Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Gods of War

Book Review: The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict? by Meic Pearse (InterVarsity Press, 2007)

The standard atheist catechisms all make the claim at some point that "religion is the cause of all wars and the greatest motivation for violence". To an increasingly large number of people, whose ignorance of history is almost total, this sounds like a convincing claim. To give this claim a patina of historical respectability, the Crusades and the Inquisition are usually mentioned (darkly) with the assumption that no more need be said because the claim has been proved. Of course, the real thesis being advanced by such claims is that violence is caused by people believing in things as absolutely true and that the way to avoid war and violence is to adopt skepticism. Historian Meic Pearse finds this claim to be incredible and sets out to discredit it over the course of his book.
Pearse's argument does not involve the claim that Christians are completely innocent of violence and have had no involvement with warfare. Rather, he aims to show that the atheist catechism has a far too simplified view of history.
Looking back at the twentieth century, Pearse notes that the most destructive wars in human history have been caused not by religious faith but by the lack of it. It was the explicitly godless regimes driven by communist or fascist ideologies which engaged in destructive wars and genocidal campaigns. While many factors were involved, two are worth noting. These ideologies explicitly rejected the Christian notion of a dignity which applies to each person. Because Hitler, Stalin and Mao were out to "save" humankind they could justify huge injustices and endless brutality against individuals. Also, these ideologies denied Christianity but elevated the state to the level of a divinity--this meant that anything might be justified "for the good of the state". Christian cultures have always seen the state as limited in its claims since political authority was circumscribed by authority of God.
Pearse devotes some time to examining the causes of war throughout history and what he finds is interesting. In the ancient world, we know of no empire that conquered to spread its religion. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians and Romans all had quite secular motives for their conquests: the expansion of territory, enhanced security, trade and glory. While these empires would say that their gods favored empire, religion was not the actual cause of imperial designs. Much the same is true of the medieval period. Most medieval warfare was connected with fairly mundane matters such as dynastic succession and territorial expansion. Christian rulers might occasionally use Christianity to justify their actions but their actions did not really spring from religious motivations. This is true even of the Crusades which were finally a series of unsuccessful defensive wars against Muslim expansion into Europe (in 1529 the Ottoman Turks laid siege to Vienna). While the Crusades are hardly a glorious episode in the history of the Church, it is incorrect to picture them as archetypal "religious wars".
For Christianity, the problems arise not from the nature of the faith itself (as the atheists claim) but from the link being made between nation and the faith, when God becomes the "tribal god" of the nation. Pearse provides three case studies which demonstrate the ill effects which follow the identification of a nation as a "Christian nation", Serbia, Russia and England. In each of these cases, he shows how Christianity was used to give a patina of righteousness to what were essentially nationalistic and secular motives. The problem is not that Christianity is a violent faith which by its very nature involves war and conquest but that churches have allowed themselves to used to sanctify and justify war.
Pearse then enters into a discussion of how Christians might be involved in war. He rejects both pacifism and just war theory as being problematic. Pacifism inevitably leaves the innocent to be killed or savaged by the brutal and just war theory can not be applied in any coherent way to modern warfare. For Pearse, Christians may legitimately engage in war only to protect the innocent and to secure justice. The one thing they must never do is fight to "defend" Christianity. In this sense, Christiantiy differs markedly from Islam. For Pearse, Christians must never claim that they are fighting a "holy war," a war on behalf on God or the faith because such a war is not a defense of the Gospel but a complete denial of it.
In the final chapter of the book, entitled "The Relentless War Against Faith and Meaning" Pearse argues that the greatest cause of war in our own time is not religion but secular global capitalism. Wherever it spreads, it destroys traditional cultures and drives people to violence because their whole framework of meaning is under threat. This in no way justifies terrorism but it does remind us that while we may see the export of industrialized democracy as the greatest of goods, most people in traditional cultures would not agree. For Pearse, there must be a clear separation between American foreign policy and the mission of the Church because the two are not the same thing nor are they aimed as similar goals.
Is religion the primary cause of violent conflict? Certainly not and the reality may be that secular culture actually fill this role. But this does not get Christians completely off the hook for we have to guard against idolatry--against the tendency of turning the Father of Jesus Christ into the tribal god of our nation and its goals.

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