A Response to Professor Paul Allen: The Supposed Myth of Religious Violence and Religionism in Secular Academia

Prof. Paul Allen of Concordia University
Religionists are those who see religion as beneficial or necessary for human existence and, therefore, something that should be preserved and protected. I recently visited Montreal, Canada, where the divide between secularists and religionists in academia is very much alive, at least in some institutions.  
Some of these religionists are theologians or professors trained in theology who occupy positions in secular universities. When some of them feel religion is threatened, they respond more as part of an ecclesial-academic complex than as secular analysts of religion. One example is Professor Paul Allen, an associate professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. His response to religious violence offers an excellent case study of how Christian and religionist apologetics represents itself as scholarship.

On June 16, I delivered the keynote lecture at a conference on “Religion, Violence and the Ethics of Biblical and Religious Studies” at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. The event was organized by Dr. André Gagnéan Associate Professor in the Departments of Religious Studies and Theological Studies at Concordia, and co-sponsored by both departments.
Dr. André Gagné of Concordia
Dr. Gagné has become an important voice in Canada on the issue of religious violence, and he invited me after reading Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (2005), and other items that I have written on the subject. The day-long conference included papers representing the latest thinking on ancient and modern religious violence.

The day after the conference, I learned of  an opinion piece in the Montreal Gazette by Prof. Allen titled: “New Scholarship has emerged to Challenge the Myth that Religion is Violent.” His main point was “the myth of religious violence is just that: a myth.” I will explain shortly why the claim that religious violence is a myth is itself a myth, and also functions to preserve the value of religion in society.
This also was a curiously timed essay, especially as Prof. Allen did not attend the conference, which was co-sponsored by his own department, and which featured other members of his institution.
Given Allen’s professed interest in new scholarship on religion and violence, one would think that he would have at least participated in the discussions to challenge any misguided notions or to simply add constructive criticism about methodological issues.

            To understand the apologetic nature of Allen’s essay, let’s analyze it more closely. Allen begins by telling us (underlined emphasis mine in all quotations):

Recently, I stumbled across an ad for an interfaith event advertised in a local church bulletin. The notice began with these words: “Although religion has tended to cause wars and strife throughout the millennia, religion can now become the solution if we all declare that no matter which religion we follow, we recognize that we are all God’s children.”

I was immediately struck by this group’s acceptance of a myth, the myth of religious violence. You would think that a multi-faith group planning some coordinated programming would not plug the idea that faith is violent.  

The questions he asks next give us an indication of why the acceptance of that supposed myth should be of concern to those sponsoring it:

Isn’t this sort of admission fatal to the acceptance of religious faith in Canadian society? If religious people believe that religions cause violence, then who could possibly object?

Why would Professor Allen be concerned that such admissions be fatal to religious faith? So what if they are fatal?

            Moreover, the acceptance of the notion quoted by Allen (“...religion has tended to cause wars and strife throughout the millennia...”) need not be fatal to religious faith because the countervailing option also exists in his quote (“religion can now become the solution...”), and so the whole logic for his concerns does not follow.

            Indeed, those religious leaders may simply believe that religion can include good and bad features, but that would be no more fatal than any other phenomenon or institution to which good and bad can be attributed. For example, one could say that in the past many Catholic clerics have tended to commit sexual assaults on children, but that would not necessarily be fatal to Catholicism or to the existence of clerics in the eyes of believers.

            Prof. Allen’s questions, therefore, betray a religionist tendency to the whole issue of religious violence. It provides the impression that, for Allen, preserving religious faith, and not a balanced evaluation of the scholarship of religious violence, is his main concern. But, alas, Allen says that religious violence is a myth. As he phrases it:

But, in fact, the myth of religious violence is just that: a myth. It’s a fable that ties together disparate facts and judgments of history that doesn’t pass the test of fair-minded scrutiny. 

Since 9/11, the myth of religious violence has taken on the status of unquestioned wisdom, a set of ideas that comedians impart to susceptible audiences and that politicians purvey to great advantage. Increasing unfamiliarity with the history and claims of various religions in our society suggests that atheist pundits have willing ears to hear how religion supposedly threatens our way of life.

Few have engaged in the difficult task of digging into the truth of the matter. But thankfully, new scholarship has emerged to challenge this myth.

Allen claims that atheists are somehow distorting history and use that myth of religious violence to further their agenda. Allen provides no evidence for this conclusion about atheists.

            Moreover, Allen’s remarks imply that he has the expertise in history and the scholarship of religious violence to determine who has engaged in the difficult task of digging into the truth of the matter.”

            As I will show in this essay, Allen is  very unfamiliar with the scholarship of religion and violence, and even in the works of the three main authors whom he offers as examples of this definitive “new scholarship.”

            Accordingly, I will examine the work of each of these authors Allen cites to see whether their research yields the results that he claims: The exposure of the myth of religious violence.

Dr. William T. Cavanaugh
Allen’s first example is William T. Cavanaugh, who is a well-known writer on religion and violence. In fact, it was listening to his lecture at Iowa State University that partly impelled me to write Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence (2005) because I thought his view was methodologically and historically flawed. I devoted a whole chapter of Fighting Words to examining his views on the role of the state and religion in violence.

Later, Cavanaugh and I were on a panel on religion and violence at Arizona State University, and we have corresponded briefly. He was gracious enough to send me a pre-published copy of his book, The Myth of Religious Violence.
In 2014, he responded to some of my criticisms in an article titled “Religious Violence as Modern Myth,” Political Theology 15, no. 6 (November, 2014), pp. 486-502, where he claims that I have misunderstood his argument about the definition of religion or the existence of religion. In any case, Cavanaugh and I have interacted with each other’s work for about a decade, something that apparently has escaped Allen’s notice.

            In his Montreal Gazette essay, Allen summarizes the work of Cavanaugh as follows:

I begin with Chicago theologian William Cavanaugh, who tackles this question head-on in his book The Myth of Religious Violence. The take-away message may sound odd, but it is the key: We cannot genuinely distinguish between religion and other spheres of life. The historical record suggests that the religious/secular divide is not easily separated into distinct component parts. This is certainly true with respect to overlapping motivations within individuals.

Our own spiritual needs, family of origin traits, culturally determined beliefs and mixture of hot and lukewarm loyalties to our own religious tradition (or none) are complex psychological threads. So, if there is no separation of religion from everything else inside our heads, how much more this is true in society at large.

So far, Allen is representing Cavanaugh rather well. The problem, of course, is that Allen believes that Cavanaugh has shown what he claims.
            Allen leaves out Cavanaugh’s definition of “religion,” which is highly contested in religious studies. Without oversimplifying too much, one can divide scholars into those who think that there is a separable and discrete category called religion, and those who think that it is a modern construct that could include almost anything (e.g., sports, nationalism, etc.).

            I define religion as a mode of life and thought which presupposes the existence of, and relationship with, supernatural forces and/or beings.

            This type of definition is quite common in religious studies, and one can find it in the works of Luther H. Martin and Donald Wiebe, among many others. For Martin and Wiebe, “the study of religion is the study of human behaviors that are engaged in because of, or somehow related to, a belief in agents that are beyond the identification by way of the scientific metric” (Luther H. Martin and Donald Wiebe, “Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline: The Persistence of a Delusion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 80, no. 3 [2012], pp. 587-87, quote at p. 588).

            On the other hand, Cavanaugh has a more expansive and culturally relativist view of religion. He tells us that: "There is no transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion, but at different times and at different places, and for different purposes, some things have been constructed as religion, and some things have not" (Myth of Religious Violence, p. 119).

             Thus, political and economic systems can be just as “religious” as systems that believe in supernatural agents. He denies that he says that there is no such thing as religion, and he claims that “[n]ations, however, are no more or less verifiable than God” (“Religious Violence as Modern Myth,” p. 492).

            I realize Cavanugh claims that there is such a thing as “religion,” but his other statements affirming that religion has no transhistorical or transcultural essence are akin to affirming that the moon exists but that it has no transhistorical or transcultural essence.

    Similarly, Cavanaugh claims that “...there are differences between Presbyterianism and American nationalism, but the question of whose beliefs are more verifiable is utterly irrelevant to the question of which is more violent” (“Religious Violence as Modern Myth,” p. 493). This argument fails to provide any precise metrics for how one counts something as “more violent.” As it is, my argument is more about the ethical distinctions between religious and secular violence rather than which has resulted in more deaths.

            Given these discussions within the scholarship of religion and violence, Allen should at least acknowledge that any supposed exposure of the so-called myth of religious violence will depend on how one defines religion, and that is not a settled matter by any means.

            According to my definition, if someone commits violence primarily because of a belief in supernatural forces and/or beings, then I count it as an act of religious violence. For example, if someone says: “God told me to kill gay people” then that counts as religious violence, especially as the person offers or evidences no other reason for killing gay people.

            Of course, it can get more complicated with larger groups, but we should start at the very least with what persons or groups say motivates them. Moreover, the claims that non-religious (political, economic) motives play a primary or only role in violence needs to be established, rather than assumed.           

            Calling something political or economic would not solve much because those aspects of culture are intertwined and we could just as well argue that one cannot attribute to politics or economics any sort of violence because they are also not separable and discrete categories. I will show that Cavanaugh is wrong to claim that the modern state separated out religion or privatized religion for its own political agenda.

            Since politics also has no transcultural or essential referent, then “political violence” is a myth by that same logic.

Aside from the problem of accepting Cavanaugh’s definition of religion, the bigger problem is Cavanaugh’s approach to historical analysis.
Cavanaugh rarely engages in a serious study, or any study, of the primary sources for the events he cites as examples of non-religious violence. That leaves the impression that religious motives are minor or lacking in many instances where a case can be made for their primary importance.

Massacre depicted by F. Dubois (d. 1584)
One case is the famous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (August 23-24, 1572) in which Catholics slaughtered thousands of Protestants in Paris. 
The events surrounding this massacre are complex, but most historians agree that the massacre is related to an attempted assassination of Gaspard de Coligny, an admiral who was the main representative of the French Huguenots.[1]   Coligny was shot on August 22, 1572, and the man accused was named Maurevert, a Catholic. Coligny was subsequently assassinated as he was trying to recover from his wounds. The more generalized massacre followed in Paris on August 24 and in other towns in days subsequent. The death toll has been variously placed between 2,000 and some 70,000.

Cavanaugh argues that this massacre was really part of a political plot by the Queen Mother, Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589). She had a large influence on her son, Charles IX (1560-1574), who was only twenty-two when he took the throne. Specifically, Cavanaugh claims that

The Queen Mother who unleashed the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day was not a religious zealot but a thoroughgoing Politique with a stake in stopping the nobility’s challenge to royal pretensions toward absolute power.[2]

The motive, argues Cavanaugh, was her frustration with the inability to create a State Church that would unite both Protestant Huguenots and Catholics. 
Catherine d'Medici
But Cavanaugh cites at most two sources for this quoted indictment of Catherine de’ Medici, and both are secondary studies.[3] Cavanaugh otherwise shows no familiarity with primary source material surrounding the Massacre. [4] Careful reviews of the source material available at the time that Cavanaugh wrote noted the difficulty in identifying the specific chain of responsibility. Some sources blame Catherine; others blame Guise, a Catholic official. [5]
 When one looks at the correspondence of King Charles IX himself, one finds that he either seems in the dark or is feigning ignorance on the day of the massacre. In a letter dated August 24, Charles IX writes to the governor of Lyon, François de Mandelot, and says: “I will do everything possible to verify the facts and punish those culpable” for the assault on Admiral Coligny.[6]
 Other interpreters of the same correspondence see much more premeditation on the part of Charles and his mother.[7] The comments of James Smither best summarize our quandry: “The question of who was responsible for which aspects of the massacre is not entirely clear and perhaps never will be.[8]

A most telling piece of evidence for the religious nature of the Massacre, and one passed over in silence by Cavanaugh, is the reaction of Pope Gregory XIII (reigned 1572-1585).

Far from condemning the Massacre as the work of political intrigue, Pope Gregory XIII celebrated the Massacre and commissioned the famous artist, Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), to create a commemorative mural in the Sala Regia of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. As Robert Kingdon notes:

"It has almost certainly become something of an embarrassment to the Vatican in this more ecumenical age; the Sala Regia is no longer regularly open to the general public as part of the Vatican Museum."[9] Likewise, a commemorative medallion commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII provides no hint that he thought that the Massacre was a purely political mishap. 

The Medallion, an exemplar of which is stored at the British Museum, bears the legend “Gregorius XIII” on one side, and “Ugonottorum strages (Huguenot conspirators) on the other.[10]

            Depicted on the latter side is an avenging angel with a cross in one hand and a sword in the other. Interestingly, Philippe Erlanger's well-known history of the massacre omitted an illustration of the medallion when translated into English.[11]

            Why Cavanaugh does not mention these facts is puzzling.[12] It is also clear that Cavanaugh is simply following a long apologetic tradition found already in The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1912. Cavanaugh, therefore, offers us no “new scholarship” but rather another version of that apologetic article in that Encyclopedia.

            In an article in that reference work, Georges Goyau provides an official view of the Catholic Church, and he sees the massacre as rooted in “the half-pagan doctrine of Machiavellism,” which allowed political murder.[13] Cavanaugh, blamed Thomas Hobbes’ ideas. Both Cavanaugh and Goyau, therefore, deny that Catholic beliefs had any responsibility in the massacre.

But both Machiavelli and Hobbes can be read in different ways. For example, Machiavelli did not think he was merely imitating paganism in his view of statescraft. On the contrary, two of his specific examples of how to govern were Popes Julius II and Alexander VI. 
Niccolò Machiavelli (d. 1527)
In fact, Machiavelli said that he once discussed governance with the Archbishop of Rouen, who was questioning the ability of Italians to make war. Machiavelli, indignantly replied, “that the French did not understand statesmanship; for if they understood it they would never have allowed the Church to attain such greatness.”[14] 

Machiavelli did not see a big difference between Church and State here.[15]  So, perhaps it was precisely because Machiavelli thought that those religious figures acted no better than secular ones that he became convinced that power is at the root of governing.  It does not matter whether one is religious or not.

            The available sources also clearly refute another attempt to minimize the religious nature of the assaults on Protestants. While acknowledging the celebratory nature of Gregory XIII’s reaction (as well as mentioning the Medallion and Vasari’s murals), The Catholic Encyclopedia claims that such a celebratory mood ceased when more details of the massacre, as a heinous political act, became clearer.[16] 

            In particular, it is claimed that Pope Gregory XIII’s refusal, in October 1572, to receive Maurevert, who is accused of shooting Coligny on August 22, meant that the Pope had come to see the Massacre as a criminal act. Goyau concludes:

As to the congratulations and the manifestations of joy which the news of the massacre elicited from Gregory XIII, they can only be fairly judged by assuming that the Holy See, like all Europe and indeed many Frenchmen, believed in the existence of a Huguenot conspiracy of whose overthrow the Court boasted and whose punishment an obsequious parliament had completed.[17]

However, a thorough study of the source material pertaining to the Massacre refutes all of these assertions, as well as some of the main arguments of Cavanaugh. Such a study of important primary sources was undertaken by Robert Kingdon.[18] I have undertaken my own independent study of those sources.

            One important primary source consists of the official instructions given in 1571 to Antonio Maria Salviati, the Papal nuncio (ambassador) to France under Pope Pius V and under Gregory XIII, at the time of the massacre.[19]

            Particularly instructive is the correspondence between Salviati and Tolomeo Cardinal Galli, secretary to Pope Gregory XIII. Much of this correspondence instructs Salviati to complain about the increased power given to Huguenots, especially to Coligny, the champion of the Huguenots. At the same time, many parish churches were being instructed to carry out anti-Protestant activities.[20]

            The idea that the Pope did not know of the savagery of the massacre is seemingly contradicted by Salviati’s report, dated August 24 and 27, to Galli, in which is noted, “The entire city is up in arms, and the homes of Huguenots are besieged and attacked, many people assaulted, and the mob is sacking with incredible zeal.”[21] He goes on to note that he does not think a single Catholic was killed or injured.[22]

            Galli indicates having received Salviati’s report in a letter dated September 8, 1572, the same day the Pope celebrated the massacre with an elaborate service in Rome. Galli added that the Pope was overjoyed at the prospect of “purging the Kingdom of France of the Huguenot plague.”[23]

            Nor do we see any regret in the weeks following the massacre. In a letter dated September 10, 1572, Galli expresses the latter’s wish that the king of France use liberal authority against heretics in his diocese “in order to purge it from heresy and in order that we may enact the decrees of the Council of Trent.[24]

            In a letter dated October 6, 1572, Galli tells Salviati that the Pope is quite pleased with the “joyous progress that with the Grace of God...his majesty has achieved in actions against the Huguenots.”[25]

            The murals of Vasari tell us that the Pope was still not regretful after Goyau tells us he was. We have Vasari’s correspondence about the murals.[26] In a letter dated November 17, 1572, Vasari comments on the Pope’s request for a mural about the Huguenot “affair” (la cosa degli Ugonotti), and indicates that he had not yet begun the murals.[27]

Vasari's Murals
By December 12, he seems to have a plan for organizing the murals.[28] Vasari reports that by January 30, 1573, the Pope had seen the outlines of the murals that were to be painted. These murals show that, except for one case, all the victims were unarmed. Women and children are depicted being literally butchered much like what one sees under ISIS terrorists. There is no hint of regret, and much sense of satisfaction in his description of the Pope’s reactions.

A pair of instructions provided to later nuncios constitutes evidence for papal attitudes years after the massacre. A set of nearly identical instructions were given to Giovanni Battista Castelli in 1581 and Girolamo Ragazzoni in 1583. Far from showing that Pope Gregory XIII had come to see the Massacre as some sort of criminal act by October of 1572, these instructions urged the continuance of war against the Protestants. As Kingdon remarks,

Instructions to later nuncios to France make it clear that whenever the French crown was considering a choice between peace and internal religious war, the official representative of the papacy was to urge war.[29]

My own independent study of this correspondence certainly confirms Kingdon’s assessment. Thus, instructions to Ragazzoni specifically say that when it comes to choosing between war and peace with the Huguenots, then the advice is “to prefer always war rather than peace because with the enemies of God one must never have peace.[30]

            Indeed, these sources also devastate Cavanaugh’s claim that the state was responsible for this anti-Protestant war, while religion or the Church would have made a suitable peacemaker.

            It is remarkable that Pierre Hurtubise, the Catholic scholar who edited Salviati’s correspondence, concludes: “when we consider the attitude of Rome toward the Protestants in sixteenth-century France, we remember that the belief in ‘violence pays,’ had a very important counterpart: ‘reform pays.’[31] That reform, in my view, was the rise of the secular state, which though not perfect, managed to minimize at least some of the religious conflict that had proven so devastating to Europe.

Contrary to the apologetic efforts of Cavanaugh and Goyau, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, shows how much religion and the Church were involved in fomenting rhetoric and policies that made a massacre like this probable. 

In fact, massacres against Protestants had already been accomplished at, among other places and dates, Pont Notre Dame in December of 1570 and in Orange in February of 1571.

If Catherine de’ Medici or any other politician were able to unleash anything, it is because religious hatreds were already there. Had there been no steady drumbeat of anti-Protestant violent rhetoric and instructions from the Vatican and its allied institutions, there probably would have been no reason for Catholic populations to behave the way they did against their neighbors.

A statement about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, was issued by Pope John Paul II in 1997. It read, in part:

On the eve of 24 August we cannot forget the sad Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day, an event of very obscure causes in the political and religious history of France. Christians did things which the Gospel condemns.[32]

However, the causes were not all that obscure to anyone that reads correspondence between the Vatican and France. The causes do not seem obscure to those that see Vasari’s murals. And, by using, “Christians,” instead of “Catholics,” Pope John Paul II seems to neglect Salviati’s observations that it was specifically Catholics, not all Christians, who were doing most of the attacking on that day. 

            Cavanaugh’s Myth of Religious Violence bears a similar historical approach throughout. For example, in his chapter on “The Creation Myth of the Wars of Religion” he rapidly summarizes a number of wars to show that they are politically motivated rather than religious in nature.
            Some of his main exemplars are cases where self-professed Catholic kings, such as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), attacks the pope or fellow Catholics. Note how Cavanaugh simply accepts the conclusions of a secondary source to make his case:

            As Richard Dunne points out, “Charles V’s soldiers sacked
            Rome, not Wittenberg, in 1527, and when the papacy belatedly
            sponsored a reform program, both the Hapsburgs and the Valois
            refused to endorse much of it, rejecting especially those Trentine
            decrees which encroached on their sovereign authority
            (Myth of Religious Violence, p. 143).

Cavanaugh concludes that “The wars of the 1520s were part of the ongoing struggle between the pope and the emperor for control over Italy and over the church in German territories” (Myth of Religious Violence, p. 143).

            Saying that Charles V’s soldiers sacked Rome, but not Wittenberg, implies that those soldiers were ordered by that emperor to sack a Catholic rather than a Protestant stronghold. But Charles may not have wanted to sack Rome at all, and so any comparison between a sack of Rome and a sack of Wittenberg is irrelevant as evidence of Charles’ loyalty to Catholicism.

            Moreover, Cavanaugh offers us at most two secondary sources for that conclusion (books by Richard Dunne and James D. Tracy).

            If we just used secondary sources, then can find other secondary sources that have a different view. For example, William Maltby, a specialist in Charles V, believes starving troops initiated the sack, and not because of any orders from Charles V. As Maltby phrased it: “...a skilful propaganda campaign allowed Charles, who had not authorized the attack and apologized profusely, to avert much of the blame for the atrocities in Rome” (William Maltby, The Reign of Charles V [New York: Palgrave, 2002], p. 36).

Similarly, Karl Brandi, perhaps one of the most authoritative modern biographers of Charles V, says “[t]he emperor had not wanted it, and had told his representatives to spare no effort to prevent it” (Karl Brandi, The Emperor Charles V [translated by C. V. Wedgwood; Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1939, reprint, 1970], p. 254).

            Ideally, Cavanaugh needs some decree, statements or suggestions from Charles’ correspondence, of which major collections exist, to make his conclusions. He provides none.

            As it is, Charles V abdicated in favor of his son, and spent the rest of his life in a Catholic monastery in Yuste (Spain). This is odd for a man that only thought of power and conquest for himself, rather than one who believed he was doing God’s work. 

 And what if a feud with the Pope may simply reflect the fact that Charles did not think that Pope Clement VII, who reigned at the time of the sack of Rome in 1527, was conducting himself according to God’s will in the fight against Muslims? Something like this is argued by James Reston, in his Defenders of the Faith: Charles V, Suleyman the Magnificent and the Battle for Europe, 1520-1536 (New York: The Penguin Press, 2009).

            I wholly support the historical approach of David Nirenberg in his book Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), who emphasizes the importance of detailed microhistorical analysis of the primary sources when attributing violence to larger forces, whether it be religion or politics.

            In effect, Cavanaugh does not engage in any primary sources showing us Charles’ religious motives or deliberations. Cavanaugh usually assumes that almost any stated religious motives really are politically motivated, but he never ponders that the opposite can also be the case: What looks political may be religiously motivated.

Allen’s second example of “new scholarship” is the work on Karen Armstrong, whom he describes as follows: "Internationally renowned scholar of religion Karen Armstrong has waded into the debate with her book Fields of Blood. Based on exhaustive textual and cultural analysis, beginning with organized religion’s emergence in ancient agrarian societies, comes this summary: 'Large-scale violence was not linked with religion but with organized theft.' As Armstrong says, simply having adversaries requires that every idea, including religion, be deployed as a part of one’s strategy of establishing the myth of the enemy’s monstrosity."

This hyperbolic description of Armstrong’s work shows that Allen does not really know what “exhaustive textual and cultural analysis” entails.  And apparently because Armstrong says something, then it must be true.

            In Fighting Words, I had devoted some space to showing how biased and misinformed she was on the primary sources for the Qurayza massacre in which Muhammad killed hundreds of Jews because they refused to convert to his religion. She did not consult the primary Arabic sources, and makes sweeping claims that do not bear scrutiny.

            In her more recent book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Knopf, 2014), I took special interest in her chapter on biblical genocide because I am a biblical scholar. So, I looked for this so-called “exhaustive textual and cultural analysis” that Allen attributes to her. I found nothing that qualifies as that.

            Consider her chapter on “The Hebrew Dilemma.” Therein, she summarizes a lot of Israelite history, and no one can fault her much for using secondary sources to do that.

            However, there is no “exhaustive textual and cultural analysis” that would explain why she claims that some acts of violence were just as much political as religious.

            In fact, she assumes a particular theory of Hebrew origins espoused by George Mendenhall and Norman Gottwald, who believe Israel originated as a peasant revolt against powerful Canaanite city-states. She cites Norman Gottwald’s The Hebrew Bible in its Social World and in Ours (1993) in that chapter. Here is Armstrong’s version of that theory:
When they defected from the Canaanite city-states, Israelites had developed an ideology that directly countered the systemic violence of agrarian society. Israel must be “like the other nations.” Their hostility to “Canaanites,” was, therefore every bit as much political as it was religious.

The settlers seem to have devised laws to ensure that instead of being appropriated by an aristocracy, land remained in the possession of the extended family; that interest free loans to needy Israelites were obligatory; that wages were paid promptly; that contract servitude was restricted, and there was special provisions for the socially vulnerable—orphans, widows, and foreigners (Fields of Blood, p. 106).

Notice how she makes her sweeping conclusion (“therefore”) on the flimsiest basis.

            Indeed, Armstrong does not tell readers that this theory of Israelite origins is highly contested. She does not engage with any sort of scholarship that challenges the claim that Israelites had developed an ideology to counter the “systemic violence of agrarian societies.”  

            She assumes a stark dichotomy between agrarian and urban societies instead of a model that sees them as complementary. She does not see the Israelites as the imperialist power conquering the indigenous peoples of Canaan as stated by the biblical texts (see Deuteronomy 7:1-7), but rather she has reinterpreted the texts so that now the Canaanites are the imperialists which Israel is fighting. 

            In fact, I would see Armstrong as another member of what I call the "New Holocaust Denialists" when it comes to the slaughter of the Canaanites: See my essay on "The New Holocaust Denialists" for more textual and archaeological evidence.

            Armstrong conflates laws from different periods that were not necessarily made to counter some agrarian violence, but were part of a larger Near Eastern legal tradition adopted by the Hebrews. The laws she is citing from the Pentateuch may be adoptions from codes (e.g., Code of Hammurabi) that were thoroughly imperialist rather than reflecting some reforming movement.

            We certainly find pre-biblical laws in ancient Syria that also sought to maintain land within a kinship group. In the Late Bronze Age city of Emar (Syria) we find a lawsuit that includes this injunction:

Abi-Shaggar and Abba, sons of Apila, shall raise no claim against Uginu pertaining to the fields of the gate of Izbu, which belonged to their father.

That would mean that the fields stay in the family. For the text more complete translation see my article: "Legal and Social Institutions of Canaan and Ancient Israel," Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, J. Sasson, ed. (4 volumes; New York: Scribner's, 1995) Vol 1: 615-631.

Code of Hammurabi in the Louvre
As it is, some of the ethical features she cites can already be found in the “urban” societies of Mesopotamia. The emphasis on helping those less fortunate can be traced back at least as far back as Hammurabi (18th century BCE). Consider this passage in the prologue of his famous Code of Hammurabi (CH):

When the supreme Anu, King of the Anunnaki, and Bel, the master of Heaven and Earth, who decrees the fate of the land, assigned to Marduk, the firstborn son of Ea, God of righteousness, dominion over earthly man, and exalted him among the Igigi, they called Babylon by his illustrious name, made it great on earth, and founded an everlasting kingdom in it…then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to make justice shine forth in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and illuminate the land, to further the well-being of mankind.
(My adapted translation of the cuneiform text in Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor [2nd edition; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997] pp. 76 and 133).

Thus, the Code of Hammurabi clearly enunciates these principles for the laws:

(1) to make justice shine forth in the land,
(2) to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers;
(3) so that the strong should not harm the weak;
(4) so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and illuminate the land,
(5) to further the well-being of humankind
(6) ‘to protect widows and orphans’ (Epilogue)

In the Mesopotamian incantation series known as Shurpu, one finds a list of blessings expected from the Babylonian god, Marduk: ‘To extirpate sin, to remove crime/to heal the sick/to lift up the fallen/to take the weak by the hand/to change fate...’(Following Hermann Hunger and Stephen A. Kaufman, ‘A New Akkadian Prophecy Text’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 95 (1975), pp. 371-75 (quoting p. 372, line 11)

            Armstrong also leaves out a lot that could be viewed as unjust. For example, she mentions that “contract servitude was restricted” without mentioning that this applied only to fellow Hebrews, while non-Hebrews could be enslaved forever and inherited as property, as indicated by Leviticus 25:39-46.

[39] And if your brother becomes poor beside you, and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: [40] he shall be with you as a hired servant and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee;[41] then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own family, and return to the possession of his fathers. [42] For they are my servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt;they shall not be sold as slaves. [43] You shall not rule over him with harshness, but shall fear your God. [44] As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you [45] You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. [46] You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness.
In effect, Armstrong is engaging in very common apologetic strategies that, while acknowledging some problems with biblical ethics, still strives to make biblical ethics superior to those of other Near Eastern cultures.

Furthermore, Allen’s claim that Armstrong comes to her conclusions after an “exhaustive textual and cultural analysis” is a clear exaggeration upon closer inspection of her books.

Allen’s third example of “new scholarship” that supposedly neutralizes the myth of religious violence is the work of Steven Pinker, a professor of Psychology at Harvard University. The main exhibit is Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011). Here is how Allen summarizes that work:

"So, even at the height of these wars, religion was a background inconvenience, not the sole predictor of who would fight whom. And even where religion plays a more decisive role, it is not uniquely violent. The secularism of the French Revolution and the Christian support for the crusades are equally bloodthirsty. Envy and greed necessitate whatever ideological excuse along the road to plunder.

Yet, famous ex-Montrealer cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, writes that violence has decreased dramatically since the 17th century. He credits the European Enlightenment — a trigger for secularization — literacy and cosmopolitanism. His claim is based on data such as the rough comparisons between the percentage likelihood of warrior deaths among young males in hunter gatherer societies in contrast to our society. We moderns are blessed with peaceful coexistence relative to our ancestors.

Now, we would expect Pinker, who is a prominent atheist, to reproach religion for being over-implicated in pre-17th century historical violence. But apart from the odd snide remark, he barely tries. I think the reason is this: lack of evidence. The real reasons for the relative decrease in violent death over the past few centuries are those Pinker cites: The rise in professional military armies, increased international trade and a broadening of the standards of justice in civil law. The latter is itself rooted in medieval church canon law."

In one convenient move, Allen removes blame from religion for most violence prior to the 17th century, and credits Medieval Catholic canon law for providing the roots for broader standards of “justice in civil law.”

            Pinker, however, is also not an historian, and he frankly leaves much to be desired in his historical analyses.

            Consider his section on the Hebrew Bible on pages 6 to 12 of The Better Angels of our Nature. Most of his information footnoted in that section comes from two secondary sources: James Kugel’s How To Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (2007) and R. Schwager’s Must There Be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible (2000). 

            Kugel’s book is more of an introductory survey, and does not even pretend to offer a study of the scholarship of biblical violence. Schwager’s book is also not a book that is engaged with secular challenges to the type of religionist defenses of violence.

            However, there is a rich discussion of biblical violence is the work of among many others, Caryn A. Reeder, The Enemy in the Household: Family Violence in Deuteronomy and Beyond (2012). These would certainly help correct Allen’s impression that there is “lack of evidence” for “religion for being over-implicated in pre-17th century historical violence.”

            Otherwise, Allen’s claim is either historically uniformed or hyperbolic. Does Allen really believe that religion was not over-implicated in violence for the thousands of years before the 17th century when one just has to point to the Crusades, which Pinker does, or read the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua or 1 Samuel?
            Furthermore, Allen seems to have missed some important statements by Pinker that are more than “the odd snide remark” here and there. Here is one illustration:

Though Christianity began as a pacifist movement, things went downhill in 312 CE when the Roman ruler Constantine had a vision of a flaming cross in the sky with the words “In this sign thou shalt conquer” and converted the Roman empire to a militant version of his faith. Periodic expressions of pacificism or war-weariness over the next millennium did nothing to stop the nearly constant state of warfare...In the 15th, 16th and 17th  centuries wars broke out between European countries a rate of about three new wars a year (The Better Angels, pp. 162-63)

This is more than “an odd snide remark.” Pinker seems to be attributing the constant state of war between 312 CE and the 17th century, at least in part, to the militant nature of the religious faith founded by Constantine. On p. 328, where Pinker discusses the causes of genocide, he states:

Divisive ideologies include Christianity during the Crusades and the Wars of Religion (and in an offshoot, the Taiping Rebellion in China), revolutionary romanticism during the politicides of the French revolution; nationalism during genocides in Ottoman Turkey and the Balkans; Nazism in the Holocaust; and Marxism during the purges...

            This is a serious, not an “odd snide remark,” by Pinker unless one applies the same characterization to Nazi Germany or Marxism. Note that Pinker identifies Christianity as a specific and significant cause of war in pre-17th century Europe.

            Ottoman Turkey and the Balkans also could have a strong religious component to their wars, but Pinker does not delve much into this history and so he is as guilty as Cavanaugh in making historical generalizations without much attention to primary sources.

As I have argued elsewhere, Nazism can be seen as simply the latest version of a long history of Christian anti-Judaism. I have argued in some detail against those who wish to make Nazis into some non-Christian or atheist movement, especially since syncretism with pagan sects was also part of Christianity from its beginning. 

 See further: “Atheism was not the Cause of the Holocaust,” in John Loftus, ed., 
The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2010), pp. 368-395.

            I am not necessarily agreeing with Pinker, even though he is an atheist. I think Pinker is leaving out a lot of what I would call violence. I certainly don’t think that Christianity began as such a pacifist movement, something I explore in more detail in The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics (2015). I also think that Constantine was simply extending the imperialism that is inherent in biblical views of God’s ownership of the world.

            In Fighting Words (p. 19), I defined violence as the act of modifying and/or inflicting pain upon the human body in order to express or impose power differentials. By this definition, pain or bodily modification can be inflicted upon a person by others or it can be self-inflicted, as in the case of self-flagellation and martyrdom.  

            There are degrees of violence so that a haircut or a tattoo, both bodily modifications, are not always regarded as very violent. At the same time, our definition allows for the fact that depilation and tattooing can be painful forms of torture.[33]

            Once defined in this manner, there may be a lot more religious violence still occurring than Pinker considers in his statistics.

            For example, circumcision is a widespread religious ritual, especially in traditional Jewish and Islamic religious traditions. Although the rates of circumcision have been declining in the United States, it is still the second most frequent procedure performed on children under one year of age.[34]

            The World Health Organization calculated in 2006 that some 665 million men were circumcised around the globe.[35] If one considers circumcision as a form of violence, then it would be one of the most widespread forms of violence on the global scale.

But is circumcision a form of violence? The question has not received much attention in scholarship. Jon Levenson, among other modern Jewish scholars, deems the practice as “essential” to Jewish life and does not much focus on whether it is a form of violence per se. [36] However, Ronald Goldman views circumcision as a violent and even barbaric practice that should end.[37] 

            Likewise, circumcision could be subsumed under violence in that it modifies a body for the purpose of expressing power differentials. Child circumcision certainly imposes a power differential upon a child, as it is not the result of a mutual decision between parent and child. Killing, of course, is regarded as the ultimate imposition of a power differential on the body.

            Pinker neither concerns himself with circumcision as violence, and his index contains no references to it. Indeed, Pinker is mainly concerned with what may be called “big violence,” but not more common and widespread forms of violence such as domestic abuse, child abuse, and sexual abuse, especially of the type so exposed in the Catholic Church, etc.

            According to Allen: “The real reasons for the relative decrease in violent death over the past few centuries are those Pinker cites: The rise in professional military armies, increased international trade and a broadening of the standards of justice in civil law. The latter is itself rooted in medieval church canon law.”           

            One wonders what part of canon law Allen is referencing. Is it the canon laws on prohibiting women from serving as priests, which still have not been “broadened”? Is it canon laws on slavery, which is itself one of the most violent institutions ever devised by human beings?

            Canon law is the set of official rules that govern the Catholic Church. It has a complex history, but we can learn how one can interpret its “roots” differently by consulting The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary (Mahwah,NJ:Paulist Press, 1985) commissioned by the Canon Law Society of America and edited by James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green, and Donald E. Heintschl.

            This is a commentary on the revised Code of Canon Law of 1983, which implemented some of the changes deriving from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the most recent ecumenical council of the Catholic Church. The publication has received the imprimatur of the Catholic Church, and so I am not citing some heretical or anti-Catholic screed.

            Let’s begin with how canon law sees democracy and the will of the governed, especially as compared to the American system of governance, where you have a balance of powers among the executive, judiciary, and legislative branches:

The Church’s governmental system is vastly different from the notion of balance of powers. In fact, the three functions are situated in the same office. Not only the pope but every diocesan bishop is legislator, administrator, and judge...Unlike the American system ecclesiastical authority does not arise from the will of the governed—nor does the Church’s juridic structure rely on a system of checks and balances to maintain effectiveness. The Church’s inspiration for lawmaking is ultimately the gospel as it is expressed in an ongoing tradition. In a sense, the Church seeks to “discover” its law in its own theological foundation by reexamining them in light of historical development (The Code of Canon Law, p. 12).

Not only is the Church’s governmental system “vastly different” from our democratic form of government, the last sentence in that quote shows how much of the changes in canon law are actually following secular developments and advances, rather than the opposite sometimes.

            One example is equality between clergy and laity, which would be equivalent to the relationship between rulers and the governed in a democratic system. In speaking of the changes offered by the 1983 revision, Coriden, Green, and Heintschl remark:
The canon represents a significant change from centuries of canonical tradition. Gratian [the first significant collector of canon laws] indicated that there were two types of Christians, clergy and laity. Subsequently authors have constructed a theory of Church as composed of essentially unequals. This was the standard position of canonists until the Second Vatican Council (The Code of Canon Law, p. 140).
But what changed in 1962-65? Obviously, the world around the Catholic had advanced in broadening the equality between the governors and the governed. African-Americans and women could vote and hold office on a more equal basis than in 1917, when the last major revision of canon law was implemented. 

            Canon 766 reads: “Lay preachers can be admitted to preach in a church or oratory if it is necessary in certain circumstances or if it is useful in particular cases to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops and with due regard for can[on] 767” (The Code of Canon Law, p. 552).

            Coriden, Green, and Heintschl remark that “[t]his canon provides a broad warrant for lay preaching. It is a complete about-face from the stern prohibition of canon 1342...of the 1917 Code.” (The Code of Canon Law, p. 552). Indeed, the use of the ungendered term “lay preachers” can include women.

            Canon 1364 addresses heresy, and there have been some major changes here. As Coriden, Green, and Heintschl note: “The present law does not define apostasy, heresy, or schism but simply provides that they warrant a latae sententia”, which is an automatic penalty (The Code of Canon Law, p. 920).

            Why the new more lax attitude in defining heresy? Coriden,  Green, and Heintschl (The Code of Canon Law, p. 920) say that:

            It is difficult to determine precisely when an individual
            or group is guilty of apostasy, heresy, or schism according
            to the law. This is especially true given increased theological
            pluralism and ecumenical contact and confessional boundaries
            that are not as sharply defined as formerly.

Thank goodness that the Church is no longer torturing and burning heretics.

            So, is the broadening of civil rights really rooted in following Medieval canon law, or is it canon law that is adjusting to secular advances in civil rights? Historical chronology favors the inference that such broadening is the result of secular culture changing and broadening its tolerance first, and canon law following it.

            While Cavanaugh attributes to the modern nation state the creation of “religion” as a separate category, a study of canon law indicates that it was the Church who was making such distinctions long before the rise of the nation state. For example, canon 1401 states (The Code of Canon Law, p. 950):

By proper and exclusive right the Church adjudicates:
1. cases concerning spiritual matters or connected with the spiritual;
2. the violation of ecclesiastical laws and all those questions
in which there is a question of sin in respect to the determination of culpability and the imposition of ecclesiastical penalties.
In their comments on the significance of the “question of sin” (ratio peccati) Coriden, Green, and Heintschl make the following historical observation: "This phrase, the 'ratio peccati', according to Charles Augustine, is 'an allusion to a famous decretal of Innocent III, Novit, in which this great Pontiff assures the King of France and John Lackland of England that he has 'no intention to judge feuds, but to decide concerning sin, which undoubtedly belongs to him'" (The Code of Canon Law, p. 950)

Pope Innocent III
In other words, at least some Popes and Church theologians not only thought that one could separate religious matters from other aspects of culture, but they either encouraged it or acceded to it. Pope Innocent III reigned from 1198 until 1216, and centuries before Cavanaugh says the modern nation state created a separable notion of religion.

Other pre-modern theologians also were able to separate out religion from other aspects of culture. One ancient report (hadith) of the teachings of Muhammad states: “... a person who participates in (holy battles) in Allah’s Cause and nothing causes him to do so except belief in Allah and in His Messenger... will be recompensed by Allah...” (Book of Belief, 26; Shahih Al-Bukhari; Darussalam edition).
This shows that ancient Islamic scholars had thought carefully about how to separate religious motives from other motives when engaging in holy war. Religious motives for violence are those that derive from belief in the will of the god or gods.

            Yet another example of apologetics comes in a discussion about who was to blame for the mistreatment of indigenous people. Note Allen’s comments:

Historically then, did European colonizers do violence to aboriginal peoples because of Christian zeal or despite it? The role of religion was not altogether causal. Certainly, it did serve as one part of a whole, a convenient pretext. But gold, fur, land and nationalist fervour played the lead roles between the 15th and 19th centuries as the rise of the European nation state dramatically filled the vacuum left by the 14th century demise of the papacy and the overthrow of absolute monarchies. Christian missionaries were complicit in others’ crimes, though were seldom the authors of those crimes. For the victims of course, this distinction is meaningless. But for understanding the place of religion in the 21st century, it matters a great deal.

Allen tells us that religion was not causal but rather “it did serve as a convenient pretext.” He blames gold, fur, land, and nationalism because it filled a vacuum left by the “14th century demise of the papacy.”

            But what does the demise of the papacy mean? After all, the papacy still exists and exerts a powerful influence. It may be true that the papacy not have the power it once did, but does it mean that it was blameless or not causal in what happened in the centuries after the 14th century? Does it mean that religion was not altogether causal?

Pope Alexander VI
Any study of papal bulls in the 15th century shows that expansionism was motivated just as much by zeal to convert the world to Christianity as to any riches they might find. For example in the bull Inter Caetera (May 4, 1493), Pope Alexander states the motives for territorial conquests as follows:

...inasmuch as with eager zeal for the true faith you design to equip and despatch this expedition, you purpose also, as is your duty, to lead the peoples dwelling in those islands and countries to embrace the Christian religion...by the authority of Almighty God conferred upon us in blessed Peter and of the vicarship of Jesus Christ, which we hold on earth, do by tenor of these presents, should any of said islands have been found by your envoys and captains, give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever, together with all their dominions, cities, camps, places, and villages, and all rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south...
(Frances G. Davenport, ed., European treaties bearing on the history of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648 [Washington DC 1917], p. 77).

This motive for conquest can ultimately be traced back to Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:19-20:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.

Also cited for the Pope’s authority was Jeremiah 1:10: “See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."

            As I have argued in the case of Columbus, his own stated motivations (expressed in his Libro de las Profecias) for acquiring gold was to finance the capture of Jerusalem so that he might hasten the second coming of Jesus. See: "Columbus as Biblical Exegete: A Study of the Libro de las profecías," in Religion in the Age of Exploration: The Case of Spain and New Spain, B. Le Beau and M. Mor, eds., (Omaha: Creighton University Press, 1996) 59-80.

            In 2014, the Journal of Ecclesiastical History published my article on the policies of Alexander VI concerning slavery. That article provided for the first time, to my knowledge, the complete letter called Ineffabilis et summi patris in English. It was a letter sent by Alexander VI to King Manuel of Portugal (1469-1521), and outlined his right to enslave people he conquered. See: “Pope Alexander VI, Slavery, and Voluntary Subjection: ‘Ineffabilis et Summi Patris’ in Context,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 65, no. 4 (October, 2014): 738-760.

            Joel Panzer, a Catholic apologist, had used Ineffabilis to claim that Pope Alexander VI allowed slavery only for those who had voluntarily submitted to it. See: Joel S. Panzer, The Popes and Slavery (1996).

            Panzer did not reveal the contents of the entire letter in his book. But once the entire letter is read, one sees not only the complicity of Pope Alexander VI, but also the fact that one of the causes for his actions is his belief that the earth has been given to him (and it cites Jeremiah 1:10, in particular).

            If the Pope and his royal followers really do believe that God has given them the right to conquer on behalf of the Kingdom of God, then how is this not causal or a major motive for the imperialist approach that Christianity used in converting non-Christians for the last two thousand years?

            In some of the website comments appended to his essay, I said that Prof. Allen’s effort can be described as apologetics. He responded that this was an ad hominem argument. I disagree.

            Let’s begin with Allen's own definition of apologetics in an article he wrote for the Encyclopedia of Science and Religion (edited by J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen; New York: Thomson/Gale, 2000), pp. 24-26 (quote at p. 24):

From the Greek roots apo and leg (apologia), the
term apologetics can be translated as “speech with
cause.” In the Christian context, apologetics is important
in science and religion discourse because it aims to provide religious faith with credibility.

In the context of discussions about religious violence, one can argue that apologetics “aims to provide religious faith with ethical credibility.” It aims to exculpate religion from features deemed negative.

            Prof. Allen had no problems describing the work of others as “apologetics” as in the following passage:

Late twentieth-century apologetic literature with a scientific accent and doctrinal focus is represented in the writings of the scientist-theologians Stanley Jaki, Alister McGrath, Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, Robert John Russell, and Thomas Torrance.

Now, why is that not an ad hominem description of the work of those scholars? Clearly, Allen must think that “apologetics” can be a reasonable descriptor of a piece of writing.

            Prof. Allen is clearly engaging in apologetics when he claimed that religious violence is a myth. This also is not an ad hominem attack, but a reasonable inference based on the following evidence:

A. The initial questions he asks show a concern for protecting religious faith (Isn’t this sort of admission fatal to the acceptance of religious faith in Canadian society? If religious people believe that religions cause violence, then who could possibly object?), and not in analyzing the pros and cons of the debate about the nature of religious violence.

B. His use of the term “new scholarship” is either misinformed or meant to give the impression that the novelty of the scholarship has superseded what came before. However, the scholarship he cites is neither novel in concept nor does it have the results he claims. A truer assessment would have been to describe the claim that religious violence exists as still “contested” or “debated” in scholarship rather than as being refuted by any “new scholarship.” 

C. The Curriculum vitae available on his official website shows no evidence of any publications in the scholarship of violence. Therefore, it seems that his essay was more of a reaction to a perceived threat about the utility of religion or its ethical superiority than one deriving from a careful study of the scholarship of religious violence. After all, how would he know what really was “new scholarship” if he has not read some of the challenges to Cavanaugh and Armstrong? 

D. Allen’s descriptions of the scholarship of Cavanaugh, Armstrong, and Pinker are incorrect once you look more closely at their writings, especially their facile reliance on secondary sources to make sweeping claims about the political versus religious nature of some episodes of violence that they discuss. The fact that Prof. Allen did not carefully read  the books he cites is evidenced by his statement that he had not heard of Fighting Words until I brought it to his attention after my lecture at Concordia. But, if he had read Cavanaugh's The Myth of Religious Violence (p. 232, n. 6) or Armstrong's Fields of Blood (p. 110 and p. 419, n. 46) closely, he would find Fighting Words referenced therein.
As it is, even Cavanaugh does not claim that his theory is completely new. In his discussion of twentieth-century historiography of the “wars of religion” he notes already the division between those who attribute the primary motives to religion and those who attribute them to economic and political factors. He remarks:

This divide is apparent if we look at twentieth-century
historiography of the French wars. For much of the
century, historians downplayed the role of religion in
favor of the supposedly more fundamental political,
economic and social causes (The Myth of Religious
Violence, p. 153).

Accordingly, how “new” is it to deny that religion is main factor in violence if even Cavanaugh acknowledges the existence of scholarship downplaying the role of religion for most of the twentieth-century?

            Prof. Allen also does not realize how his claim that religion is too inextricably bound with other aspects of culture to ever be able to speak of “religious violence” creates an inconsistency with the fact that “religious studies” is considered a viable and separate discipline at many universities.

            Although Prof. Allen is formally in “Theological Studies,” “Religious Studies” or “Religion” is discrete and separable enough to have its own academic department at Montreal’s Concordia University, where Allen teaches.

            But if we are to believe Prof. Allen, such a department should not exist at all because religion is too inextricably bound to ever be able to separate it from other aspects of culture. Perhaps Prof. Allen might want to integrate “Religion” or “Religious Studies” into Political Science or  Sociology, among others we might mention.

            If religion is too inextricably bound with other cultural components to credit it with violence, then we should not credit it with any good either. Allen has no problem crediting canon law with some of the good aspects of modern society, but he omits any bad aspects for religion.

            But if there is no such thing as “religious violence,” then is there also no such thing as “religious peacemaking” or “religious benefits”? Do we eliminate “religious” as an adjective only before nouns deemed to be negative?

            The claim that there is no such thing as religious violence is itself a myth, especially if one defines religion as a mode of life and thought that presupposes the existence of, and relationship with, unverifiable forces and/or beings.

            Prof. Allen is misinformed because he has not sufficiently engaged in the scholarship of religious violence to claim that any “new scholarship” has put to rest some supposed myth of religious violence.

            His Curriculum vitae (available on his website) shows no academic research in the area of religious violence. His descriptions of the works of Cavanaugh, Armstrong, and Pinker only confirm this point. Describing Armstrong as engaging in “exhaustive textual and cultural analysis” alone is enough to make this conclusion about Prof. Allen’s familiarity with this sort of scholarship.
            If you believe that supernatural forces/beings desire that you engage in violence, then you are engaging in religious violence. This is not a new idea. As I pointed out, Muslim scholars had already been deliberating about how to attribute merit to those engaged in holy war, and they at least thought you could separate those who did so out of true belief in Allah over other causes.

            Yes, there may be political or economic factors involved in many acts of violence, and not all violence is caused by religion. But it is not enough to just say that something that looks religious is really political unless one is willing to think the obverse can also be true.

            Nor should one declare historical acts of violence to be purely political or non-religious without  a close inspection of at least some of the primary sources regarding those events. Sometimes only a microhistorical analysis may be able to tell us in each specific instance what the proportions of religious versus political factors there may be.  

            One thing is clear: To say that religious violence is a myth without some solid historical evidence does both a disservice to honest intellectual inquiry and to the effort to solve the problem of religious violence.
            Unfortunately, there are religionist scholars in secular universities who prefer to defend the status of religion in society than engage in an informed discussion of the serious methodological and historical issues that must be addressed before declaring religious violence to be a myth.

*Unless noted otherwise, all of our biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version as presented in Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger, The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha (New York: Oxford, 1977).
1 For some general accounts, see Robert M. Kingdon, Myths about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres, 1572-1576 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988); Philippe Erlanger St. Bartholomew’s Night: The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew, Translated by Patrick O’Brien (New York: Pantheon, 1962). As we shall show, this is a slightly sanitized version of the French original, Le massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy (Paris: Gallimard, 1960).
2 William T. Cavanaugh, “’A Fire Strong Enough to Consume the House:’ The Wars of Religion and the Rise of the State,” Modern Theology 11/4 (1995):397-420, quote from p. 402.
3   Cavanaugh, “Wars of Religion,” 403. His only source cited for the quoted passage on Catherine de Medici in his footnote 19 is pages 24-26 of Richard S. Dunn, The Age of Religious Wars: 1559-1689 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970). But pages 24-26 do not speak of the massacre, and Cavanaugh apparently is speaking of pages 34-36, which do speak of the massacre. Dunn, however, follows a standard history, and he does not seem to be engaged with the primary sources. In footnote 23, Cavanaugh also cites pages 189-90 J. H. M. Salmon, Society in Crisis: France in the Sixteenth Century (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975; Cavanaugh lists another place and publisher) for his statements about the Queen Mother. However, in regard to Catherine de’ Medici being a Machiavellian, Cavanaugh seems to accepts as fact what Salmon is attributing to Huguenot propaganda. 
4 For some important sources, see Alfred Soman, ed. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew: Reappraisals and Documents (The Hague: M. Nijhof, 1974). See further, Babara Diefendorf, “Prologue to a Massacre: Popular Unrest in Paris, 1557-1572,” American Historical Review 90/5 (December 1985): 1067-1091. 
5 See further, James D. Tracy, Europe’s Reformations,1450-1650 (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 146-151.
6 Correspondance du roi Charles IX et du sieur de Mandelot, gouverneur de Lyon, pendant l’anneé 1572, époque du massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy, Monuments inédits de l’histoire de France 1 (Paris: Crapelet, 1830), p. 39: “j’estois après pour faire tout ce qui m’estoit possible pour la vériffication du faict et chastiment des coulpables.” The orthography is not always that of modern French.
 7 James R. Smither, “The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and Images of Kingship in France:1572-1574,” Sixteenth Century Journal 22/1 (1991): 31.
 8 Smither, “The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre,” 29.
 9 Kingdon, Myths, 46.
 10 For a study of the medallion, see Josephe Jacquot, “Medailles et jetons de la Saint-Barthélemy,” Revue d’Histoire litteraire de la France 73/5 (September-October 1973):791-2. See further, Philippe Erlanger, La massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy (24 août 1572) (Paris: Gallimard, 1960), plate 30; Robert Kingdon, Myths, 46.
 11 In the French version of Philippe Erlanger’s book, an illustration of the Medallion appears as Plate 30 right after page 224. No explanation is given for its omission in the version of Erlanger’s book translated by Patrick O’Brien. An actual medallion appears here: http://www.reformation.org/bart.html. There also variant readings of the word corresponding to “Huguenot” on the inscription on the Medallion. Philipp P. Fehl ("Vasari's 'Extirpation of the Huguenots': The Challenge of Pity and Fear,"  Gazette des beaux-arts 81 [1974], pp. 257-283, quote at 264) reads “Ugunottorum” while sometimes  it is transcribed it as “Hugonotorium.” However, the “H” does not appear in the inscription of the medallion shown on that website.
12 Dunn (Age of Religious Wars, 35) gives one sentence to the Pope’s celebration, and so Cavanaugh should have been aware of at least this much.
13 Georges Goyau, “St. Batholomew’s Day,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912), available on-line at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13333b.htm. Last visited on June 24, 2015.
 14 The Prince, 13/Il Principe, 24:“che’ franzesi non si intendevano dello stato; perché, s’e’ se ne’ntendessino, non lascerebbono venire in tanta grandezza la Chiesa.” Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (Lester G. Crocker, editor; New York: Pocket Books, 1963); For the Italian text, we rely on Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe (Giorgio Inglese, editor; Turin: Einaudi Tascabili, 1995). My adapted translation, as Crocker’s translation adds “and power,” which is not in the Italian text we cite.
15 Rousseau (Social Contract, 118, a note added to the edition of 1782) also had observed that “Rome’s court strongly prohibited the book...since it is that Court he depicts most clearly.”/Du contrat, 111: “La Cour de Rome a séverament défendu son livre...c’est elle qui’l dépeint le plus clairment.” My translation. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we cite the English edition of Maurice Cranston (Harmondworth, England: Penguin Books, 1968). The French text is from the edition of Bruno Bernárdi, ed.,  Rousseau: Du contrat social (Paris: Flammarion, 2001).
16 See “Saint Bartholomew’s Day,” Catholic Encyclopedia, available on-line at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13333b.htm.
 17 Same website as above.
 18 Robert M. Kingdon, “The Reaction in Geneva and Rome,” in Soman, The Massacre of St. Bartholomew, 25-49, especially 41-46. 
19 Pierre Hurtubise, Correspondance du Nonce en France: Antonio Maria Salviati (1572-1578) (Acta Nuntiaturae Gallicae 12; Rome: Université Pontificale Grégorienne/École Française de Rome, 1975). Hurtubise also commented on Kingdon’s article on pages 50-51 of Soman, The Massacre of St. Bartholomew.
 20 For a study of the propaganda surrounding the massacre, see Kingdon, Myths.
 21 Hurtubise, Correspondance du Nonce, 204: "La citta tutta se’è messa in arme, et le case degl’Ugonotti sono state assediate, et combattute, et ammazzati molti huomini, et dalla plebe saccheggiate con avidita incredible.”
22 Hurtubise, Correspondance du Nonce, 204: “Nessun Catolico s’intende esser né morto né ferito.”
23 Hurtubise, Correspondance du Nonce, 225: “purgare il regno di Francia de la peste ugonottica.”
24 Hurtubise, Correspondance du Nonce, 230: “purgarlo de le heresie et mettano in opera li decreti del Consilio Tridentino.” My translation.
25 Hurtubise, Correspondance du Nonce, 259: “il felice progresso che con la gratia di Dio...fa l’essecutione contra ugonotti.” My translation.
26 The relevant correspondence is provided by Fehl, “Vasari’s ‘Extirpation of the Huguenots,’” 278, Appendix I. See Philipp Fehl, "Vasari's Extirpation of the Huguenots," Gazette des Beaux-Arts 84 (1974), 257-83.
27 Fehl, “Vasari’s ‘Extirpation of the Huguenots,’” 278, Appendix I: “I intend to attend to pursuing this work.” (Io intendo a seguitare quest’opera). My translation.
 28 Vasari’s letter to Francesco de’Medici, as provided in Fehl, “Vasari’s ‘Extirpation of the Huguenots,’” 278, Appendix I, A.4.
29 Kingdon, “Reactions in Geneva and Rome,” 44.
30 Pierre Blet, ed. Girolamo Ragazzoni, évêque de Bergame, nonce en France: correspondance de sa nonciature (1583-1586) (Acta Nuntiaturae Gallicae 2; Rome: Université Pontificale Grégorienne/École Française de Rome, 1962), 137: “avvertirà d’inclinar sempre più a la guerre che a la pace, perché con li nimici di Dio non si doverrebe mai tener pace.” My translation.
31 Hurtubise, “Comments” on Kingdon’s article, in Soman, The Massacre of St. Bartholomew, 51-2.
32 Pope John Paul II’s statement was once easily found on the official Vatican website. See now: http://www.fjp2.com/en/john-paul-ii/travels/232-apostolic-journey-to-paris-on-the-occasion-of-the-12th-world-youth-day-august-21-24-1997/19153-baptismal-vigil---address-of-the-holy-father-longchamp-racecourse-23-august-1997- (accessed June 24, 2015).
33 For some examples, see Frances E. Mascia-Lees and Patricia Sharpe, eds., Tattoo, Torture, Mutilation, and Adornment: The Denaturalization of the Body in Culture and Text (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992); Alfred Gell, Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993).
34 Pfuntner A., Wier L.M., Stocks C., “Most Frequent Procedures Performed in U.S. Hospitals, 2011”. HCUP Statistical Brief #165. October 2013. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.
35 World Health Organization, “The Global Prevalence of Circumcision,” http://www.who.int/hiv/mediacentre/infopack_en_2.pdf.
36 See Jon Levenson, “The New Enemies of Circumcision,” Commentary 109/3 (March 2000): 29-36.
37 Ronald Goldman, Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective (Boston: Vanguard Publicatons, 1998). See also essays in Elizabeth Wyner Mark,. ed. The Covenant of Circumcision: New Perspectives on an Ancient Jewish Rite (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England/Brandeis Univesity Press, 2003).