Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Does Christianity Cause War?
By David Martin.
Oxford University Press. 226 pp. $56.

The question posed by the title of this book is a simple one, which, on the face of it, fits squarely within the debate over the relation of religion to politics and to conflict that has emerged at the end of the twentieth century. One reason for this debate is that some of the most violent and seemingly intractable contemporary conflicts (Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Bosnia, Sri Lanka) have taken place across lines of religious difference and have often been fed, in more or less direct ways, by appeals to religious warrant or identity. Another factor has been the explicit appeal to religion in the formation of anti- Western revolutionary nationalistic ideologies, classically exemplified by Iran. More broadly, concern has grown over the role of religion in the shaping of civilizations and in the fomenting of hostility between and among different civilizations, not least because of Samuel P. Huntington’s argument that such conflict is systemic and likely inevitable.

Anyone familiar with the contours of recent discussion of the role of religion regarding politics and conflict will be both gratified and frustrated by the present book. David Martin, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Honorary Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster, frames the book as a response to the statement of British zoologist Richard Dawkins that “religion causes wars by generating certainty.” The certainty in question is that of ideological commitment, which is held to generate intolerance and militancy toward persons informed by rival, often equally certain, commitments. Put this way, Dawkins’ position is a play upon Chesterton’s characterization of tolerance as a virtue of people who do not believe in anything. Belief leads to intolerance and ultimately to conflict. More generally, Dawkins’ position is a version of Enlightenment-induced suspicion towards religion. Perpetual peace will come about only by transcending specific religious differences in the name of a higher rationality. Martin argues just the opposite: that most conflicts empirically have little or nothing to do with religion as such, and that religion rightly construed in relation to society and the individual itself tends to contribute to peace, not war. These major lines of argument are what is gratifying about the book; the frustration occurs in the ways the arguments are made.

First, why choose Dawkins as a foil? The issues treated are much larger than the specific arguments posed against Dawkins (who is, moreover, described so minimally as to be little more than a straw man). Nor is the claim attributed to him––that religion as such causes wars––addressed except indirectly by Martin, whose interest is whether Christianity causes wars. This is no small question, but it does not meet the thrust of Dawkins’ assertion or the assumptions about all forms of religion that can be read through it. So Dawkins as a foil does not, in the event, turn out to be useful. Indeed, after being brought out at the beginning he waits off stage for most of the book. When he reappears, after long neglect, in order to face final refutation in the concluding sentences of the last chapter, it is a distraction, not a culmination of Martin’s overall argument.

What is the book really about? Martin advances an argument on two levels. On one level, he distinguishes Christianity’s role as a cultural marker from its role as a causative factor in several contemporary and historical conflicts. He notes that the cases reflect different circumstances, and that any conflict has a diversity of causes of which Christian religion could be, at most, one: “War conducted solely for religious reasons is a relative rarity.” The examples are apt and illuminating, and much of the thrust of the argument is simple common sense against antireligious dogmatism. But Martin says more. He makes pointed use of sociological distinctions, noticing that in modern societies religion usually “is separated off in a distinct sphere” from politics; as a result, such societies do not fight wars about religion as such.

Martin also recognizes, though, that even in modern societies religion can be made to function as a vehicle for social integration and identity. This is bad when it occurs. His examples are French Catholic intégrisme, Islamic agitation in Algeria, and the role of Orthodoxy in Serbia. In such cases religion becomes undifferentiated with respect to national identity and political action. Religion functions as a marker of identity that overlaps other markers, such as ethnicity or language. When it functions in such a way religion can be an element in fomenting and sustaining conflict. This is the function of Serbian Orthodoxy and Croatian Catholicism in the former Yugoslavia. But, Martin argues, conflicts involving such undifferentiated religion are not in fact conflicts about religion. “Nobody need suppose that the razing of Catholic churches in Krajina from 1991 to 1995 had anything whatsoever to do with a disagreement over the filioque clause in the Creed or something labeled by Richard Dawkins as religious ‘certainty.’”

This line of argument is, to my mind, deeply problematic. First, even when discussing Christianity, the phenomenon of religion cannot be captured in specific credal beliefs alone. In both differentiated and undifferentiated societies religion has to do with much more: institutional connections, patterns of social interaction, moral behavior, and, yes, personal and national identity. Second, the differentiated- undifferentiated distinction as classically employed in the sociology of religion is a way of describing the functioning of religion in different sorts of societies. On this usage, if undifferentiated societies fight wars, religion is in fact involved in those wars precisely as a marker of societal identity, whether specific references to beliefs are invoked or not. So Martin skews the issue by his critical use of a differentiated concept of religion to analyze a conflict that involves religion functioning undifferentiatedly.

The reason Martin makes this rather questionable move, I believe, has to do with what he wants to say on his second level of argument. He identifies the “original salience” of Christianity with the “peace code,” and links together differentiated religion, voluntary associational patterns of religion, and “peace and reconciliation.” Voluntarism in religion, Martin argues, functions as a means of overcoming differences, not aggravating them, while establishment religion may do just the opposite. Drawing on his scholarly research on evangelical and Pentecostal Christian movements in Latin America, he places them alongside voluntary religion in Britain and the United States as examples of what he argues to be a more general phenomenon: that such forms of Christianity employ the core biblical narratives more centrally than others and are deeply pacifistic in their relation to the larger national culture. The upshot is that the argument that Christianity causes war has the matter exactly backwards. Where Christianity is highly differentiated and pluralistic in relation to the public sphere, as it is in voluntary forms of Christian religion, the contribution of religion “has been almost entirely directed to peaceful reconciliation internally and peace in foreign affairs.”

This second line of argument also embodies serious problems. The idea that voluntary forms of Christian religion are somehow closer to the original Christian meaning than are established churches cuts far too many corners, blurs far too many important distinctions, engages in too much special pleading, and ignores far too much history to be persuasive. Were the Anabaptists of the Zurich hinterland really closer to the true meaning of Christianity than Zwingli and the (established) Reformed Church of Zurich? Were the various monastic reform movements of the Middle Ages really closer to the “original salience” of Christianity than the meaning preserved in the mainline Catholic Church? Why privilege contemporary evangelical and Pentecostal religious bodies as somehow closer than “church” types of religious organization to the original meaning of Christianity? Indeed, what exactly is that meaning, and is it as pacifistic as Martin argues? Contemporary study of the early Christian movement presents a very different, much more diverse and complicated picture of it than that summarized by Martin in this book. Further, what of contrary examples offered by militant fundamentalist religious bodies that are nonetheless voluntary forms of religious association?

The good common sense of this book’s argument against the Enlightenment-induced idea that religion causes war is, in the end, not overcome by the problems noted. But one must be careful to take the book’s insights along with a supply of critical salt, and be forewarned as to the author’s own conceptions of the nature of Christian religion at its best.

James Turner Johnson is Professor of Religion at Rutgers University.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift