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Tony Coady on Religion in the Political Sphere: Part 1

In the last twenty years, there has been great interest in the dangers religion presents to liberal democracies, in particular as a result of terrorist attacks, and the political success of the religious right in the United States. Religion is difficult to define and its appropriate role in the public domain is frequently disputed. Violence is frequently attributed to religious absolutism however, in the first of the annual 2012 Leverhulme Lecture Series entitled ‘Religion and Politics’, Professor Tony Coady discusses why this sweeping claim can ultimately be rejected. The first lecture occurred on November 15 (you can listen to the podcast here), with two further lectures on November 22 and 29.

In the first lecture, various attempts to define the concept of religion are presented. Coady chooses to focus on and ultimately reject a radical strategy that dismisses the notion that religion can be defined. This strategy is utilized by William Cavanaugh (see The Myth of Religious Violence, published in 2009) to argue that violence and instability cannot be blamed on religion because it is such an imprecise notion. Coady disagrees with this claim because the concept of religion must be clarified in order to demonstrate that it has a smaller effect on violence than is widely believed. However, he does support Cavanaugh’s argument that religion may be just one component of the multifaceted motivation for violence.

In support of the complex nature of motivations for violence, Coady presents Robert Pape’s examination of suicide bombings between 1780 and 2003, who concluded that religion was rarely an important motive for these violent attacks. According to Pape, suicide terrorists including Islamic fundamentalists, often aim to force modern democracies to retract military presence from what they believe to be their homeland. Religion plays a role instead in the recruitment of terrorists. Furthermore, while religion has been the principle motivation for violence in certain instances, there have also been massacres coordinated by atheist totalitarians such as Hitler, in which religion played no part. So, while religion may be present in certain motivations, on the whole it is seldom the major incentive to violence.

With this in mind, Coady turned to Cavanaugh’s stronger claim regarding the distinction between politics and religion. Throughout the history of Christianity, the relationship between the political order and the church has been discussed. The church has continually shown an understanding that jurisdiction had a distinct and important role in the public domain. Therefore, Coady deduces that religion can be distinguished from politics both at present and in the past, thereby rejecting Cavanaugh’s claim that they are not always separable. Theologians like Cavanaugh frequently label liberal democratic states as militarist, colonialist or even, totalitarian. This in part results from the radical foreign policies of a few nations such as the United States. However, these critics fail to recognize the advantages of a liberal democracy such as freedom, including religious rights freedom, and the protection from oppressive power.

Religion involves absolute convictions and beliefs and, is regularly linked to fanaticism. This comparison is poorly evidenced, as believers frequently reject the excessive and extreme commands of religious authority. For example, a recent survey has shown that eighty-five percent of American Catholic voters defy the stance of The Vatican on contraception, in their approval of programs providing and promoting contraception to women with no health insurance. Indeed, conflict within religions is not uncommon and distinct ethnic groups of the same religion sometimes struggle to unite despite their shared beliefs.

Coady will, in his next two lectures, explore the central concerns regarding religion’s role in the public realm, such as the presence of only one religion in political order, and the conflict between secular societies and religion particularly relating to personal autonomy and coercion.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Please could we have Coady’s definition of religion before going further. It is difficult to address the argument or contrast ‘religion’ with other mind-sets such as Hitler’s ideology, or a moral code, or theism, or a naturalistic cult, or any other belief system, without this point of reference.

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