Religion — Cure or Cause of Conflict?

Presented by Brother David Carroll, F.S.C., Ph.D., to the Islamic/Roman Catholic Dialogue of the Archdiocese of New York

23 February 2004
The Islamic Cultural Center of New York1711 Third AvenueNew York, New York

The topic of violence in the world’s societies is often raised in light of the media’s tendency to link religious confessional belief to acts of violence. Thus the question, “Is religion a cure or cause of conflict?”


In the Book of Genesis we are told that after each day of creation, God looked upon his work and saw that it was good. Pleased with his creations, God rested on the seventh day. Today we find that much of creation is spoiled and that many of the creatures who were to enjoy that creation are at enmity with one another. A recent report from the United Nations informs us that some 32 armed conflicts in various parts of the world can be classified as wars or rebellions. Weapons are needed for these. Scarce resources buy arms not food. The arms suppliers of the major industrial nations are joined by China, South Korea, Israel and Brazil in competing for the sale of weapons.

Clearly something has gone amiss with God’s creation. Have the religions of the world played a role in this disastrous state of affairs? Where have God’s people been when conflict and violence have plagued the fabric of human society?

Essential to the understanding of society is the fact that religion constitutes a key element in the formation of society. The history of human societies is replete with people attempting to comprehend the world about them and to understand the possible relationship that this might reflect with some creator or supreme being. Attempts to codify and institutionalize their beliefs have led to a diversity of religious systems around the globe. These systems have in many instances become an intimate part of cultural traditions. They have become identified with groups and in some cases have become integral elements within specific nation-states. In some instances religion is inextricably interwoven into the very psyche of a people.

Thus complexity has been introduced into society. The threads of religious truth have become tied to economic and/or political imperatives. Religious rituals have become entangled with social ideologies. Does religion so intertwined with these aspects of society cause conflicts? Is religion one of the causes of conflicts? Or is religion being used as a cover for other causes that might be cultural, economic or political? It is at this level that we must deal with the complexity of human motivation.


Let us examine symbolism or, as it were, the sacralization of the mundane. Sam Keen, in a book entitled “The Faces of the Enemy,” speaks of “War as Applied Theology”:

God and country may be quite separable in theory, but in day-to-day politics and religion they are fused. God sanctifies our social order, our way of life, our values, our territory. Thus, warfare is applied theology (p. 27).

The author discusses the rhetoric of war and the concepts of religion related thereto as he examines the concepts of holy war, crusade and the battle between the forces of good and evil. He concludes that “warfare is a religio-political ritual in which the sacred blood of our heroes is sacrificed to hallow our ground and to destroy the enemies of God” (p. 27).

As a boy during the Second World War, I can recall not only similar words but also posters and films proclaiming the righteousness of our cause against Germany and Japan. Today those countries that were the object of our battle between good and evil are now our allies and trading partners. As a boy, I saw pictures of ministers and priests praying with our allied troops in preparation for a particularly significant battle or encounter. Several years later, as a college student, I saw films of a panzer division being blessed by priests and ministers praying with German troops (Gott mit uns).

We are reminded that in March 1983, when speaking to the National Association of Evangelicals, President Ronald Reagan spoke of “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire” when referring to the Soviet Union. Now Russia is our ally and trading partner. In that same year on December 12 (anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday), Ayatollah Khomeini spoke as follows:

If one kills the infidel, and thus stops him from perpetrating his misdeeds, his death will have a blessing on him. For if he remains alive, he will become more corrupt. This is a surgical operation commanded by God the all-powerful.

The two basic systems that we identified at the outset, commonly called “church and state,” both have use for an “enemy.” It is thus possible for the enemy of the “church and state” to be one and the same. Hence, it is pertinent to ask if this alliance results from the use or abuse of religion and the ideals of religious institutions.

Clearly, if this shared enmity results from the proper use of religion, then humanity is embroiled in a pointless aboriginal calamity for which there seems to be no logical answer. Should the alliance stem from the abuse of religion and its institutions, then it would seem that the proponents of religious ideals should rectify the abuses that have developed within such religio-political alliances and that have permitted the genuine battle of good and evil to be politicized.

A Christian Context

Perhaps a digression into the history of Christianity would be instructive. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5), one finds Jesus dealing with conflict, namely, to return good for evil.

Early Christians, a persecuted minority, were accused of undermining the Roman Empire because they rejected military service. With the advent of Constantine and his acceptance of Christianity, Christians began to wrestle with the Gospel message and the harsh realities of power and politics. Ambrose and Augustine attempted to deal with this interdependence of church and empire. The concepts of Cicero’s just-war theory (first century B.C.) were updated and theologized. Eventually, Augustine developed a concept of absolute pacifism in personal relations, but because of sin in a disordered world he helped to establish the criteria for just war. Augustine found this distinction to be necessary because of his teaching on sin and punishment.

As Western civilization and Christianity developed, the names of Clovis and Charlemagne remind us that wars were waged against “pagans and infidels” – with papal blessings. Even some of the clergy were known to participate in the combat. However, eventually both Pope Nicholas I (858-867) and Pope John VIII (872-882) wrote sternly against war. Curiously, the very same John VIII promised indulgences to those who died fighting “infidels and pagans.” His predecessor Leo IV (847-855) expressed the opinion that those who died in defense of the faith would merit eternal life.

During this turbulent period, the Peace of God was introduced to Western civilization in an attempt to exempt noncombatants from the violence of war. In the 11th century, the Truce of God was developed to put a limit on unbroken hostilities. It excluded the period from Thursday to Sunday, the Advent and Christmas seasons as well as Lent and from Easter to Pentecost as a time for no warfare. No one had permission to do battle during those times. Clearly, in Western civilization the church was trying to cure the devastation wrought by continual conflict.

However, in this period, the same church leaders began the Crusades that focused the military energy of the West on a common enemy, Islam. It has been postulated that the control of internecine conflict in the Christian West had produced an excess of military energies that could best be used against a common enemy. The policies of Gregory VII (1073-1085) lend a great deal of credence to this hypothesis.

It is a period filled with contradictions in the church. In 1093, Urban II promulgated the Truce of God and then two years later he initiated the First Crusade as a righteous war against the infidel. Holy men, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, spoke on behalf of the “holy wars.” The followers of the peace-loving Francis of Assisi became embroiled in the ambiguities of the period. Their theologians honed with precision the criteria of a just war while the missionaries and preachers among them including their leader, Francis, objected to the Crusades on the grounds that this was not the way to convert the Muslims to Christianity. Complex alliances and different motivations intertwined as Western Europe expanded its political sphere of influence during the Crusades.

For those who objected to these just-war criteria, there were two major problems:

  1. Who forms the objective tribunal to declare a just war?
  2. The arguments of Augustine, Aquinas, et al. were simply a replacement of the New Testament teaching with Greek philosophy and Roman law.

As the Reformation came into perspective, groups of believers, seeing the horrors of war, pleaded for a commitment to the message of Christ, the Prince of Peace. The names of Hus, Erasmus, Grebel and the churches of the Mennonites, the Hutterites, the Brethen and the Religious Society of Friends arise as proponents of peace having found grave difficulty with the theological traditions of the just-war criteria. These opted for the condemnation of all war and violence.

While other Protestant reformers continued with the criteria for just war as part of their theological traditions, these smaller groups of peace churches continued and still continue to preach the doctrine of nonviolence. During this period of reformation, ironically those adhering to just-war criteria engaged in many religious wars fought with great bitterness and numerous atrocities. The Christians of Europe fought in God’s name against the “evil” of other Christians.

But Is Religion the Cure or Cause of Conflict?

First we must examine whether in these instances cited the churches were used or abused in order to create a forum in which war and conflict could be justified.

If one were to take the teachings of Christ as reflected in the New Testament, one would be hard pressed to ascertain the evidence necessary to proclaim the criteria for just war. In this sense, it appears that some of the churches have been abused by the religio-political forum. Through casuistry and other forms of theological disquisition, these churches have acquiesced to the demands of political expedience and thus prostituted themselves and must be judged as unfaithful servants to the message of Christ.

On the other hand, there are those who will maintain that, beyond the sacred Scriptures, the tradition of the churches made vital through the Holy Spirit will expand upon the words and teachings of Christ in such a way as to permit humankind the opportunity to apply intelligence to the problems of life and thereby attain salvation. They will argue that in some instances this reflects the ability of humankind to see the problems of good against evil in a disordered world, and with God’s grace these Christians will work toward the reconciliation of differences that might otherwise result in conflict. Clearly the condemnation of weapons as well as the proclamation and implementation of the Peace of God and the Truce of God speaks positively to this intellectual position.

In some instances, theological differences have led to conflicts that have resulted in aggression. On other occasions religion has been used by societal forces, referred to earlier, which have created religio-political differences that have penetrated deeply into cultural patterns within society. Hence, when one talks of “holy wars,” one must quite frankly search to determine whether religion is truly the cause of conflict or whether it is being used “to make a case.” One must also inquire as to whether the leaders of religion have been willingly or unwillingly used by these societal forces. It is a complex realm mirroring the individual motivations that society encompasses. As noted by Paul, “The good which we will we do not, and the evil which we will not that we do.” It seems that whether we speak of a family unit, a neighborhood, a town or a nation, we must constantly strive to balance this complexity. On occasion our successes are truly marvelous, but also there are times when our failures are dismal.

For those who believe in the goodness of God and his creation, it is imperative precautions be taken that would preclude the use of religion in this type of religio-political forum. Rather, focus should be placed upon the potential religion possesses to foster negotiations and understanding, hopefully assisting in the prevention of conflict.

The Human Condition

A further element that must be presented at this time was marvelously delineated by Barbara Tuchman in an April 1983 article in The New York Times Magazine, “Peace Is Suspect.” This thoughtful author painted a rather bleak picture of humanity’s endeavors on behalf of peace among nations. Her findings were less than encouraging. She found war was so much a part of the human fabric that those who spoke of peace were found to be imposing upon economic and governmental structures that seem to need conflict in order to survive. Tuchman noted that if in viewing the 20th century one were to examine carefully the documents of The Hague Conventions, the Geneva protocols, the disarmament conferences in the 1930’s, the Charters of the League of Nations and the United Nations, one would find the words and thoughts positively inspiring. The words are ever so beautiful, ever so perfect; but humanity’s actions have failed miserably to measure up to these eloquent expressions on behalf of peace. Apparently, humankind has intellectually resolved the problems of peace and war time and time again, but somehow human actions fall short of these idealistic expressions on behalf of peace and against war.

Needless to say, if one were to turn to the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, the themes of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, the surahs of the Holy Quran and the numerous other books of the world’s religions, one would be encouraged to see that peace for humankind is loudly proclaimed. How then is peace among us so tenuous and prone to collapse? Has our Creator made us so fundamentally different it is impossible to reconcile our differences peacefully? Are believers so embroiled in the problems of the “here and now” that we, and even our religious beliefs, are twisted and turned in such a way as to vitiate the teachings of peace embedded in the fabric of our religious teachings?

It appears we must learn more about ourselves as human beings and creatures of God to determine how we can come to live in peace with one another, accepting and respecting our differences whether theological, political or ideological.

To face ourselves is a difficult task, but it is not impossible. An article in Psychology Today, “The Education of a Torturer,” came to a chilling conclusion:

This, together with our study of Marine training and the Stanford and Third Wave studies, leads us to the conclusion that torturers have normal personalities. Any of us in a similar situation might be capable of the same cruelty. One probably cannot train a deranged sadist to be an effective torturer or killer. He must be in complete control of himself while on the job (p. 58).

Are our beliefs so fragile that a normal psyche can handle the mistreatment of a fellow human being? Are the teachings of religion and culture so fragile that it is possible for a believer to knowingly torment another creature of God?

How does religion deal constructively with this seemingly ever so delicate balance between normalcy and torment? It seems fair to say that religion must learn to deal constructively with this paradox. We must teach the understanding of self together with keeping open the lines of communication to one another so that we may grow not only in understanding of ourselves but also in the understanding of one another.

It would seem appropriate that, in order to understand one another, we must be open to intensive dialogue. We must grow in the understanding that we live, work, love, suffer and die as creatures of a loving God no matter what our theological traditions. Our understanding must include the historical, religious/devotional aspects and ethno-geographical background of one another. We must strive to grasp one another’s religious values. And as we wrestle with our own faith beliefs, we must try to comprehend the attitudes, aspirations and ideals of those with whom we dialogue. It is for us to collaborate in a productive manner so that religion will seize leadership from those who would seek to turn normal humans into the torturers and murderers of their fellow humans.

Should the religions of the world choose not to demonstrate this leadership then they are in grave danger of having other forces take the initiative and again abuse religion as a tool of conflict in a religio-political setting. History has demonstrated that religion will be an integral part of that religio-political scene. It behooves us then to establish within our own houses norms of teaching and behavior that will prize peace over war. We must labor to make war unprofitable. I do not propose that some type of theological homogeneity will produce a utopian state. No, rather we must find beauty in our diversity just as our Creator has found beauty and good in his multifaceted creation. In the acceptance and respect for one another, we will find peace, and that personal beauty will be as that of a forest with its oaks, pines, maples, birches, et al. in which each tree contributes to the overall beauty of the forest.

A Time of Tension

It goes without saying that many religious leaders today are alarmed by the international tensions reflected in the U.N. report on human conflict cited earlier. The shadow of nuclear weapons darkens our horizons as weapons proliferate and the secrets of nature are added to the arsenals of weapons whether biological, chemical, conventional, nuclear or radiological. Throughout the world weapons are poised to kill on behalf of ideological differences, economic differences and, yes, even for theological differences. Humanity has harnessed the fires of the gods, and we must now learn to live with that power.

It appears that there is reasonable evidence to support the hypothesis that in both East and West, religion has been both a cure and cause of conflict. However, in our discussions we must be very precise in the determination of whether religion as a cause of conflict arises from the abuse of religion and its institutions or if it comes from the proper use of religion. Here we must carefully ascertain what impact cultural, political, economic and ethnic issues pervade these concerns. Caution must be given not to oversimplify complexity. Too often religions are identified incorrectly as integral to the problems when more fundamental differences prevail.

It is fair to state that both God and religion have been abused by the religio-political setting. Those responsible within religious leadership must be ever so cautious to respond in a moral and just manner so as to avoid exploitation. History has shown that within a religio-political setting, religion can serve to cure conflict.

It seems fair to state that fundamental human injustices will call upon the religions of the world to stand for moral rights and against injustices. Prudence and wisdom will be essential to avoid any undue influences that could shift moral norms and skew them on behalf of power and against justice.

Through it, we will be able to share in forthright and open dialogue to stem the abuses of religion and the causes of conflict. Our dialogue must take place on four levels. We must first dialogue on the level of HEART, in which we engage one another as partners sharing as brothers and sisters in the creation of God. Our dialogue must be one of DAILY LIFE, in which we promote human values that we share with God as our guarantor. In the dialogue of SPEECH, we must speak of God and humanity, setting aside our distractions with things of power, wealth and all that is not essential to God and humankind. Finally, and of greatest importance is the dialogue of SILENCE, so God might speak with us and to us; that he might speak to the heart of each person directly so we may act and speak as his true servants.


Gibson, J. and Haritos-Fatourous, M. “The Education of a Torturer,” Psychology Today (Nov. 1986): pp. 50-58.

Keen, S., The Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1986.

Tuchman, B., “Peace Is Suspect,” The New York Times Magazine (April 19 1983).

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