One of the great advantages of reading news online is the benefit of immediate feedback. The comment section is like an instant collection of letters to the editor. While reading through such comments recently, I came across an all-too-common refrain: “Stop killing in the name of god. If religious zealots could just learn tolerance, we’d all be better off.”
Typically, this kind of comment is made against all religions equally. The meme is repeated more often now since Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens
popularized atheism with zeal surpassing even the most ardent, spiked-hair Christian evangelists. Though popular, the mantra is woefully misguided and diabolically untrue.
Religion is not the cause of war. Most religions, in fact, promote peace and offer peace a viable window of opportunity. The only major religion which prescribes war is Islam. Other religions—Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism—seek (through various means) to promote personal peace and, thus, promote harmony among the masses. To repeat the refrain that religion causes war is to betray ignorance of religion, history, and anthropology.
Religion does not seek war. Christianity, for instance, commands followers to seek peace and pursue it (1 Peter 3:11). Christians are to be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kind-hearted, and humble in spirit (1 Peter 3:8). To claim that religion is the root cause of war is to prove ignorance of the instructions found in religions like Christianity.
No doubt, the skeptic mocks such religious instructions on account of the historical reality of religious violence. Christianity and other religions have launched wars. No one should deny that violence has occurred often in the name of religion. However, such violence happens in spite of religion, not because of it. Religious people have at times failed their own religion.
Christians betrayed their faith when they slaughtered Jews in Jerusalem during the Crusades. Likewise, Buddhists in Sri Lanka went against the teachings of Buddha when they slaughtered minorities during a civil war in that country (which cost about 50,000 lives). Religious people often fail to live up to their own ideals. They are hypocrites at times. Such hypocrisy is, without a doubt, a blight on their religion. Nevertheless, religion itself is not to blame. The blame lies with the sinful representatives of said religions. Blaming religion when hypocrites defame its teachings is like blaming the team owner when a player fumbles the ball. The owner did not expect him to fumble, nor did he desire it. The player is responsible for the mistake and will be held appropriately accountable.
Those who blame war on religion also expose their own ignorance of history. While it is true (as stated above) that Christians, Buddhists, and others have engaged in violence and war, it is not at all true that these wars constitute the majority of the wars in history. Using the examples above—the Crusades and the civil war in Sri Lanka—these religious wars accounted for about 250,000 deaths.
While a quarter of a million deaths in the name of religious zeal is horrific, it is also (by historical comparison) rather tame. As a matter of sad, historical fact, atheism has proved more deadly by far. Communists sought by definition to rid their societies of sectarian religious violence. In the name of atheism and the utilitarian goal of what is good for the state, Communism unleashed human blood-baths on a scale unimaginable before the 20th century.
In Cambodia, Pol Pot killed 3 million. Stalin killed as many as 20 million. And Chairman Mao likely killed over 50 million in China. However bad one considers the Crusades to be, Stalin’s “Society of the Godless” was by number 100 times worse. Even with the rise of militant Islam in the 20th century, atheism still proved a far more destructive force against humanity than religion. If religion is bad, the lack of it is apparently 100-300 times worse.
Finally, statements blaming religion for violence and war show little reflection on the nature of humanity itself. War is not the product of religious zeal bubbling over into the secular realm. Violence and war have but a single root: sinful humanity. The reason there is violence, murder, rape, and war is because there is a battle raging in every human soul.
Each person is bound in a personal struggle against sin and unrighteousness. Each soul is at war against its own best interests. Each soul struggles to do what is right in the face of overwhelming desire to do what is wrong. And so, each soul must battle personal guilt and the temptation to place blame on others.
In Christian terms, the case proves to be as advertised by the ancient prophet Jeremiah, “The heart is desperately sick. Who can understand it?”
The Apostle Paul describes human sin in much darker tones:
There is none righteous, not even one… Their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes… (Romans 3).
Paul’s prescription for such people is to come to know the Prince of Peace and to walk the narrow way of life, being justified as a gift by God’s grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. God’s prescription is peace through the redeeming sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. That is pure religion. That is the hope for peace. That is the hope for every individual, including you and me. Thank God, there is hope for peace.
Religion, then, is neither the problem behind war nor the solution for it. Religion, if it is right, will point to Christ who is bringing all wars to an end.
- Religious Liberty Is Important for All Americans (gregoryccochran.com)
Great post. I think you’d also enjoy this piece by William T. Cavanaugh:
He’s got some great insights into the whole “religion” and “secular” distinction itself. Keep up the good work.
Thanks, Derek. That was an interesting read. I appreciate the link.
Can you explain if the Hindu religion is against war, why the whole of their holy book, the Bhagvad Gita is about Kirshna convincing Arjun to fight against an army which included some of his teachers and family members? Can you also explain why the many Gods in Hinduism often went to war in the Mahabarath?
Just to clarify. Islam does not preach turning the other cheek, it preaches;
“Fight in the path of God those who fight you, but do not aggress. Surely God does not love the aggressors. And fight them where you come upon them, and send them out from where they have sent you out, for persecution is a worse thing than fighting. And do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque (in Mecca) unless they fight you there, but if they fight you, then fight them back. That is the reward of the rejectors. Then if they cease, so God is All-Forgiving, Gentle. And fight them until there is no more persecution and the religion is for God. But if they cease, so let there be no hostility except against wrongdoers”. – Qur’an 2:190-193
Do not fight those who join a folk with whom you have a treaty, or they come to you with their breasts constricted against fighting you or fighting their own folk. And if only God had willed, He could have given them an authority over you so they would have fought you. So if they stand aloof and do not fight you, and they speak a word of peace, then God has not given you a way against them. – Qur’an 4:90
Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. (5:32)
. . . and you will find the nearest in love to the believers (Muslims) those who say: ‘We are Christians.’ That is because amongst them are priests and monks, and they are not proud.” Qur’an 5:82
And if they incline to peace, so you must incline to it. And trust in God, for He hears and knows all. – Qur’an 8:61
God does not forbid that you do good and make justice for those who do not fight you in the religion or drive you out from your homes. Indeed, God loves those who do justice. God only forbids your friendship with those who fight you in the religion and drive you out from your homes and back those who drive you out. And who befriends them, such are wrongdoers. – Qur’an 60:8-9