But, Religion has caused so many Wars …

My son recently raised this issue with me, so I thought I would take a bit of time to respond.  As long as this is going to be a rather long bit of writing, I thought I might as well create it as a post.

This criticism of religion, that it is the cause of so much war, has existed for some time; in particular coming out of the Enlightenment when Europe was tired of what seemed like a perpetual state of war between, and within, countries; in particular, with the 30 Year’s War.  During this war about 8 million people died, directly from fighting or in larger numbers from disease and famine; often with between a quarter and half of the population affected.  There was a general desire to find a better way, a thinking that people could be more ‘reasonable’.  If we would just put aside our arguments and debates about theological differences, we could see our common interests and similarities (and ‘CoExist’).

As appealing as this argument is, especially in modern times that seek a strong separation of Church and State; I see it as seriously flawed on many levels, both philosophically and as an ignorance of history.

The New Philosophy on the Block

By the close of the 17th Century, Europe and England were becoming exhausted by wars.  Ever since Luther posted his Ninety-Five Thesis on the doors of the Wittenberg Church in 1517, till the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Europe was torn by ‘religions’ conflict.

It was easy for the thinkers of the Enlightenment, who saw truth as coming from reason, without the need for God or revelation; to see reason as the ‘savior’ who would spare them from such future conflicts.  They could point at the recent history of war and say ‘religion’, then point at ‘reason’ and describe the glorious (peaceful) future.  Without any history behind their philosophy, the logic could not be contradicted.

While there may have been a historical need to back off of religious issues, and try a ‘secular’ approach; the Enlightenment was not the long term solution it promised to be.  It was the writings of Voltaire that quickly ‘justified’ the French Revolution, and (along with Marx) many revolutions after that.

War by the Numbers

Looking at statistics of war and human action, the claims of the Enlightenment don’t hold up, even if the statistics are slanted by percent of population or other means to account for the larger populations today, the facts don’t match the claims.  The ‘religions’ wars of the past pale in comparison to the human destruction in the name of ‘reasonable’ people; of which Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot are just a small portion of the total.  Saying religion starts wars puts religious people off guard, but the statistics don’t support reason over religion.

Ideological Conflicts

The problem is not that emotional religions has an inherent weakness that leads them toward evil (and reason does not), the problem is ideological differences of all stripes: disagreement leads to conflict.  The real question is whether an ideology justifies violence in support of one’s position in the face of conflict, and untangling all of the motives (religious and otherwise) behind such conflicts.

Religion Then and Now

When discussing religions issues, there is a need to understand the big difference between how we commonly think of religion today, and how it was understood in the past.  Today it is almost impossible to not be influenced by Kant and Hagel (18th century), and the modern philosophy that considers reason to govern the ‘real’ world (“physics”), with religion and god are relegated to ‘belief’ (“meta-physics”).  Because meta-physics have no rational basis, they are beyond reason and application to ‘ordinary’ life.  And without any meta-physics (absolutes), all is relative.

At the time of the Enlightenment, there was an understanding that reason could produce not only science (“physics”), but also meaning and value (“meta-physics”) – of which god and religion were a part.  There was still the belief and hope for a unified field of knowledge.  Truth and absolutes still existed.  Furthermore, religion was not separated from politics and daily life.  This lack of separation was both good and bad, as there was no separation between talking religion and talking politics.

We must remember that the Roman Church was (and still is) a political state, with the Pope as its head.  It owned lands and granted ‘authority’ to governments (ie. France and Spain in particular).  It was the Reformation that elevated the individual (whether individual person, or state) over the central authority of the Pope (and the Kings who ruled by divine right – granted by the Pope).  The Reformed countries (like Holland) were not just religious Protestants, but considered political rebels from the Pope (who Spain was defending).  That the merchant class was gaining wealth (and power) over the rulers added to the conflict, and in part determined the political/religious ideology one chose.   Rights of individuals and political Republics -vs- the rights of Popes and Kings were both political and religious issues.  One could not be separated from the other.

On a national level, the time of exploration meant that who discovered new lands (and trade routes) increased the wealth and power of one side or the other.  Thus individual interests in religious belief were not separated from ideas about trade, wealth and national rights.  While the Enlightenment liked to place all of the blame on religion, it cannot be separated from the struggle for wealth and power.  How confusing this can get can be seen by how minorities of Catholics and Protestants could be found on both sides of a conflict at the same time; wars were not fought along clear religious lines, solely for religious reasons.

Orthodoxy and Western Christianity – Just War Theory

To properly address this argument (that religion causes war), it is necessary to not only show that religion (and Christianity in particular) is statistically marginally better than non-religious philosophies, but to examine the theology/philosophy of war.  Not just whether people fight in the name of religion, but does the tradition of the religion support such positions.

If we look at Hitler or Stalin, they not only started wars; but the justified their actions (rightfully or wrongfully) based upon post-Enlightenment philosophical positions.  Hitler appealed to Nietzsche and his concept of the ‘Will to Power‘, and Stalin built his thinking from Marx, who saw revolution and war as necessary means to their ends.  For Marx and his followers, violence was not just allowed, but necessary and expected.

By degrees, the Catholics and Protestants of Europe were different, though both appealing back to Augustine (4th/5th century) and his ‘just war’ theory.  Augustine is living at a time when the Christianized Roman Empire (in the West) is collapsing under invaders.  He is pondering the question of whether is allowable for a Christian country to defend itself against attack, and whether and when war is justified.  He carefully works through a position, defending war under specific conditions.  This theological speculation was expanded and codified over time in the West, by both Catholics and Protestants.

By contrast, the Eastern Church has never had a just war theology.  War (particularly defensive war) may have been necessary, but it was not justified or glorified.  What we know as the Byzantine Empire spend most of its history at war, fending off barbarians, Persians and Islam; it was always seen as a necessary evil – the lesser of two wrongs.  The taking of life always damaged the soul, and thus was to be avoided.  This position can also be seen in the Russian Empire.

Another difference in the East is that Church and State are never merged.  There was always an uncomfortable tension over who had the final authority, but there was also some distinction between the interests of the Church and the interests of the State; thus allowing some distinction between the interests of the Church and the interests of the State.

Reasons against War

The  Byzantine Empire went to great lengths to avoid war, resorting to negotiation and even bribery.  War was expensive, both practically and spiritually.

War is destructive, both of lives and property.  It goes against the fundamental principal that we have a creative God. We are to be like God in creating beauty, not destroying it.  Going to war defensively was permitted to stop or minimize the greater destruction of an invader; but this was the lesser of two evils, not a good that could be justified.

The second reason follows on the first: humanity is made in the image of God.  To take a life is to destroy the image of God and thus shows a further disrespect for God.

The third reason is the Resurrection.  Whether in modern times, or in the past; violence and death has been considered the ultimate solution to opposition, the ultimate demonstration of control and power.  The crucifixions of Rome were a way of saying that they could defeat rebellion and their enemies.  We see this same mentality today in thinking that a few cruise missiles can eliminate our problems with terrorists.  The resurrection was a statement to Rome (and is the same statement today) that death has been defeated, it is no longer the final solution; and all powers have been put on notice; Ceaser is not the ultimate king.  On the surface, it may appear that the martyrdom of the saints removes them as a problem, but their death does not silence them.

Rational or Ascetical Problem?

Underlying all of the above is what I see as a more fundamental problem.  Whether it is the Enlightenment, or its Protestant and Catholic pre-cursers; there is an assumption that reason (possibly augmented by Scripture) will guide us through political and moral issues.  We can reason what is a ‘just’ or ‘right’ position.  This line of thinking is still predominant today.

I am persuaded that the problems of ‘Money, Sex and Power’, whether in the past or in the modern manifestations of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche fail to come to terms with the underlying problem of the passions.  Any time we pursue vices over virtues it will lead us down the path of conflict and war.  Our reason will be clouded and distorted to support our passions.  Instead of a ‘spiritual’ warfare where we attack our own passions and spiritual forces, we turn those passions on others; which when escalated leads to violence (by individuals, groups or nations).  Until we are in control of our passions, we will not reason correctly; but this is getting into a different topic.

Freedom of Religion

Are you for it, or against it?

As an Orthodox Christian, I am for religious tolerance.  When ,William Seward talked the United States government into buying Alaska from Russian in 1867, the Civil War had recently ended and people were looking to Westward expansion – and concerned about Indian uprisings that would interfere with ‘progress’.  To most people, the Alaskans were another native American threat that needed to be managed via the ‘Pennsylvania Plan’: removing native children from their families and villages, put them in Protestant boarding schools which forbid them to use their native language and practice their customs.  What they didn’t realize was that due to Russian Orthodox missionaries, Alaska was more literate than the ‘lower 48’ at that time, with some natives captaining and navigating ships that circumnavigated the globe multiple times.  Unfortunately, their appeals to Congress to protect their religious freedoms were ignored, with disastrous results that impact the people to this day.  (for a history of this time, see Fr. Michael Oleska’s Alaskan Missionary Spirituality).

With this past as a part of my ‘faith tradition’, I am still not sure I agree with the modern understanding of religious freedom.

The Bill of Rights defines religion as one of the ‘inalienable rights’, something that cannot be taken away because it is not something given to us by the government; it is a part of ‘how things are’ as given to us by the Creator (which is not defined).  Like much of the founding of the government, this was a compromise that leaves many (if not most) less than fully satisfied.  This was also a position of the federal government; not state government, for many of the states individually supported specific religions. Massachusetts financially supported local Congregational churches as late as 1830. It was Virginia that lead the way in tolerance, under the influence of European Rationalists and Protestant values, with support from minority groups like the Baptists (who theologically separate church and state).  This policy gradually became the norm for most states.

There was however, never a complete open toleration of all religions and religious practices.  Human and animal sacrifices are not permitted, as well as polygamy and child brides.  At times various native american practices have been outlawed (Ghost Dance and peyote).  In the last 150 years, many practices that were forbidden are now legal.

Modern thinking about religion is vastly different from the time of the Bill of Rights, and the modern Structuralist (Rationalist) approach, and post-modernism, while affirming religion, significantly redefine it, and ultimately destroy it.

Ever since Kant and Hagel, meaning and values have been pushed into an ‘upper story‘ where all meta-physical, meaning and value are considered to be non-rational. As Nietzsche put it “God is Dead”, so god is no longer a source for meaning or values.  This is the undisputed belief of modern thinking (both Structuralists and post-modernism).  Religion has changed from doctrines, practices and beliefs to a personal, internal spirituality (see Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion for a good discussion on the changes to the definitions of science and religion).  For modern Rationalists (Structuralists) the concept of religion is something to be disposed of as meaningless (sort of like Unicorns).  Post-modernists are willing to affirm religion, as long as we obey the bumper sticker and “Coexist”, but affirm it as long as we are willing to let them deconstruct any particular religion and let them redefine so that any ‘teeth’ of value and meaning have been pulled.  By definition, religion has nothing to say regarding practical issues such as abortion, marriage or sexual practices.

Since god is dead, religious freedom (along with any other rights) are no longer something inalienable, as there are no metaphysics and values ‘out there’.  Governments that follow this modern thinking may make laws affirming rights (such as abortion and gender identity), but at the expense of defining them as something the state grants, and hence can also take away.

The problem I face as a minority philosophy in this country (ie Patristic Orthodox Christianity) is how to affirm tolerance, yet also see the need for limits.  Any talk of sacramentality (ie: God working through and being reflected in the creation) sounds to many people an lunacy.  I want tolerance, as I want the freedom to express and live out my values (even as I mournfully watch others exercise their ‘freedom’ to destroy themselves by disregarding those values).  In some ways, I am not too concerned about the future of Christianity, as it started under Roman rule; which was no friend to anyone challenging Ceaser’s authority and divinity.  I don’t think it is likely that human sacrifice will be re-introduced soon (unless one puts abortion in that category); however, my real fear is what will happen to this ‘tolerant’ country when it encounters pre-Kantian thinking that is not tolerant – in particular I am thinking of certain threads of Muslim theology.

I need to be careful here as Muslim theology is somewhat diverse and varied.  Accusing all Muslims of terrorism is similar to blaming a Baptist or Quaker for the Crusades.    Yes, there are devout, peaceful Muslims; but don’t confuse Sufi with Wahhabi (the latter being a particular focus of concern).  Saudi Arabia is quite willing to use western tolerance to fund mosques wherever they can, but it is not a reciprocal policy that is open for the West to build churches in their country.  They will take advantage of our tolerance, but are less free to give it back (ie, to ‘Coexist’).  Orthodox Christians have a long and complex history with Muslims.  Mohammed was given protection by St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai, and in return he gave them a document of protection.  Yet there are innumerable saints who were martyred under the Ottoman Empire and are still martyred to this day in many places.  It is a complex issue that requires more than a blog to resolve.

I want freedoms and tolerance, but I also see the legitimate need for limits.  We need boundaries to protect us from each other.  The problem I face is that such conversations (of having limited freedoms) has no coinage in modern thinking.

Science and Religion

Whether you follow Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson or the fundamentalist creationists; the debate of science and religion still goes on, though most people seem to believe we have gotten beyond it (and science won).  If so, I believe it is a Pyrrhic victory.  I am not sure how much religion needs science, but I believe science is philosophically dependent on Christianity.  Even so, there are major problems reconciling science and religion, to which I think the best option is to suspend judgment.

Having said that science needs a Judaeo-Christian world view, I do not deny the scientific discoveries made by the Arabs, Chinese and other cultures, or the modern advancements of science made by people who deny religion; but I believe scientific discoveries are dependent on some basic philosophical assumptions that are unique to the Judaeo-Christian world view.  Among these assumptions are that there is a physical universe (it is not a dream or illusion), it has meaning and purpose (else why explore it?) and we have free will so we can reason.

Conflict of Science and Scripture

There is clearly a difficulty with reconciling the early books of the Bible with the discoveries of fossils, DNA studies and astronomy.  The long timeline that these scientific discoveries need seems to not fit with short chronology of Scripture.  Working back through the Old Testament genealogies show no break, and there is no literary evidence that the later people like David and Solomon are ‘history’, while the earlier people like Noah or Adam are ‘mythology’; Jesus himself seems to affirm their historicity, as also does Paul.  While the genealogies are a difficulty, I do not see them as the real problem, the is no need to follow Bishop Ussher and insist on a recent creation (6 pm on 22 October 4004) even some Church Fathers like St. Basil did not insist on literal ‘days’ for the creation.

If we are going to pick problems between science and religion, I think there is an even bigger one: Death.  First, I am not sure there is a clear definition/understanding of exactly what death means.  How could Adam and Eve eat plants without the plants dying (Genesis 1:29), and how can the same happen after the resurrection (Revelation 22:2)?  It does seem that there is a rather common meaning most of the time where the genealogies state “and he died” (Genesis 5), implying the ceasing of bodily function and decay; but it is difficult to consistently apply this to plants (which have similar cellular function at this level) if they are consumed both before the fall and after the resurrection.  I feel that something significant is missing here.  Death is the real Biblical problem of the Fall, somehow the whole creation underwent a radical change at a historical point in time in Adam’s life. On the other hand, evolution is founded on death; if organisms don’t die then there is no “survival of the fittest” (to reference an old paradigm); evolution is based on the premise that death is ‘natural’ and has always been a part of life.

The Self-destructiveness of Science

If religion has problems with science, I find that science has problems with itself; if followed to its conclusion, it destroys meaning, freedom and values.   Without meaning, science is pointless, without freedom science is irrational and impossible, without values science can do anything (or nothing).

Loss of Meaning

Current cosmology predicts that the cosmos will either continue to expand till all the stars burn out and leave nothing but cold cinders floating in space, or collapse into a giant black hole.  Whatever we do in the meantime is insignificant as to changing this fate.  Without significance, we have no meaning.

As one person put it after a cosmology lecture: “I just need to keep short term goals”.  If we cannot get off of this planet and to another solar system, at some point the sun will expand, then burn up and consume the earth.  Longer term prospects are no beter.  If there is not eternal significant to our actions; and everything is just time, chance and matter, then we are all just playing rather absurd games.  Whether it is the game of ‘saving whales’, ‘stopping global warming’ or making a billion dollars, it is no different than striving to win a Monopoly game or Pokemon Go.  These are all in the technical sense just ‘games’ with a set of artificial goals and rules that we play for the enjoyment of playing, because the game has no larger purpose.  Whether I develop nuclear energy, create a nuclear holocaust or oppose nuclear development; it is all just a game that has no effect on the final end.  In this context, Albert Camus is right, the only real philosophical issue is suicide.

Loss of Freedom

If we do not have freedom, we cannot make choices based on reason, and hence we cannot logically work through scientific problems.  If our thinking is genetically or psychologically determined then we can never reason our way to ‘truth’.  Watson and Crick, the early pioneers of discovering DNA saw genetics as leading to determinism; the psychologist B.F. Skinner argued that we are psychologically determined; and more recently Steven Wolfram (A New Kind of Science) sees the mathematics behind everything as being fundamentally deterministic.  These are well written arguments, but it is rather amusing that they are trying to use logical persuasion to convince us that we are not ultimately logical or reasonable, since we have no freedom.  I believe these people have not discovered a truth about reality (it is all deterministic), but a truth about science; when we are left with only mathematics and particulars, determinism is the only logical conclusion.

Loss of Values

If the universe is a product of time, chance and the impersonal; then what we have now is what we have always had.  Any discussion of what ‘should be’ or ‘ought to be’ implies that there is a goal or purpose to the universe (and it is not chance), or that the universe at some point has changed and is no longer what it ‘should be’.  Without a historical fall (a change from what it ‘should’ be) we cannot say that something is right (‘should’ be) or wrong (should not be), at most we are left with the Marquis de Sade‘s statement “what is, is right” (or more properly “what is, is”).  We may not emotionally like the Marquis’ conclusions, but logically they are hard to argue if we accept his assumptions.  Dostoevsky understood the Marquis when he said “if god does not exist, everything is permitted”.

The pursuit of science is the pursuit of paradigms, and the paradigm questions people ask are driven by the values (goals) that are pursued.  Does one study a virus to learn how to cure it or turn it into a biological weapon?  Without values, science does not stop, but it can do anything.  It will however be eroded.  If one is pursuing a scientific career, then it is permitted to lie, cheat and falsify data to get ahead; there is no commitment to scientific integrity if everything is permitted and personal career goals are more important than the ‘advancement’ of science.

Suspended Judgment

One of the points I like about Thomas Kuhn’s The Nature of Scientific Revolution is the need to both be logical and keep grounded in facts, while at the same time being willing to suspend judgment and ignore certain facts.  This is necessary because every paradigm (at least in its early stages) has facts and arguments that seem to falsify it.  Ultimately paradigms require a degree of faith.  Paradigms are also not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but more or less useful.  The bigger paradigms the bigger the challenge.

I retired working at Monsanto, a company steeped in genetics research; most of the work required assuming genetic evolution.  I found myself trusting the paradigms of evolution in order to understand the development of corn and how the plant we know today likely came from a Mexican grass.  When I first started at Monsanto I read up on genetics; I clearly remember a book saying that each gene produces one protean, and that chromosomes are full of ‘junk DNA’, DNA sequences between genes that were evolutionary byproducts with no purpose.  In a few years it was found that most creatures have more proteins than genes, and the ‘junk DNA’ functioned as regulators and modifiers.  The discovery of the ‘Round-Up ready gene’ was a fluke (equivalent of winning the lottery), but the paradigm assumptions were that genetics was fairly simple and it would not take long to find another controlling gene (drought tolerance, increased yield, …) that would be the next break-through (and stock enhancer).  Biases (desire for quick stock returns) prejudice looking for simple solutions and avoiding harder, more complicated solutions (ie expensive fundamental research).  I learned that paradigms usually end up being more (much more) complicated than what anyone originally imagined.  Sometimes a ‘wrong’ paradigm like Newton’s physics can trigger a long run of development (the Industrial Revolution), but at other times the simple solution has a short life.

Working with paradigms (especially scientific ones) requires a split mind, a willingness to be optimistic enough to trust the paradigm to produce results; but enough doubt to follow the facts that may show it wrong.  Most scientists recognize that the ‘standard model’ is incomplete and doesn’t reconcile with gravity.  They know it is flawed, but it is still useful enough to achieve significant results.  It is such a split mind, and suspension of judgment (certainty of truth and falsehood) that is needed for holding science and religion together.  For scripture, I can trust the major paradigms (decisions of the Ecumenical Councils) as they are backed up by spiritual experience (knowing God), without having to be equally dogmatic about other issues, like the chronological history of early Genesis.  I can believe ‘that’ there are meaning and values (a Fall and Resurrection) without knowing the details of ‘how’.  This gives me the foundation for pursuing science where I can use evolution as a working paradigm without having to work out the details of origins.  Most modern scientists recognize that Most scientific research is in such small, restricted specializations that the large paradigms have little consequence; as evidenced by how little impact changes to ‘string theory’, ‘dark matter’ and the like have to the advancement of computers, genetics and the building of bridges.

This stance of a split mind requires a suspension of judgment, an admission of not knowing it all, and a willingness to affirm things that for all practical purposes seem to contradict each other, and not asking questions that are interesting but irrelevant (“did Adam name the dinosaurs?”).  It is the rush to judgment, and a lack of faith and humility, that leads to the conflict of science and religion – an insistence that one side has all the right ‘facts’ and a final judgment can be declared.

I may be able to get buy without science as a monk caught up in hesychia in a quiet cell, but it is difficult to be a scientist without meaning, freedom and values.


“Innocence of Muslims” and the nature of God

The release of the film Innocence of Muslims on YouTube had unfortunate, but fairly predictable results (which may have been the intent). And while it bring serious questions like freedom of speech to the forefront; unfortunately, what gets lost in the furor of anger and apologies is a serious discussion of the underlying issue: what is the nature of God? Assuming the worst, that the film is a deliberate blasphemy against God (or at least his prophet Mohamed), we need to ask what blasphemy mean, and what should be the reaction to it?

There seems to be an underlying assumption that blasphemy diminishes God, taking away his dignity and status. While I can agree that blasphemy might diminish God in my sight, I find it theologically difficult to assume that God Himself can be diminished or harmed by such words and actions. I believe it uis in this distinction between perception and reality that a view of tolerance will be found. Traditional Christian theology holds that God is immutable and unchanging, beyond passions. Whether we love Him or hate Him, there is no change or threat to His being and security. This does not mean that God is inert with no passions, for God is love, but His love is unchanging. Thus His anthropomorphic reaction to the nations that rage against him is one of laughter – it is foolishness to consider them a serious threat. This being the case, God does not need us to defend him.

What is true for God is not always so much the case for us, especially in the fallen state of the world. To the degree that we find our identity in Christ, we have the same immutability of our being that God has – as the martyrs have shown, even death is not an ultimate threat to our existence. Due to our weakness, however; such blasphemy and threats can and do weaken our faith and resolve. It is here that the discussion of tolerance and restraint must take place. Ideally, we should be unaffected by external influences and allow total freedom to others; but as a society we need restrictions on freedom in order to protect our weakness. These two ‘fences’ mark the bounds of social discourse, and it is through legislation, social agreements and good manners that we determine where the fence posts are placed. Because the fragility of the nation of Israel requires a small space (the stoning of blasphemers – Leviticus 24:16), but this does not mean that Paul as wrong in his openness to the pagans of Athens (Acts 17:23). And even less does this give us as the right to take perceived in-justice into our own hands as individuals or as a mob. Christians have experienced similar ‘insults’ in film (The Last Temptation of Christ), books (The DaVinci Code) and art (Robert Mapplethorpe) but reacted differently.

This difference is rooted in theology, and the solution needs to be through theological discussion. Both Christians and Muslims ground our belief in God on the Old Testament books of Moses, and it is here that we should find common understanding to resolve these social issues.

I tried watching the Innocence of Muslims and had to quit. Irrespective of the content, the acting, dialogue and production standards were so bad that it was more than I could endure, it doesn’t even deserve the respect of laughter.