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.
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.