The Road to Ruin
Religious Wars


I. Introduction

There’s a great passage in Dostoyevsky’s “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” where he talks about all the reasons people find to fight about as civilization becomes more and more corrupt:

They learnt to lie, grew fond of lying, and discovered the charm of falsehood. Oh, at first perhaps it began innocently, with a jest, coquetry, with amorous play, perhaps indeed with a germ, but that germ of falsity made its way into their hearts and pleased them. Then sensuality was soon begotten, sensuality begot jealousy, jealousy - cruelty . . . Oh, I don't know, I don't remember; but soon, very soon the first blood was shed. They marveled and were horrified, and began to be split up and divided. They formed into unions, but it was against one another. Reproaches, upbraidings followed. They came to know shame, and shame brought them to virtue. The conception of honor sprang up, and every union began waving its flags. They began torturing animals, and the animals withdrew from them into the forests and became hostile to them. They began to struggle for separation, for isolation, for individuality, for mine and thine. They began to talk in different languages. They became acquainted with sorrow and loved sorrow; they thirsted for suffering, and said that truth could only be attained through suffering. Then science appeared. As they became wicked they began talking of brotherhood and humanitarianism, and understood those ideas. As they became criminal, they invented justice and drew up whole legal codes in order to observe it, and to ensure their being kept, set up a guillotine. They hardly remembered what they had lost, in fact refused to believe that they had ever been happy and innocent. They even laughed at the possibility of this happiness in the past, and called it a dream. They could not even imagine it in definite form and shape, but, strange and wonderful to relate, though they lost all faith in their past happiness and called it a legend, they so longed to be happy and innocent once more that they succumbed to this desire like children, made an idol of it, set up temples and worshipped their own idea, their own desire; though at the same time they fully believed that it was unattainable and could not be realized, yet they bowed down to it and adored it with tears! Nevertheless, if it could have happened that they had returned to the innocent and happy condition which they had lost, and if someone had shown it to them again and had asked them whether they wanted to go back to it, they would certainly have refused. They answered me:


"We may be deceitful, wicked and unjust, we know it and weep over it, we grieve over it; we torment and punish ourselves more perhaps than that merciful Judge Who will judge us and whose Name we know not. But we have science, and by the means of it we shall find the truth and we shall arrive at it consciously. Knowledge is higher than feeling, the consciousness of life is higher than life. Science will give us wisdom, wisdom will reveal the laws, and the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness.



Then there arose men who began to think how to bring all people together again, so that everybody, while still loving himself best of all, might not interfere with others, and all might live together in something like a harmonious society. Regular wars sprang up over this idea. All the combatants at the same time firmly believed that science, wisdom and the instinct of self-preservation would force men at last to unite into a harmonious and rational society; and so, meanwhile, to hasten matters, the wise endeavored to exterminate as rapidly as possible all who were not wise and did not understand their idea, that the latter might not hinder its triumph. But the instinct of self-preservation grew rapidly weaker; there arose men, haughty and sensual, who demanded all or nothing. In order to obtain everything they resorted to crime, and if they did not succeed - to suicide. There arose religions with a cult of non-existence and self-destruction for the sake of the everlasting peace of annihilation.


Note that among the things people fight about is religion—but they also fight to create a society that doesn’t fight!  All sorts of paradoxes here, one particularly important to this class.  Religion can be a force for peace, abut it can also make people more bloodthirsty than ever.

II. Religion and Conflict in the Polytheistic World

Polytheistic religions have a god for every aspect of life: fertility, metal working, sea travel, etc.  Naturally enough, there’s always a god of war as well, an Ares or a Mars.  And if you don’t have a god of war, it’s easy to turn a god originally worshipped for other reasons into a war god. Ashur, apparently initially a vegetation god, because the Assyrian war god.  In the Iliad and the Odyssey, almost all the gods are in one sense or another war gods.  The Romans likewise considered worship of all their various gods as an advantage in war.  The Assyrian kings prefaced their battle/conquest chronicles with religious imagery. And notice Raamses boast at the battle of Kaddesh: his battle exploits are proof that he’s a god.

The Aryan gods of Hindus likewise were are gods. Note that all of Vishnu’s avatars are warriors (except, maybe, Buddha).

III. War and monotheism

Judaism initially is a warrior faith as well.  Abraham is a fighting man, arming his followers and rescuing his nephew lot from the Mesopotamian kings.  Moses too is a man of war, and the Psalms are filled with imagery of God himself as a victorious conquering.  There’s the song of Miriam, “I will sing unto the Lord for he hath triumphed gloriously….”

Later, we get Joshua’s conquest of Canaan and, still later, the warrior kings David and Saul building Israel through force of arms.

There are some limits to war, though, in Mosaic law.  Captive women are not just to be used in any way one likes.

Also, the Hebrew Bible suggests that war isn’t really God’s way.  David can’t build the temple: he’s a man of war.  Solomon, the man of peace, builds the temple.

Ultimately, war will come to an end: the lion lies down with the lamb in god’s kingdom.

In the meantime, wars are of two types, just and unjust.  Don’t take the Edomite’s land.  Driving out the Canaanites is right.

Judaism continues to be a fighting religion until the great wars in 70 AD and 135 AD.  It’s a long time before Jews will fight again!

What about Christians?  Here, the story is rather different.  Christianity starts out as a non-fighting faith.  Jesus tells his followers not to fight: his kingdom is not of this world.

Among the Romans, Christianity had a great rival in Mithraism which was indeed a fighting faith.  Constantine had been a follower of Mithras, and, under Constantine, Christianity is going to pick up some of the characteristics of a fighting religion. 

Now Roman law even during the pagan era had stressed the need for justice in warfare and, ultimately, a hope of peace.  Augustus had established the Pax Romana—and Christianity tends to hope for a settlement of that sort.

IV.  For Brother's to Dwell Together?

Islam to a certain extent has a similar ultimate goal.  But Islam and Christianity aren’t quite alike here when it comes to the issue of warfare.  Fighting for the Christianized Roman Empire against (say) the Persians isn’t quite the same as fighting for Christianity.

As Philip Hitti notes, Muhammad is the only man to establish both a religion, a nation, and a state.  The conquests of the Caliphs are *both* religious and secular in a way that Christian victories against the Persians were not.

Still, the loss of “Christian” territory to Islam was still a psychological blow, especially with the rise of the Seljuk Turks (around 1000 AD),  When news of the loss of about ½ of the remainder of Byzantine territory reached the West, this seemed a call for action.

In 1095 at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II talked to an assembled group of Frankish knights, describing the atrocities and calling on them to "take up the cross." He promised anyone who took part in the struggle to protect Byzantium and win back the land lost to the Muslims that they would receive immediate forgiveness of all their sins.  No purgatory: straight to heaven for them.  "Deus Volt," God wills it, was the response, and, soon enough, the forces of the Christian west assembled and did for a time take back much of what had been lost to the Muslims.

Now "Crusade" tends to be a dirty word today, and there are some who have a legitimate gripe against the Crusaders.  Jews and Byzantine Christians have every reason to be bitter about the Crusades, since Crusaders often attacked perfectly peaceful Jewish communities and since (in the 4th Crusade) the Crusaders actually sacked Constantinople!  Many of those who went on Crusade have reason to be bitter, especially the thousands of children who set about on the Children's Crusade--only to end up tricked aboard slave ships or sold to houses of prostitution. 

Many in the Muslim world today complain bitterly about the Crusaders.  But I’m not sure this is entirely fair.  The Crusade is essentially the same thing as Jihad, Holy War.  The Muslims had inspired their troops with this idea for centuries.  And, after all, it was Muhammad himself who directly denied the turn the other cheek principle: eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life--and, if you don't want to forgive, you don't have to.

V.  Christianity: the fighting faith

In any case, the Crusades mark a historic turning point.  From here on out, Europeans and European Civilization have been the aggressors in World history.

But what’s interesting is how quickly the Crusading movement turned inward.  Popes declared “crusades” against groups like the Albigensians in France—and against Holy Roman Emperors!

But there’s in some ways an even greater turning point to come.  In the 15th century, Portuguese and Spanish explorers set out to establish new trade routes, discovering what, for Europeans, were new worlds.  Who should control these lands?  Treaties like Alcavocas (1479) and Tordesillas (1494) divided newly-discovered territories into lands Spain could claim and lands Portugal could claim—and established the principle that non-Christian lands were essentially up for grabs. Conquest of a non-Christian people was, by definition, a just war!

And, shortly after the discovery of the New World, the religious unity of Western Europe disappeared—and we have a whole series of wars justified by differences in denominations.  French Calvinists and Catholics square off in the French wars of religion (1562-1589), while German-speaking Lutherans and Catholics square off in (first) the Schmalkaldic wars and then in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648)—a war which left 1/3 of the German speaking peoples of Europe dead.

A dismal spectacle: Christians doing horrible things to other Christians in the name of Christ.

Was there a better way?  Well, of course…