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Is Religion to Blame?

“Only the willfully blind could fail to implicate the divisive force of religion in most, if not all, of the violent enmities in the world today.” Richard Dawkins – A Devil’s Chaplain

“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil-that takes religion.” Steven Weinberg - Facing Up

religion-and-warHow many have heard this statement: “Religion has been the cause of more wars than atheism.” This has been stated by academics and non-academics alike (see Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great , chapter 13, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion , chapter 8, and Sam Harris, The End of Faith , chapter 4 for examples of more formal cases for this position). This reasoning has been accepted as a truism in Western societies and recited as a mantra by many who passionately believe that religion is principally a source of conflict and harm rather than a source of good. The prevailing thought is that if we could eliminate religion, we would be well on the road to peace on earth. Just think about the song “Imagine” when John Lennon sings ”no religion too, imagine all the people, living life in peace….”

When you read about modern conflicts, you can’t help but think that religion is to blame. Look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been raging even before the modern state of Israel was created in 1948. What about the conflict in Ireland which has occurred from the 17th century until the late 20th century? This conflict pitted Catholics who opposed British rule versus Protestants who favored British rule in Ireland. Then there are the conflicts in the former Yugoslavian republics in the Balkans which took place throughout Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo and involved Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim followers. The religious tensions that have engulfed Nigeria since 2000 are another example. Demographically, Nigeria is essentially divided between the Muslim north and the Christian south and this factor, along with other factors, has produced inter-religious violence. There are more conflicts that can be mentioned here but these illustrations serve the purpose.

Is religion truly the cause of human suffering through conflict? Is this ingrained notion correct? A philosophical examination of war is a complex issue. Although warfare and conflict are common throughout human history, the causes of conflict are not simple. For something as complex as war, single-attribute causes are rare. There are a variety of reasons people, groups, and nations enter into conflicts and one of them has been religion. But does that mean that most wars are based on religious differences? The difficulty with answering this question comes largely from the lack of a clear distinction between why people go to war, and why people remain in conflict. The former pertains to the primary reasons that engender conflict while the latter pertains to the elements used to help the combatants achieve their objectives.

Carl von Clausewitz, the German military theorist and philosopher of war of the early 1800’s, wrote a famous book titled On War. Clausewitz writes about the theory, nature, and strategy of war in great detail and his views have been widely debated since then by political scientists, historians, and philosophers. One of the remarkable theories in his book is his “fascinating trinity of war.” In this short, yet significant, doctrine (300 or so words), Clausewitz argued that war consists of three sets of inputs: violence and passion; uncertainty, chance and probability; and political purpose and effect. Regarding the trinity, Clausewitz explains,

“The first of these three phases concerns more the people; the second more the general and his army; the third more the Government. The passions which break forth in war must already have a latent existence in the peoples. The range which the display of courage and talents shall get in the realm of probabilities and of chance depends on the particular characteristics of the general and his army; but the political objects belong to the Government alone.”

Religion can apply to the first element in that it has been used to ignite the passions of the people. Leaders have appealed to religion to serve as motivation for the participants of the conflict. For instance, Pope Urban II summoned the First Crusade in 1095 by urging the knights to stop fighting each other and to make common cause against God’s enemies. On December 8, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his famous “a day that will live in infamy” speech in which he requests Congress to declare war on Japan. Preceding his verbal request to Congress, the President stated, “With confidence in our armed forces - with the unbounded determination of our people - we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.” The President appealed to God and thus, another example of religion serving as a motivator to the people. There are numerous examples of this type of motivation used by leaders.

Even so, it seems that confusion regarding the distinction between the cause of war and reasons that sustain it is what drives the “religion has been the primary source of more wars and conflicts than any thing else” mantra. Religion has unfortunately played a role as a cause or contributing factor to wars throughout human history, but it has played that role alongside myriad other causes and factors. For instance, when one examines the Crusades and the conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries such as the series of civil wars fought in France in the late 1500’s and the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, religion was one of the causes, it was not the only cause. Other factors, particularly economic factors such as trade, property, and wealth were also causes in these conflicts. Maj. John Conway of the US Army wrote in his essay, War and Religion: Is Religion to Blame? , that “religion played the essential role amongst the individual combatants (the Crusades) and was the essential fabric of the two warring cultures. Economics, power, influence, and trade are the true causes; causes that hold firm regardless of the religion factor.” Seldom has a conflict been fought solely because of religion.

The point is not to dismiss the role that religion has played in many conflicts, past and present. Rather, the intent is to point out that placing the blame squarely at the feet of religion is a gross overstatement. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict serves as a good illustration. There is a clear religious element involved here, on one side there is the Jewish state of Israel and on the other side are the Palestinian people and their state which is predominantly Muslim. Moreover, some of the participants on this conflict such as Hamas and radical Orthodox Jews make strong theological claims such as "God gave us this land." However, at its core, this conflict arises from disputes over self-determination and land (i.e. occupied territories, checkpoints, pre-1967 borders, control of seaports and roads, etc.) and its main participants, the state of Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, have secular not religious roots. The founders of the modern state of Israel were secular Jews and the PLO was founded as a secular group whose goal is to prohibit Zionism and to gain self-determination for the Palestinian people and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Again, there is no doubting the religious overtones in this conflict but to claim that this conflict is solely a religious conflict is unfounded. Some have even argued that this conflict would remain the same even without the religious elements.

Of course, there are those who strongly disagree and believe that religion has caused more wars than any other factor and produced the greatest evils in this world, none more so than modern atheists. Dinesh D'Souza, a Christian apologist and author, contends that atheists have "greatly exaggerated the crimes that have been committed by religious fanatics while neglecting or rationalizing the vastly greater crimes committed by secular and atheist fanatics." This is a strong statement that runs counter to popular belief about the role of religion in historical conflicts but it is a statement that merits further examination in the next installment of Table Talk.

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