I s religion the main cause of violence in human history, as many have suggested? Religion is certainly no stranger to violence. It has used it in the past and it uses it today. But is it the cause of violence? Many thoughtful people think it is. And they go on to suggest that the way to rid the world of violence is to rid it of religion. Some push the argument further by saying that since it was God who commanded the violence that has been such a curse to humanity, the best way to save humanity from its curse is to get rid of God. It’s a powerful charge and one we can’t ignore.

So the question is not whether religion has been the cause of much of the violence in history, but why it should bother us? In our glance at slavery, we noted that there are situations in which violence is a valid moral option. That is a principle that guides most nations in their internal as well as their external politics. Statistically, the USA is the most Christian nation on earth. It is also one of the most violent. It permits capital punishment. It believes in the right of ordinary citizens to own firearms and use them in self-defence. And thousands of its citizens are killed every year as a consequence. It has also, like nations everywhere, used violence not only to defend itself against its enemies but to intervene in the affairs of other countries. If we can justify violence in these circumstances, why do we get so upset when religions use it to serve their purposes? We are a violent species. So why does religious violence make us so squeamish?

There are two reasons. The first is that when religion enters a quarrel it adds a toxic ingredient to the mix that is not always present in other conflicts. Humans are prone to violence anyway, but if they can persuade themselves they are doing it in obedience to God it removes any chance of mercy and moderation from the conflict. During a period of religious warfare in Scotland in the seventeenth century known as ‘the Killing Times’, the battle cry of one side was ‘God and no quarter’, meaning that they should show no mercy and take no prisoners. Watching rival Muslim factions shelling each other in the Middle East on this evening’s TV News we are likely to hear them praising Allah as they release their missiles against each other.

If you are acting in obedience to the moral judge of the universe you can’t go wrong. ‘God and no quarter!’ That’s why conflicts between religious fanatics can roll through the centuries with neither side ever seeking reconciliation. And when an old feud acquires a new surge of energy it is sometimes described as ‘identity politics’. An unpopular group can achieve a sense of purpose and identity by wielding a faith that defines it against others. It can relieve an outsider’s feelings of homelessness. It can intoxicate him with anger. And it can give him a reason for blowing himself up in an overcrowded Underground train in London in 2005.

If the first reason religious violence appals us is the unreasoning intensity it brings to human conflict, the second is that there is a terrible contradiction at its heart. It is a contradiction that unbelievers often see more clearly than believers. The name of the contradiction is God. Most religions are based on the claim that God is the supreme reality. And that he is the author of their moral code. They may have different ways of putting it, but they all see God as the universal parent. Humans are God’s children. As the New Testament says, in God ‘we live and move and have our being’.

But if we are all God’s children, why does God spend so much time in history ordering one branch of his universal family to wipe out another branch? Why did his love for his Jewish children have to be expressed by the extermination of his Palestinian children? Why did he later abandon his Jewish children in favour of his Christian children and encourage his new favourites to torment their older siblings? Why did he order his Muslim children who worship him as One to persecute his pagan children who worship him as Many? Why is there so much violence in religious history, all done by groups who claim God is on their side?

Unless you are prepared to believe that God actually plays favourites like some kind of demented tyrant, then there are only two ways out of this dilemma. The obvious one is to decide that there is no God. What is called God is a human invention used, among other things, to justify humankind’s love of violence and hatred of strangers. Getting rid of God won’t solve the problem of human violence but it will remove one of its pretexts.

But if you don’t want to abandon God then you have to do some hard thinking. You have to ask yourself what is more likely: that God is the kind of homicidal maniac religion often makes him out to be? Or that religion has got God wrong and confuses its own cruelty with his will? If you decide it is more likely that religion has misunderstood God than that God is the monster its preachers sometimes make him out to be then you have a problem.

It turns out that religion may be a greater enemy of God than atheism. Atheism says God doesn’t exist. If God does exist he is more likely to be amused than outraged by the atheist’s impudence. The atheist will learn soon enough! But if God is not a monster then he is unlikely to be amused by religious teachers who make him out to be one. So we arrive at the conclusion that though religion claims to reveal the true nature of God to the world, a lot of the time it is actually hiding God behind the thick fog of its own cruelty.

Book: A little history of religion
Author: Richard Holloway