Narrow Identities and Violence
Personal identity of individual includes many feature of the individual such as race, religion, profession, personal interests, ethnicity, and language among other attributes. Yet all over the world we see individuals and groups defining themselves in narrow and exclusive terms.
We take the view that, in day to day life, the different aspects of personality remain latent. Social and economic context present a background against which individuals choose to retain these different possibilities or to commit to one of these possibilities and to renounce the others.
Religious Indentity and violence
There are few topics that challenge the capabilities of historians more than religion and violence. When the two subjects are combined, the challenge is only increased. How do historians, discuss the often extreme, or alien manifestations of religious belief?And how should we explain religiously motivated violence—or violence that seems to be inspired by religious beliefs or authorities?
Religious and violence opens up a very territories for our consideration. This is the assumption that religious violence is really not fundamentally about religion that other interests, claims, or identities of an economic, ethnic, political, or even psychological nature are at stake.
With this assumption it seems to imply that religion can be reduced to something else.I certainly endorse the idea that in most situations in medieval and early modern ages, religious violence is “really” about religion. This may be less true of more recent times.
I wonder, however, how consistently useful it is to think of religion as a social identity in medieval and early modern ages. Situations certainly existed in which people assigned religious labels to one another and/or thought of themselves as part of a religious group, most obviously in religious borderlands or in regions where multiple religious groups lived alongside one another.
But the insight first provided by Wilfred Cantwell Smith and subsequently refined by a number of historians, namely that it was only over the course of the late Middle Ages, and especially in the wake of the Reformation, that the concept of “religion” took on something approaching its modern sense of an organized set of beliefs and practices about the divine rather than an attitude of piety toward the gods, is an important one to keep in mind.
And while it is certainly true that many forms of religious violence in late medieval or early modern Europe were directed against neighbors assigned some fixed label such as “Jews,” “Dalits,” incidents of religious violence may have been especially likely to occur at moments when new beliefs were spreading into an area and the religious situation was far too fluid to be neatly defined.
So when public scenes of disrespect to the consecrated host sparked violent Catholic retaliation in France around 1560, the violence was motivated by outrage against those so depraved as to attack God’s body, but the clash cannot be usefully analyzed as one between two groups with fixed social identities.
The violence was all about rival beliefs and their public manifestation and defense—a clear matter of “religion” as a symbolic system. To go from there to speaking of religion as an irreducible identity is a linguistic step it probably isn’t useful to take.