Religion, War and Terrorism

Dianoia / IRCI Public Lecture: Honorary Professor Tony Coady



15 October 2019


Mercy Lecture Theatre ACU Melbourne Campus

A. J. (TONY) COADY is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, Honorary Fellow in the Dianoia Institute of Philosophy and the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at the Australian Catholic University, and Honorary Fellow in the Uehiro Centre, Oxford. He has an international reputation for his work in epistemology, ethics and applied philosophy, his book on Testimony having been particularly influential. He has played a significant part in the development of applied philosophy in Australia, and has also made numerous contributions from a philosophical perspective to public debate on contentious issues. In 2005 he gave the Uehiro Lectures on Practical Ethics in Oxford on “Messy Morality” and in 2012 the Leverhulme Lectures in Oxford on “Religion and Politics”. His books include Testimony: A Philosophical Study (Oxford University Press, 1992) Morality and Political Violence (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and Messy Morality: The Challenge of Politics (Oxford University Press, 2008). He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities and also of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences.

Since the early years of the 21st century, the causes of war and of acts of terrorism have been strongly identified in the public mind with religion, and especially with the Muslim faith. This identification is in some ways unsurprising, but it relies upon a number of different but mutually reinforcing and long-standing cultural presuppositions. One is that religion itself has an inherent, distinctive, possibly unique tendency to promote violent acts; another is that, whatever about that, many past and present wars and terrorist acts were in fact wholly caused by specific religious commitments; another is that whatever the full story about causes may be, religion inevitably promotes particularly bad features of war and terrorism, such as their ferocity and duration. This talk will offer a critical appraisal of these presuppositions and their influence. It will discuss and assess William Cavanaugh’s influential rejection of the malign tendency of religion towards political violence and while sympathising with an element in his critique will reject his arguments that express radical scepticism about the concept of religion. It will examine claims and arguments by an assortment of theorists both those in favour of the causal connections between religion and violence and those against. Interestingly, religious and non-religious people can be found on both sides of the debate. Particular attention will be paid to the role of “absolutism” in the arguments for religion’s tendency to violence.

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