Can we please drop the debate about religion causing war?

The whole religion causes violence (and specifically large-scale violence between social groups, or war) argument has always irritated me because it implies that it is somehow possible to separate the religious aspect of one’s identity from the rest of that identity. I don’t deny that the way in which people represent their place in the world and their relationships to the rest of humanity can lead to violence and conflict, but I don’t think there is anything special about religion in this context. Granted that religion is often a massive part of identities which become part of the justification for war, for instance in the Balkans, but the few hundred years of secular society we have to draw examples from don’t exactly indicate that non-religious identities are less prone to violence. People of the same religion also often fight each other, and these conflicts can also shape the identities of the groups involved. For example, just look at the way in which the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 – a war between two nominally secular and predominantly Protestant nations – was recently celebrated (yeah, celebrating war is fine apparently).

Like democratic peace theory (which I wrote about here) the religion causes war argument often relies on defining terms so that they suit the proponent’s position. For example, Stalin is often presented as someone who have killed in the name of atheism as a counterexample to people killing in the name of religion. Atheists dispute this by either arguing that he wasn’t actually atheist, or that he killed in the name of communism not atheism. However Marxist-Leninism as an ideology is explicitly atheist – so killing priests and bishops is not just a political action against the power of the church but an action to free the people from the shackles of religious thought. A more nuanced argument is that in this context Stalin’s ideology is effectively a religion, but this smacks of a circular argument – religious ideology causes violence so if your ideology is violent it must be religious,  even if you explicitly say it is anti-religious. Another sort of argument which is like those used to defend democratic peace theory is to list all the horrific acts in history which could be called “religious” and say “look, there’s way more of these than secular or atheist ones” while not acknowledging that from a historical perspective the extent of secular/atheist thought is miniscule so of course there are less examples to draw on.

Another point which I don’t see raised often in these arguments is the place of those cases where religion causes peace.When I was researching my Masters thesis in Bougainville for instance I often heard from people there about the vital role church groups played in bringing warring factions together to negotiate peace terms. This was in a conflict which was sparked by resources and ethno-nationalism and later became a complex mix of inter-tribal violence, but where all concerned parties were Christian, and even where they were different sects of Christianity that meant nothing in the context of the war there. Other examples are the Latin American Council of Churches being actively involved in peace programmes in Colombia and Guatemala, Desmond Tutu in Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa, Muslim peace activists in America, and the work of conflict negotiator, academic, and Christian, John Paul Lederach. I could go on, but I’m guessing you’ve got the point now. Religious doctrine can just as easily lead to peace as war, so why focus on the negative side of it?

I recently perused some parts of a book called “The Myth of Religious Violence” by a Christian theologian called William T Cavanaugh. I enjoyed what I read because it articulated a lot of ideas I personally had about this subject. For a start he talks about how hard it is to define religion anyway, and that before the enlightenment the dichotomy between religious and secular did not exist and thus all arguments must be made in the context of Western thought from the enlightenment onwards, and then he goes on to argue that the debate about religion causing violence serves to legitimate the violence used by secular Western governments while deligitimating the violence used by other, non-secular groups (specifically Muslims). An article by him here summarises the book quite nicely. Here’s quote from it:

The myth of religious violence helps create a blind spot about the violence of the putatively secular nation-state. We like to believe that the liberal state arose to make peace between warring religious factions. Today, the Western liberal state is charged with the burden of creating peace in the face of the cruel religious fanaticism of the Muslim world. The myth of religious violence promotes a dichotomy between us in the secular West who are rational and peacemaking, and them, the hordes of violent religious fanatics in the Muslim world. Their violence is religious, and therefore irrational and divisive. Our violence, on the other hand, is rational, peacemaking, and necessary. Regrettably, we find ourselves forced to bomb them into the higher rationality.

I don’t deny that people who are explicitly religious sometimes commit violence for explicitly religious reasons, but to say that religious thought leads to violence, or even that religious worldviews have a tendency to be more violent than secular ones, is to take very complex sets of data and find the conclusion that you wanted. This is especially true when talking about large-scale violence or war – such events are the outcome of many different factors which include the  geographical, the historical, and the socio-cultural. Identity undeniably plays a huge part in this and for much of the world religion is a crucial part of identity, so of course we would expect it to be called upon as a reason for violence. However to focus only upon the religious aspects of identity is to obscure the deeper questions about how and why certain groups feel the need to commit violence against others.

By constantly rehashing the debate about the link between religion and war we risk discounting other factors from our explanations of violence at large scales. At a practical level too, the constant promotion of the idea that religion leads to war may risk excluding religious groups from negotiating peace terms and working towards reconciliation between conflicting factions. Finally, it risks creating a new framework where secularism, and to a lesser extent atheism, becomes something which because it is considered more peaceful can be violently promoted around the globe. Please, can we just drop this debate? There is no obvious clear link and the search for one is dangerously distorting of the way in which we view humanity, by splitting it into the enlightened, peaceful atheists and the deluded violent theists.Even if this is not what atheists are seeking to do such oppositional thinking will only serve to fuel fundamentalism as it aims to defend itself against the perceived attack of secularism.

If people really want to help create a more peaceful world they should seek to develop a social space where all beliefs and identities are respected and included, and where violence is condemned no matter what the cause. To say that any belief system is better than any other not only smacks of cultural imperialism but also just serves to deepen divisions and create more conflict.

Note: In case you’re wondering I don’t identify as either atheist or religious.


8 responses to “Can we please drop the debate about religion causing war?

  • NotAScientist

    The problem is this: most religions have writings that say the followers should kill certain people.

    Atheism doesn’t have that.

    Thus…some religions cause wars. It’s that simple.

    • fromthefourthcorner

      I disagree. While there are statements in religious teachings which might be interpreted to mean that there are plenty which say just the opposite: “Thou shalt not kill” or “turn the other cheek” for example. Maybe some religions explictly say followers should kill certain people but to say most is a bit of a stretch, especially if you are linking that to wars. Religion developed to function as a social control and moral guide so often the times when it may say it is ok to kill is self-defense or capital punishment which are both things which plenty of non-religious people agree with.
      The problem isn’t what religions say, its how people interpret it. As mentioned in my post, plenty of religious people and groups work actively for peace so to say that religion necessarily causes violence is wrong, and if it doesn’t necessarily then why does it sometimes? I would say because it creates an “us and them” mentality which non-religious value systems such as nationalism also do (see my post about why I don’t like nation-states a few pages back for my thoughts on that). Therefore if secular/atheist thinkers actively try to stop religion because they think it leads to violence then it reinforces the feelings of persecution the religious believers might have and can lead to conflict as well. Identities which are exclusionary and can be mobilised for political means lead to war, and religion is just one way in which this can happen, but there is nothing special about it in this sense. Like I said nationalist, as well as ethnic and tribal, identities also do the same thing. Sure, religion is often a part of these but different nationalities with the same religion fight each other and there are national identities which are not religiously based – North Korea for example.

      • NotAScientist

        “While there are statements in religious teachings which might be interpreted to mean that there are plenty which say just the opposite”

        “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18) is pretty unambiguous.

      • fromthefourthcorner

        But how many people kill witches today? Doesn’t that just prove that people pick and choose which bits they follow?
        I also fail to see how that is fundamentally different to modern nation-states implementing death penalties for treason – in both cases people who are perceived as being threats to social stability can be justifiably killed. Not that I’m agreeing with either of them but as I said religion used to be a way of managing social interactions, now law does the same thing. Both say “don’t kill” except in specific cases – usually in response to a perceived threat, however illogical that may seem to an outsider. Murder is illegal in the USA but that didn’t stop it invading Iraq and causing thousands of civilian deaths, to pick one obvious example.

      • Glenn

        Violent people have always found excuses to justify their violence in the pursuit of power. These kind of people aren’t really concerned with the religious implications of their wars, just the image that it confers to the people they want to control. If a society is religious it stands to reason that war-mongers will appeal to religious ideology to get the population behind them. In the absense of religion they would use whatever other popular social constructs are available to achieve the same ends. As you mentioned, pretty much the only reason we don’t have more historical examples of violent acts perpetrated by secular societies is that secular societies are a relatively recent phenomoenon, but one only needs to look at examples such as Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge to see that that data set is getting bigger all the time.

      • fromthefourthcorner

        Yeah, it’s basically putting the cart before the horse to say that religion causes violence. The funny thing is from that what I’ve seen the arguments that people usually have against it are often quite weak – the size of the historical data set and the numerous cases of religious people and groups actively seeking peace are sounder arguments against the idea than the examples of Pol Pot and Stalin are, just because there are always people who counter-argue that those guys actually were religious however flimsy the evidence may be. Cases in point: and,_Mao_Zedong_and_Pol_Pot. Whereas to point out that plenty of religious people have sought peace and social justice in the face of violence and war cuts to the heart of the issue, at least in my opinion. It shows just how any ideological position can be used for good or bad. Going off on a tangent slightly, but that’s why I’m sceptical about ideologies. I would rather practical solutions to specific problems than grand theories about how to right every wrong in the world, because such theories lead to people who think they are absolutely right and just and that’s dangerous. Atheism can be a part of an ideology as much as religion can be, as the example of Marxist-Leninism shows. There’s just been less time for ideologies containing atheism as a fundamental point to develop than religious ones.

  • Matt On China

    Hi Dylan, thanks for your interest in my blog. I enjoyed reading your well-considered article on this issue, but I hope you don’t mind me saying that I don’t quite agree with all of your arguments.

    You say “At a practical level too, the constant promotion of the idea that religion leads to war may risk excluding religious groups from negotiating peace terms and working towards reconciliation between conflicting factions.” To this I would say that it is the doctrines of religious texts that prevent any form of negotiation or compromise. When people believe they are acting in the name of God, there is simply no room for their actions to be challenged. Of course conflicts arise outside the realm of religion, but I feel there is greater scope for reconciliation in these cases because the competing points of view are not immutable.

    “If people really want to help create a more peaceful world they should seek to develop a social space where all beliefs and identities are respected and included, and where violence is condemned no matter what the cause.” I agree with you here, but I’m afraid I can’t see any possibility of such a situation if conflicting religious tenets are to be so rigorously upheld. The situation you describe would entail a pretty drastic overhaul of religion as we know it.

    Anyway, thanks again for stopping by, and keep up the good work here!

    • fromthefourthcorner

      I understand what you are saying but I think the problem is fundamentalism rather than religion and fundamentalism can manifest in non-religious ideologies as well. To take Islam as an example, while you have manifestations of fundamentalism such as the Taliban you also have the fact that in the Middle Ages Moorish Spain was the most liberal and tolerant part of Europe. Interpretations of religion rather than religion itself is often the issue. There are plenty of examples of religious people and groups today who are open and respectful of others’ beliefs and opinions too. I still maintain that the problem is people believing they are absolutely right and that religion does not necessarily lead to that, nor is it the only form of belief that does. I also believe that blaming someone’s beliefs makes it more likely they will follow those beliefs fundamentally, so blaming religion for violence only makes religious people more fundamentalist in many cases. The same thing happens with nationalists – tell them that their nationalism is the cause of conflict and they will only get more patriotic.
      I agree it won’t be easy to create a social space like the one I describe there but I do honestly believe that the closer we can get to such a model the more peaceful the world will be. Of course there are numerous problems with it, such as balancing cultural relativity with ideas of universal rights (I think debates about the rightness of circumcision, for instance, fall into this category) but as a goal to work to I think its worth aiming for!

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