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Jewish World Review Nov. 3, 1999 /22 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Religion is unfairly blamed for the world's wars --
JESSE VENTURA'S recent Playboy interview may not have advanced his political career but it has certainly provoked some impassioned debate on the role of organized faith in American life.

In describing religion as a "sham and a crutch for weak-minded people," the Governor of Minnesota has drawn criticism from some religious figures as "Jesse 'the Bigot' Ventura." But he has also attracted enthusiastic defenders who turn the attention to faith's checkered history rather than the governor's controversial words.

Callers to my national radio show, solemnly intoned the same hackneyed charge with appalling predictability. "Religion has started most of the wars in history!" they declared, and Ventura himself echoed those same sentiments in a press conference. " At least I haven't started any wars," he declared. "But in Ireland today I don't think they're fighting about potatoes."

This indictment of religion's incendiary impact amounts to a simple restatement of conventional wisdom and may serve as a powerful debater's point. The only trouble is that the basic idea-that organized faith provokes most of humanity's wars --is utterly untrue.

Consider, for instance, the history of the United States. Since 1776, we have fought ten major conflicts. None of these struggles-no, not one --focused on religious priorities or doctrinal disputes. In fact, prior to our Cold War battles against officially atheist Communist powers (North Korea, North Vietnam) we fought all our wars primarily against nations (England, Mexico, the Confederacy, Spain, Germany) that shared with us a commitment to some form of Christianity. The War Between the States, by far the deadliest conflict in our past, centered on political and moral differences rather than religious or doctrinal ones. The boys in blue and the boys in gray who killed more than 600,000 of one another, not only worshipped the same God, but often did so from the same hymnals.

Beyond the borders of North America, the bloodiest, most ambitious conquerors in human history accomplished their deadly work with little reference to religious priorities. Pure lust for power, rather than some sense of holy mission, drove Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar (and his Roman successors), Attila, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin. None of these tyrants made serous attempts to impose their faith on victim nations-and each of them, to a greater or lesser extent, faced troubled relations with the religious authorities in their own societies.

The twentieth century provides little or no evidence in any corner of the globe to support the contention that religion causes most human conflict. The greatest and costliest struggles of the uniquely blood-soaked hundred year epic just now concluding -World War I, World War II, the many "hot" conflicts of the Cold War-could scarcely be defined as religious disputes. Even Hitler's targeting of the Jews for annihilation bore little connection to faith-based concerns or hatreds.

The Nazis killed according to ethnicity and an alleged genetic taint; they spared neither Jewish atheists, nor sincere Jewish converts to Christianity, like the Catholic nun (and saint) Edith Stein, who died at Auschwitz. Relatively minor wars of the last hundred years (the Arab-Israeli conflicts, the struggle in Northern Ireland, the fighting in the Balkans) may contain unmistakable religious elements. But these struggles claimed only a fraction of the victims of horrific battles between co-religionists (the unspeakably bloody Iran-Iraq war), or genocidal tribal conflicts (in Rwanda and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa).

This atavistic tribal conflict should help us achieve a more realistic perspective concerning religion's role in the long sweep of man's brutal experience on this earth. Is there any evidence that before the advent of the world's great and enduring religions-Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam-human beings behaved in a less warlike or murderous manner? Primitive peoples lacked organized faith as we understand it, but they battled endlessly and viciously over territory, clan supremacy, natural resources, the capture of slaves, or for the sheer thrill of combat.

They hardly needed religious excuses for their blood lusts. Looking at the warring empires of the ancient world, where did religious imperatives play a key role in their struggles? Egyptians and Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians, Athenians and Spartans, made little effort to force their rival powers to accept their distinctive Gods or local cults--- but this didn't keep them from slaughtering one another over the course of thousands of years.

How can we blame today's religions for the world's wars, when those wars so clearly pre-dated the existence of these religions? When the Roman Empire turned Christian more than 1,600 years ago, it wasn't as if a peaceful, kindly people suddenly turned warlike and aggressive. Perhaps one can blame Christianity for dong too little to tame the ferocity of the Roman state, but you can't possibly blame the religion for causing that ferocity in the first place.

Of course, it's easy to find disgusting examples of brutal butchery committed in the name of a loving G-d. The Crusaders, for instance, massacred Moslems and Jews (and, in fact, other Christians when they sacked Constantinople) all in the name of some holy purpose. Following the Protestant Reformation, The Thirty Years War brought about a bloodbath in the heart of Europe-with an estimated one-third of the German population slaughtered by the contending armies. But even such struggles conducted in the name of faith contained ancient elements of power politics and greed--- with Catholic France, for instance, incongruously allied with the Protestant side in the Thirty Years War.

Describing wars in simplistic terms as "religious conflicts" inevitably leads to confusion and misstatements. President Clinton, for instance, spoke early in October at the opening of the new American embassy in Ottawa, Canada, describing his own efforts to help the people of Ireland to heal "the religious fights they've been having for 600 years." It's true that the Irish and English have been battling one another since the 14th century, but during the first 200 years of that conflict, prior to the Reformation, it hardly counts as a "religious fight" since both peoples were loyal Catholics.

If some clergyman tried to convince the public that religion through the ages has been a force solely for good, with no history of corruption or cruelty or hypocrisy, thoughtful people would rightly dismiss his arguments with laugher and contempt. The statement that "religion causes most wars in history" is similarly one-sided, ludicrous, extreme and ignorant.

Why, then, do so many Americans accept it without question or complaint?

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 110 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.


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©1999, Michael Medved