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.
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.