I observed a strange reaction among my friends — especially my fellow liberals — when a new insurgent group calling itself “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” began capturing towns and small cities in war-torn Iraq.
There’s really nothing new about this insurgent group, which represents the same Sunni coalition that lost power with the fall of Saddam Hussein and has been trying to get it back ever since. But all of a sudden, several of my friends were up in arms about the insurgency. Why? Because they’re fundamentalists.
Indeed, the new insurgency is using Islamic fundamentalism as a way to gain support (and frighten Brits and Americans). It’s a smart strategic move: calls to religion have always been useful recruiting tools in time of war. But what amazes me is that some of my American friends are more offended by the fact that the new insurgents are religious than by the fact that they are rampaging through towns murdering political opponents with their families.
The atrocities are perfectly acceptable, apparently … as long as they don’t start bringing sharia into it.
It’s a sign of our shrill times that some people are actually more offended by religion than by war. This is fed by the common misconception that wars are commonly fought over religion. This widely-accepted belief (a belief that the late Christopher Hitchens shamelessly dined out on for a decade) must be exposed for the fraud it always has been.
A simple review of world history makes it clear: while religion is often used as a surrogate for ethnic or national identity, religion itself has never been the actual cause of any war. The holy war is a fraud.
All wars work the same way, whether religious identity plays a part or not. When religious identity plays a part, it is as identity rather than as religion. The primary engine of war is the grinding against each other of different groups, variously identified by location, history, language, ethnicity, religion or economic class. The causes, outcomes and consequences of the major wars of recent centuries do not show any pattern of being influenced by religious doctrine or popular religious belief. War is war, whether religious or not.
So why are so many of my friends terrified by the concept of jihad? I don’t know, but I know that many of my friends have a natural dislike for religion, which is their right. But I cringe at the idea that political liberalism will ever become identified with atheism. This is a wrong turn, a dead end. Whether you are personally religious or not, it is important to know that religion has not been a harmful influence in the world. Rather, it has been a constant source of healing and comfort and connection. A world without religion is as unthinkable as a world without literature or a world without music.
I’ve recently been urging my readers to read three philosophers whose work I consider highly relevant for the political problems that plague the world today: Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James and Carl Jung. I chose these three names for several different reasons. One is their common attitude towards religion.
Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrated the futility of logical or scientific arguments against religious belief. William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, an open-minded treatment of the natural human inclination towards spirituality. Carl Jung enthusiastically explored religious symbolism as a key to understanding the human soul. All three of them also appear to have been privately religious (idiosyncratically, of course, in all three cases, as should always be expected when a philosopher embraces religion).
The kind of religious sensibility that can be found in the private writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein or William James or Carl Jung is not often found in the private writings of a military leader or corrupt politician. This is one reason I rarely take a corrupt or militant politician seriously when they claim to be religious. For instance, future USA presidential candidate Paul Ryan was a devout follower of Ayn Rand until he was suddenly tagged as Vice Presidential material. He suddenly disavowed Ayn Rand and pronounced himself a devout Catholic. Am I obligated not to laugh? Similarly, I never believed the hype that Osama bin Laden was a devout Muslim. I read his biography, and I didn’t see a lot of time for private refection in that life story. Osama bin Laden was a clever and egotistical leader driven to political grandiosity by a traumatic Oedipal complex. I don’t suspect that there was much room in that crowded brain for thoughtful spiritual reflection, and the fact that Osama bin Laden strove to portray himself as a religious person doesn’t mean he did so convincingly.
Remember when Saddam Hussein turned up in a full beard, claiming to be a devout Muslim? Well, whether religion is sincere or not, we do know that religion is often convenient to profess, and so we are not obligated to ever believe that a politician or military leader’s religious beliefs are sincere when they are engaging in activities that are harmful to innocent people or to the planet. We can start making better decisions if we stop falling for the ruse.
Have there ever been sincerely religious military leaders? Sure — it’s easy for biographers to discern a politician’s private spiritual character from various evidence. For instance, there’s little doubt that President George W. Bush was sincerely religious — though he wasn’t much of a military leader. President Jimmy Carter was also sincerely religious. He may not have been much of a military leader either.
As for great military leaders who really have been successful, history shows few examples of deeply religious personalities. Making my own quick survey through the history channels of my mind, I can think of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, who was known to have a deeply spiritual mind. He prayed constantly, and his letters are filled with musings on Biblical lessons.
And I can think of French warrior-saint Joan of Arc, who saw her entire improbable journey of conquest as a direct intervention by God, and who burned at the stake for her devout belief without flinching.
So that’s two examples — but Stonewall Jackson and Joan of Arc are the only two I can think of, and that leaves thousands and thousands of other examples of military and political leaders who used religion as a tool to stir up popular support and ethnic identification, but left behind little evidence that they had any actual profound religious feeling themselves.
I hope we can stop falling for the grand fraud of the holy war. Christopher Hitchens isn’t around to argue with us about this today, but it’s a fact that he had it wrong. It’s amazing how much clarity can be obtained once we take the time to look closely at the real causes of the political mistakes our leaders make. God’s usually got very little to do with it.