Here’s a question that I just want to throw out into the ether for discussion: are not all wars involving religious people … religious wars at least on some level?

What raises this question is my experience with hawkish atheists, who criticise religious justification for war on the one hand, yet express shock and even distain for my religiously motivated pacifism on the other. What do they expect? As a religious person I look for religious justification and divine sanction for everything that I do. That includes war. If I find war legitimate it will be for religious reasons, if I find it illegitimate it will be for religious reasons. What, do they expect me to find it legitimate for atheist reasons? I can’t – I am not an atheist – get over it.

Now of course we need to distinguish between wars which are fought on explicitly religious grounds (e.g. crusades, jihads) and those which are fought on more implicitly religious grounds (e.g. regular wars justified with recourse to just war doctrine) but either way, religious people will be looking for divine sanction before they support the taking of life. If they do not feel that sanction is there, the only alternative is personal compromise or conscientious objection.

This becomes a very sharp issue when it comes to dialogue with atheists on church-state separation. For a Christian it is very hard to justify war without blurring the distinction between church and state. It is no accident that the most hawkish Christians in America are often the very same ones with the most powerful eschatological expectations regarding the state of Israel and the manifest destiny of the United States. It is also no accident that in Australia and Britain, when just war doctrine comes up in public discourse, that it is the churches with the most solid state ties that are the very same ones that most vocally stand behind the doctrine. Quite simply conflation of church and state is extremely important for enlisting Christian support of state wars. Just ask Constantine.

Once that confusion between church and state is removed however, one of the main linchpins for Christian participation in state wars is removed with it. For separation of church and state divides our loyalties, it reminds us that loyalty to the state is of secondary concern. Thereafter we can only offer qualified support at best. Again, it is no accident that during the Reformation that Christian pacifism emerged strongest amongst the Anabaptists, those who most vocally affirmed separation of church and state. I find this consequence of state-church separation can come as a shock to atheists, who can see perfectly rational reasons for participation in war that have nothing to do with religion and want to keep religion out of it. Well we can’t keep religion out of it, we’re religious get it.

6 thoughts on “Religious War

  1. We’ve come a long way… Celsus (C2) and Porphyry (C3) criticised Christians for their objection to military service, on the grounds that they thus jeopardised the well-being of their own society by doing so. It only took the fourth century, particularly between Constantine and Theodosius for the pendulum to swing back the other way.

    Incidentally, Constantine didn’t merge religion and politics for cynical motives, to my mind. Or at least no more cynically than anyone else; it was simply a tenet of Greco-Roman society that they were linked at every level. Read Suetonius’ “Lives of the Caesars” and watch for the attention paid to pagan views of fate, portents and astrology in a standard work of political history — my impression was that he spent 1/4 of each book on the subject.


  2. I’d love to know which atheists you’ve been talking to, which wars they’ve been justifying, and on what grounds.
    I can’t think of any wars within the last 15 years or so that could be categorised as “just”, even using the criteria for a so-called “just” war. So if Christians justify them, they must be doing so on unChristian grounds — perhaps the very same grounds that the atheists are justifying them on?


  3. I find that all too often “just war” doctrine is twisted into nothing more than “justification for war” doctrine. This is precisely what I saw many Anglican leaders in Australia and Britain doing when the US invaded Iraq. Rather than considering how just war doctrine might actually condemn the move, time and again I came across theologians and leaders agonizing how to reconcile pre-emptive war with it. One leader out here said, in an uncharacteristically limp wristed fashion for him, that if we get it wrong we’ll ask for forgiveness later but we should support the state. The test of the doctrine though is how often it is used prophetically – methinks it fails. But my point is, even though I found their logic and motives quite unChristian, they were still trying to justify it on Christian grounds – they could not take doctrine out of the equation even when their own doctrine condemned it.
    As for the atheists, I am not branding all atheists I have engaged with over the years, just recalling the attitudes of the more hawkish and militant ones I have come across. Just as their is an evangelical left there is also an atheist right. I have found they get just as ballistic about Bush as the atheist left, but when I advocate pacifism all sorts of interesting responses come out.


  4. I’m more inclined to pacifism, but if I believed in the just war doctrine (which I don’t) there is still no way it can be twisted to make the war on Iraq just.
    Of course atheists can have any criteria they like for going to war or not; I just wondered why they think others should see it the same way as they do.


  5. Well I would have thought so too, yet clearly there some believe they’ve accomplished it. The doctrinal gymnastics required are impressive – call it theological yoga?
    As for the atheists, again I am speaking of a select group but they seem to extend separation of church and state to separation of spirituality and social life. Religion cannot be tollerated in the public sphere so Christians are obliged to exercise extreme dualism / double think.


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