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For atheists of a certain frame of mind, recent events in Iraq and Syria are confirmation that religion is the main cause of conflict in the world.

John Gray, an atheist of a very different stripe, disagrees. In a book review for the New Republic, he provides some much needed perspective.

For a start, one only has to start listing the great conflicts of history to see that there are countless of examples of wars where the cause is clearly non-religious. For instance, the first two Gulf Wars, the proxy conflicts of the Cold War, World Wars I and II, the American Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Mongol invasions and most of the wars perpetrated by the empires, kingdoms and city states of the ancient world.

Of course, the above examples do include wars fought with an ideological motivation – but the ideologies involved are often overtly secular in character:

“…the Inquisition pales in comparison to later frenzies of secular violence. Recent estimates of the numbers who were executed during the first 20 years of the Inquisition… range from 1,500 to 2,000 people. By contrast, about a quarter of a million people were killed in the Vendée (out of a population of roughly 800,000) when a peasant rebellion against the French Revolution was put down by republican armies in 1794. And some 17,000 men, women, and children were guillotined in the purge that ended in July that year, including the man who had designed the new revolutionary calendar.”

The special charge levelled at religion is that because it makes truth claims about an ultimate reality beyond the full comprehension of human reason, it is uniquely capable of inspiring inhuman and irrational thoughts and actions.

And yet one needs no appeal to the metaphysical to motivate the most terrible atrocities. Some of the darkest deeds in modern history were justified and committed by those convinced of the rational, practical and downright progressive nature of their cause:

“One of the founders of liberalism, John Locke, found it intolerable that the ‘wild woods and uncultivated waste of America be left to nature, without any improvement, tillage and husbandry.’ Involved in his own right in the colonization of the Carolinas, Locke ‘argued that the native ‘kings’ of America had no legal jurisdiction or right of ownership of their land.’”

Though the history of evangelism is a chequered one, it was often missionaries who recognised and defended the humanity of indigenous peoples, while secular colonists saw only savages.

Gray’s argument goes even deeper than a comparison of the influence of religious and secular belief systems. He makes the very pertinent point that religion isn’t necessarily what its western critics think it is. In many societies, religion is far more about communal practice than personal conviction:

“Throughout much of history and all of prehistory, ‘religion’ meant practice—and not just in some special area of life. Belief has not been central to most of the world’s religions; indeed, in some traditions it has been seen as an impediment to spiritual life.”

In these situations religion is not about faith, but a ritualised expression of culture and tradition. One can argue that this still serves to differentiate one set of people from another, thereby sowing the seeds of conflict; but the same can be said of language, custom, ethnicity, history, economic practice or just about anything else that makes us interesting as a species.

Are all of these other aspects of human richness to be demonised too?

But returning to the matter of Iraq and Syria – is it not the case that violent Islamism presents us with compelling proof of the uniquely malign power of religion?

Well, what we’ve witnessed in recent years is certainly malign, but by no means unique. As others have argued, Islamism is a strikingly modern development, with aims which are primarily political, not spiritual. Totalitarian movements are hardly new to the Middle East, but whereas earlier movements constructed a socialist or nationalist framework for their revolutionary ambitions, Islamism is, for the moment, the go-to source for ideological justification.

Before anyone thinks to generalise from this specific phenomenon to Islam or religion as a whole, they should be prepared to the same in regard to secularism and its own totalitarian history.

5 comments for: Heresy of the week: Religion is hugely overrated…as a cause of war

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