We often hear the claim made that religion has been the cause of all wars, and it is something repeated habitually without sufficient evidence and without much thought. But is it true?
Let us look at the origins of this claim. Until the eighteenth century no one had heard of it, but during the French Revolution it was originally made by Le Metrier, an atheist. He was a revolutionary, and at that time the revolutionaries, who were all atheists, had unleashed an appalling reign of terror against anyone who disagreed with them. Scores were going to the guillotine. Religiious believers were pointing out that the perpetrators of this terror were atheists, and it was not doing much for the reputation of atheism [not that all atheists are murderous savages, in fact few are.] Le Metrier hit back with the claim that religion causes all wars, and it has been repeated uncritically ever since.
Yet Le Metrier did not have an unsullied reptuation for kindness. He launched atheist gangs known as infernal columns, which descended on Catholic villages and ravaged them, destroying churches and engaging in violence against the inhabitants.We have the spectacle here of a seriously violent politican trying to shift the blame onto others by engaging in dishonest propaganda.
So does religion cause all wars? It has had a hand in a few, but not all. The clash between Islam with its jehad and the Christan response, the crusades, is one such, as are the wars of religion in the seventeenth century. But lots of other wars had no religious input whatsoever. What religious input went into the Second World War, or the Falklands war for that matter?The fact that some religious believers were participants does not a cause make. There were atheist participants as well.
We sometimes hear the claim that Hitler was a Christian. He did claim that atheism had been abolished, but he also abolished Christian festivals and replaced them with a potted version of ancient pagan rites. He had long lapsed from Catholicism, but like all dictators he could use religious language when it suited him. A significant number of catholic priests went to concentration camps and death for opposing him, hardly the mark of a Christian. Hitler was backed by the Thule Society, a dark-pagan racist organisation which hated Christianity. These people have nothing to do with modern pagans, who on the whole are very pleasant and cause harm to no one. The Thule Society would not have backed a Christian. Hitler was basically a gangster who spun a web of lies to back up his project. Just as it is wrong to call him a Christian, it is also wrong to call him an atheist.
Wars are caused primarily by greed for wealth and power. Those who wage them look for pretexts, which are really excuses. I suggest that much of the motivation for religious wars was basically a facade, which covered up greed for wealth and power.
Religion can also become mixed up in race and economic issues. Northern Ireland was divided between Catholic and Protestant, but the Protestants were primarily of British origin and the Catholics of Gaelic descent. It was a war about economic inequalitiesand discrimination against the Gaelic Irish community, mainly Catholic, more than religion.
The psychologist Gordon Allport identified two modes of belief that run through all belief systems. These are extrinsic and instrinsic belief. Intrinsic believers value a belief system because they think it true and good, and Allport thinks that in general such people show evidence of positive attitudes. Extrinsic believers value a belief system as a support for a system of wealth and power. An example of this aberration would be those churches who searched the Bible to find justification for mistreating black people and twisted the texts to do it. This aberration was found in certain protestant groups in the Southern USA. Allport finds evidence of negative attitudes, such as prejudice and intolerance among extrinsic believers. It seems that the difference is not primarily between belief and unbelief, but between sincere belief and insincere belief.
So religion does not cause all wars, it merely has an input into some of them; but I suggest that the religious input is in many cases a pretext to justify false claims.
The Twilight of Atheism: the rise and fall of disbelief in the modern world Alistair McGrath, Random house 2006
The Religious Context of Prejudice, Gordon Allport, cited in Personality and Religion, edited by Sadler, Forum Books, London 1970
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