Religious differences instigate a great deal of political conflict and violence. So say the New Atheists — a group of popular writers including Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (1). Yet many of the major world religions present themselves as religions of peace. So which view is correct?
One answer can be derived from how religious texts portray violence. Another approach is to examine the historical role of religion in violence and warfare.
Does the Bible glorify violence?
It is appropriate to look at the primary religious text of Christians, because this religion bills itself explicitly as a religion of peace more than most others.
So how does the Bible stack up? If it were a movie rather than a book, it would be rated “R” for violence. It is not just that warfare and explicit violence are recurrent themes. Even more striking is the implicit approval of homicidal acts.
The well-known story of David and Goliath’s duel sets the tone of many other biblical depictions of violence. Having stunned his opponent with a stone from his slingshot David gained the upper hand. At this point he might have disarmed his opponent and claimed victory. Instead, he opted to hack off Goliath’s head with his own sword.
What does this mean? To begin with, the commandment “thou shalt not kill” clearly does not apply to military opponents. Moreover, in a battlefield situation, it is advisable to press home an advantage. Do not give Goliath the chance to wake up and come after you. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the David and Goliath story is that the authors saw no contradiction between approving David’s conduct and disapproving of murder.
This apparent contradiction is resolved by assuming that members of in-groups are treated much better than members of out-groups. Such distinctions are ethically problematic but they are perfectly understandable in a world of continual tribal conflicts where each group is in danger of being destroyed by opponents. So the Bible opposes killing members of the in-group but is in favor of unrestrained aggression in warfare, and celebrates the bloodthirsty victories of various Israeli kings over tribal enemies.
Religion and warfare in history
Throughout recent history the martial function of religion was similar. A common faith served as a rallying cry in wars. This martial role of religion is very obvious for Muslims with their war cry of “Allah akbar” (God is great) and for Christians with their bellicose hymns such as “Onward Christian soldiers.” It is ironic that each of these religions bills itself as a religion of peace. Yet, Christians and Muslims between them are responsible for many of the large-scale wars and foreign invasions of the past millennium. One thinks of the Islamic Ottoman empire expanding over north Africa or the European empires conquering territory all over the globe. Typically, any pacifism was directed to co-religionists. Heathens, or infidels, were treated very differently. Ultimately, conflicts amongst Christian nations launched two world wars, giving them a decided edge in blood letting over every other world religion.
Although religion can be used as a means of rallying the troops, there is nothing peculiar about religion in this respect. Hitler was raised a Christian, for example, but he chose to invoke race rather than religion as a way of stirring up hostility at home and launching foreign invasions. Stalin, another formidable 20th-century butcher likely had no religion in the formal sense. Yet, he accomplished a high level of belligerence by invoking class warfare rather than racial conflict or religion.
Moreover, many conflicts that are billed as religious wars are really nothing of the sort. When Catholics and Protestants fought in Northern Ireland, their true cause of conflict was not their religious belief system but the fact that Catholics had less opportunity of obtaining jobs and lived in sub standard housing. Similarly, many of the conflicts in the Middle East are not so much religious wars as competition over land, oil, or other resources.
Most world religions are quite jingoistic as opposed to small pacifist groups, such as the Quakers. The strongest proponents of world peace are secular developed nations rather than religious countries and they donate more money to poor countries (2).
Religion is rarely the intrinsic cause of conflict and explicitly religious wars, such as the medieval Crusades are rare. Nations that adhere to religions of peace may be fond of smiting their enemies but they generally do so only if there is some practical benefit to be gained.
1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/
2. Zuckerman, P. (2008). Society without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment. New York: New York University Press.