Religion professors discuss sources of violence

by Joshua J. McElwee

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William Cavanaugh

NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- There's a conventional wisdom when it comes to the difference between religious and secular institutions, says William Cavanaugh: "Religions are more prone than secular institutions to violence."

Just call to mind your history lessons of the so-called religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. Or current images of violence in the Middle East.

But those images don't capture the whole picture, the DePaul University theology professor said in the opening presentation of the College Theology Society's annual convention here last night. In fact, he argued, "There is no good reason for thinking that religious ideologies and institutions are more inherently prone to violence."

Giving a one-hour whirl-wind tour of the history of the development of the division of secular and religious institutions, Cavanaugh told the some 150 professors gathered for the weekend that the notion of religion as the greatest perpetrator of violence in the world was a "myth" -- and that academic study needs to look at "under what circumstances the invisible hand of the market or the idea of the United States as world liberator also produce[s] violence."

"Violence feeds on the needs for enemies -- on the need to separate us versus them," said Cavanaugh. "And such binary ways of dividing the world make the world understandable for us, but they also make the world unlivable for many. So doing away with the myth of religious violence is one way of resisting such binaries -- and perhaps turning some enemies into friends."

Cavanaugh's presentation -- based on his recent book The Myth of Religious Violence -- came at the opening of the 57th annual convention of the College Theology Society, which is being held at Iona College here through Sunday.

Through the afternoon and evening yesterday professors gathered -- with many more expected today -- for the conference, which is titled: "They Shall be Called Children of God: Violence, Transformation, and the Sacred."

Discussions to be held through the weekend include focus on facets of violence in society. There are to be presentations from everything from violence against gays and lesbians, to the violence of abortion, to how women's eating practices enforce a "regime of thinness." Another presentation scheduled for tomorrow on the art of political violence is entitled: "The beauty of Abu Ghraib: Art Transforming Violence."

The gathering is also a time for professors to spend time together and share common concerns. Before Cavanaugh's presentation, the auditorium was abuzz with some of the issues those here face in the classroom everyday. Just two of those overheard:

  • Talking with and advising students who are dealing with issues of sexuality. You have to be open to where students are, said one professor, but you also "can't just dismiss church teaching."
  • Getting students to read texts. "We live in a skimming culture," said another professor. "If I want students to really read something, I have to print it out and hand it to them with highlights. With Twitter, Facebook -- students just don't read in depth anymore."

The College Theology Society is made up of over 900 college and university professors throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. Many of the members are Catholic, although many are also from other denominations. The weekend conference is being held in conjunction with the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion.

Check back to NCR for more coverage of the conference over the next days.

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