“Which is the most violent religion in the world?”, I asked my class recently. No doubt you have your opinions, but these people say that the religion now responsible for most wars is in fact Nationalism. That’s right, they argue that government-sponsored promotion of our “nation” is actually a religion that commits blood sacrifice by sending our young men and women to war. Sound crazy? Gaddaffi’s Libya is currently being taken over— by nationalist causes?— with the support of NATO powers. We’re near the 10th anniversary of 9/11, closely followed by the anniversary of ten years of US-sponsored war. Maybe we should consider what they say?
…what is really true in any community is what its members can agree is worth killing for, or what they can be compelled to sacrifice their lives for. The sacred is thus easily recognized. It is that set of beliefs and persons for which we ought to shed our own blood, if necessary, when there is a serious threat. Rituals that celebrate this blood sacrifice give expression and witness to faith. Sacrificial death thus defines both sectarian and national identity. This is the first sense in which both are species of religion…
On the whole, we misunderstand the genuinely religious character of American patriotism and the violent character of genuine religion. What distinguishes nationalism from sectarianism is not group logic, for both are religions of blood sacrifice. What distinguishes them is historical location. In the West Christianity once could kill and ask others to die in the name of its particular god. In some places it does this still. But in general in the West the power to compel believers to die passed from Christianity to the nation-state, where it largely remains…
Americans traditionally regard the nation-state as the domain of unassailable force and religion as the domain of unassailable truth. This separation of faith and force is markedly unstable and collapses completely in wartime…
If nationalism is religious, why do we deny it? … [The nationalist] god is inexpressible, unsayable, unknowable, beyond language. But that god may not be refused when it calls for sacrifice. …
Some citizens openly speak of the American flag as sacred. Can we disregard the impassioned testimony of others that it is not, and neither is the nation it represents? …
To understand how war is ritual sacrifice, recall that the raw material of society is bodies. Organizing and disposing of them is the fundamental task of all societies. The social is quite literally constructed from the body and from specific bodies that are dedicated and used up for the purpose. The enduringness of any group depends at least partly on the willingness of its members to sacrifice themselves for the continuing life of the group. The creation of national or sectarian religious sentiment depends on a common secret, which is that the underlying cost of all society is the violent death of some portion of its members. …
Does that push any buttons for ya? Respond below.
These ideas don’t make me happy, but the picture above right does. It’s the bookshelf in the study after one of my biweekly trips to the library. As Happygirl will testify, I pretty much jump up and down with glee when I have a pile with such titles as Stupa: Art, Architechtonics and Symbolism, Critical Discourse Analysis and Language Cognition or Foucault, Psychology and the Analytics of Power. I can see your eyes glazing over already ;)
There are 87 books in that photo, my current reading for two papers I’m writing. One is a Foucauldian reading of Western Buddhist meditation. A second is a paper on “civil religion”, the New Zealand state and nationalist wars. My interest in investigating civil religion and war was stimulated by Marvin and Ingle’s highly provocative article Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion, excerpted above.
Civil religion is an established, though contested, concept in sociology of religion. Very simply, it can be several related ideas, either a) a religion becomes a supporter of the state/political system or b) the state uses religion & religious symbolism to promote its agenda -think state prayers on Memorial Day/ANZAC day or the anniversary of 9/11. Or c) the state itself becomes a religion. The theory is debated, of course. I’m not sure I agree with it, but it provokes some interesting thoughts.
The concept of civil religion was not original to Robert Bellah, as one text asserts, nor even Rousseau although he’s generally credited with it. Nope, it looks like “Augustine’s discussion in book 6 of The City of God of Varro’s category of ‘civil theology’ ” started it all off circa 410 CE (Grosby, 2001: 114). Sociological concepts are sometimes much older than commonly thought.
So apparently if we support our nation, we’re religious, regardless of our personal beliefs.
Does the idea of nationalism as a religion make sense? And, what makes YOU happy?
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One of my all-time favourite tunes, from a band I would see live ANY time.
Slayer | War Ensemble
Those of you who are curious to see the actual book titles can Click to see a bigger pic in yfrog.
Grosby, Steven. (2001). “Nationality and Religion.” In Guibernau, Monserrat and Hutchinson, John. (eds.) (2001). Understanding Nationalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Marvin, C. & Ingle, D. (1996). “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. (1996). 64(4), 767-780. http://www.asc.upenn.edu/usr/fcm/jaar.htm Web March 2011.