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Religion Is Unfairly Blamed
For The World's Wars

Jesse Ventura's Playboy interview has provoked impassioned debate on the role of organized faith in American life.

In describing religion as a "sham and a crutch for weak-minded people," the governor of Minnesota has drawn criticism. But he has also attracted enthusiastic defenders who turn the attention to faith's checkered history. Callers to my national radio show solemnly intoned the same hackneyed charge. "Religion has started most of the wars in history!" they declared. The only trouble is that the idea that organized faith provokes most of humanity's wars is utterly untrue.

The twentieth century provides little or no evidence to support the contention that religion causes most human conflict. The greatest and costliest struggles of the uniquely blood-soaked hundred year epic which just concluded-World War I, World War II, the many "hot" conflicts of the Cold War-could scarcely be defined as religious disputes. Even Hitler's targeting of the Jews for annihilation bore little connection to faith-based concerns or hatreds. The Nazis killed according to ethnicity; they spared neither Jewish atheists nor Jewish converts to Christianity.

Relatively minor wars of the last hundred years (the Arab-Israeli conflicts, the struggle in Northern Ireland, the fighting in the Balkans) may contain unmistakable religious elements. But these struggles claimed only a fraction of the victims of horrific battles between co-religionists (the unspeakably bloody Iran-Iraq war), or genocidal tribal conflicts (in Rwanda and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa).

Is there any evidence that before the advent of the world's great and enduring religions, human beings behaved in a less warlike or murderous manner? Looking at the warring empires of the ancient world, where did religious imperatives play a key role in their struggles? Egyptians and Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians, Athenians and Spartans, made little effort to force their rival powers to accept their distinctive gods-but this didn't keep them from slaughtering one another over the course of thousands of years.

Of course, it's easy to find disgusting examples of brutal butchery committed in the name of a loving God. The Crusaders, for instance, massacred Moslems and Jews (and, in fact, other Christians when they sacked Constantinople) all in the name of some holy purpose. Following the Protestant Reformation, The Thirty Years War brought about a bloodbath in the heart of Europe-with an estimated one-third of the German population slaughtered by the contending armies. But even such struggles conducted in the name of faith contained elements of power politics and greed-with Catholic France, for instance, incongruously allied with the Protestant side in the Thirty Years War.

Describing wars in simplistic terms as "religious conflicts" inevitably leads to confusion and misstatements. If some clergyman tried to convince the public that religion through the ages has been a force solely for good, with no history of cruelty or hypocrisy, thoughtful people would rightly dismiss his arguments. The statement that "religion causes most wars in history" is similarly one-sided, ludicrous, extreme and ignorant.

By Michael Medved, Jewish World Review

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