Does Religion Cause War ?

Does Religion Cause War ? If so, How ? The sociologist David Martin, in his book Does Christianity Cause War? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), investigates the empirical evidence from “Europe as a whole” for Richard Dawkin’s assertion that “religion causes wars by generating certainty” (5,22).  He concludes that Religious certainty does not cause war, but a religion’s relationship to political power can be a factor.

The first time I remember encountering this opinion in earnest– that religions are the cause of war –was in the late 1980s when I had just been dumped off at the side of a road in the Sinai desert, and was walking the dusty path to St Catherine’s monastery.  On the path I encountered a European man, of whom I inquired whether he was going to the monastery as a pilgrim.  He explained that he was not religious, and that this was because religion is the cause of wars.

Dawkins, claims Martin, says religion causes war because religions generate certainty. As a sociologist Martin is not inclined to not take seriously a generalized statement like “religion causes war”, because “the role (and nature) of religion varies according to the kind of society in which it is present, and its relationship to warfare will likewise vary” (21).  However, Martin sets about examining different social contexts “to find out whether any contribution [to war] is made by religion and to ascertain the nature of that contribution” (21).  In addition to recognizing that we cannot really know what is intended by Dawkins’ notion of “religious certainty”, Martin suggests that the idea that “religion causes war” is both “irrefutable because there certainly have been wars where religion played a role”, but it is also “indefensible since there certainly have been wars where religion played no role whatever. Conflicts occur for all kinds of reasons, and hardly ever for just a single reason” (23).

I found Martin’s discussion on the role of differentiation in societies to be quite helpful.  Martin argues convincingly that pluralism, or social differentiation, typically increases conflict and tension.  Martin writes that in a place where a single expression of a religion has long existed, its symbolic language in society has become organic and it has a rooted ethnic constituency.  Changes (pluralism!) can be instigated by forces from within society, as in the rise of voluntary faiths, or from external forces, such as immigration, colonialization, missionary activity, globalization, etc.

As a Mennonite background Christian I have always been inclined to consider a differentiated society a safer place to be.  That is, the more “organic” a given single religion is –especially a singular expression of that religion (or ideology)– the more dangerous it will be for minority expressions of that religion, or for another religion, to exist.  However, Martin points out that when change (differentiation) is introduced in a place where a single expression of religion has long existed, this is often the occasion for conflict.  This point reminded me of an “aha” moment when I was studying ecclesiology in a Catholic classroom setting.  As I listened to the discussion that day, I felt my stomach drop as empathy allowed me to see from their point of view, how threatening an Anabaptist might have been in the 16th century.  I was forced to reconsider my (then) viewpoint that 16th C. Catholicism was a source of violence and consider how my ancestors were experienced as a threat.

By looking at Romania and England Martin illustrates how “ethno-religion is itself an ambiguous phenomenon in the promotion of full pluralism” because it is going to want to promote itself as a centre – a political centre – thereby marginalizing “rivals in its own heartland” (57).  This idea did not come as a surprise to me, indeed it reinforced my worldview, but Martin surprised me by observing how voluntaristic traditions, with their emphasis on “peaceableness and social orderliness through expectation of obeying the rules” -by marginalizing themselves – also disrupt the ability to build healthy differentiated societies (57).

In both types of religious phenomena, the ethno-religious majority or the voluntaristic minority, can be “harnessed” by political power to “protect” their identities, and this generates conflict, even wars.  I had assumed that only a voluntaristic form of religion can guard against being co-opted by nationalist power, and was the only religious expression capable of dissent.  But Martin shows that neither form of religious expression, no matter how peaceable their teachings, is risk-free from either defending power, or from being a source of protest and dissent.  As Martin states, any form of religious expression “can go with the flag or against it” (59).

What seems at stake in the question of whether religion causes war is recognizing the ways in which a religion relates to “centre and periphery” with the centre being national identity, national power, and nationalism.  We can look to history and see both cases; where a religion “was woven into a poorly differentiated society, where roles of cleric and soldier might well on occasion be confused” and to other places where a religion gave “a distinctive logic and a grammar” of transformation and peaceableness (120).  The “special circumstances under which those who profess peace will, in fact, practice violence,”  writes Martin, has everything to do with how co-extensive that religion is with the nation, how co-extensive it is with society,  “and thus with the dynamics of power, violence, control, cohesion, and the marking of boundaries” (134).

Nationalism is the cause of war in three ways: when it has a territorial sense, when it has a religious (ideological) dimension, and when it has an ethnic or social dimension.  Religious certainty is not a cause of war, but religion and nationalism together have often been. Consequently religions, with all their claims to peaceableness, must be more intentional about not getting fastened with Nationalism.

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