Does religion cause war?

Some atheist activists promote their worldview by espousing the belief that religion promotes war.  Sometimes this is largely based on Europe’s renaissance history and the so-called “wars of religion.”  I am not an expert but I gather that this period of instability was initiated by what we might call a “religious anarchist” movement among the German peasants early in the sixteenth century.  These peasants felt liberated by Martin Luther’s declarations from a spiritual oppression under Roman Catholic doctrine and they felt freed to ask for release from the economic oppression under their secular masters.  Importantly, for this debate, they were prepared to use force to press their claims. i.e. they were not pacifist.  A small minority were Anabaptists, Quakers (and other?) including Voltaire, Spinoza were free-thinkers, pacifist and deeply Christian*; they wanted the Church to be more, not less Christlike.  They responded to violence against them with forgiveness.  (*see Dominic Erdozain’s The Soul of Doubt).

Following the brutal suppression of the German peasants (perhaps 100,000 died), unrest spread to many other secular jurisdictions.  What was at issue was political power.  All regarded themselves as ‘Christian’ but it was a secular Christianity that had rejected Jesus’ pacifism.  When this secular Christianity was split between Catholic, Lutheran or Calvinist views, the implicit non-pacifism in each allowed for war.  Their respective religious views lacked Jesus’ pacifism and it was this lack that allowed the so-called ‘wars of religion’ to flare.  But neither were these Christian sects especially prone to conflict and war.  War was already the political resolution of perceived threat and these sects were too weak to change that human dilemma.  War, in my view, is the human (non-Christian) answer to difference and spiritual, social and economic insecurity.

So whilst I feel a great respect and affinity for their implicit or explicit anti-war message their analysis of the causes of war is little better than saying that my child sometimes fights with their sibling because both go to Sunday school or church!   The truth is all siblings fight sometimes whether they are “religious”, spiritual or otherwise, and the same with adults.  Some may be influenced to fight more than they would otherwise by certain spiritualities, others to fight less than they would otherwise by other spiritualities.  No doubt some atheists have gone to war, whilst some religious people are pacifists.  (By “spiritualities” I mean the sense of connectedness of the person to others – varying in degree from the person who loves their enemies completely to one who is a rampant individualist.  Atheists by this definition have a spirituality like all others which may be well-developed or immature.)

In fact, Jesus Christ was a pacifist and so were His followers for the first two hundred years.  Tragically, Christianity became entwined with nationhood and therefore with violence.  This really took off with the Roman Emperor Constantine.  Though he claimed to convert to Christ, He did not convert to the pacifist Christ.  He was not the first to attempt to have a foot in both Christ’s kingdom and also in a worldly kingdom or state – but he was the first head of state to do so.  In my view, he converted the Church to the State.  It was natural that Constantine as a head of state would seek to unify the Empire under the strength of the Christian faith.  But to co-operate with his secular agenda and to fall away from Christ’s pacifism – that was the fault of the Church.  This secularisation of the Church seems to have, in fact, predated Constantine – and this trend also was not Constantine’s fault.  But Constantine’s strategies to recruit the Church hastened and directed the Church losing touch with the very gospel and mission given to it by its Founder, a backward step into politics and war and away from God.

While atheism promoters are perhaps making some headway in debunking the various falsities of religion, they also sometimes denigrate what it true and of great value.  Either way, I don’t think their efforts will have much impact on religious bigatry overall nor on the incidence of war.  People will believe and be religious or spiritual regardless of the best ivory tower, rationalist, humanist critique.  Likewise they will continue to go to war until they become enlightened spiritually. (I suggest that real spirituality – awareness of the unity of all things – actually results in people becoming less religious in the sense of ritualized, mystical practice and partisan loyalties!).

In conclusion, I say what is really needed for world peace are more people with the spiritual predilections, insights, enlightenment, commitment, vision, love, truth and faith of Jesus.