Religions cause most of our wars. Do they? This is one of the most common reasons people give me for not wanting anything to do with religion; but is it true?
According to Karen Armstrong, the religions historian, in her book The Case for God, wars are more about greed, envy and ambition, cloaked perhaps in religious rhetoric to give them “respectability.” We are attached to too many possessions, and Aidan Rankin in Many-Sided Wisdom: A New Politics of the Spirit, also claims that it is this attachment, rather than religion per se, that is the cause of so many wars that are too often blamed exclusively on religion.
Most people when questioned on this mention The Crusades. Yes they were bloody; they were great military expeditions undertaken by the Christian nations of Europe for the purpose of rescuing the holy places of Palestine from the hands of the Mohammedans. But here again we are talking about the fight for possession of land and property.
After reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s tour de force, A History of Christianity, it is clear that the reasons for the crusades were enormously complex, but I think I may still be tentatively persuaded by the views of Armstrong and Rankin. In Gustav Niebuhr’s book Beyond Tolerance, he refers to a night in 1993 when there were forty wars going on in the world, but most of them were fuelled rather than caused by religion.
In any event, yesterday’s behaviour should not necessarily colour our actions today. Surely we should be able to learn from the past, be more mature in our thinking and learn to enter dialogue before resorting to violence? Shouldn’t we have grown up? Perhaps we should be receptive to the teachings of Buddhism on the principle of non-attachment.
Now religion or no, today on the News I hear that researchers have linked wars to El Nino! We know that displacement of refugees through climate change may threaten peace in the future, but “Environmental shifts are already causing wars, argues a team of experts in a new paper in Nature published this month.
Of course, the weather shifts weren't the only reason for the conflict. But in a statement the authors of the research point out: "if you have social inequality, people are poor, and there are underlying tensions, it seems possible that climate can deliver the knockout punch."
I think it was Jonathan Sacks who wrote that excuses abound for war and violence without any need for religion at all! And these tensions of social inequality, poverty and hunger are potent fuels for unrest and war.
We have witnessed this year the most extraordinary events that have been collectively called The Arab Spring. Were not these uprisings more about injustice and inequality and tyrannical rule than religion?
Anne Frank, in spite of the terrible experiences she suffered at the hands of the Nazis in the Second World War wrote in her famous Diary, ‘Despite everything…people are really good at heart.’
If man is essentially good, why then is there so much violence in the world?
Anthony de Mello, an Indian Jesuit Priest and psychotherapist who lived during the middle years of the twentieth century, wrote many best selling albeit sometimes controversial books on Christianity and spirituality. He writes succinctly on the cause of the violence of war:
"Do you know where wars come from? They come from projecting outside of us the conflict that is inside. Show me an individual in whom there is no inner self-conflict and I'll show you an individual in whom there is no violence. There will be effective, even hard, action in him, but no hatred. When he acts, he acts as a surgeon acts; when he acts, he acts as a loving teacher acts with mentally retarded children. You don't blame them, you understand; but you swing into action. On the other hand, when you swing into action with your own hatred and your own violence un-addressed, you've compounded the error. You've tried to put fire out with more fire. You've tried to deal with a flood by adding water to it." (1)
In an essay entitled “The Root of War is Fear,” with a self-evident title, another Jesuit priest, Thomas Merton, tells us that our hatred of ourselves is more dangerous than our hatred of others, because we project our own evil onto others and we do not see it in ourselves. (2)
And Friedrich Nietzsche blames war and violence on the absence of religion. ‘God is Dead,’ he famously wrote in 1882. (3) We had, he said, lost our religion, our faith and our soul, to rationalism, scientific thought and Darwinism. This loss, he predicted, would be the cause of the awful wars that we did indeed subsequently experience in the twentieth century, ‘wars such as have never happened on earth.’ And this he attributed to our fundamental human need for a God to absolve us of our guilt. Without the comfort of this absolution and still guilt-ridden, we would go on to develop barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods, resulting in the robbery and exploitation of other human beings not of our own fraternity. Does this sound familiar?
1. De Mello, Anthony, Awareness: the Perils and Opportunities of Reality, New York: Image Doubleday, 1992, p.182. Cited by Alastair McIntosh in ‘Cold War Psychohistory in the Scottish Psyche,’ internet version
2. Thomas Merton, 1972 Thomas Merton: New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation 1972, pp. 112, 122 and Chapter 16 ‘The Root of War is Fear.’
3. Nietzsche, Friedrich, from Die Frohliche Wissenschaft, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) paragraph 125 Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82, sourced on internet. Also The Gay Science (Philosophical Classics) Friedrich Nietzsche with Thomas Common (Translator)(New York: Dover Publications, 2006)
My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.
"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden