Monday, 9 June 2008

Is religion a primary cause of war?

Many thanks to Chris Tilling for the following book. My review was first published on his blog here. Details: Meich Pearse, The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict? (Nottingham: IVP), 2007.

The current spout of religious warfare has generated a more vigorous secular critique of the religious worldview as inherently violent. Pearse reports that an opinion poll in Britain in late 2006 indicated that 82 % of adults “see religion as a cause of division and tension between people. Only 16 % disagree” (14). This is a sentiment expressed both in the media and amongst Western intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins, Anthony Grayling, and Sam Harris. In response to this misrepresentation, Meic Pearse has taken it upon himself to demonstrate historically that wars are multi-causal and complex, and are motivated by all ideologies, secularist as well as religious. His book attempts to substantiate four main arguments:

1.Irreligion has produced wars far worse and far bloodier than religion.
2.We must distinguish between belligerent and non-belligerent religion.
3.Cultures enshrine religion, and wars fought for one often appear as being fought for the other.
4.The global secularist campaign against religion and traditional cultures (as supposedly violent) is already and will continue to be productive of the most ferocious violence.

The first chapter opens with the truism that the 20th Century was the bloodiest century of all. The key question is whether this massive bloodshed was simply a result of more developed technology or whether it is connected with the prevailing secular ideologies of the time. Pearse illustrates how within the ideologies of the key thinkers of Communism, Fascism and the French Revolution, human life was considered expendable for the sake of the attainment of a particular abstract ideal, an understanding of “the grand scheme of things.” Within these secular creeds, the end not only justified the means of its attainment, it defined what it meant to be human. “People” had no intrinsic value grounded in the imago dei, rather they were a theoretical construct to which the “facts” must conform. This attitude, combined with technology, has had catastrophic consequences.

Not that religion can be excused. Chapter two looks at the question of religion as a cause of war. Religion is defined as “an interconnected system of beliefs and/or practices rooted in the numinous or spiritual world that gives meaning to the lives of those who embrace them or have been reared in them” (22). Yet when we try to analyse concrete historical examples, we are faced with the complexity of their causes. Were the Jewish revolts of the first century religious or political? How about the druids in Roman Britain? Christianity was peaceful for the first 300 years of its existence, and then became bloody from 330 A.D. An overview of the wars of the Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Mongols, French and Americans indicates that more mundane factors such as greed, security, booty, glory, territory and nationalism were the predominant factors rather than religion.

More clear cut cases are the subject of chapter three. Islam, in contrast to Christianity, was “cradled in war.” Pearce outlines its history of violence and notes that it shares a teleology or dynamic with communism: universal, this-wordly rule. In dividing the world between dar al harb (“sphere of war,” i.e. the non-Muslim world) and dar al Islam (“sphere of Islam”), the price of peace becomes submission to Islam. Christianity, on the other hand, had a different beginning and ideology. It has no equivalent of the Muslim ummah, the believers whose life must be expressed as a political entity. Though the Crusades were no less violent, Pearce argues that their causes are more “mixed.” Indeed, the undefined frontier of Europe has always been a source of war, regardless of the religious affiliation of each side. In a sense, war between East and West seems inevitable.

Chapter four offers an historical analysis of wars in which the situation is far more ambiguous. The English and American civil wars, the conquests of South America, the conflicts between the Orthodox church and the Ottoman empire. Often cultural identities are enshrined by a religion, so that a challenge to this identity leads to an increase in religious intensity. Often, religion functions as a morally convenient cloak for another cause. In the end, religion in inseparable from cultural, social and political issues.

The following two chapters look in detail and a particularly insidious mix of politics and religion: religious-national myths. In the cases of Serbia, Russia and England, the nation is deified and rendered immune to criticism.

So what causes war? Chapter seven offers a historical overview. In ancient times religion was hardly significant. The key issue was was access to property in the form of livestock, food, slaves, land and women. When religion was present, it often functioned as a restraint on war, as the fall of the Roman Empire, the medieval papacy and the Islamic umma indicate. For Pearse, it wasn't until the rise of popular rule that religion became a major factor in creating conflict. When loyalty to an absolute ruler is not enough to acquire popular support for a conflict, reference to an abstract principle that generates both group identity and enthusiasm is necessary. Religion becomes a handy framework of meaning to meet these needs.

This is, more or less, what Marxists have always said, and so Pearce draws on their arguments in chapter 8. Though for the first 300 years Christianity was spread by persuasion, the moment it was adopted as the meta-narrative of the state, the sanctification of that state's wars is inevitable. Marx helps us uncover the real aspirations that undergird a state's use of religious language: namely economics and politics. This can be seen in the transformation that Christian doctrine underwent from the time of Eusebius onwards, through the Middle Ages and into the Reformation, as various states adopted varieties of the religion for its own purposes. The same pattern, claims Pearse, can be seen in other religions.

Chapter 9 furthers these arguments by demonstrating that both historically and theologically the church was never intended to form the basis of a political order. When that has occurred, the church has strayed from its roots and a belligerent form of Christianity is the result. It wasn't until the Anabaptists, with their insistence on the split between the state and church, that a situation similar to that of the early church was rediscovered after the “Constantinian” development. In addition to this, the pluralistic political developments in the modern era have helped create a situation in which the church can stop trying to do that for which it was not designed—running society—and get back to it's original function: guiding individual lives. Today, though there is still an inner-ecclesial debate concerning pacifism, it is universally agreed upon that when war is waged, it cannot be fought to spread the faith.

So, can a Christian fight at all? Pearce doesn't provide an easy answer, as to do so is to sanitize war. War is an insoluble dilemma and neither pacifism nor theories of just war can adequately deal with it. Both arguments are analysed for their strengths and weaknesses, and Martin Luther King and Bonhoeffer are drawn on as role models. The solution: in war there is none, neither in theory or practice. The best we can do is take moral responsibility for our own actions and to keep those decisions conscious. No general or king can do that for us.

Pearse ends with a glance at our contemporary situation. In his final chapter, “The War Against Faith and Meaning,” he points out that apart from greed a principle cause of war is conflict over the shape of society. The principled irreligion of the West, spread through globalization, in which meaning itself is held to be the problem and thus must be banished, is an “absolutizing relativism” that is itself a cause of violence. Rather than being a universal pancea, the attempt to eliminate difference both inside and outside the West is just another unattainable utopianism which produces violence through its intolerance. The only real solution to world peace is genuine tolerance, which can accept different kinds of polity and the cultural spaces that make them possible. “And to that end, Christians, who know from Scripture and from their own painful, error ridden past that their faith is not a basis for governing society as a whole but a private choice and a transcendent calling, have far, far more to contribute than most” (207).

I thoroughly enjoyed this read and can recommend it to all. Whether one agrees with his construal of Christianity or not, this informative and eloquent book provides us with important categories for entering an important debate.

Update: Halden has posted a book review on a similar topic: Ramachandra's Subverting Global Myths. Looks well worth checking out. Here's an interesting quote:
“Consider the following analogy. Given the universality of sexual experience, it is hardly surprising that this powerful human drive should also be the site of rape, pedophilia, bestiality, genital mutilation and other grotesque acts. most of us woudl regard these acts as twisted perversions of a healthy and important part of our human identity and flourishing. (Indeed, we have been taught by feminists that rape is primarily about power, not sexual pleasure.) Why not apply the same reasoning to religious faiths? Given the universality of religious experience, it is hardly surprising that certain acts of grotesque violence should not only occur in religious communities but be imbued with religious meanings and justification.” (p. 79)


James Pate said...

Shattering some politically-correct myths there, eh, Philip?

Phil Sumpter said...

Probably. In what sense?

James Pate said...

Oh, what I got out of it was that Christians are not the cause of all wars. That differs from the usual line of "Thousands of lives have been lost in the name of Christ," a common attempt to put down religion.

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