‘They say a good cause justifies any war, but I say unto you, a good war justifies any cause.’
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.
One of the aspects of religion that most people find troubling is the strong role it has often played in war and violence throughout history. Richard Dawkins has laid particular emphasis in this, stating that a belief that one has a divine mandate may enable a person to justify any war or atrocity. Now it is true that religion has played a very strong role in providing support for war and aggression throughout human history. In Britain the violence and terrorism in Ulster has part of its origins in tension and conflict between the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities in Ireland. The question has become particularly pressing because of the militaristic concept of martyrdom in Islam, where within the Prophet Mohammed’s lifetime a shahid – ‘martyr’ – included someone who fell in battle for the faith, rather than was the passive victim of murderous persecution, such as the early Christians in the Roman Empire. However, religions will also act to limit aggression and brutality. Christianity, Islam and Sikhism all have rules regarding what is a just war. Some denominations within Christianity, such as the Quakers and the Amish, reject war altogether. Dawkins himself is aware that the conflict between Roman Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland was not simply one of theology, yet his comments seem to suggest that violence is intrinsic to religion. Indeed his whole attack on organised religion is based on his assumption that religious moderates, by giving support to faith, justify irrationality which receives its murderous expression in warfare and violence. This is profoundly mistaken.
Rational Basis of Faith
Firstly, Dawkins’ view of religion supplying a justification for war, no matter how irrational, is part of his general position on faith. Dawkins believes that faith is belief in something despite lack of evidence: ‘faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence … Faith is not allowed to justify itself by argument.’ 1 This is quite simply wrong. Christian theologians such as W.H. Griffith-Thomas state that faith involves reason as well as inner conviction:
‘[Faith] affects the whole of man’s nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct.’ 2 The early Christian Fathers and apologists stressed that Christianity was both reasonable and based on evidence. St. Augustine declared that ‘they are much deceived, who think that we believe in Christ without any proofs concerning Christ.’ 3 The whole project of Christian apologetics is based on supplying rational proofs for the existence of God, a project that has its counterpart in Islam in kalam theology. As Dawkins himself recognises, this project has resulted in the rich tradition of Christian apologetics and philosophical argument that he attempted to refute in the God Delusion. Thus Christians do not simply blindly accept the existence of God despite proof.
Faith and Desire for Justice and Warfare
This important distinction between reasonable faith and blind faith has consequences for the view religion and its involvement in warfare that Dawkins aparently has. I went to an Anglican (Episcopalian) Church school here in Britain. The emphasis was laid on possessing a reasonable faith. For this faith to be genuine, fanaticism and violence were to be avoided. If one’s faith resulted in hatred and bigotry towards others, then it was bad faith. Nevertheless, there has often been a religious component to warfare because of the need to seek justification for acts of mass violence. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, God is the supreme source of justice and morality, so those seeking support for wars have naturally turned to God for moral support. This is not necessarily a cynical attempt to enlist God to justify otherwise baseless and self-interested acts of aggression. Nations generally have waged war from a sense of injustice, an injustice that can only be corrected through national violence. Those seeking to defend their rights, or who believe that they are right in waging war, naturally turn to God for support in their struggle as the source of right and justice.
Furthermore, even when wars have been waged under the belief that it has been commanded by the Lord, it has usually been fought for rational reasons other than a simple divine command. For example, God’s commission of Israel to conquer Canaan was due not because of Israel’s strength, but because the Canaanites had failed to honour God and had fallen into extreme wickedness. Deuteronomy 7:7 declares that ‘It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the dewest of all peoples’. 4 The conquest of Canaan was granted to Israel on the provision that they follow the just laws established by the Lord. Leviticus 20:22-23 contains the command from the Lord that ‘You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and do them; that the land where I am bringing you to dwell my not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation which I am casting out before you; for they did all of these things, and therefore I abhorred them.’ 5 The conquest of Canaan was part of the establishment of a strict legal code that Israel also had to follow. It was far more than the simple demand for Israel to attack the settled cultures in Canaan.
Just War Regulations in Ancient Israel, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism
Christianity inherited the ideas of a holy war from Judaism, but modified it with Christ’s demands for love and forgiveness. It also drew on Roman theories about the constitution of the just war. The great 12th century Roman Catholic canon lawyer, Gratian, codified this into a theory of the Just War that was steadily developed. By the time of the Reformation, this theory stated that a war could only be just if it met seven principles.
1. It had to have a just cause. These were to regain something stolen, to punish evil, or to defend against planned or actual aggression.
2. There had to be a proper authority initiating the war.
3. Those waging the war had to have the right intentions.
4. The use of force had to be proportional, so that it did not commit more harm than good, and was relevant to the issue.
5. War should be conducted as a last resort.
6. The purpose of the war should be to establish peace.
7. The war should also have a reasonable hope of success. 6
The jihad, the Islamic holy war, is governed by regulations laid down by Muhammad himself: ‘In avenging injuries inflicted on us, do not harm non-belligerents in their homes, spare the weakness of women, do not injure infants at the breast, nor those who are sick. Do not destroy the houses of those who offer no resistance, and do not destroy their means of subsistence, neither their fruit trees nor their palms.’ Violations of these rules will be punished at the Day of Judgement. 7
In Sikhism, the five rules governing the just war or dharam yudh (war of righteousness) were drawn up by the 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh. These are –
1. War must be the last resort, taken when all other methods of settling the dispute have failed.
2. It must be conducted from pure motives, and not from enmity or the desire for revenge.
3. It must not be waged to gain territory, and any territory so taken must be returned after victory.
4. Those engaged in combat must be committed Sikhs following ethical standards in the treatment of non-combatants and the defeated, amongst others.
5. The war must be waged with minimum force. 8
Thus, although attitudes to war vary considerably from religion to religion, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism all have a set of laws governing the correct conduct of war with the intention of limiting the violence. This is an important point, and marks these religions out from many pagan cultures. For the Vikings, for example, warfare and raiding was an accepted part of life and society. Viking jarls would go raiding in the season when no more agricultural work could be done on their own land. Their violent attacks on the surrounding nations, with the intention of gaining slaves and plunder, had the character of a business trip for profit. While Christianity did not remove conflict or stop warfare, it did regulate it with the demands that warfare be conducted justly and for just motives and with the restoration of peace as the goal, rather than from simple greed and a delight in violence for its own sake. The rejection of these aspects of warfare can also be seen in the wars fought by ancient Israel in the Bible. The Israelites were instructed not to attack certain peoples, such as the Ammonites, and the Canaanite nations who made peace with them. In Deuteronomy 2:19, God said to Israel ‘and when you approach the fronterir of the sons of Ammon, do not harass them or contend with them, for I will not give you any of the land of the sons of Ammon as a possession, because I have given it to the sons of Lot for a possession’. 9
Similarly, God in Deuteronomy 20:10-11 commanded Israel that ‘when you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you.’ 10 Although such terms constitute the enslavement of the city’s population, nevertheless the law places a limit on violence and allow conflict to be avoided.
Christian Origins of Rejection of Religious Violence
Within Christianity, attitudes towards violence may also vary considerably. The medieval Byzantine Church had a strong pacifist tradition, viewing war as little more than mass murder. Originally soldiers were required to perform seven years’ penance after fighting in a battle, but this had to be reduced due to necessity of defence against attacks by the invading Muslims. In the West this pacifist tradition in Christianity found particular expression in the Protestant sects of the Quakers, and the Amish and Mennonites. The Quakers are particularly important for the prominent role they played in promoting religious toleration. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, based his arguments for liberty of conscience on the Bible and the arguments of the early Church Fathers. Penn considered that Christianity was so excellent a religion, that it did not require conversion by force. Indeed, rather than promoting Christianity, the use of violence in its favour acted against it. Penn declared that
‘It is the privilege of the Christian faith above the dark suggestions of ancient and modern superstitious traditions to carry with it a most self-evidencing verity, which ever was sufficent to proselyte believers, without the weak auxiliaries of external power; the Son of God, and great example of the world, was so far from calling his Father’s omnipotence in legions of angels to His defence, that He at once repealed all acts of force, and defined to us the nature of his religion in this one great saying of His, my kingdom is not of this world. It was spiritual, not carnal, accompanied with weapons, as heavenly as its own nature, and designed for the good and salvatio ofthe soul, and not the injury and destruction of the body: no goals, fines, exiles, etc. but sound reason, clear truth and a strict life. In short, the Christian religion entreats all, but compels none.’ 11 Amongst the arguments Penn used against the use of force in religion were quotations by St. Hilary against Auxentius stating that the Christian church does not persecute, but is persecuted, and the great theologian St. John Chrysostom ‘that it is not the manner of the children of God, to persecute about their religion,b ut an evident token of antichrist.’ 12
My point here is not that pacifism is the correct Christian attitude towards war, but that Christianity as well as endorsing war for a just cause, has also led others to renounce war and the use of force, and that the contemporary Western attitude which strongly rejects the imposition of religion by violence and persecution derives in part from arguments by Christian ministers and theologians. These arguments stressed the importance of human reason in faith to demonstrate that the use of force was an obstacle to salvation. Penn thus argued that
‘as he that acts doubtfully is damned, so faith in all acts of religion is necessary: now in order to believe, we must first will; to will, we must judge; to judge anything, we must first understand; if then we cannot be said to understand anything against our understanding; no more can we judge, will, or believe against our understanding: and if the doubter be damend, what must he be that conforms directly against his judgement and belief, and they likewise that require it from him: In short, that man cannot be said to have any religion, that takes it by another man’s choice, not his own.’ 13
Thus for Christian theologians like Penn, the essential rational nature of faith and Christianity meant that the use of force to ensure religious conformity was both impious and self-defeating. This is very far from Dawkins’ conception of faith as inherently unreasonable, and making the person of faith far more inclined towards violence than the atheist.
Martyrdom in Christianity, Islam and Secular Ideologies
Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ suspicion of martyrdom as inclining people of faith towards violence is similarly flawed. It’s true that Islam states that the warriors for the faith who die in battle will experience the delights of paradise as martyrs, and the ideology of martyrdom has been used by Middle Eastern regimes, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and revolutionary Iran to encourage enlistment in their armies and instil morale and a willingness to face violent death. The same cult of martyrdom has also been used to justify and encourage suicide bombing as acts of self-sacrificing faith against what is seen as Western oppression. However, according to the militant atheist sociologist, Scott Atran, Islamic suicide bombers are psychologically no different from their secular counterparts, and it is a careful programme of psychological pressure and preparation that creates and sustains the suicide bombers, rather than a simple belief in martyrdom. Atran has pointed out that the organisation that made the greatest use of suicide bombers was the Communist Tamil Tigers.
In fact, military service and an absolute dedication to the state, including the use of force, has been a feature of secular regimes since the French Revolution. The French Revolutionary Communist, Buonarroti, believed in compulsory military education for every male youth as part of an educational system designed to promote patriotism and equality. 14 Military-patriotic education, designed to prepare schoolboys for their national service and good Marxist values, was similarly a part of the Soviet school system. This included patriotic songs celebrating death for the workers’ cause. A cult of martyrdom is by no means confined solely to supernatural religion.
There are also important differences with the Christian conception of martyrdom. Although the papacy promised absolution and entrance to heaven to the knights who fell in battle during the Crusades, the early Christian view of martyrdom was less militaristic. William Penn again stressed that the great prophets and martyrs of the faith, including Christ Himself ‘enacted and confirmed their religion, with their own blood, and not with the blood of their opposers.’ 15 Indeed, the early Christian martyr Ignatius, in his Epistle to the Ephesians recommended gentleness in dealing with aggression from non-Christians:
‘Give them a chance to learn from you, or at all events from the way you act. Meet their animosity with mildness, their high words with humility, and their abuse with your prayers. But stand firm against their errors, and if they grow violent, be gentle instead of wanting to pay them back in their own coin. Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers, and try to imitate the Lord by seeing which of us can put up with the most ill-usage or privation or contempt – so that in this way none of the devil’s noxious weeds may take root among you, but you may rest in Jesus Christ in all sanctity and discipline of body and soul.’ 16
Although by second century the martyr was regarded as the ideal Christian, and martyrdom the ultimate test of faith, there was a concern to avoid martyrdom becoming a form of suicide. Clement of Alexandria advised against actively seeking martyrdom as some of those who did so were motivated by a hatred against the Creator. ‘Clement concluded that false martyrs needlessly sacrificed themselves out of suicidal love of death.’ 17 Thus, unless the Christian genuinely received the call to martyrdom, they should hide from the authorities in case, by seeking out arrest, they became complicit in the crime of the persecutors. 18 Thus Christian martyrdom was held to be distinguished from pious suicide by some members of the early Church. This attitude to martyrdom did not necessarily reflect a pacifist attitude in the Church as a whole. The early Christian apologist Tertullian, although doubtful about the suitability of a military career for Christians because military duties including sacrificing to idols and the execution of capital punishment, nevertheless states that there were Christians serving in the Roman army. ‘We sail with you, we serve in the army with you, and till the ground with you,’ he wrote in his Apologeticus. 19 Thus early Christianity, while celebrating the sanctity of those who refused to compromise their religion, did not advocate using violence to force their religion on others and distinguished between it and suicide. Religious convictions and a willingness to suffer for one’s religion or beliefs do not automatically make a person more inclined than others to be a suicide bomber, as some of the New Atheists, such as Dawkins, seem to believe.
Secular Origins of Conflict Obscured by Atheist Focus on Religion
There is also the problem that the focus on the involvement of religion in many conflicts can lead to the immediate, rational, secular causes being ignored. While religion clearly was a motivating force in the Crusades and the wars of the religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were also strong secular causes for the wars. Most of the violent conflicts in the Middle Ages arose from secular causes such as dynastic arguments, ethnic conflicts, attempts by monarchies to contain challenges from overmighty vassals, economic complaints and grievances by subjects who felt themselves oppressed. One of the reasons for the distinction historians make between ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’ is the difference in national foreign policy followed by states after the supposed end of the Middle Ages. Europe in the Middle Ages was essentially Christendom, a geographical entity which received its identity from the Christian faith and culture of its constituent states. After the 16th century this religious identity was weakened to the point where individual states, such as France, were willing to ally themselves with non-Christian powers, such as the Muslim Turks, against threats from rival European, Christian powers, such as the Holy Roman Empire. The notion of a united Christendom was slowly giving way to that of a secular Europe. It is a feature of the modern period that most of the wars fought arose from purely secular causes, regardless of the way the states turned to God for aid and victory in their struggles. Andrew Brown in his book The Darwin Wars, states that ‘it’s difficult to think of any lasting or atrocious conflict in which religion has not been one of the factors spearating and defining the two sides.’ 20 As an example of how even atheist states used religion as well as their official secular ideologies, he cites the way Stalin let Orthodox priests out of the Gulags to celebrate communion during the War with Nazi Germany. 21 Yet this was a cynical political strategy to draw on the religious sympathies of the Russian people to support his regime in the ‘Great Patriotic War’, the immediate and real causes of which were ethnic, and based in secular ideologies concerning the correct structure of society and the perceived need to dominate the Eurasian landmass in order to achieve economic prosperity and domination in the global economy. Similarly, the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland is not simply a product of religious tension, but also has its origins in the British colonisation and rule of Ireland from the Anglo-Norman invasion in the 12th century. Religion is therefore one element in a conflict that is also strongly determined by questions of ethnicity, national identity and political affiliation.
Thus, while religion has clearly been a factor in many wars, it is rarely their sole cause. Even when there has been a religious mandate for a war, it has frequently been for deeper reasons than a simple belief that God simply desires it. In the case of ancient Israel, the holy wars waged against the Canaanites derived from a mandate to establish justice, a justice to which Israel itself was subject and which repudiated purely selfish, commercial attitudes to warfare that characterised other and later societies, such as the Vikings. Christianity, Islam and Sikhism later developed strong theological codes to limit violence and ensure that war be waged justly and with restoration of peace as its goal. Moreover the different attitudes to martyrdom in Christianity and Islam mean that martyrdom is not necessarily connected to the use of force and violence against others, while the modern, secular attitudes that view religious violence with suspicion are partly derived from early Christian attitudes against the use of force to secure religious compliance. Atheist ideologies have also developed a cult of violent martyrdom, and the common secular view that religion is fundamentally connected with violence may lead to the deeper, immediate roots of such conflicts in material grievances being ignored. People generally resort to war when they feel their cause is just, and look to God as the source of justice to aid them in what they perceive to be a just use of force deriving from a legitimate grievance. In this sense, in the involvement of God in warfare is no more surprising or sinister than the observation that a desire to correct an injustice leads nations to resort to violence. Christianity, along with other religions like Islam and Sikhism, have developed rules to regulate and contain violence in the name of God’s justice. Violence is a part of human nature, and religion may supply a cause for it, but it also may and has acted to contain it. As for causing wars, it was Friedrich Nietzsche, the apostle of Nihilism, who stated, in the quote I placed at the very beginning of this article, that once God was dead, then war itself could become a legitimate cause itself.
1. R. Dawkins, ‘Lions 10, Christians Nil’, in The Nullafidian, vol.1, no. 8, December 1994, cited in Alister McGrath, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing 2005), p. 84.
2. W.H. Griffith-Thoms, The Principles of Theology (London, Longmans, Green, 1930), p. xviii, cited in McGrath, Dawkins’ God, p. 86.
3. St. Augustine, On Faith in Things That Are Not Seen, cited in Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman jr., Faith Has Its Reasons: An Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity (Waynesboro, Authentic Publishing 2005), p. 17.
4. Deuteronomy 7:7, Eyre and Spottiswood Study Bible, RSV, p. 266.
5. Leviticus 20:22-23, Eyre and Spottiswood Study Bible, RSV, p. 376.
6. ‘Just War’ in John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford, OUP 1997), p. 518.
7. ‘Jihad’, in Bowker, ed., World Religions, p. 501.
8. ‘Dharam Yudh (‘war of righteousness’)’, in Bowker, ed., World Religions, p. 275.
9. Deuteronomy 2:19, Eyre and Spottiswood Study Bible, RSV, p. 257.
10. Deuteronomy 20:10-11, Eyre and Spottiswood Study Bible, RSV, p. 283.
11. William Penn, The Great Case of Liberty and Conscience (1670), in Edwin B. Bronner, ed., William Penn: The Peace of Europe, the Fruits of Solitude and Other Writings (London, Everyman 1993), pp. 161-2.
12. Penn, Liberty and Conscience, in Bronner, ed., Peace of Europe, p. 182.
13. Penn, Liberty and Conscience, in Bronner, ed., Peace of Europe, p. 166.
14. J.L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy – Political Theory during the French Revolution and Beyond (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1952), p. 247.
15. Penn, Liberty and Conscience, in Bronner, ed., Peace of Europe, p. 162.
16. St. Ignatius, The Epistle to the Ephesians, in Maxwell Staniforth, trans., and Andrew Louth, ed., Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (Harmondworth, Penguin Books 1987), p. 64.
17. David Chidester, Christianity: A Global History (London, Penguin Books 2001), p. 91.
18. Chidester, Christianity, p. 91.
19. Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus (Tertullian), Apologeticus, in Henry Bettenson, ed. and trans., The Early Christian Fathers (Oxford, OUP 1956), p. 156.
20. Andrew Brown, The Darwin Wars: How Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods (London, Simon & Schuster 1999), p. 168.
21. Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 168.