Does religion cause all wars?
The Troubles in Northern Ireland are often cited as evidence that Christianity leads to conflict.
SIMON SMART: The question of religious violence hasn’t gone away.
This is Belfast, Northern Ireland. The scene of some truly ugly clashes between Catholics and Protestants. Often cited as evidence that Christianity inevitably causes division and bloodshed.
But, it’s complicated.
The period known as “the Troubles” began in 1968 and lasted for 30 years. On one side of the equation were the Unionists, also known as Loyalists – the Protestants. They were mostly of British descent and wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of Britain. On the other side were the Nationalists, or Republicans – the Catholics. Their stated goal was to join the Republic of Ireland, which had won its independence in 1921.
Jim lived through it, and now takes tourists around significant sites.
Simon: So, you would have been a young man…
Jim: I was a young man, well yes, 1961 I was born, so I was 8 years of age just coming into the start of the conflict, and that was it.
Simon: You grew up.
Jim: You grew up very quickly. Yeah, I always say that 1997-98 was the first time in my life I’d ever seen peace.
Simon: And so that really dominated life?
Jim: Oh yeah, oh yeah. when I used to get up out of bed in the morning my first thought was: how do we avoid being murdered by the murder gangs, OK? Also, how do we avoid the British Army? From the harassments and stuff like that. And also how do we attack the British Army? But the change being today that when my kids get out of bed in the morning they say, well we have to go to work to get our mortgage paid. Do you see the change?
SIMON SMART: It’s fair to say that religious identity has been caught up in the struggle. So how do people who claim a Christian faith, reconcile what happened here with what they believe?
JOHN LENNOX: I’m often asked, how is it possible to be a person who was born and lived in Northern Ireland and still remain committed to the Christian faith? Because I grew up in a situation where my parents lived in a town that was divided, and my parents who were Christian but were not sectarian believed that every man and woman is made in the image of God no matter what they believe, so he put that into practice by employing equally across the Protestant/Catholic divide and we were bombed because of that. So, I’ve some experience of this kind of thing.
And my reaction to it is quite simple and very direct – I’m utterly ashamed of it. I’m ashamed that the name of Christ has ever been associated with a bomb or an AK47, for the simple reason that people who do that are not following Christ, they are disobeying him.
JIM: I’ve always said religion was used too readily to cover this conflict. Because if we think about it here, you’re not seeing one thing about anything religious here. You see that? There is no crosses on that wall, there’s no other stuff like that. This is about a war of independence. In 1979 the Pope got down on his knees here, and said, “Please, please, stop the violence”. It continued on. OK? Also, remember the Queen of England on many, many occasions, she appealed to the Protestant paramilitaries, the Loyalist paramilitaries to stop murdering people. Again, they didn’t listen. So, religion was never taken on board by the paramilitary leaders. Do you understand? They never, ever stopped to think murder is a mortal sin as we say in the church. No they didn’t.
SIMON SMART: The Troubles came to an end on Good Friday 1998, when the key parties reached a peace agreement after 30 years of conflict. However, security walls, euphemistically called “peace lines”, still separate key Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods.
Often, conflicts that we think of as religious, turn out to be, when we look more closely, about much more than just people’s spiritual beliefs. But there’s no question that religion, when used as an identity marker, can be a potent force in ramping up an “us versus them” mentality.
ROWAN WILLIAMS: There are plenty of circumstances where for Christians, as indeed for Muslims, religion is a really, really good alibi, a really good banner to march under. If there’s a conflict that’s basically about something else, it’s terrifically helpful to make it a religious conflict because it reinforces your own righteousness. But actually, it’s not true. It’s simply not true that the majority of human conflict then or now is religiously based. It can be religiously cloaked, it can be religiously justified, but it’s a big claim to say that it’s religiously motivated. And I don’t think it’s a claim that can be sustained.