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Friday, 22 March 2013

A Myth of Reason?

Recently I read an article that repeated one of those modern myths that seems to have gained traction in the minds of many. It states simply that all the wars in history have been 'caused' by religion. The author claimed that 'reason' as opposed to 'religious superstition' would have avoided, among others, the two world wars. According to those that push this line, every war is religious in origin. In a recent debate - if that is the right word - with someone from the atheist camp on this subject, I was reminded, yet again, that Hitler was a Roman Catholic, Stalin a failed Russian Orthodox monk and Mao Tse Tung had followed Buddhism. "Proof" according to my interlocutor, that religion motivated them to commit the atrocities and excesses that led to millions of deaths.

Of course, he was right. Hitler was raised a Roman Catholic, Stalin was a novice in an Orthodox seminary, Mao was a follower of Confucionism rather than Buddhism and there are many more examples of truly horrendous psychopaths who followed a religious path. My challenge to my friend was to show me what part of the teachings of the religions of confessions concerned, taught these men (and there are one or two women as well) to do what they did. They may have been raised in these religions, but they did not practice what they were taught, nor did they live the life these religions encourage. Hitler famously told a questioner that, because he had been raised a Roman Catholic, he knew exactly how to twist them round his fingers, and Stalin certainly followed the same pattern. Having first closed churches all over Russia and the Soviet Union, he re-opened them when he needed to convince the populace that the war - which he'd helped Hitler precipitate - was a'righteous' one. Yes, these men certainly knew how to play the religious card, but not one of them actually practiced what the religions teach. Can Hitler or Stalin be called a "Christian"? I would argue that the answer to that is an emphatic no.

As the Bible says, "By their fruits you will know them."

That, of course led to an exposition of the Crusades as an example of how Christianity has "always" used war to spread its message. Yes, the Crusades were a "religious war", and they were a response to the invasions from the Arabian peninsula of the Islamic armies. The Middle East and North Africa were largely Christian when Mohammad's followers began their invasions against the Byzantine rulers of these areas. From roughly 700 AD to 1000 AD they overthrew and subjugated one province of the Byzantine Empire after another. Their renowned 'tolerance' is a chimera used today to 'prove' that the Christians were 'barbarous' and the Arabs 'enlightened.' The 'tolerance' was a token. You could hold to your Christian faith, but paid a premium tax, your land could be seized, your servants could be removed if they converted to Islam, since no 'Unbeliever' may hold a position over 'Believers' and even the recitation of the Christian Creed could lead to a charge of blasphemy. Belatedly Western Christians decided to act - but, because the East didn't acknowledge the claims of the Pope to sole headship of the Church, Catholic and Apostolic, tried to act alone. Yes, this was a war of 'spreading the word' and like most such ungodly acts, it failed disasterously.

So what of the rest of the wars since the Crusades? Was the American War of Independence religiously inspired? Was the French Revolution? The Napoleonic Wars? The Franco-Prussian war? The Anglo-Boer Wars? What about Queen Victoria's 'Little Wars' to suppress the slave trade, promote the sale of heroine to China or the Boxer Rebellion? What, indeed, of the American Civil War? I was somewhat astonished by the assertion that 'religion played a key part in all of them.' Really? Naturally I asked for an explanation, since my understanding of the history of all these conflicts is obviously in some way flawed.

I understood that the American colonists rebelled over the stupidity of the British administration's insistence on the shipping back to Britain of all raw materials and the purchase of the finished goods by the colonists from British manufacturies. Few know that there were laws forbidding the colonists from making their own tools, or processing the cotton and tobacco they produced. There was no 'religious' motivation on the British side, it was all about vested interests and profit. Likewise the French Revolution, the motivation was not religious - unless one can count the atheist leaders of it as 'religious' - but about the abuses of the ruling class and the desire for more freedom and a fairer society. Ironically the roots of the Revolutionary ideals lay in the American War of Independence and the ideas brought back by French troops sent to aid the Americans against the British. The French involvement there was certainly not 'religious' - it was pure commercial advantage they were after.

The Revolution (like the Russian one a century or so later) quickly descended into a bloodbath. Napoleon rose to power as a result of it, and famously snatched the crown from the Pope's hands placing it on his own head. Was he 'religious' or motivated by 'religion'? I suspect Napoleon would regard you with astonishment of you suggested it. Like most wars, it was about trade and wealth from there on. Control access to markets and you control trade, control trade and, as they say, the world is your oyster.

The Crimean War was fought to prevent the Russian expansion - which threatened British and French trade interests in the Middle and Far East, so no 'religious' overtones there. The Franco-Prussian War was about who dominated Europe, France or Prussia. Even the British Civil War, though there was a 'religious' cloak to it, was really about who wielded power over the land, the King or Parliament, the political class or the nobility. Yes, the religion certainly provided the protaganists with plenty of "justification" for their un-Christian activities, but to claim that the war was 'caused' by religion is ridiculous.

I will concede that religion often plays a part in any conflict, but to make a sweeping statement that it 'causes' wars is silly. Most wars are about power, wealth, territory or political ideology. The two Anglo-Boer Wars were about territory and access to the wealth of the Gold Reef, nothing more. The 'little' wars in Africa and one or two other places, were also about access to raw materials, markets for finished goods or power. What part did religion play in the First or Second World War I asked. "Ah! Declared my friend, both sides told everyone 'God was on their side.'" He went on to remind me that the German Wehrmacht troops had "Gott mit uns" on their belt buckles. So they did, but what did he expect? This was a hangover from the days of the Kaisers.

The churches in any nation are there to provide comfort and support to those in need, the poor, the downtrodden and the bereaved. As the Stalinist period showed, if they fall foul of the regime and are closed - they cannot do what the Gospel tells us is their function. What, I asked him, did he think of the fact that many priests, ministers and ordinary people defied the regime - some, like Bonhoeffer - paying the ultimate price for their efforts.

Digging deeper into the history of Europe, one could point to the Thirty Years War or even the Hundred Years War. What was the 'religious' motivation for these? In short, once again, when examined closely both were about who held what territory and wielded what power - religion was, once again, a cloak for a deeper political agenda.

I find, having looked closely at the facts, religion is often invoked as a cloak for some ideological ambition on the part of some ruler or another. Almost all of the wars of the Twentieth Century have no religious aspect to them (the exception is the Islam versus everybody campaign against Israel and the Christian West). The two world wars, the cold war and all the little 'hot' wars within that, were straight up ideology. So, unless political ideology has now been elevated to a formal 'religion' the statement that religion alone 'causes' wars is patently and manifestly a falsehood.


  1. Part 1:

    I suspect that I can understand exactly why the Monk's protagonist's thinking allowed him to form the opinions quite rightly criticised above. It would not occur to a pontificating atheist that they were searching for a justification for their own actions, however, I think that is where they lost the logic of rhetoric.

    Allow me to tell an apocryphal amusing tale (no! not the one from Esdras about who is stronger, the King, wine or woman!) to show how simple it is for those with intelligence but not wisdom to tie themselves in knots.

    The place, "somewhere in England", the time 1942: in a hall filled with sky-blue uniforms and gold braid, celluloid overlays representing "flak" damage on British aircraft are being analysed, counted, checked and double-checked and based upon the evidence derived, options for adding protection in the form of armour plating, hardened controls and other state-of-the-art modern magic are being devised, investigated, challenged and fought over.

    The doorman, a lowly AC-III, unfit for combat duty, but serving his country anyway, attempts to talk to one of the officers, he is told to hold his tongue and know his place. He continues to pester until finally a very senior officer enquires what the problem is as a Wing Commander is calling in the Regiment to eject the poor chap. A brief explanation is followed by an order to let the man speak. "Well?" enquired the Air Marshall; "Sir." replied the AC-III, "Sir, these are the aircraft that came back."

    In other words, perhaps we should have been focussing on the areas of the fighter planes that had no flak damage, but the great brains had determined their train of thought as Conan-Doyle would have Holmes say "in advance of the facts."

    Just as the Monk suggests with Stalin opening the Coptic churches during the Barbarossa onslaught, people in time of war look to justify their choices and support their actions. Typically, war is a terrible thing and terrible things are done in almost all wars. We, the British, tend to pretend that we had an army that never shot a prisoner, nor raped a girl in the heated aftermath of battle. Bunkum, all armies have and all armies will continue to do so, albeit less today as the camera is everywhere and modern justice will not condone the traditional "spoils of war." (Unless the actions happen in a Cuban US base... oops!)

  2. Part 2:

    So, to paint the opposition black... good propaganda, "Hitler was a Catholic", great, obviously insanity, syphilis, megalomania bow down before the might of Pius XII. "Stalin was a monk", that explains the Gulag, then; oh, and the salt mines, in fact the entire operation, invented by a monk rather than inherited from the Tzar. The Japanese saw off around 150,000 in Nanking in 1937, probably the true origin of WW-II, and raped virtually every woman , girl and child into the bargain, but then, they had their own God to call on, Hiro-Hito was the "God Emperor".

    If the Monk's protagonist had thought for a moment, he would have found other "justifying" arguments that were better, more informed, but they would be secular. Just as counting bullet-holes blinded the RAF brass, finding a faith based focus in war circumstances is clearly enough to attribute cause and guilt. This person should have joined a proper debating society in his or her youth, although from the recent Oxford Union shenanigans, they are becoming increasingly rare.

    The force of debate and argument is through evidence, rigour, logic and rhetoric, not through emotion, exaggeration and bias.

    Of course "both sides" in WW-II (there were iirc 57 combatant nations, of many and varied faiths, but the statement refers to Germany and Britain) had "Gott mit Uns", in the Christian confession, he is with everyone, Saint or Sinner. In the Islamic world, the "justifying" statement is Allāhu Akbar (الله أكبر). It means literally "God is Great", but it MEANS "I just got away with whatever I did that I shouldn't have done because I said the magic phrase."

    Using religion as a shield in this way is disgraceful and I hope that an eternity of hot coals in uncomfortable places awaits those who do this, Christian, Muslim, Hindu ... (lots of nasty thing happen in India, few hit the news like the recent rape where an iron bar obviously took life and transformed itself into Kali, her tongue protrudes from her mouth, her eyes are red, and her face and breasts are sullied with blood, no gentle Hindu would do such terrible things, but a dark goddess, well, that's alright then... )

    I'll stop now, before I get over heated.