If only they were pagans

One of the most dismaying features of our time is not just a widespread ignorance of the Christian faith, but a hatred of religion and religious people generally, a hatred that is attributable to something worse than ignorance. Let me explain.

Suppose I am a missionary to the pagan Germanic tribes in Scandinavia. I have to deal with plenty of bad things there: blood feuds taken for granted as a way of settling disputes; bigamy for the rich and powerful; dark superstitions, including, when times are dark indeed, human sacrifice. But I do not have to deal with a hatred of the divine itself. The minds of the people will be as ready for the Good News as any pagans would be, and their groping in the dark toward the truth will not have been entirely in vain.

They won’t have had the Good News distorted and slandered and made into Bad News. Their minds will not have been filled with poison. They will be like naturally strong and healthy people who have put their powers to erratic use, often to wicked use. They will not be self-made spiritual cripples.

So I would not hear, among those Germans, that the Christian faith has filled the world with bloodshed, and that—here comes the poisonously stupid charge—more people have been killed in the name of God than for any other reason.

How often, my readers, do you hear such a thing, and from people who have, unfortunately for their mental and spiritual health, gone to school, even to that thing invented by the Church, called the university? And not one bit of it is true.

I reply in this fashion, and nobody has ever countered it; all they do then is to change the subject. Almost every war in the sorry history of the human race has had nothing to do with religion. Men fight for land, wealth, glory, vengeance, blood-lust, boredom, and fear. They beg their gods for assistance, but they do not fight for those gods. The Greek city states fought one another all the time, and they shared the same religion; and their religious festivals, such as the Olympic games, were the only things that could move them to take a breather from fighting.

The Romans fought wars up and down Italy with people whose gods were indistinguishable from theirs, and then fought all over the Mediterranean world, none of it about religion. Japan was a fighting nation, never about religion. The American Indians, when the Europeans arrived, were notorious for their mutual enmities, on account of hunting grounds, grudges, fear of a growing tribe, and so forth, and their beliefs about the gods were generally the same. Genghis Khan did not fight for religion. Alexander did not fight for religion.

Islam is the outlier, and yet the Islamic states themselves, from the start, fought amongst themselves, and not primarily because of differences in religion; or rather differences gave them the “justification” for the wars that they fought for other reasons. In the whole history of the West, outside of Islam, the only real religious wars were those that occurred between Catholics and Protestants in the hundred or so years after Luther—and even those were motivated more by the designs and the ambitions of the new modern nation-states, so that we find Richelieu’s France, though Catholic, casting her lot with the Protestants in their conflict against the Catholic Hapsburgs.

People will bring up the Crusades, enterprises that after Godfrey of Bouillon were generally botched; they do not trouble to ask why it took the West 400 years to mount any resistance to Islamic pressure against the eastern survival of the Roman Empire, or why the incursion into the Middle East of the Seljuk Turks, disliked also by neighboring Islamic states, moved the emperor at Constantinople to call for help.

So where are all these religious wars? The American colonies and the United States fought against the French and their allies the Indians, then against Britain twice, against Mexico, against her own countrymen in her bloodiest of wars by far, against Spain, against the central European powers, against Hitler’s Germany and imperial Japan, against communists in Korea and then Vietnam, against an aggressive Iraqi state, against Serbs for some reason I have never been able to determine, against terrorist enclaves in Iraq and Afghanistan, with calls now to move against Syria—and none of it for religion. Napoleon went marauding over Europe, and he was if anything a force for the secular as against the religious. Stalin, Lenin, Mao—what gods were they attempting to satisfy when they drenched their own lands in blood?

That is what I mean by the poison. It is a lot easier to teach an ignorant person the truth, than to un-teach a mind-poisoned person the falsehoods he has come to hug close to him, falsehoods upon which he has built his little lean-to of intellectual vanity and bigotry.

But still we have to try, as patiently as we can, but also firmly, because other people may be watching, people less compromised by the poison. We must not merely say, “Well, the Church has made mistakes.” Everybody makes mistakes, constantly.

We have to cast the ignorant charge right back in the teeth of those who make it. In this case, the questions are these: “Outside of Islam, name the religious wars you are thinking of. Be specific. While you are at it, go to China, Japan, India, the steppes of Asia, Polynesia, Australia, Indochina, and the Americas, and find for us a single civilization or a dominant culture that was not warlike. Find one. Or if you cannot do that, find for us that civilization that fought on account of religion, and not for the usual things men fight for. But if men are going to fight, please tell us why it is morally preferable to fight, not for the honor of God, but for land, wealth, glory, vengeance, blood-lust, boredom, and fear. Or do you believe that fighting for gain is superior to fighting for righteousness, even if you are mistaken about the latter?”

I have never gotten an answer to those questions.

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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