Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
Does Religion cause Wars?
TP: Phillip, why do you want to talk about religious wars?
PJ: Well, I was on holidays recently and picked up a magazine in the newsagency that purported to tell us about ‘Holy Wars’—and it got me thinking.
This is something I’ve heard for decades, and continue to see frequently—especially in the comments section of newspaper articles that I read. People are always saying, “We’ve got to get rid of religion, because religion causes wars”.
It’s a meme or a trope—one of those throwaway lines you come across on social media all the time that is supposed to solve everything. Religion causes wars; therefore, get rid of religion.
TP: I’ve heard it often as well. I think of Christopher Hitchens and his book, God is not great: How religion poisons everything. And it’s an idea that has grown in recent decades. It’s not just that religion is outdated or primitive or that we’ve moved past it. Religion is a source of harm and hate. And in particular, it stirs up passions and resentments, and causes fights and wars.
PJ: No-one wants war, unless you’re immoral or an idiot. War is a dreadful thing. Look at the images and stories we have from Ukraine, and the horrors that are taking place there—not to mention the horrors that are also happening in other countries which we don’t hear about in the media.
War is a bad thing. So if religion causes war, then religion is a bad thing.
It’s the nature of propaganda. If you repeat something often enough in an unchallenged fashion, people start to believe it.
TP: And Christians become browbeaten by it. It’s yet another example of the world alienating, marginalizing and criticizing us. It’s another black mark against us—we cause wars apparently.
PJ: Yes, and it also persuades us to keep putting ourselves in the category called ‘religion’, which is not really where we belong.
TP: So we have the question of what is meant by ‘religion’, and we’ll come to that. Let’s start though by talking more about war. Why do people go to war?
PJ: For so many reasons. Sometimes, it’s a matter of defence—if we’re being attacked as a nation, we have to defend ourselves. Very often, it’s over land or resources or oil or water rights, and so on. Historically, it has often been about the spread of empire and national power. Sometimes it has been a matter of pride and the personal aggrandizement of the Emperor.
Some wars have been ideological wars. Marxism, for example, has been responsible for conflicts that have killed millions. Sometimes racism is the motivation, or tribalism, or historic feuds and vendettas that go back generations.
And in any one war, there is usually a combination of these sorts of factors. Historic animosity, greed, pride, lust for power, personal feuds—and sometimes, we become so used to the cycle of violence and war that we’ve forgotten why we’re fighting.
TP: So it’s multi-factorial. Where does religion fit in as one of those factors?
PJ: Well, in one sense, if people are religious, then religious people will go to war because people go to war. So religion can be tied up in it all, and has sometimes been used as a justification for war—even if it is not in fact the primary reason the war is taking place.
The causes of war are almost always complex and muddled, and religion is part of that complexity because religion is muddled into people’s lives.
But before you can untangle any of that, and ask what religion really does or doesn’t cause, you have to ask, ‘What is religion?’.
TP: Okay, what is religion?
PJ: Well, it’s a nonsense category in some ways, that has been created in the past few hundred years as Western empires came into contact with other groups and civilizations.
The problem is that ‘religion’ is very difficult to define. To define something, you’ve got to have some features that fit every example you want to put in that category. But what are those key characteristics?
You can’t say ‘Belief in God’ because many Buddhists don’t believe in any god—and do you want to exclude Buddhism from the category? What about Judaism? It’s less about what you believe and more about how you are. Likewise with Hinduism. Hindus believe in an extraordinary diversity of gods and beliefs, but it’s not any one of those beliefs that make them Hindu—it’s the fact that they’re Indian. For a Hindu, to be an Indian is to be a Hindu.
So there’s no definition of ‘religion’ that works. In the end, it just becomes a rude word used by people who do not like other people’s Christianity or spirituality or Islamic belief, or whatever it is. It’s a term of abuse.
So they say, “It’s really about communities of faith, and seeking peace”—but not all religions are about ‘faith’, and not all religions seek peace.
In the end, the category of ‘religion’ is a convenient but nonsensical tool that secularists use to grapple with the non-secular view of the world.
TP: So we’ve got a category that’s almost impossible to define (‘religion’) being blamed for causing the incredibly complex multi-factorial phenomenon of war. It doesn’t sound like a very coherent accusation.
PJ: No, it’s not. It would be much better and clearer if they said, “Christianity causes wars”. At least you could answer that.
But how do you even respond to ‘Religion causes wars’? Am I supposed to defend the Islamic wars of history? Or am I supposed to untangle whether Israel’s Six Day War was a Jewish war or an anti-Jewish war? It’s a nonsense.
TP: So should this be one of our opening approaches when we hear this accusation? Should we ask, “What do you mean exactly? Do you mean that Christianity causes wars?”
PJ Yes, we could start there, and also use some of the others. We could say: “Or do you mean that Hinduism causes wars? Or are you saying that Marxism causes wars? What particular kind of thing are you talking about—that supposedly causes all these wars?”
TP: So let’s say that we narrow it down to Christianity—which (let’s face it) is what these accusations are really levelled at.
PJ: Well, you’d start by admitting that at certain times, Christians have actively gone to war. And their motivation for that war has been affected in part by their allegiance to Christianity, or to their particular type of Christianity.
This is because Christians are still sinful. Christians make mistakes. But Christianity as Christianity does not cause wars, because our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ said, “My kingdom is not of this world”.
We do not advance Christianity by warfare. We advance Christianity by the proclamation of the gospel and by prayer—not by the sword. “Those who live by the sword die by the sword”, said Jesus to Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane.
TP: Now, there’s a good argument that you can’t say the same thing about Islam, for example. War has been the means by which Islam has advanced at various points in its history. And rather than this being a mistake or a contradiction, it is tied up with some fairly basic teachings of the Koran and the Hadiths. Islam configures church and state very differently from Christianity.
PJ: Yes, which is why putting them all in the same category doesn’t make sense. Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem on a donkey, and not even a full-size donkey. He came proclaiming peace, and within a week would be crucified. Mohamed entered Mecca at the head of an army of 10,000 soldiers. Mecca conceded, and the war didn’t take place.
But the two men could not be more different as to the place of warfare in bringing in the kingdom.
TP: Speaking of roads, this is a good road to start down in answering the accusation—because our aim in any apologetic interaction is not only to answer, and to ask some hard questions in return, but to head towards the gospel, towards Jesus.
PJ: Yes, and it’s fairly easy on this subject. We can say that Jesus didn’t come as a soldier, or instigate war. Nor did he teach his apostles to do that. He was the crucified, and they were the persecuted.
And that is the position of the Christian. Our fight is to take every thought captive (in 2 Cor 10). That’s our weaponry. In the NT, the kingdom is never advanced by physical warfare, but by spiritual warfare—by fighting the good fight of faith, fighting against the powers and principalities, by the Word of God and prayer.
TP: So in answering someone in this way, we can turn the conversation towards who Jesus really is, and what he has done.
But part of this kind of apologetic interaction is also to ask some probing questions in return; to get people thinking; to unsettle them in their comfortable worldview.
PJ: And we can do that in several ways. For example, Marxism has killed millions. What makes that wrong … or right? When Christians do the wrong thing, we can point out that it was wrong and call upon them to change and to repent—that it never should have happened, and shouldn’t happen again.
But how does Marxism do that? In fact, within Marxism, killing people—even millions of people—is perfectly justified if it is the cost of bringing on the revolution. The greater good requires that we demolish and destroy the existing order, and if that means killing lots of people, so be it.
It was the same in the French Revolution. There is no limit to the bloodshed, because there is no standard or belief that calls them back.
TP: In fact, it seems like yet another example in which the criticism of Christianity is itself unknowingly very Christian. The standard that is being applied—that war is bad, and peace is good—is a very Christian idea, because we believe in a Lord who came to bring peace not war. This idea doesn’t come from atheism or Marxism or Islam.
PJ: That’s right. The very accusation itself could only have been made within a culture built on Christianity—which is Tom Holland’s point in Dominion.
To take another example, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights was written with the Bible in mind. Charles Malik, who was one of the most important architects of the Declaration—he was a very keen Christian man from Lebanon. And interestingly, a whole range of Muslim countries have not to this day signed that declaration.
TP: That seems like a good point to round off our conversation—because we’re saying that the way to respond to these kinds of accusations about Christianity is to go back to the truth, to go back to Jesus. We can point out that even though the accusation itself is a kind of muddled incoherent slogan, the thought behind it—that we value peace and harmony, and oppose war—comes down to us from the teaching of Jesus. The very desire for peace and human rights and civil rights and justice—it really stems from our acceptance of the distinctively Christian set of values we’ve inherited.
And pointing people to Jesus himself, not only as teacher but as saviour and Lord, is the final goal of all our conversations.