You hear it from both atheists and some believers. Religion does more harm than good. And what’s often pointed to as the rationale for this belief is all the death and misery caused by differences between religions.
They point to the Crusades, to Ireland, to India, and of course to the Middle East as proof that all too much killing has occurred “in the name of God.”
Since religious identities are apparent in all these situations, it’s an easy argument to make and is not often dissected. In other words, the conclusion that religion is at fault is usually not questioned by anyone. It becomes the backdrop to an argument, a given, while debaters continue on to argue whether other religious functions do or do not make up for the bloodshed.
A couple of articles I’ve read lately suggest that I and others who have taken this “truth” for granted, may be fairly off the mark. Benjamin Wiker tackles this problem in The Myth of Religious Violence. I think he makes some excellent points. Relying on William Cavanaugh’s book of the same name, he argues most so-called religious wars are really political in nature and have much less to do with religion as the subject. According to Cavanaugh, religious differences are easily abandoned when some greater issue unites the otherwise religious opposites.
This is confirmed in John Wilkins, Undefining Religion. Wilkins, who is in my estimation, a thoughtful and deep thinker, argues that religions get blamed for many (but not all) wars based on a thing called the reference class problem, i.e., the tendency to ascribe fault based on an easily identifiable “class” rather than on actual facts, or the fallacy of composition. An example would be, I’m for Obama and I’m Catholic, you’re against Obama and Protestant, thus Catholics are for Obama and Protestants against him.
Even the so-called religious wars, such as The Troubles in Ireland or the Crusades, were the outcome of social, economic and political processes, for which religion stood, not as a cause, but as a proxy for the opposing sides. This is not to say that religion never causes problems of this kind – of course it does. But often enough it is not the cause so much as the banner under which other issues are being resolved. The Irish Catholics and the imported Protestants were representative of ethnic groups with different social status and power, and so being Catholic was not so much the root of the Troubles as the honest signal of group identity.
This is all fine so far as it goes, and I’m happy to see some clarity brought to an issue that has always been troubling in discussions about the value of religion. But unfortunately, Wiker takes it a step further, and enters into what I think is simply a sea of illogical conclusion.
Wiker contends that this false premise, that religion causes wars and strife, death and misery, is the reason why our country rejected a religious-state connection. He argues as Cavanaugh’s beard, that this belief is necessary to those who wish to create secular states. Notice the innuendo here. Secularists (bad) conspire to make religion the cause of bad things in the minds of the people which allows them to strip religion from the state apparatus, and thus make a secularist state (truly bad).
Wiker goes on to carry Cavanaugh’s argument that the case of Everson v Board of Education, is seminal in this regard, wherein Hugo Black borrowed Jefferson’s words from a letter of 1802, interpreting the 1st Amendment, non-establishment clause, as “thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” Wiker argues that forever after “secular-minded” justices have used the violence excuse as the basis for their secularization of government.
Somehow I fail to see the connection, and nowhere does Wiker point me to any other verbiage in the opinion or other opinions for that matter from which I may logically deduce such a conclusion. Wiker claims that but not for this dastardly act, we would still be the Judeo-Christian country that he, no doubt, feels was intended.
Funny, but throughout my investigation of religion and the 1st Amendment, I’ve never come across the “violence” argument before. Actually what we find is a constant reverberating chant of argument that relates to the sanctity of religious freedom being maintained through its separation from government. Enlightenment founders were aware no doubt of the sordid an often ugly connection between religion and government in Europe. Indeed Wiker makes his own argument for this, in explaining to us that religion is merely the vehicle used by governments to effect results having little to do with faith. The argument actually becomes circular.
While we can be safe, I think, in our historical conclusions that the Clause was erected and maintained to protect religious minorities their freedom to exist and practice as they wished, Wiker has unknowingly it seems, add the very argument of religious violence to the pot. Religion and government together too often makes religion the tool of government. And that tool is a powerful one indeed, giving rise to passions that can be far greater than any other argument as a call to arms.
Just what I have been thinking about this week.