Raise your hand if you’ve heard someone say something along the lines of the quote in the title of this post. Now, I obviously can’t see any of your hands, but I’m guessing that quite a few are up right now. Now, nothing drives an historian nuttier faster than people oversimplifying and misunderstanding history. The direct, simple, and necessary line that people draw between religion and war makes me batty. Here are some reasons why:
“You see, [insert here] is just like Vietnam! When are we going to learn, man!”
Religion is sometimes the justification, but seldom the direct cause of war in human history. Now this point really is important, people. Throughout human history, most conflicts have revolved around water, land, wealth — things like that. That’s not to say that people didn’t fight over these things in the name of their god(s), but that everything wasn’t all cool until some idiot invented religion. In other words, people would have found other reasons to fight over resources. Religion has also been used as a justifying veneer to hide what are basically political or territorial struggles. This is especially true in European history, but in the history of other parts of the world, as well. So the key lesson here is that just because someone finds it convenient to do something in the name of a supernatural being doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have taken the same action without such an inspiration (pun intended!). Besides, the largest body counts and the biggest empires the world has seen haven’t been due to particularly religious motivations.
“The gold, the political aspirations, and the vast natural resources are nice, I guess.
But if I didn’t know that there was a divine being wanting me to have all this,
I just don’t know what the point would be.”
Religion has been the weapon of the oppressed, not just of the oppressor. Religion has certainly been a rallying cry for empire building, but it has also been the rallying cry for revolutionaries and freedom fighters the world over. Pssst, this includes the American Revolution! Recruiters for the continental army had a very difficult time recruiting throughout New England, and often turned to local ministers to recruit for them. On more than a few occasions, the story went something like this: recruiter enters town; maybe a few, if any, recruits come forward, local minister admonishes his congregation to join the army from the pulpit; suddenly, there is a rush of recruits, often including the local minister. I am not debating here whether America was founded as a “Christian” nation or anything like that. I’m merely pointing out that many rank and file soldiers had to be convinced that God was cool with the Revolution before they would sign up. Across the New World and the Old World resistance movement have similarly sprung up, revolving around a saint, a god, or some other spiritual being. Most of the readers of this blog probably enjoy certain rights and freedoms because somewhere in the past someone thought their god(s) wanted them to fight .. and not always through violence. Whether rightly or wrongly isn’t my point. My point is that religion has served the bully and the underdog alike throughout human history.
PICTURED: A religious person, probably up to no good
People commit violence all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with religion. How many religiously-motivated rapes, drive-by’s, murders, muggings, etc, are there every year. Sure, there might be some, but clearly not even close to the majority. The fatal flaw of the “no religion = no war” argument is that it completely misses the mark on human nature. Yes, people have used religion as a justification for cruelty and violence. But people have used almost everything toward this end. War and other kinds of violence are products of human nature, not belief in a divine being or beings.
“I don’t even like the color red, but God totally wants me to have this car.”
And on a philosophical note, just because something can be abused does not mean it is inherently bad or that the world would be better off without it. My word! What technology, what human cultural advancements — what of anything would we have left if we got rid of things that have ever been abused, incited or aided violence, or in some way brought about bad things? I guess it’s back to rocks and fire, people. Oh wait, those can be used to kill, too. Well, crap. You see, religion’s legacy is not just war. It is tremendous cultural, social, political, and scientific (yes, scientific) advancement. It is hospitals and orphanages. It largely responsible for the end of slavery (even if it has often been used to justify it) and accounts for much of the personnel and resources devoted to the struggle against human trafficking. You get the picture.
Bill had a rather extreme reaction to burning his hand on the hot steering wheel.
Now, of course, I haven’t uncovered even the tip of the iceberg as far as places this conversation could go. This is, after all, merely one blog entry (and it’s getting a bit long as it is). My hope, though, is that at least some of the points I’ve made here briefly will encourage deeper thinking about the connection between religion and war.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)