Thursday, February 27, 2014

Are All or Most Wars Caused by Religion?

The problem with facts is that they interfere with our prejudices. Even given the intentional nature by which facts are obtained and shared, the most blatant prejudices quickly fall by the impact of even one well-chosen pebble of a fact.

The prejudice that I have in mind showed up in a recent Catholic weekly: “The Western secularists’ protest – that all the trouble in the world is caused by religion – seems to be confirmed by every headline.”  Evidence is cited from Syria, Iraq, much of the Middle East, parts of Europe, and Africa. Gladly, the modern world has also been drawn more and more towards a Western model of civic peace. “It is not in the fundamental nature of either mainstream Christianity or Islam nowadays to want to prevail by force, and the leaderships of virtually all faiths pay more than lip service to the principle of toleration.” The backlash to fundamentalism (e.g., in Egypt) has begun to become more pronounced, and those involved in such counter-movements “do not necessarily want less religion; they want the best it has to offer.” (The Tablet – 1 Feb, 2014, pg. 2)

That is a good and fine distinction to make. Religion is a wide-ranging, universal word that like a sponge will absorb whatever personally significant liquid lies nearby. Religion deals with meaning, mystery, and me. The shape of religion emerges from how a community of “me” individuals becomes “we” and builds or expresses itself. Grace is built on nature and works through nature. Religion engages the desire and capacity for “more” in people at a depth and breadth that really does require the balancing influence of a community, like rough rocks polished over time in a revolving drum. More wacky people live alone, physically and/or psychologically, than live in a caring community.

Today, there is a wacky me-based danger that an independent, generic secularism will become our de facto religion, whereby any formal “religion” is seen as a uniformly bad thing, and an individualized “spirituality” reigns supreme.  “The unofficial anthem of secularism today is John Lennon’s Imagine, in which we are encouraged to imagine a world without religion. We don’t have to imagine such a world; the 20th century has given us horrific examples of such worlds. Instead of a world living in peace because it is without religion, why not imagine a world without nation states? … There are, obviously, individuals and groups who still misuse religion as a reason for violent behaviour, but modern nation states don’t need religion as an excuse for going to war. Every major war in the last 300 years has been fought by nation states, not by the church…. The state apparatus for investigating civilians now is far more extensive than anything dreamed up by the Spanish Inquisition, although both were created to serve the same purpose: to preserve a government’s public ideology and control of society, whether based on religion or on modern constitutional order.” (Cardinal Francis George)

Now for that interesting pebble of fact: The 2004 Encyclopedia of Wars, a reference work written by two professors of history, chronicles 1,763 wars over the course of recorded human history. Of those, the authors attribute 123 wars as being religiously-based (<7%). And when those waged in the name of one religion (Islam) are removed, that number is reduced to 57 wars (3.28 %). (Cf.

All wars are finally a smear on human nature, especially those that are waged for exclusively religious reasons. Wars may not be evidence of our best, but they certainly evidence our worst (AKA "sin"). But to blame all or most wars on religion blithely ignores the important pebbles of fact that lie within close reach.