The history of the West has been mostly Christian. And it’s certainly been violent – Crusades, inquisitions, wars of religion …
So does religion cause war? Would the world be a more peaceful place without it?
Jesus preached a radical message of love for enemies. “Do good to those who hate you,” he said. “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other also.”
When he was arrested, he refused to fight back. Even while being nailed to a Roman cross, he prayed that his executioners would be forgiven.
It was a demanding – and, on the face of it, deeply impractical – ethic. But his followers, for the first few centuries after his death, took it seriously.
It’s perhaps the most horrific example in history of the church trying to control people and coerce belief.
The Troubles (1968-1998) is also often cited as an example of a religious war. And it certainly had a strong sectarian element.
Does religion cause all the wars?
The Bible itself is full of violence. What if God is just like that?
If Christians have so often departed from the one they claim to follow, why should anyone take what they believe seriously?
It’s easy to write off Christianity because of the many wrongs Christians have done. But maybe that would be like judging a piece of music on the basis of a bad performance …
People sometimes think that religions are, by their very nature, violent. And then the obvious conclusion is: the less religion you have, the better off you’re going to be.
It’s clear from history that Christianity has been a force both for peace and for violence.
Perhaps the right question then becomes not so much “Does religion cause war?” as “Under what circumstances does it fan the flames of conflict?”
Yale philosopher Miroslav Volf suggests that religions (including Christianity) will foster violence in situations where they have become thinned out of their essential content and convictions. Instead of acting as a transformative influence on people who identify with it, thin faith becomes a mere tool – co-opted to whatever ends we set for ourselves, including war and violence.
By contrast, thick faith maintains its moral content and has the power to shape an individual or communal vision of the good life in ways that defuse and oppose conflict.
What this means is that, in response to religious violence, maybe what the world needs is not less religion but more religion – of the “thick” kind!