Monday, August 13, 2007

War and Peace and Religion

It’s hardly possible to walk into a bookshop at the moment without being regaled by titles telling you that religion is a bad thing. This is odd because several of the authors are scientists or philosophers who are more than a little familiar with evolutionary theory. It’s obvious that religion is pretty close to being a human universal and that, despite all the confident predictions of rationalists, it is stubbornly refusing to die out.

Richard Dawkins thinks that religion is an undesirable side effect of a useful adaptation, rather like the way that a moth’s lunar navigation system causes it to circle into a candle flame. Lewis Wolpert says it is a by-product of our tendency to assume everything is conscious and has purposes. Daniel Dennett supposes a hostile meme that spreads from brain to brain, reproducing like a virus of the mind. The trouble is, as any competent evolutionist should be able to see, these explanations of religion are inherently unlikely. They assume the exception before testing the rule. Most traits are adaptations that give their bearers some sort of evolutionary edge and religion is unlikely to be any different. Otherwise, if an anti-religious culture appeared, it would quickly dominate its neighbours which are handicapped by irrational faith. In fact, all humanity’s efforts at anti-religious societies have been appalling failures.

So, if we are honest about it, religion is likely to have survived because it does us good. If it looks like faith is a bad thing then we are probably looking at the matter the wrong way. Take the question of whether religion causes war. You have to admit that apologetic attempts to defuse this argument have been pretty pathetic. When Oxford theologian Alister McGrath says that most religious violence is cover for another motivation, usually political or economic, he clearly hasn’t read his history. It is absurd to claim that the medieval crusaders who marched across Europe to do battle with the infidel were not almost entirely motivated by a muscular Christian faith. Likewise, as we are now realising thanks to the searing honesty of ex-jihadis like Ed Hassan, Islamic suicide bombers and their masters are driven by a fanatical believe that their interpretation of Islam is true and demands that they make war on the West.

So yes, obviously religions cause wars. The point everyone misses is that they are even better at promoting peace. We can’t easily see this because of something I call the ‘headline fallacy’. Conflict is newsworthy while peace is a bit tedious. Look at the Middle East. While there’s no doubt that the Arab/Israeli conflict is fuelled by Judaism and Islam, it is more surprising that there are so few wars between Arab states. They are all led by dictators of varying degrees of unpleasantness but somehow they manage to rub along OK. The only exception in recent years was when the avowedly secular Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. When he needed to court Arab support, he promptly found religion and pretended an ostentatious piety. It isn’t outrageous to suggest that Islam, which forbids attacks on the faithful, prevents many more wars in the Middle East than it causes.

Proving why things don’t happen, however, is tricky. But there are enough examples of religion holding people together to make it more than likely that faith is a better promoter of peace than war.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

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