Religion and War

Religion and War
Photo by Christian Senger via Flickr Creative Commons

By: David Roy

Progressive Religion is not an Oxymoron

David Roy
David Roy

The relationship between religion and war is a hot button topic. As with last month’s column on prayer in public places, most any discussion and most any position on the relationship between the two will leave significant portions of the audience and the participants unsatisfied and unhappy.

My argument is that human wars are the result of perceived threats to our security and the need to feel superior to others and that religion is at most a pretext.

A Shaggy Chimpanzee Story
To explain this a bit more, I would like to mention a video I first saw perhaps 20 years ago. It was one of the first films made of the work by primatologist Jane Goodall and featured a group of chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Tanzania.

Besides featuring breakthrough revelations about the chimps’ ability to use what amounted to primitive tools and the fact that they were not exclusively vegetarian, the video captured a deadly encounter between a group of young males from the main community and a splinter group that had moved to another part of the park.

Murders in Gombe
What unfolded over four years was the systematic murder of every male in the splinter group by this group of male chimps from the main community. These chimps would assault their target one at a time, beating him and leaving him for dead.

In the video, like a good scientist, Goodall simply reports the facts without interpretation, without speculation on the possible

It would not be too difficult to imagine that one of the motives, perhaps the primary one, was to ensure there was no competition for females or food. The second community, which might have become bigger and stronger over time and therefore a real threat to the original community, was eliminated before there was any chance of this happening.

Chimps and Humans: Strong Genetic Similarity
As is fairly well known, there is a strong biological similarity in the genetic makeup of primates in general (humans being primates, of course).

When it comes to chimpanzees and human beings, there is supposed to be a 96% similarity. Obviously, our brain has substantial development that goes beyond the chimpanzee brain, but even in the brain there is a high degree of similarity in the more basic structures.

Fear and Shame: A Deadly Duo
Behaviorally, there are also strong similarities, including in the way humans react to perceived threats when guided by the more primitive structures in the brain. Fear, for example, can easily trigger an aggressive response. It is not a stretch from this to a decision to systematically eliminate the source of the fear by attacking and destroying (the enemy).

The other emotion that often drives highly aggressive responses in humans is shame. I do not know whether chimps experience shame, but if they do, then this could also underlie serious efforts to destroy the source of the shame, the humiliation, the diminishment.

This definitely is true with human beings. Make someone feel small and they may rage at you. Make a whole group feel like scum, and, if the group is large enough, you can witness a war to prove you wrong, to rub your nose in the scum.

A Christian War Is an Oxymoron (Really!)
As for religion in this context, at least Christianity, there is little if anything in the New Testament that would suggest that interpersonal violence and even killing people are ever the right thing to do. It is just the opposite. We are supposed to love our enemy and not react with violence if we are attacked. These requirements are counter to everything we are inclined to do if we are threatened or humiliated.

Yes, we all know that people who were and are Christians have behaved quite the opposite at many points in world history, including today. Furthermore, there have been churches and church leaders who have justified these actions in the name of Jesus, in the name of Christianity, in the name of God.

But this is not because of Christian teachings. It is just the opposite.

My argument is that people, nations and groups that go to war and believe the reason they are doing this is because of their religion, or on behalf of their religion, if their religion is Christianity, they are simply using the name of the religion as a way of defining themselves.

Using Religion to Feel Superior
This definition includes a sense of superiority: “I’m more worthy than you because I am a Christian and you’re not!” Or, “I am a better Christian than you are.” In these situations, religion has become a means to self-aggrandizement and therefore also something to protect against defilement. However, none of this is about religion; for Christianity, in fact, intense self-inflation is the opposite of what is valued.

While I cannot speak for Judaism and Islam, I do know that the belief in the primacy of compassion, the focus on the common good and the goal of peace is central to both, just as it is in Christianity.

As the playwright George Bernard Shaw was reputed to have said, “Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it.” Christianity, if tried, might help stop wars, but certainly would not support ever starting them.

Ordained in the United Church of Christ, David Roy is a pastoral counselor and a California licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who directs the Center for Creative Transformation. He has a Ph.D. in theology and personality from the Claremont (California) School of Theology. Send comments to him at or 5475 N. Fresno St., Suite 109, Fresno, CA 93711.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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