Q: But isn’t religion the root of all evil? Part 1

Graham Veale
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A: Well, the New Atheists would certainly like to think so. If religion was relatively harmless all their rage would look rather foolish. They need some excuse to justify all those blogs and books, so they insist that blind faith causes wars.

Q: You’re avoiding the question: is religion dangerous?

A: It can be. So can art, when it’s turned into propaganda. So can science, in the service of warmongers. So can trade when it puts profits ahead of people and marriages when they become abusive. It seems more sensible to say that “humans are dangerous.” After all, marriage, religion, science, art and trade are all human practices.

Q: But isn’t religion particularly dangerous because it depends on blind faith?

A: There are a lot of religions out there. For Christians the question is “does the Gospel depend on blind faith”? And the answer is: “no!” The content of a faith is relevant too. My faith is in the lamb of God, who teaches me to turn the other cheek and to pray for those who persecute me. That hardly sounds like an incentive to bloodshed.

Q: Hold on. What about the Crusades, the Thirty Year’s War and “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland? Aren’t those examples of Christianity causing war?

A: Faith in the Gospel was hardly the cause. As a matter of fact Christians demonstrated a lack of faith in the words and example of Jesus and his apostles. Furthermore, Christianity was hardly the sole cause of those conflicts. Take the Crusades. Historian Meic Pearse asks us to:

“…think the unthinkable. Imagine the Catholicism of the West, the Orthodoxy of Byzantium and the Islam of the Saracens out of existence. Would West and East still have come into conflict? And the answer, obviously, is yes. Those conflicts would have been framed in somewhat different terms and have taken different forms. But the collision would have happened anyway. Conflict in the zone between modern Turkey and Iran had been perpetual long before the time of Christ.” The God’s of War (IVP: 2007) p66

Q: It sounds like you’re dodging the question again. Are you saying that the Church wasn’t responsible for the Crusades?

A: No, it bears some responsibility. However, I’d insist that the Gospel wasn’t responsible. Generally, four conditions have to be met before a war breaks out. First, at least two groups come into dispute over some vital interest. Second, at least one group must believe that they would win if they fought for that interest. Third, that group believes that it would be morally correct to fight and, fourth, there is a general desire to fight (a “war psychology”.)

Q: What’s your point, exactly?

A: That war is a complex business: it never has one cause. Religious groups can often persuade people that it is right to fight, but that’s not enough start a war: some vital interest must be at stake. The Christian Emperors and Popes that started the Crusades had very worldly political goals. To be sure, they believed that Christian doctrine permitted them to pursue those goals by violent means. But, like I said, that demonstrated a lack of faith in the teachings of Jesus.

Q: But you concede that the Church has been used to justify, and even to encourage, violence? And you concede that Church leaders have justified and encouraged violence?

A: Yes. There’s no doubt about that, I’m afraid. It shouldn’t have happened, but it has happened. I’m simply pointing out that history is far more complex than atheist slogans and sound-bites allow. Every war has many causes. Sometimes the Church has poured fuel on the fire rather than water; but the mere existence of the Church doesn’t cause war.

Q: But hasn’t religion been a major factor in most wars?

A: Hardly; the vast majority of wars were not motivated by religion at all. The armies of ancient Assyria, Babylonia, Alexander the Great, Hannibal Barca, and Genghis Khan were not motivated by religious zeal. The Napoleonic wars were not fought over religious doctrine. And the ideologies that caused the Second World War and the Cold War were not religious.

Q: But aren’t you embarrassed that the Christian faith has been used for evil ends?

A: Yes, I’m ashamed. But I’m not surprised. Any good movement can be used to justify evil. Many Western leaders have defended democracy by propping up foreign dictators. Evil can be done in the name of democracy; that doesn’t make democracy evil. Evil can be done in the name of the Church; that doesn’t make Christianity evil.