Dr. Benjamin Wiker wrote the following:
One of the enduring myths of the secular state is that religion is so dangerous, so volatile, so likely to burst into conflagrations of violence, that the only protection we have from societal destruction is the erection of a wall that separates religion from the state.
We’ve all heard the story, and in fact, having also heard endless tales of horror about the great religious wars—especially the French Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years War—we might be strongly inclined to believe the myth.
Even my calling it a myth seems out of place. Isn’t it true—in fact, a truism—that wherever religion and politics mix, it is like gasoline and a match? Isn’t that what history teaches us?
No. History actually teaches us two things.
First, as William Cavanaugh so powerfully argues in his Myth of Religious Violence, when we take a closer look at the 16th and 17th century wars of religion we find that differences between Catholics and Protestants, and Protestants and other Protestants, were secondary to the aims of the emerging nation-states and various political and dynastic intrigues. Simply put, the main cause of these wars was political, not religious.
How can that be? If religious differences were the main cause of these bloody conflicts, Cavanaugh maintains, then we would expect to find that they were invariably fought along neat denominational lines.
What we actually find is Catholic emperors attacking popes, Catholic French kings attacking Catholic emperors, Protestant kings and princes siding with Catholic kings against other Protestants, Lutheran and Catholic kings uniting against Catholic emperors, Protestant Huguenot nobles and Catholic nobles in France uniting against both Catholic and Protestant Huguenot commoners who likewise united against the nobles, Protestant and Catholic nobles in France uniting against their Catholic king, Protestants rejecting the Protestant Union (the coalition of German Protestant states) even while some Catholics were siding with it, Lutheran princes adamantly supporting the rights of a Catholic emperor, Catholic France supporting Protestant princes in Germany, the Dutch Calvinists helping the Catholic king to repress uprisings of French Calvinists, a Lutheran leading the Catholic imperial army, and mercenaries of every religious stripe selling themselves to the highest Catholic or Protestant bidder.
This scribble drawing below indicates inconsistent, unpredictable relationships. Catholics attack Catholics. Catholics and Protestants attack Protestants, etc. These facts of history don’t line up as critics would like in their oversimplified, flawed views of history.
And that is only a very quick overview of the examples provided, at great length, by Cavanaugh. A careful, unbiased study of the so-called religious wars yields the rather surprising result that they were not religious wars. They were political wars that both ignored religious differences when the more important political aims demanded either cooperation with religious opponents or antagonism to those sharing the same religious beliefs, and used religious differences when they would serve political purposes.
That’s the first history lesson. The second is equally important, and related to the first. As Cavanaugh makes equally clear, the secular state needed (and still needs) people to believe the story that religion is the cause of violence because this belief allows for the actual creation of the secular state.
The secular state is what emerges when religion is forcibly removed from the public square through the powers of the state. The myth of religious violence justifies the removal of religion, and it is through that very removal that the state achieves secularization.
Short segment on the topic: