It is consistently seen in history that religion is often linked to warfare. This connection may take varying forms; sometimes, as with the Crusades and the attempted invasion of England by Spain in the 16th century, religion is cited by the aggressors as the primary motivation for the war. In other cases, and as will be seen in today’s acts of terrorism from the Middle East, it is more that deep-seated religious beliefs, built into the foundations of nations, more indirectly motivate acts of war. No matter how religion actually is a factor in war, however, and no matter the ways in which it is perceived or presented as such, one reality remains in place; namely, that religion is not faith, but the form faith takes as a social, cultural, and political force in a nation. When this actual identity of religion is understood, and as will be argued in the following, religion becomes a very real cause of war.
In order to appreciate how religion plays a role in causing war, it is necessary to observe how it so powerfully is a foundation of a nation, or of a wider culture. Historically, religion exists in a context of multiple and significant interests, both influencing and being influenced by tides of commerce, social order, politics, and spirituality as well. Perhaps no more striking case of this contextual relationship may be found that the role of the Catholic Church in Europe in the early to late Middle Ages. Regarding the latter era, the European Church, building in presence since the fall of Rome, steadily adapted to feudal cultures. More exactly, in an age when power bases were shifting radically within regions under Frankish rule, the Church more strongly reformed itself to be a political force as well, and one in which papal authority would emerge as stronger than that of the disjointed governments. By the rise of the high Middle Ages, the Church essentially exercised authority over all social and political arenas (Arnold). This was in fact only an extension of an agenda to exert temporal authority long in place. In plain terms, and multiple conflicts and eras notwithstanding, the dominant reality was that the Church established itself as the ultimate political and social power because even Christian princes were subject to the will of God, and that will demanded obedience to the Church (Medieval Political Philosophy). It is then seen that the Catholic Church, and for long centuries, held enormous sway over the European Medieval societies.
When power at this level is based upon religious structures, it is then inevitable that religion, as a complex structure itself, goes to promoting and causing war. This is famously evident in the Crusades, in which for centuries the Church insisted on European lords gathering their forces to fight the Muslims in the East. As the 1095 decree of Pope Urban II made clear, the Church demanded that the holy places of the East should be returned to Western ownership (Decrees of Pope Urban II), thus launching wars that would go on for hundreds of years. What is critical here is how religion became expanded to reflect economic, social, political, and spiritual matters, all of which combined to amplify the core religion as cause of war. On one level, the Church made it clear that crusaders would receive absolution from their sins. On another, winning glory in such battle translated to great prestige at home, which in turn translated to political powers as heroes commanded popular support. Then, the Crusades offered men with no land or titles a “career”; captured cities in the East could either be claimed as property or looted (Rooney, Miller). The Crusades were in no uncertain terms a military/spiritual/social/commercial venture. More importantly, they emphatically employed religion to incite war.
This same combined agenda may be seen in how religion generated the war between Spain and England in the late 16th century. The ostensible motive was purely religious, in fact; King Philip II of Spain, reflecting the concerns of other European nations, objected to Elizabeth’s upholding of the Protestant faith in England. This was heresy that endangered the souls of millions, and Philip had the wealth and power to launch an invasion in the name of the Catholic Church. At the same time, however, religion here was combined with other motives, as Philip’s intent to conquer England was closely tied to his ambition to prevent English occupations of New World lands; he needed to block English advancement (Parker). Religion, significantly reflecting major political and economic interests, then essentially caused the war.
Lastly, modern conflicts further reveal how religion as a multifaceted force causes war. The recent conflict between the United States and Iraq, in fact, powerfully supports how a mixture of spiritual concerns, and economic, cultural, and political factors goes to generating war. It is interesting, moreover, to note the parallels between the recent war and the Spanish invasion of 1588. More exactly, and importantly, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were very much based on religious hatred of the West in the Middle East. The acts were a statement declaring that, for Islam, Christian infidels are an abomination to God (MEMRI). That the terrorism was generated by violent factions is irrelevant; war was in place due, as with Spain, to an imperative to erase a heretical faith. At the same time, this religious incentive was and remains infused with factors going to more temporal issues. As Osama Bin Laden’s addresses to his followers made clear, the heresy of the West was intolerable because it crushed the dominance long enjoyed by Muslim civilization. As all U.S. citizens support the perceived oppression, all are enemies of the true faith (Halevi). In plain terms, increasing Western influence, economic and social, was robbing Islam of its rightful authority as a primary state of great commercial and social power. Once again, then, war, in the form of U.S. reaction to the terrorism, was in effect caused by religion.
All of the above clearly illustrates that religion, and in terms of both Western and Eastern cultures, consistently goes to causing war. On one level, the religion is often held as the dominant motivation, and the motivation is to establish the “true” faith through the conquest of heretics. On another, however, it is as well invariably seen that religion is never exclusive of other interests. As each culture’s religion becomes a social and economic factor or influence, religion itself is expanded beyond any sole concern for spirituality. Consequently, religion causes war because religion in any significant culture or nation is never confined to only the spiritual.
- Arnold. J. L. “The Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages.” 1999. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
- Decrees of Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont, 1095. n/a. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
- Halevi, J. D. “Al-Qaeda’s Intellectual Legacy: New Radical Islamic Thinking Justifying the Genocide of Infidels.” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2003. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
- Medieval Political Philosophy. “Papal Fullness of Power.” 2006. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
- Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). “Contemporary Islamist Ideology Authorizing Genocidal Murder.” 2004. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
- Parker, G. “The Grand Strategy of Philip II.” New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.
- Rooney, R., & Miller, A. “The Crusades: Motivations, Administration, and Cultural Influence.” 2010. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.