A review of The Gods of War. By Meic Pearse.

IVP, 2007. (Available in Australia from Koorong Books)

It is quite common for today’s militant atheists to throw around reckless charges and wild accusations. Their thinking seems to be that if you make such claims often enough, people might start believing them, even if the evidence is not there to back them up.

One common charge made by the misotheists is that religion is the main cause of war, violence and bloodshed. If we could eliminate religion, we would be well on the road to peace on earth and good will toward men. If everyone were like the peace-loving secularists and atheists, all would be sweetness and light in the world.

Dawkins could seriously write, “to fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns”. John Lennon of course asked us to “Imagine” a religion-free world, where there is “nothing to kill or die for”.

Pearse takes these charges head-on. As a historian with degrees from Oxford, he is well-placed to do it. And his overall thesis is this: while religion certainly has played a role in warfare and violence, the “two principle causes of human warfare are human greed and culture”. Greed for territory, political power, or resources, and the cultural, national and social fabric that glue a people together are the major components of why nations go to war.

Image of The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict?
The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict? by Pearse, Meic (Author) Amazon logo

He certainly does not deny or downplay conflict that has been primarily religious in nature. But in something as complex as war, monocausation is rarely the case. Usually there is a mixture of motives. Thus Pearse looks at a whole range of war and conflict over the past several millennia, and concludes that while some were mainly caused by religious factors, the majority were not.

“The secularist establishment’s accusations against religion as the primary cause of war are simplistic and ill-motivated” he says; “they have some important superficial validity but are far from the whole truth.” A large part of this book is a historical examination of war and the complex set of reasons for it.

He argues that there were really only two main periods in history where religion was the driving force of war: in the Middle Ages, especially between Christians and Muslims, and in the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries, with Catholics versus Protestants.

Other conflicts which may seem to be primarily religious-based, turn out, upon closer inspection, to be a real mix, with secular factors as important, if not more so. For example, the Hundred Years War was mainly a contest over possession of feudal property. In the same vein, the numerous wars of the eighteenth century, the Napoleonic Wars, and the American Revolutionary War, were mainly nonreligious in nature.

Pearse also reminds us that the real perpetrators of blood and war in recent times have been the secularists. Last century was the bloodiest century on earth, and this belligerence was due to secularist creeds. Fascism and communism – both secular, atheistic tyrannies – saw war and violence as fully justified if they served the cause. And because both systems saw nothing unique in humanity, they were quite happy to slaughter millions in the interests of their ideologies.

Pearse reminds us that secular revolutions, going back to the French Revolution, were always ready to sacrifice human life, since it possessed no innate value other than to serve the collective. Nationalist and socialist regimes of the past century judged actions to be good or bad only in terms of advancing the political and ideological agenda. “Human lives as such were unimportant; what counted was the grand scheme of things.”

But this book is not simply a defence of Christianity and a critique of atheism and secularism. In addition to frankly recounting the many failures of the church over the centuries, Pearse also looks at related issues, such as the question of whether it is ever right for a Christian to fight.

Pearse says both pacifism and just war theory are far from ideal Christian options. Both have major problems and shortcomings: just war is very hard to achieve even under the best of conditions, and pacifism abandons the innocent to aggression and tyranny. Both seem to be morally problematic options at best.

But Pearse reluctantly argues that a believer can legitimately fight, but only for secular causes, not for the Christian faith. Such secular causes would include, “to defend the weak from slaughter; to fend off an imminent attack; and perhaps, in limited circumstances, to right a grotesque wrong.”

Again, Pearse is no hawk, and he certainly does not let Christianity off easily in this volume. It has made plenty of mistakes, and has too readily been a cause of, or a contributing factor to, war and bloodshed. Yet when this complex and multi-faceted issue is examined in close historical detail, the reckless charges of the secularists quickly unravel. Warfare is a multi-causal phenomenon, and religion is only one component of it at times, and certainly not the most important factor.

[830 words]

14 Replies to “A review of The Gods of War. By Meic Pearse.”

  1. Thanks Bill. An interesting read. I would say that a lot of countries would go to war for secular reasons and then pray to their god for victory (the Romans seems to be a good example), which is quite a different thing to going to war for religious reasons. But, I suppose in the eyes of some atheists the two could be considered one and the same.
    Matthew Mulvaney

  2. An interesting resume, Bill. However, Pearse’s account of when it is legitimate for a Christian to fight is, on your exposition, inadequate. What about resisting jihad, and the advance of an Islamic state into Western countries? Unless I am much mistaken, there will be at the very least civil strife as this becomes more of a reality. There are already signs of it in Europe as that continent moves inexorably to the predicted “Eurabia”, most especially when PC Western governments utterly refuse even to identify the threat, let alone do anything about it.
    Yet the advance is more the most part demographic, not military. As Muslim immigration and birth-rates increase and Western birth-rates decline the Muslim take-over is almost inevitable.
    This leaves me in a dilemma:
    1. As a Christian I want to say that the Gospel of Christ is the right and proper way: apologetics, proclamation of Christ, and a consistent life-style etc. to win Muslims for Christ.
    2. Yet as a citizen of Australia who loves his country I do NOT want to see it overcome by a militant, supremacist, politico-religious ideology, and my whole being would want to defend my way of life and that of my countrymen – even to the death.
    That is why, on one hand, if war were to break out on this front, I would want to be in it. Yet I know that this would possibly compromise my Christian testimony.
    Murray Adamthwaite

  3. Thanks Murray

    You raise some important issues here. Like myself, I think Pearse would more or less agree with you. He too may want to defend a free West from the Islamists, but he would say he is fighting for freedom, or democracy, or America, not for his faith. Whether such a distinction is fully supportable I do not know. Certainly much of the freedom and democracy we enjoy around the world is largely tied up with the Judeo-Christian heritage.

    But I think his point is fair enough. If I fight and kill an invading terrorist, I perhaps should do so in the name of liberty, not in the name of Christ. We are citizens of two kingdoms and have obligations to each. They are separate, but sometimes overlapping, jurisdictions and sets of responsibilities. Have a read of his book and see what you think.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. I just read this book and it is fantastic.

    As a future pastor, I feel a certain obligation to answer the dilemma that you are bringing up.
    To go to war is not to put aside one’s loyalty to God. Quite to the contrary, the Bible makes provisions for war, despite what the kool-aid drinkers on the left coast will tell you. Old Levitical law even had specific rules for ethics in war and treatment of friend and foe.
    Before pursuing ministry education, I was going to be a marine. I ended up not being able to for health reasons. True, it is right for a Christian to turn the other cheek, but we’re not all Christians. As such, I have an obligation to protect one non-believer from others who would do them unjust harm. I do not fight and kill to gain land and power for my God. After all, it’s all his anyway. I fight for the sake of loving those who do not believe, that they may not be done preventable and undeserved harm on my watch.

    I hope that helps.

    Dave Bosscher

  5. When we fought Hitler it was both a spiritual and temporal war. Behind the third Reich there was a quasi religious force. Thankfully many Christians who at first refused to fight on religious grounds did get involved and gave wonderful service. What would have happened to the Jews or millions of others being kept in concentration camps if we had nor intervened? To live a completely “spiritual” existence we would have to remove ourselves completely from the world and live like hermits, or Buddhists. Physically fighting in defence of the defenceless is no different from fighting poverty and disease.
    However, we may find that the real enemy lies within our society; secularists and atheists may prove to be the enemy we have to overcome before we can get to grips with Islam. Their hatred of Christians is fuelled by a spiritual force that is just as irrational and volcanic as that of Muslims. Probably more so.
    David Skinner, UK

  6. I suspect the Anti-Christ will come to power on a Peace Platform, external peace that is, but not peace within or peace with God.
    Stephen White

  7. I agree that a world without religion would not mean an end to wars and conflicts, but if the various religions could live in peace and tolerance with one another it would certainly mean that one major source of conflict would be removed.

    As for the role that Christianity played in World War II, there were Christians on both sides, each of whom thought they had God on their side. The Nazi military even wore it on their belt buckles – “Gott Mit Uns”. There was also a murky relationship between the Vatican and the Reich.

    As for David’s claim that Christians helped to save Jews, let’s not forget that Nazi anti-semitism had its origins in almost 2000 years of Christian anti-Judaism. It is only since the middle of the 20th century that the Christian church has adopted a more enlightened attitude towards Judaism.

    Steve Angelino, WA

  8. Thanks Steve

    As I said, tell a lie often enough… No, the Nazis were not Christian. Hitler and the Nazis were radically secular, and hated Christianity, but of course were quite happy to co-opt Christianity for their purposes. In their rise to power they needed the support of the masses, and enlisting the old Nordic and Teutonic myths was most helpful, along with claiming to be “doing the Lord’s work” etc. Such God talk was political opportunism, pure and simple, not personal conviction. Hitler and his henchmen hated Christianity and did all they could to eliminate the church and/or use it for their own ends. Read Hitler’s Table Talk or Mein Kampf, Steve. Hitler regarded Christianity as one of the great “scourges” of history. Such quotes can be multiplied at length.

    Hitler’s source of inspiration was not the Bible but Darwin and Nietzsche. Hitler and the Nazis saw themselves as promoting the survival of the fittest, not pushing some Christian agenda. Just one representative quote from Mein Kampf will suffice here: “If nature does not wish that weaker individuals should mate with the stronger, she wishes even less that a superior race should intermingle with an inferior one; because in such cases all her efforts, throughout hundreds of thousands of years, to establish an evolutionary higher stage of being, may thus be rendered futile.”

    Hitler tried to present the idea of an Aryan Christ who would purge the Jews, something which Pope Pius XI rightly and strongly denounced at the time. And you are quite wrong about the Jews as well. Hitler hated the Jews because of their racial identity, not their religion. Like today, plenty of Jews back then were quite secular.

    So please try to come up with some actual facts and evidence next time Steve, instead of the tired old atheist foolishness. Simply parroting the old myths and clichés from the Atheist Academy will do you no good here. It just exposes the atheist arguments for what they really are: ridiculous, irrational and shallow.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. Bill,

    The close links between Nazism and Christianity are well documented. Although there is some truth in your statements about the Nazis claims of racial superiority, the actual situation was far more complicated and murky than you are trying to claim. Germany was and still is a Christian country. The Nazis came to power with the strong support of Lutherans and, to a lesser extent, Catholics, the two predominant denominations in Germany. A significant number of Lutheran pastors supported Hitler in his rise to power.

    Luther himself built on hundreds of years of Christian anti-semitism and wrote a major treatise On the Jews and Their Lies which the Nazis used as propaganda. This treatise is widely recognised as having had a significant influence on Germany’s attitude towards Jews in the period between the Reformation and the Holocaust.

    The Nazi concept of Positive Christianity still exists today in the Christian Identity movement, which manifests itself even in Australia as a key influence of right-wing extremist views.

    You accuse me of “tell a lie often enough”, yet this is exactly what your are doing in your attempts to distance Christianity from the rise of fascism.

    Steve Angelino, WA

  10. Thanks Steve

    Your obsession with distorting truth and bending evidence to promote your ideology of atheism is becoming fairly routine of late. The case for the secular, atheistic nature of the Nazi regime has been sufficiently made by numerous serious scholars. Fallacious and silly remarks like “Germany was a Christian country” with the implication that so too were Hitler and the Nazis is first grade foolishness, and does not deserve any further rebuttal.

    And yours remarks on the Jews does not fare much better. Have there been anti-Semitic Christians in the past 2,000 years? Of course. Should there have been? No. Whenever Christian anti-Semitism has taken place it has been a horrible aberration of New Testament Christianity. Such activities are not done representing biblical Christianity and deserve to be condemned.

    Jesus was far from anti-Semitic. He was a Jew for heaven’s sake, as were almost all the early Christians. So taking an aberration of the Christian faith and comparing it with the logical and expected outcome of secular regimes is simply mixing apples and oranges.

    When Nazis killed Jews, they were not being aberrational or inconsistent with their secular worldview. They were acting fully in accord with it. When Christians kills Jews, they are perverting their faith and renouncing their Lord. You again simply make a category mistake here.

    And you are getting more bizarre by the moment, now trying to identify conservative believers in Australia with the Nazis. With all due respect, if that is the best you can come up with you might want to try other websites to peddle your nonsense.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Steve Angelino is clueless that the Nazi Term ‘positive Christianity’ was no more Christian than the The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was democratic. Similarly, the “Christian Identity Movement” has nothing to do with Christianity but everything to do with white supremacist bigotry. This is not taught in the Bible, but was taught in Hunter’s A Civic Biology that Clarence Darrow defended in the Scopes Trial!

    It’s notable that the Nazi party had a plan to destroy Christianity, as shown by prosecutor William Donovan at the Nuremberg trials. Similarly, the KKK bombed a Baptist Church in Alabama, killing four black girls.

    As for Germany, atheistic evolutionist Ernst Mayr wrote that in his childhood, biblical Christianity was practically non-existent. Rather, Germany was the birthplace of liberal theology.

    See also my response to one of SA’s fellow misotheists.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  12. As someone a little younger than the wise council obviously present, perhaps I am a little naive in my thoughts. But it has always been my understanding that religion was never a creation of God. So if the ‘athiest’ argument that ‘religion is the primary cause of war’ is an attempt to mar the name of God or His Church then all they have achieved is making a very loud, mute-point. Their remarks really do not trouble me, nor should they trouble any other man/woman of the faith, other than the fact that they’re making my ear’s bleed a little, but that’s fine because their tax dollars are paying for my medicare as well.

    Assuming that these people are right, and religion was the cause of war. Even if we were to abolish religion, if it were to no longer exist, if you truely believed that it would be an end to all wars (i’m finding hard to type this out without chuckling) then YOU would be the NAIVE ones!

    At the end of the day, it is within the nature of man to fight. On a personal level it is a slight and civil action might be taken, on a governmental level it is an offence and war is declared.
    If a man were to try steal his neighbours land, it’s a crime and he would be punished.
    If a nation were to try steal their neighbours land, it’s war, and it’s government glorified.

    The reality is war is declared every day, for many different reasons. ‘Religion’ being the least of all. But if you’re going to declare a national war, why not do it in ‘Gods name’? Then no one can argue against it.

    Darius Khor

  13. Thanks for this review Bill,

    I am reminded that from the first attempts at political governance, politics and religion have been mixed. It is impossible to separate. So the religion of atheism is mixed with much of politics today. And for the last two hundred years. There has been a mix of religion and politics that has produced wars.

    Greg Brien

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *