Mark Gregory Pegg is an Associate Professor of History at Washington University in St. Louis. His most recent book, A Most Holy War: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom, looks at a pivotal moment in world history, the world’s first genocide. In the article below Pegg reflects on religious violence today.
It never ceases to amaze me that as religious violence has become an all too familiar fear for great swathes of the world’s population, whether in the supposedly secular West or the supposedly sectarian Middle East, commentators of every political (and religious) stripe piously intone that such horrifically specific violence is always an aberration from the eternal essence of religion. This is nonsense — and it is dangerous nonsense at that.
I’m not arguing that violence is an inherent aspect of religion. Far from it. What I’m arguing is that there’s nothing inherent about religion, one way or the other. Religion is a way of understanding the world, whether in past or in present, and so any explanation (pulpit, soapbox, bar stool) must take into account the specific world that gives a religion meaning at a particular time and place.
The great seductive achievement of religion is the denial of history. This sense of being part of an unchanging tradition, that prayers to God today resemble prayers to Him a millennia ago, that something is wonderfully immune to the burden of time and space, is a comfort. As a historian, though, this essential balm is denied to me; or at least denied to me if I want to try and grasp why murder and bloodshed has been, still is, and always will be, considered by many as the only path to salvation.
Too many recent debates take it for granted that religion is defined as abiding doctrines, perennial philosophies, and timeless ideals. This assumption leads to sterile thought, a historical platitudes, and way too many mindless editorials (and blogs). The fallacy behind it all is that pure principles form the core of every religion and that no matter how many civilizations rise and fall through the millennia, how many prophets come and go, these principles enduringly persist. Weightless, immaterial, untouched by historical contingency, they waft over centuries and societies like loose hot-air balloons. Detecting apparently similar ideas (symbols, gods, a certain way with wives) through time and space is only the beginning of an explanation and not the concluding proof. The past isn’t simply another country, it’s an entirely different universe. At a time when the world is haunted by religiously inspired warfare, religion must be seen as more than floating ideas, more than just ideology with gossamer wings.
Any meditation upon the past that starts with the presumption that some things are universal in humans or in human society — never changing, inert, immobile — is a retreat from historical explanation. At present, though, one thing after another keeps arguing for eternal verities, keeps trying to erode history as a meaningful analytic category (as opposed to a merely entertaining one). It’s unfathomable to me that studies are funded and lauded which argue that there is, say, a pervasive male manner (with other men, with women, with meat) imprinted into masculine genes over a month of prehistoric Sundays. Or that minds always respond in similar ways to tragedy. Or that hereditary behavioral traits impose habits (and occasionally beliefs) from one generation to the next. Or that religion is a primal response to primal fears. Millennia are flattened out, if not totally erased, in essentialism. Historical specificity is either dismissed as irrelevant or seen as epiphenomenal graffiti scratched upon (and so disfiguring) unchanging customs and concepts. Arguing for immutable values from biology is no different to arguing for immutable values from theology — selfish genes, selfish doctrines, they both deny history.
Assuming that why we do what we do, why we think what we think, is somehow or other beyond our control, and that we would be this way in mind and body whether we lived a thousand years ago or right now, forfeits the vitality and distinctiveness of the past to the dead hand of biological determinism, cognitive hotwiring, psychological innateness, liberal pleas for bygone victims, conservative pleas for God-given principles, and amaranthine mush about authenticity. Atheist and believer (and one candidate for high office after another) crowd the same historically meaningless page when it comes to religion, violent or otherwise.
As I wrote A Most Holy War: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom, the question of religion and violence was always on my mind. The crusade was proclaimed by Pope Innocent III in 1208 against the count of Toulouse and the heretics apparently infesting his lands between the Garonne and Rhône Rivers (a vast area that is now southern France). From start to finish, it lasted twenty-one years. An ethical obligation to mass murder, a moral imperative to genocide, defined the most holy war from the very beginning. Christians were guaranteed salvation and redemption through slaughtering other Christians.
(By the way, the Albigensian Crusade was not against the Cathars. For more than a century this has been the standard assumption passed on from footnote to footnote, code to code, crystal to crystal, by scholar, novelist, and seeker of hidden knowledge. Unfortunately, this assumption was, still is, and always will be wrong. To a large extent, this enduring historical error is related to what I’m saying about religion and violence.)
The most holy war wasn’t a brutal travesty in the history of Christianity. Quite the contrary. It epitomized the sanguine beauty and bloody savagery of thirteenth-century Christendom, the century of Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, and Louis IX. The threat from heresy and the necessity of eliminating that threat were fundamental in creating the Christ-like world that Innocent III struggled all his life to achieve. The ability to resemble Christ through day-to-day activity, so much so that you really were Him, was the sublime religious phenomenon of the Middle Ages. No other monotheistic religion has celebrated or promoted such a godly imitative ideal amongst ordinary believers. The love of Christ necessitated great and small holocausts between the Garonne and Rhône.
If the specific historical intimacy between religion and violence in the Albigensian Crusade is dismissed or ignored, then the most holy war is incomprehensible. If we dismiss and ignore this intimacy right now, then so much of what’s happening in the world (Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Darfur, Tibet) is incomprehensible too.