Religion has lately demanded our attention not as a still, small voice but as a whirlwind. If Isaiah’s prophecy that nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares” is to be fulfilled, then the essential task now is to think through the connection between religion and violence.
Three answers have emerged in recent years. The first: Religion is the major source of violence. Therefore, if we seek a more peaceful world, we should abolish religion. The second: Religion is not a source of violence. It may be used by manipulative leaders to motivate people to wage wars precisely because it inspires people to heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but religion itself teaches us to love and forgive, not to hate and fight. The third: Their religion, yes; our religion, no. We are for peace. They are for war.
None of these is true. As for the first, Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod surveyed 1,800 conflicts for their “Encyclopedia of Wars” and found that less than 10% involved religion. A “God and War” audit commissioned by the BBC found that religion played some part in 40% of major wars over the past three millennia, but usually a minor one.