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Religion and conflict: Can they be seperated?

Updated on February 22, 2013
An allegorical 1874 political cartoon print
An allegorical 1874 political cartoon print | Source

Ending the ongoing struggle

It will hardly be beyond the notice of the reader that there is conflict in the world arena whose protagonists occasionally profess religious doctrine as their driving force. Also, it would be a poor student of history who had failed to notice the many wars, jihads etc that have been waged in the name of the almighty. What this hub aims to do, is to look at the problem of conflict and religion at first objectively, but then also necessarily contextually.

I will be trying to answer particularly the following questions:

  • Is religion to blame for the conflicts waged in its name?
  • What would happen if there were no religion?
  • Is there a way forwards?

The last of these three questions is perhaps the most important one to address. I have little patience for those who complain without offering solutions. That is not to say I do not appreciate a well thought out critique - I just find that it is more constructive to take a broken thing apart if one has an idea to present of just how we are going to go about fixing it afterwards.

Source

So... holy war anyone?

As I mentioned before - conflicts rage now as in every century previous since the birth of institutionalized religion between people of differing faiths. Not just different religions, but different sects within religions experience these contre temps. So religion must be bad then!

Well, no. It's not that easy I'm afraid. Often I see passionate atheists and secularists raise these rational arguments against religion, and at one time of my life I may have agreed with them at least in part. If we looked at life in black and white - assumed people said what they meant and meant what they said... then maybe we could still accept this approach. People have wars over religion? Get rid of religion - it doesn't seem to serve much purpose anyhow (in secularist thinking) and we have science and reason. What more is there really to say?

Well life is not black and white. People rarely say what they mean and half the time don't know what they mean or how to communicate it effectively even if they did.

Every conflict when looked at in context has underlying socio-political and economic reasons for starting. As the human creature's psychology is hard-wired to think of people as 'in-groups' and 'out-groups' i.e. 'us' and 'them' it is natural that cultural factors such as faith are used as rallying points for like-minded 'in-groups' to coalesce around.

Yes it may be true that many terrorist organizations hold extreme religious beliefs, but what caused them to hold such extreme views? The influence of meddling Western powers in the political situation in Afghanistan is well documented. Call it political Karma, if you will.

Try and understand the situation from the viewpoint one of the extremists, Let's call him Fred. Now, Fred is born into poverty and governance in his country is harsh, prospects are poor, and people he cares about die in unfair circumstances. Fred is desperate for help and looks around to find support for himself both physically and spiritually. He looks for someone to blame for his harsh existence. Extreme Islam calls having been lying in wait, calls to vulnerable Fred with open arms. He will be loved, respected and granted a truly marvelous afterlife. He will have brotherhood, and the courage of numbers. He will have an enemy to point the finger of blame at. No brainer. I know who I'd turn to if I was Fred.

What then is to blame for this boy's descent into extremist attitudes? The tenets of Islam? Hardly! The poverty and harshness Fred has endured in the circumstances of his every day life are what guided him. Who created those circumstances? We did. We engineered the economic and social factors that led to Fred's indoctrination. His actions, are our responsibility - not Islam's.

If we follow this thought to its natural conclusion we come to the revelation that so-called religious wars can be avoided by altering economic factors. If this is the case, are they truly wars about religion at all? I would argue not. I am not saying that unscrupulous zealots with their clever manipulative methods of brainwashing people aren't blameless... but they wouldn't have a foothold without having disenfranchised and alienated youths to prey on. These conflicts are (in pretty much every instance) nothing more than expressions of economic disharmony; of the 'have-nots' raging against the 'haves'. The religious front that is painted onto these conflicts is farcical.

As anyone who has spent time studying the different religions of the world will probably concur, most religions (broadly speaking) say pretty much the same things. None of the religions say it is good to kill. Neither do any serious theologians think that God 'wants' us to go around killing folk who don't to the letter follow the same interpretations of His word.

In the end we are left with the inevitable conclusion that holy war is just...plain old war. It is being fought for the same reasons all wars are fought - a base and unfortunate combination of fear, resentment and greed. People fight people because they haven't got enough of something, or they want more of something than they have a right to. Where separate ideologies and mythologies clash, the main teachings of all faiths match up pretty well. It is not the religions that are in conflict - it is the people. It has always been the people. Hiding behind the crusader's crucifix or the Imam's call to prayer will not conceal it any longer. Those who live by violence are living in direct conflict with the teachings they tout as the reason for their violence. Well, I'm afraid that that just doesn't wash any more.

The world be better for losing...

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Imagine...

In that famous secularist, and truly beautiful song Imagine, John lennon paints an interesting picture. It is the most moving expression of the secularists plea for peace that I know of. In it we are asked to paint a picture in our minds of a society free of all of the ludicrous cultural inventions that mankind has created to maintain illusions of separateness. It is a beautiful idea. One that attempts, quite successfully, to manifest a utopian vision of a peaceful world where all people are singing from the same hymn sheet as it were... ahem.

However, having ascertained that the main factor in preventing conflicts is equality of economic and educational opportunity, removing religion as an act in isolation would do little to benefit society. The main driving forces in the struggles would still be there. Who knows what reasons people would come up with so that they can pretend they're not fighting about money...

A world in which institutionalized religion was abolished but personal spiritual development was expected of its citizens however...? Now that's a different kettle of fish altogether. Though everyone would have access to all holy texts, each person's faith would be different. I'm sure like-minded folks would congregate to discuss, debate and share times of prayer/meditation etc.... but with no centrally controlled dogma and a healthy respect for the subjective experiences of other people it is highly unlikely that zealotry and fundamentalism would arise. People would debate their different views - but with a culture that is accepting of differences this would never lead to more than raised voices.

I say no to doing away with religion as a blanket strategy... I say an emphatic yes to phasing out the institutions that turn luminary teachings into meaningless, repetitive and misunderstood litanies of boredom and apathy.

I say no to getting rid of faith... I say yes to getting rid of those monolithic political and cultural structures that suck the life and the meaning out of what should be empowering and uplifting.

I say take responsibility for your spirituality if this is a side of yourself you would like to develop. Live your faith, don't preach it. You can discuss your beliefs - but never dictate the beliefs of others. Respect differences, and reflect on them deeply. Celebrate unity of thinking where you find it - and if you're looking properly you will find it.

To conclude...

In my opening paragraph I asked three questions. What conclusions can be drawn from my rambling thoughts on this topic?


  • Is religion to blame for the conflicts waged in its name?
  • What would happen if there were no religion?
  • Is there a way forwards?

To answer the first point - while differences in faith can be used as rallying points there are always underlying political/economic reasons for war. In other words... no.

As to the second point - I do believe the abolition of centrally controlled dogmatic faith institutions would be desirous. Less dogma means less to argue about. Focus could return to the teachings and not waste time wondering about the differences in tradition and ritual.

And to suggest a solution... I personally believe society should actively encourage personal spiritual development, but not seek to control how this manifests itself. Each individual is responsible for endeavoring to be the best human they can and ought to seek to achieve as much of their potential as possible. People of different faiths should also take the time to study the beliefs of others to spread understanding and compassion.

So... there you have my ten pennies worth.... what do you think?

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    • Dan Barfield profile image
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      Dan Barfield 3 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

      Thank you for the comment. I concur that some modern conflicts seem to have been driven by characters who held atheistic views... however whether the communists were atheist or not is besides the point in my opinion. In the end it always seems to come down to material wealth and power - who has it - who hasn't...

    • tamarawilhite profile image

      Tamara Wilhite 3 years ago from Fort Worth, Texas

      Many of the great conflicts and atrocities of the last century such as the Cold War, Vietnam, Russia's invasion of Eastern Europe, Mao's Great Leap Forward (60-80 million dead), Russia's purges (over a million) and North Korea's gulags (hundreds of thousands dead) are driven by atheist communism, not religion.

    • Dan Barfield profile image
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      Dan Barfield 4 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

      I will compile a little list for you :) I'll get back to you shortly...

    • exphoebe profile image

      exphoebe 4 years ago

      I would like to read up on your theory. Do you have reading suggestions?

    • Dan Barfield profile image
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      Dan Barfield 4 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

      Ah yes, politics amongst the church's elite. Conflict on the micro as well as the macro scale. I can't really comment on this as I don't know what precisely the infighting is about... I will get back to you when I've done some reading. Don't want to voice an opinion without doing the research :)

    • Radical Rog profile image

      Peter Rogers 4 years ago from Plymouth

      Religion and conflict. According to the news, one of the major issues the new Pope must deal with is all the infighting and backbiting among the higher ranks of the clergy.

    • Dan Barfield profile image
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      Dan Barfield 4 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

      Thank you for the comment exphoebe! I much appreciate your critique! And now for my riposte :)

      I understand that the religious institutions may end up being used as something to hide behind... but I still don't buy that this is the reason that they came about. With regards to Christianity (which I have the most direct experience of) it is a matter of public record that the original church was a loose conglomeration of differing schools of thought that (until politics, money and power became involved) was a fellowship of high ideals. It was invented as a result of the influence of the teachings of Jesus. It may have been cynically hijacked at a later date, true, but to say that Christianity was invented entirely as a means to hide malicious behavior seems a little unfeasible to me...

    • exphoebe profile image

      exphoebe 4 years ago

      You asked me to read this hub so I did.

      I find your view very interesting. It shows what a deep thinker you are. I very much agree with your statement "while differences in faith can be used as rallying points there are always underlying political/economic reasons for war." But I would not answer it with "no" because I believe religion was invented to hide behind as a cop-out. A deity commanding it sounds better than to honestly say "I think I am better than you, you need to do what I ask you to do" or "I want your money, because I am greedy".

      I totally agree with your second and third point! Education on world religions is the key because, like you said, all religions are very similar.

      Great hub! I only found this one thing I could not completely agree with. LOL!

    • Dan Barfield profile image
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      Dan Barfield 4 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

      Of course not - A priest has no more access to divine knowledge than I do - my beliefs are my responsibility and being aware of that, I take the process of assessing my understanding and knowledge very seriously. I do not take anything for granted. That leads to assumptions which leads to ignorence being accepted as knowledge. Great care ought to be taken with such things.

    • Radical Rog profile image

      Peter Rogers 4 years ago from Plymouth

      At least you don't need to listen to some pontificating priesthood telling you it's all a mystery.

    • Dan Barfield profile image
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      Dan Barfield 4 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

      I agree with that last point whole heartedly rog. Choice is absolutely key. Free will... It's a bugger isn't it?

    • Radical Rog profile image

      Peter Rogers 4 years ago from Plymouth

      The root principle of Buddhism is for the individual to seek spiritual knowledge and harmony. The root principle on polytheistic religion is not the worship of specific gods, but to seek harmony and understanding. The root principle in genuine witchcraft/occultism pagan principles etc, is also to seek knowledge and understanding.

      The trick is to cut out the changes imposed during the intervening years and look to the root of the question.

      The word 'occult' means hidden. According to scripture, the god of Abraham and Moses tried to keep mankind from gaining knowledge. He then cast Adam from the Garden of Eden. He then tried to wipe mankind from the face of the Earth with a Flood. When all this failed, he chose Abraham to gather a people for himself. What about everyone else. What gods did they look too? What knowledge did they possess that kept them from a god that claimed to be the only one? Scripture gives only one side of the story, but it is a choice between submission and the alternative, seeking the knowledge that one god would keep hidden. The way to do that is for the individual to choose.

    • Dan Barfield profile image
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      Dan Barfield 4 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

      Thank you so much for the comment Radical Rog! You make an interesting point but I'm not sure I agree with you entirely when you say there are only two forms of religion... I would call Buddhism a major world religion and it is neither based in the Abrahamic line of traditions or the polytheistic one. Strict buddhism does not teach of a creator God in any sense. I would propose that there are three forms of religion then.

    • Radical Rog profile image

      Peter Rogers 4 years ago from Plymouth

      Most religions not only say the same thing, most come from the same source. Christianity and all the various division since this was first founded, can be traced back to the god of Moses and Abraham. The origin of Islam and all its derivations, also traces back to the god of Moses and Abraham.

      There are in fact only two different forms of religion, the more ancient polytheistic, and the monotheistic, which originated with Abraham and the writings of Moses. In the bible, the god of these monotheistic religions, is called the god of war. Good hub.

    • Dan Barfield profile image
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      Dan Barfield 4 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

      Thank you so much for the comment lone77star! I am in total agreement with you about the ego. I read a book by someone recently that tried to suggest that actually the ego and the strengthening of it was an important aspect of initiation into the mysteries. One wonders if such texts are planted in the public domain by those with selfish agendas specifically to cause confusion!

    • lone77star profile image

      Rod Martin Jr 4 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Awesome hub, Dan.

      It seems, from my own research, that ego is the culprit behind all conflict and evil in the world.

      Ego is built of dichotomies (the forbidden fruit or product). Ego is vulnerable. Ego can be victim or perpetrator. Ego likes to be seen as good, but it's brand of "goodness" is tainted with selfishness (separateness).

      With 100% responsibility, I've found you can no longer be a victim. It becomes an impossibility. Miracles happen.

    • Dan Barfield profile image
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      Dan Barfield 4 years ago from Gloucestershire, England, UK

      Thanks for the kind words billybuc! I guess this train of thought stems from my early existentialist leanings. So many people live their lives 'inauthentically' by blaming their own poor choices on circumstance and external agency. Everybody bears responsibility for their choices - no one can make them for you. The choice to abdicate responsibility is completely selfish and totally unacceptable.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Take responsibility....what a unique idea, and one that seems to be bizarre to many. I love this hub and its message.