black churches, morphed into political violence in particular communities and how Christianity was used by the white community to justify that violence.
Charting the relationship between violence and religion gets even more complicated. When speaking of religion and violence we are often confronted with something much more disturbing, something that we may term, with acknowledgements to Durkheim, ‘the sacred’. The sacred is a force or power that has a dismaying propensity to migrate across the boundaries that we assume separate ‘religion’ from the ‘secular’.
Grave of Durkheim, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris (Flickr Commons/Glasgowfoodie)
The language of sacrifice has migrated from diverse locations in church and royalty to the nation-state. The resultant sacralising of the ‘secular’ is evident in the emergence of the nation-state, generating civil religions which call us to kill or be killed on its behalf. National governments send youth off to one war after another. After every death in such wars we are assured that we need to keep fighting to ensure that previous deaths will not have been in vain. (See Elizabeth Samet on this.)
In Australia this migration of the sacred has become manifest in the civil religion of ‘Anzac’, with its shrines, occasions of worship, state-funded ‘remembering’ of World War I and the call to bind ourselves to the event of Anzac as the core of our Australian identity.
Doug Hynd was a public servant. He has lectured in Christian ethics at Charles Sturt University and is currently undertaking a Ph. D at the Australian Catholic University. He has previously contributed to Honest History on religious aspects of Anzac Day and on history and public policy-making.
Calhoun, Craig, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan Van Antwerpen, eds. Rethinking Secularism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Campbell, Will D. Writings on Reconciliation and Resistance, edited by Richard C. Goode. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2010.
Campbell, Will D., and Richard C. Goode. Crashing the Idols: The Vocation of Will D. Campbell (and Any Other Christian for That Matter). Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2010.
Campbell, Will D. and James Y. Holloway. Up to Our Steeples in Politics. Eugene, Oregon: Wipg and Stock Publishers, 2004, Paulist Press, 1970.
Cavanaugh, William T. ‘”A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House”: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State.’ [In English]. Modern Theology 11, no. 4 (O 1995): 397-420.
——— Migrations of the Holy: God, State and the Political Meaning of the Church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2011.
——— The Myth of Religious Violence. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Fitzgerald, Timothy. ‘A Critique of ‘Religion’ as a Cross-Cultural Category.’ Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 9, no. 2 (1997): 91-110.
——— Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.
——— Religion and the Secular : Historical and Colonial Formations. London: Equinox Publishing Ltd, 2007.
Fountain, Philip. ‘Toward a Post-Secular Anthropology.’ The Australian Journal of Anthropology 24, no. 3 (2013): 310-28.
Gorski, Philip, S., David Kyuman Kim, John Torpey and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, eds. The Post-Secular in Question: Religion in Contemporary Society. New York: Social Science Research Council & New York University Press, 2012.
Inglis, Kenneth Stanley, and Jan Brazier. Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (Fully Updated Third Edition). Melbourne University Press, 2008.
Lash, Nicholas. The Beginning and End of Religion. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Marsh, Charles. God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.
 Timothy Fitzgerald, ‘A Critique of ‘Religion’ as a Cross-Cultural Category,’ Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 9, no. 2 (1997); Religion and the Secular : Historical and Colonial Formations (London, UK: Equinox Publishing Ltd, 2007); Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (London, UK: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011); Nicholas Lash, The Beginning and End of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford University Press, 2009); Philip Fountain, ‘Toward a Post-Secular Anthropology,’ The Australian Journal of Anthropology 24, no. 3 (2013); William T. Cavanaugh, ‘‘A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House’: The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State,’ Modern Theology 11, no. 4 (1995).
 Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997); Will D. Campbell, Writings on Reconciliation and Resistance, ed. Richard C. Goode (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2010); Will D. Campbell and Richard C. Goode, Crashing the Idols: The Vocation of Will D. Campbell [and Any Other Christian for That Matter] (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2010); Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway, Up to Our Steeples in Politics (Eugene, Oregon: Wipg and Stock Publishers, 2004).
 On questions of the secular, secularization and its connection with religion and its supposed disappearance and reemergence see Philip Gorski, S. et al., eds., The Post-Secular in Question: Religion in Contemporary Society (New York, New York: Social Science Research Council & New York University Press, 2012); Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, eds., Rethinking Secularism (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2011).
 William T. Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State and the Political Meaning of the Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2011).
 Kenneth Stanley Inglis and Jan Brazier, Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (Fully Updated Third Edition) (Melbourne, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2008). Relevant quotations can be found in the media following every death of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan.