Religion does not poison everything - everything poisons religion

A review of ‘Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence’, by Karen Armstrong. The former nun makes a convincing case that religions are corrupted by success

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence Karen Armstrong

Bodley Head, pp.499, £25, ISBN: 9781847921864

It slips so easily off the tongue. In fact, it’s a modern mantra. ‘Religion causes all the wars.’ Karen Armstrong claims to have heard it tossed off by American psychiatrists, London taxi-drivers and pretty much everyone else. Yet it’s an odd thing to say. For a start, which wars are we talking about? Among the many causes advanced for the Great War, ranging from the train timetables on the continent to the Kaiser’s withered left arm, I have never heard religion mentioned. Same with the second world war. The worst genocides of the last century — Hitler’s murder of the Jews and Atatürk’s massacre of the Armenians (not to mention his expulsion and massacre of the Greeks in Asia Minor too) — were perpetrated by secular nationalists who hated the religion they were born into. The long British wars of the 18th and 19th centuries — the Napoleonic wars and the Seven Years’ War — were cheerfully fought by what Wellington called ‘the scum of the earth’ for land and empire, not for the faiths to which they only nominally belonged.

We have to go back to the 17th century and the Wars of Religion to find a plausible candidate. Hobbes certainly believed that the preachers had been ‘the cause of all our late mischiefs’. But modern historians are more inclined to describe the English civil war as the War of Three Kingdoms and/or as a struggle against the autocracy of Charles I. The Wars of Religion on the continent do look like a fall-out from the cataclysmic split of the Reformation, though Armstrong points out that there too dynastic rivalry came to predominate. Pope Paul IV went to war against the devout Catholic Philip II of Spain. The Catholic Kings of France allied with the Ottoman Turks against the Catholic Habsburgs and fought for 30 years on the same side as half the Protestant princes of Germany.

Skipping lightly over the non-religious Wars of the Roses and Hundred Years’ War, we have to reach back seven centuries to the last Crusades to find bloody and unremitting wars that were quintessentially religion-driven, not to mention genocidal (before setting out, the Crusaders usually massacred the local Jews as an hors d’oeuvre).

There at last we find a conflict in which the throb of religious passion never faded, even if compounded by greed and sheer bellicosity. Of all the gaffes uttered by that master of misspeak, George W. Bush, his description of the War on Terror as a crusade takes the bloody biscuit.

On the whole, though, for a millennium in which religion has loomed so large, as a motive for actual war it seems to have been rather secondary. What then explains this obstinate modern conviction that religion is the driving cause of organised bloodshed? Karen Armstrong, a former nun, has built up a formidable reputation as a scholar of world religions who is eloquent and empathetic, which is rare, and impartial, which is rarer. In trying to disentangle the fateful intertwinings of religion and violence, she ranges across the great empires and leading faiths of the world. Fields of Blood is never less than absorbing and most of the time as convincing as it is lucid and robust.

Armstrong starts off, though, on rather shaky ground. She tells us that ‘there is little evidence that early humans regularly fought one another’. It was when they stopped hunting and foraging and started farming that the competition for land, women and cattle began: ‘With agriculture came civilisation, and with civilisation warfare.’

This is essentially the noble-savage story familiar to us from Rousseau and Margaret Mead, not to mention Marx and Engels. Yet it is now fiercely contested. Steven Pinker, following the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley, claims in The Better Angels of Our Nature that the chances of a violent death were far worse for prehistoric hunter-gatherers than for us — 30 times worse, according to Keeley. Other anthropologists still claim that our remotest ancestors spent their time laughing, making love and playing non-threatening games. Hard to say who’s right. It seems to be a question of counting axe-gashes on an unreliable sample of skeletons. I must say, though, that Pinker’s overall thesis, that the world is steadily getting more peaceful, does seem a trifle unpersuasive just now.

Armstrong is at her best in drawing out the historical elements which crystallise into great religions. Typically, she says, they emerge in conditions of social stress and oppressive state violence. The founder preaches that the callous and ceaseless slaughter can be checked only if we learn to see the Other as our fellow human being. Invariably, his golden rule is: all men are equal in the sight of God, do as you would be done by, love your enemies, turn the other cheek.

This message is common to Confucius, Zoroaster, Jesus, Guru Nanak the founder of the Sikhs, Gandhi and Nurse Cavell. Muhammad too is reported to have told his followers that ‘not one of you can be a believer unless he desires for his neighbours what he desires for himself’. There are many verses in the Koran which instruct Muslims not to retaliate but to forgive and forbear, and to respond to aggression with mercy, patience and courtesy.

But of course there are other verses which don’t, famously the Sword Verse, which eggs on the faithful to slaughter idolaters. The sad truth is that religions are corrupted by success. The more popular they become, the closer they are drawn into the ambit of state power, the more their practice and doctrine have to be remodelled to suit their new overlords. Armstrong reflects gloomily:

Every major faith tradition has tracked the political entity in which it arose; none has become a ‘world religion’ without the patronage of a militarily powerful empire and every tradition would have to develop an imperial ideology.

You can keep the old faith, as do the Sufis and the Quakers, but that means staying out of the loop. The conversion of Constantine also meant the conscription of Christianity. It was not long before Augustine of Hippo was developing the convenient theory of the ‘just war’. Similarly the ahadith, the later reports of the Prophet’s sayings, confer a spiritual dimension on warfare which it doesn’t have in the Koran. Militant Sikhs today prefer to quote the martial teachings of the Tenth Guru rather than those of their founder Guru Nanak, who taught that only ‘he who regards all men as equals is religious’.

Christopher Hitchens had it the wrong way round in his subtitle to God is Not Great. It should have been, not ‘How Religion Poisons Everything’ but ‘How Everything Poisons Religion’. This is the misunderstanding which drives fanatical secularists to demand that faith be driven out of the public square and permanently banned from re-entry, like a drunk from the pub he always picks a fight in.

The demand was first heard in the 17th century from Hobbes and Locke, and it became an article of faith for the American revolutionaries. Jefferson believed that Church and State had proved ‘a loathsome combination’, and he was determined to build a ‘wall of separation’ between them. What he could not foresee was that nationalism would effortlessly take over the mantle of self-righteousness, and the apocalyptic language too. Within 60 years, the first explicitly non-sectarian republic exploded in the most modern and deadly civil war,  its cause immortalised by the rhetoric of the non-religious Abraham Lincoln.

Ever since, the ferocity of liberal nationalists has matched anything the bigots in armour can do. Hitch himself, though infinitely amiable in personal relations, was no slouch as a secular Saladin. His reveilles after 9/11 were scorchers:

I think the enemies of civilisation should be beaten and killed and defeated, and I don’t make any apology for it… We can’t live on the same planet as them, and I’m glad because I don’t want to. I don’t want to breathe the same air as these psychopaths and murderers… It’s them or me. I’m very happy about this because I know it will be them.

All terrorism is now routinely attributed to religious intoxication. Richard Dawkins tells us that ‘only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people’. But Armstrong points out that suicide bombing was more or less invented by the Tamil Tigers, ‘a nationalist separatist group with no time for religion’. A Chicago University study of suicide attacks worldwide over 25 years found ‘little connection between suicide and terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any religion for that matter’. Out of 38 suicide bombings in the Lebanon during the 1980s, 27 were perpetrated by secularists and socialists, three by Christians and only eight by Muslims.

The first suicide bomber was probably Samson. The Book of Judges tells us that by pulling down the pillars of the temple, he killed more Philistines in his death than in the whole of his life. Armstrong points out that the Bible approves this 9/11-style action, and so does John Milton in Samson Agonistes:

Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
Or knock the breast; no weakness, no contempt,
Dispraise or blame; nothing but well and fair,
And what may quiet us in a death so noble.

These words are graven in bronze on the memorial to the hundreds of war dead at Eton College. Israel calls its nuclear capacity ‘the Samson Option’. Mutually Assured Destruction does, after all, ensure that, in Tom Lehrer’s immortal words, ‘we all go together when we go’.

Armstrong argues persuasively that it is under the cumulative pressure of invasion by outsiders and internal oppression that secular grievance morphs into jihad. To use an apt but unlovely term, invented I think by Dr Henry Kissinger, religion is ‘weaponised’ — how Dr Strangelove would adore the word. After years of Israeli blockade and creeping land grabs, Yasser Arafat’s entirely secular Palestine Liberation Organisation has segued into the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. Israel herself, founded as a secular haven in the teeth of the rabbis, has become a holy land after half a century of Arab encirclement. Now young men all over the Middle East, many of them originally secular and ignorant of Islam, as were the majority of the 9/11 bombers, are being hyped up by selective quotation of holy writ to commit crimes as unspeakable as, well, Samson’s.

Religion makes its comeback into politics in this hideous perverted form for much the same reason as it emerged in the first place — as an anguished reaction against  a heartless world. Westerners lament that Islam never had a Reformation. Muslims may retort that if we had not trampled all over them, they wouldn’t have needed one.

Karen Armstrong’s wonderful book certainly cleanses the mind. It may even do a little repair work on the heart.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20. Tel: 08430 600033. Ferdinand Mount was literary editor in 1983.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • “The former nun makes a convincing case that religions are corrupted by success”

    What about infiltration!

    Marxists co-opted the Vatican long before the fake collapse of the USSR. Why do you think the Vatican back in the early 1960s changed the policy on pedophile priests, allowing such predatory priests to remain in the solitary company of Catholic children, where the molestation count per offending priest would be massively increased.

    Now you know why the KGB agents within the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) were never identified and thrown out of that institution after the fake collapse of the USSR, where to this very day they maintain control of the ROC. Now you also know why Putin (a figurehead for the Russian Communist Party that still controls Russia) and the ROC are so buddy-buddy.

    In fact, all the religious denominations behind the Iron Curtain never identified and expelled the KBG agents placed within those institutions, which includes Catholic, Protestant and Muslin denominations.

    • Kenneth O’Keeffe

      I think the collapse of the USSR was very real. Always morally bankrupt, it was literally financially bankrupted by American arms-race policy. In the 1990s, Russia’s main economic driver, natural resources, were at all time price-lows in real terms so these reserves were of little help. With the recent commodities boom, that economically weak position was reversed.

      • “I think the collapse of the USSR was very real.”

        I guess the essence of my comment flew over your head, which isn’t surprising for someone introduced to this subject. Re-read my comment and absorb the PROOF that the collapse of the USSR was a strategic ruse.

        All religious denominations behind the Iron Curtain NEVER identified and threw out the KGB agents that ran those institutions. Guess what? The same is true for the military, media, government bureaucracy, etc! Communist agents stayed in place. In the case of the Soviet Armed Forces, actual Communist Party members remained in place, Communist Party member officers representing 90% of the Soviet Armed Forces officer corps. There can be no collapse of the USSR when the Soviet Armed Forces remained Communist Party controlled! You didn’t know that, huh?

        Also, the fraudulent “collapse” of the USSR (and East Bloc) couldn’t have been pulled off until both political parties in the United States (and political parties elsewhere in the West) were co-opted by Moscow & Allies, which explains why verification of the “collapse” was never undertaken by the West, such verification being (1) a natural administrative procedure (since the USSR wasn’t occupied by Western military forces); and (2) necessary for the survival of the West. Recall President Reagan’s favorite phrase, “Trust, but verify”.

        You never though about VERIFICATION either, huh? That’s because the media refused to direct your attention to it. Also, the 6-million vigilantes that assisted the Soviet Union’s Ministry of the Interior and police control the populations of the larger cities were never detained in the interests of post Soviet national security! The “freed” Soviets never even requested the urgent assistance of the West to deal with the vigilantes, let alone assist in de-Communizing the Soviet Armed Forces officer corps.

        Where were the thousands of ‘crimes against humanity’ trials that were supposed to have taken place in the “former” USSR? Not one took place! They didn’t take place because the Communists never lost power in the USSR, and the reason you never thought about this is because the co-opted media didn’t direct your attention to it.

        Now you also know why up until 2013 the Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian “electorates” have been “electing” since 1992 only Soviet era Communist Party member Quislings, except for the first president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a true dissident who didn’t even last nine months in office before he was ousted in a coup, later said to have committed “suicide”. Zviad Gamsakhurdia was a failed test run to see if a non-Communist Party member president could be controlled.

        By the way, not one statue of Lenin was destroyed in Russia after the collapse of the USSR. They’re still standing…

        “Almost every town in Russia has a prominent statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, father of the October Revolution…”

        …and those statues that were taken down in Russia, and other republics that make up the USSR, are safely hidden in parks or museums, to be eventually returned to their former locations after the defeat of the West.

        The only statues to Lenin (and other Communist heroes) taken down in Russia were located in those areas where Western tourists visit the most. Those statues were carefully lifted and relocated, in the case of Moscow, to Fallen Monument Park…

        The same subterfuge is taking place in other republics that make up the USSR, where statues to Lenin (and Marx) taken down are hidden, not destroyed, in the case of Tallinn, Estonia, at the Maarjamaë Palace…

        …and in Lithuania, statues to Lenin and Marx are located at Grūtas Park, which also incredulously has, now get this, a Soviet theme park, replete with “…a mini-zoo and cafes, all containing relics of the Soviet era. On special occasions actors stage re-enactments of various Soviet-sponsored festivals”!…

        “In the 1990s, Russia’s main economic driver, natural resources, were at all time price-lows in real terms so these reserves were of little help.”

        That’s true, and why the USSR arranged the 1990 Gulf War, tasking the United States to close off Iraq’s oil exports, the purpose being to maintain the same relative price after the political collapse and subsequent planned economic collapse in Russia…

        The reason Russia needed to implode her economy was to ensure that Western investments went to China instead, China being a nation that relies on Western investments to increase and modernize her military establishment, having no oil deposits for export.

        The 2003 Gulf War was again tasked by the Communists, this time for the purpose of re-opening Iraq’s oil to world export, since with India’s emergence onto the world economic scene existing supplies of oil were curtailed. China was especially finding it difficult to modernize her military forces with the dearth of oil on the global market, which explains why China is the major winner of Iraqi government oil contracts…

        • Kenneth O’Keeffe

          Oh dear. You conspiracy nuts would be better off forgetting this rubbish and thinking sensibly, thereby freeing up enough time to do lots of other, hopefully more productive things.

          • “Oh dear. You conspiracy nuts..”

            That doesn’t work, Comrade, for those like me who actually provide the proof. Tell the KGB’s Disinformation Section they need new scripts. Let them know too that I’ll be seeing them soon in those concentration camps Lenin started back in 1918. That is, I’ll be visiting them at those camps!

          • Kenneth O’Keeffe

            I will be sure to do that. Perhaps I can communicate with them via my toaster?!

          • “Perhaps I can communicate with them via my toaster?!”

            Oh, so that’s where the Kremlin bug is hidden. Now we all know!

          • pbasch

            Nonsense. We all know it is in the Selectric typewriters.

          • “Oh dear. You conspiracy nuts would be better off forgetting this rubbish and thinking sensibly, thereby freeing up enough time to do lots of other, hopefully more productive things.”

            If you don’t know what my comments prove, then you’re way over your head reading this site. Better stick to The Sun instead…


    • Adam Brennan

      Crazy much? The USSR still exists and the Vatican (which condemned liberation theology and the revolutionary struggles of the poor) was captured by Communists? Entertaining stuff.

      • The USSR still exists…Entertaining stuff.”

        I just proved the collapse of the USSR was an obvious strategic ruse, so what’s your cognitive difficulty here? How old are you?

        “…and the Vatican (which condemned liberation theology and the revolutionary struggles of the poor) was captured by Communists?”

        How many liberation theologists were excommunicated? One, and it was rescinded…

        “Fr. Tissa Belasuriya: A Sri Lankan Oblate of Mary, he attracted the negative attention of the Vatican with his writings on Mary, the divinity of Christ, and original sin. In 1994 he was notified that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had found errors in his writings. In 1995, he was ordered to sign a profession of faith or risk excommunication. He responded by signing a profession of faith written by Paul VI. He was formally excommunicated in 1997. One year later, after protests and negotiations, Belasuriya was “reconciled” to the church.”

        Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, often called the “father of liberation theology,” was never excommunicated!

        And on July 2, 2012 Pope Benedict appointed liberation theologist Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in an attempt to plug the damaging leaks coming out of the Vatican.

        You should have clearly understood from my previous comments that (1) the collapse of the USSR was a strategic ruse; and (2) the Vatican had been long co-opted by Marxists. You need to start THINKING!

  • stag

    I can’t read Armstrong. She is intelligent and articulate; but sympathetic and impartial? I have read one of her books all the way through: her short history of Islam. It is sympathetic all right – virtually to the point of apologetics. Not quite as sympathetic towards Christianity, though: like so many academics, she rarely passes up the opportunity for a sniffy aside about how Christians were, at any rate, at least as bad.

    Being sympathetic shouldn’t degenerate into becoming an apologist. Being impartial does not mean giving everyone except Christianity an equally easy ride. Armstrong is one of those liberals who – a bit like the BBC – assumes her prejudices are identical to impartiality. That’s why, despite her merits as a writer, I wouldn’t buy another of her books.

  • ZorroIsGod

    Crusaders usually massacred the local Jews as an hors d’oeuvre).
    lol…. read your bible directive as a recruited gentile….. the war was about restoring the land for who… your god words and in those words you need to do what…
    so the inquisition convert or die become a gentile…. and when the army was big to support war what happen….
    see your crusades ended how…. with the discovery of the America why…. more gentiles why….to restore what… Islam Jude-gentiles are were on board the Columbus slave ship why…

    string along sing along god war mongers
    read your Koran why do you fight…. again…. the meat grinder of war ranting fools

    everything is expendable from all 3 sides to your Abraham scam… eugenics cult

    politics is not religion yet they pimp it… like the queen is the governor of the church and military…… banks and food banks are related to the church… holding your wealth grab by knowing your food bank the church double banking scam….

    • ZorroIsGod

      like here is the crazy part about being a gentile once your used up for the agenda your to get the head shopped off for your Jesus to be again… eugenics
      Jews are Abrahamic so are Muslims yet gentiles are what…. your recruited to war into a meat grinder

  • Dian Atamyanov

    You can’t make a case about religion’s innocence without lying about figures like Hitler, can you? Secular nationalists? Mr. Mount, have you ever opened a history book? All of the fascists and Nazis were inspired by their own twisted sense of religion, be it pagan or otherwise.

    • wtfmate

      delete religion right now. no wars in the future? i bet you that religion is the excuse but the real problem is far more sinister than the intangible thing you blame called religion.

      • Dian Atamyanov

        Who’s arguing that? Of course desire is bigger than religion, everything about the human nature precedes any and all fantasies we make up to justify and/or denounce them.

        Also, the intangible is far more dangerous than any physical threat, because it is the predicate that drives people to manifest their deranged immaterial desires into material consequences.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Not true. You have to extend religion to mean belief. You have to say that Marxism is a religion, that nationalism is a religion. In other words every tinpot opinion is a religion. Himmler tried to manufacture a religion but nobody believed it because he was a crackpot and it was so daft. The Nazis acted the way they did because they were German supremacists and Jew haters..

      • Dian Atamyanov

        Religion involves belief, but not just any kind of belief, it involves faith – faith in whatever truth it asserts. It is usually faith in a dogma, and this is where ideologies and rigid superstitions and mythologies meet. So it takes more than just what someone deems as a “tinpot opinion”. It is irrelevant how you gauge a position, what matters is the impact it has.

        That bit at the end there is too simplistic to represent the whole picture of Nazism. They certainly did act out of those convictions, but there has to be a drive behind every desire for dominance, which itself drives their actions.

        • Fergus Pickering

          I believe that I may understand. Or words to that effect. It sounds better in Latin.

          • Dian Atamyanov

            I think so that I may believe.

          • Fergus Pickering

            Thinking won’t cut it. Descartes thought like anything and his thinking led him to believe that animals were machines. Any fool knows that’s balls without thinking at all. David Hume had it right..

          • Dian Atamyanov

            Why the past tense for his conclusions? Maybe animals are machines, but us humans are just giving ourselves too much credit. While I don’t agree with that sentiment for a number of reasons, I don’t consider the process of thinking to be limited to mere rationalism. I ascribe to both empiricism and rationalism; an argument has to be both sound and logical to to be a contender for truth.

    • Victor

      Hitler was a sort of Darwinist. BTW that’s not dear old Darwin’s fault. Hitler specifically rejected non-materialist thinking (see his “Table Talk”) although, for obvious political reasons, he never formally renounced the Catholicism into which he was born. .

      • Dian Atamyanov

        He was a failed Darwinist, because he never understood what “survival of the fittest” really meant.

        • Victor

          I don’t disagree. But then you could argue that Torquemada was failed Christian.

          • Dian Atamyanov

            True. Depending on which Bible verse you quote, you could be right, wrong or both at the same time.

          • Victor

            Indeed. No argument from me on that.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Religion, Christianity presumably, is so last century. Who but a deluded gullible brain-washed-from-birth Muppet could possibly swallow hook, line and rapture that violent superstition? That said, Christianity can be employed as a bulwark against encroaching Islamisation.

    • Paddy S

      Ye cause as everyone knows atheists wont stand up to them given the lefty atheist response to Islam in the world -they’ll lie down and take it. As for your ignorant statement about Christianity – of all the violent beliefs that have ever walked the earth – materialistic or marxist atheism has to be the worst. How many hundreds of millions have paid the price for that violent fantasy? Its no accident either that if you look at top 20 murderers in human history – atheists come out with worrying frequency given their small % of our populations.

    • justejudexultionis

      I grew up in an agnostic/atheist household and converted to Christianity at the age of thirteen. I am now forty-one years old and have yet to find a good reason – historical, scientific or philosophical – to give up my belief in the Christian revelation.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        The free animal returns to the cage.

      • Ron Todd

        How about self respect?

    • wtfmate

      So is culture and, gosh. lets just focus on science and idolize richard dawkins and bill nye the science guy every night. that will not cause any wars in the future lol

      • Julian de Wette

        Church gothic & the Richard Dawkins delusion

        Addressed to Ms L. Byng at New Hall

        There was once a wonder known as high church ritual
        paired with low church preaching – a winning combination
        of incense, candles, acolytes, and music, with brimstone
        delivered amid warnings of eternal damnation.
        Now there’s virtually nothing, bar defrocking and defanging
        of the shepherds. Proper worship is almost nowhere to be found –
        nor a place where God hasn’t entirely been consigned
        to Nietzsche’s crammed dustbins of history.
        No one any longer bothers to declare God dead and gone.
        It’s all so darned passé… ‘The King’ they used to say, ‘is
        dead. Long live the King!’
        But God’s been put to bed like an uncle who causes grave discomfit
        whenever the I Am crops up around the dinner table.
        The unseen guest at every meal is no longer welcomed
        with grace, or a thankful prayer for meat.

        Religion and politics are grounds for indignation.
        Even death is a bugbear that hardly merits mention.
        To keep God at arm’s length we’ve cultivated
        a range of conversation tactics, akin to Machiavellian intrigues.
        It’s neither polite nor civilised to speak of a higher power
        unless it involves a vague acquaintance
        abducted and transported in a UFO.
        The music and the mass and the singing of God’s praises –
        not even an eyebrow raised to what is now considered
        a tired fiction about an omniscient keeper of the peace.

        Man has scaled the heights of nearly everything,
        or descended to nearly every depth recorded.
        He considers himself madly ingenious, the true embodiment of life.
        Imperious, he wields great power. Ethical, he’s aiming for the stars.
        Though once he’s destroyed all life on earth
        he’s likely to discover God among the ruins,
        closer than the brother he’s betrayed.

        History in the Chalke Valley, XXIII.VI.2014

    • sjmckee

      Read Rodney Stark and you will learn that the crusades did just that. Stopped the violent spread of Islamization. Thanks, Charles the Hammer!

      • Fergus Pickering

        Chistins are right. Pagans are wrong. As it says in the Song of Roland. In French of course.

  • little islander

    Thank you, Mr Amory, for your wonderful idea to have former literary editors to write informative and insightful reviews like this for your last issue.

  • FedUpIndian

    “… we have to reach back seven centuries to the last Crusades
    to find bloody and unremitting wars that were quintessentially

    The bloodiest and most unremitting war is the one between Sunnis and Shia which has been going on for the past 1000+ years. It is what is behind the ongoing savagery in the Middle East, even if the author of this stupid article is too pig-ignorant to see what is under his nose. And the first Crusade started after 450 years of unremitting war and conquest of Christian kingdoms in the Middle East and North Africa by Muslims acting in the name of their religion and according to the commandments of the Koran such as Koran 9:29.

    Political correctness has not just brainwashed these fools in the West, it has dry-cleaned their brains.

    • justejudexultionis

      Fair enough, but the author’s point still stands, that too many conflicts have been attributed uncritically to religion, whereas in reality the causes of wars have historically been far more complex in nature.

      • Michael Spears

        Perhaps it’s not religion or any other institution. Maybe it’s EGO ! Or,Ego wrapped in some flag or institution.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Well of course they have. Explain to me how the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War, The Falklands War were caused by religion? How was the Peloponnesian War caused by religion? How were Rome’s three wars against Carthage caused by religion?

    • Treaclebeak

      Agreed, strange how those previous 450 years have been ‘forgotten’.

    • And of course there’s the Muslim conquest of India, which historian Will Durant calls the bloodiest conquest in the history of civilization.

      • kat karsecs

        But yet not as bloody as Tamerlane’s very non-religious conquests and reconquests of Central Asia, the Indus river area, Mesopotamia, Anatolia (he even other threw the Ottomans for a time), the Levant, and Russia.

        • Kevcol

          Please, let us know, how exactly it was, that you determined that Tamerlane’s conquests were non-religious? Just your own personal bias or did you use some calculus?

          From Wikipedia: “As a means of legitimating his conquests, Timur relied on Islamic symbols and language, referring to himself as the Sword of Islam and patronizing educational and religious institutions. He converted nearly all the Borjigin leaders to Islam during his lifetime.[6] His armies were inclusively multi-ethnic. Timur also decisively defeated the Christian Knights Hospitaller at Smyrna, styling himself a ghazi.[7]”

          • kat karsecs

            You didn’t read that very carefully, let me help you. “As a means of LEGITIMIZING HIS CONQUESTS TIMUR RELIED ON ISLAMIC SYMBOLS AND LANGUAGE.” Pretty much every conqueror and empire-builder in history, everywhere, does that. It’s even recommended in the Chinese Art of War. That is not at all the same thing as a religiously motivated war, it is using the symbols and language of the religion of the conquered peoples as a political tool.

            When Napoleon conquered Egypt he declared, “Je suis aussi Musulmane” Does that make his war religiously motivated? The US regularly used to invoke God when it went to war; “God is on our side!” Were our wars religiously motivated? Were the Spanish Conquests of the New World religiously motivated because they forced native Americans to convert? A: No, religion is a political tool and it’s actually very rare that it provides THE primary inspiration for war. Or did you not read the article above? If Timur forced those leaders to convert, chances are high it was to stitch them into the political fabric of the people being subjugated. He defeated the Christian Knights not because he was on some Holy War against Christianity–he probably couldn’t give two shits about what religion they were–but because they were a military and political force in his way. That’s how war works.

            Finally, just because some conquerer uses the symbols and language of X religion does not allow us to say that he was a True Believer in it. Timur clearly could not have cared that much about Islam considering how many of the millions of people whose deaths he caused were themselves Muslims. Had the Nestorian Church or Buddhism been dominant in that area at that time he no doubt would have used THEIR symbols and language instead. This doesn’t require calculus to figure out, just a grasp of basic human psychology and historical patterns. But you’re less interested in that than in your own little ‘holy war’, aren’t you?

          • Kevcol

            I read it very carefully you condescending little man. I don’t need a history lesson from some mentally challenged pedant. You proffered an opinion with nothing to back it up and now you’re backpedaling. You are just irrationalizing (don’t want to impugn rationality).

            Using the symbols and language of religion as a political tool is effective because religious people are easily manipulated to go to war against those of a different religion.
            Your grasp of “basic human psychology” seems to give you the power to read the minds of long deceased people to conveniently support your biases.

          • kat karsecs

            Oh, and…Wikipedia? Seriously? Try actually reading a book about Timur, something written by a reputable historian who can give you the whole picture.

          • Kevcol

            You and your blessed assumptions, I bet that you can’t get through a day without them. I can’t link to a book genius! And by the way, where are you links for your baseless assertions?

  • Rusty

    Dash it I wish I remembered my bible better but was Samson’s act unspeakable? Wasn’t he an unwilling prisoner (hostage even?) at the time? Which is a bit different to wandering in to a nice peaceful temple meeting and blowing yourself up or, absent the necessary TNT, tearing down the pillars.

    • justejudexultionis

      The death of Samson is the only instance of (apparently) divinely sanctioned suicide in the Bible.

      • Rusty

        Was it suicide? I know he expected to die but presumably he’d have been quite happy if he’d been able to crawl out of the wreckage?

    • TNT

      The Karen Armstrongs of the world have built their disreputable careers on drawing false parity.

    • MaxSceptic


      He was captured, tortured, blinded and manacled between the pillars of the Temple of Dagon as a figure of ridicule and humiliation after which he would have been destroyed.

      Bringing down the temple around himself was an act of self-mercy.

    • RIRedinPA

      Samson was a prisoner of the Philistines but bear in mind that prior to his capture he had killed 30 Philistines and stolen their clothes to give to the groomsmen of his first woman he wanted to marry, who was a Philistine. When the father decided not to let her marry him he tied torches to the tails of 30 foxes and set them running through the crops of Philistine farmers, destroying them. When cornered and thought captured he supposedly slew 3,000 of them. So it’s not like the Philistines simply captured Samson and then unleashed a can of whoop ass on him because he was an Israelite, there’s a history there. As in the story I Am Legend, who is the monster is usually a issue of perspective.

      • Rusty

        Yes. You can see why the Philistines would have been a bit fed up with him.

        • RIRedinPA

          Thing is the Philistines and the Israelites had a long simmering on again off again war throughout the Old Testament. It is thought that sometime before the Pharaoh Ramses III came to power a people referred to as the Sea People came and conquered a lot the area of the coastal ME. In reaction the Israelites made moves that brought them up against both the Phoenicians (in modern Lebanon – Beirut was one of their cities) and the Philistines (Gaza was one of theirs). Sensing the Israelite expansion as a threat to their existence this led to years of conflict between the Philistines and the tribes of Israel. The Philistines had the military advantage as they had chariots and iron, until Saul was killed in battle with them, along with many other leaders and David became the first king under a unified Israel. The the tide turned.

          Point being, there probably was enough cause on either side to try and justify each’s actions against the other.

  • jansand

    As an atheist, I not only do not personally need religion since I have ethical principles quite sufficient to live decently and peacefully with my fellows without being threatened by nonsensical and unbelievable superpowers, In addition the whole social hierarchy religions require is unnecessary and an affront to good sense. But religion is not so simple as to declare it either entirely good or evil. It can be both or either in the way that most human organizations can be and it seems rather obvious that one cannot wish it away by mentioning the truly awful things it has done and is doing.

    There are religious sectors that are very useful in helping people and there are other sectors which make me shudder at their lack of basically civilized understandings. I have had enough conversations with religious people to accept that it will not respond to logic or reason or any of the other necessary tools one uses to puzzle out this world. I hope that eventually it might disappear but that seems unlikely.

    • sjmckee

      logic and reason have done rather badly without the influence of religion. We all know those who live thoroughly decent lives as atheists but it has proven a disaster when a country has no religious foundation. And to further irritate some, it is the Christian religion most associated with liberal Western values.

      • jansand

        I have yet to find definitive evidence as to whether religious principles of decent behavior coerce minds to behave properly or that properly behaving people join and merely declare adherence to good religious principles. People, from popes down through the hierarchy to mere believers have exhibited regularly that whatever their declared addiction to their particular version of religion they have no reluctance and frequently great enthusiasm for the most atrocious acts of inhumanity that humankind can conceive. The Christian nations through history and most certainly today are no better than and most probably a good deal worse than even the most fanatical practitioners of any other religion. They frequently sugar coat their atrocities with excuses of economic or political necessity but the pill itself is just as deadly and brutal and idiotic as any of the insanities involved in other religions.

        By this, I do not mean to convey that atheism is a cure-all or even a diminished remedy to frightful behavior. It merely removes the surface decoration to the reality of humankind’s predisposition to behavior that is probably behind the rest of the galaxy’s silence in putting out a welcome sign to mankind in the communities of the cosmos. That concept, of course, is a totally optimistic viewpoint of life itself which matures to succeed, according to much biological theory, by being rather merciless in discarding all species less powerful and less intelligent. It is most likely that all life is brutal everywhere and Christ’s “golden rule” merely was a call to equal combat.

        • sjmckee

          “The Christian nations through history and most certainly today are no
          better than and most probably a good deal worse than even the most
          fanatical practitioners of any other religion.”

          The above is such a pathetically stupid thing to say that I withhold comment except to ask, “have you read anything in the past 15 years concerning current events?”

          • jansand

            Do you man the current events concerning the obliteration of North Korea, the millions killed in Vietnam to no purpose whatsoever and the hundreds of thousands still being murdered in Iraq, Afghanistan,Libya, Syria etc at the behest of the oil companies and the protection of the petrodollar? The current build-up to, perhaps, a nuclear war with Russia and China says very little for Christianity. But, of course, these efforts have been accomplished by the USA which may assume its Christianity but pragmatically is not Christian at all. To which “Christian” nation do you refer?

          • sjmckee

            Let me address this very serious response.

            North Korean obliteration has been ongoing since the U.S. settled with leaving them alone. Or do you like fascist/communist governments that starve and torture the citizens.

            More died in Viet Nam since the war ended as the communist government took power. We tried.

            As for the Middle East. We tried. More will die if/when the U.S. leaves.

            Christianity will very likely not be the cause of any war as it has been hundreds of years since a purely “christian” war has been fought.

            And yes, your right, the USA is not Christian. Just many Christians practicing freely live here.

            You answered my question. You have not been reading any current events. It seems you have been listening to a brain dead Marxist preaching world revolution and trying to explain the theory of surplus value.

          • jansand

            Perhaps a bit of education would benefit you at so you can comprehend the barbarism of the “Christian” USA which has not abated one bit in the interim. I have no need of Marxism to comprehend what the Christian King Leopold did in the Congo nor the long history of the Catholic Church in Spain before and into Franco’s rule. The Christian Margaret Thatcher was a great admirer if Pinichet in Chile.To disapprove of Christianity I need no references to Hitler nor Stalin since I do not consider them as viable alternatives. One brutality does not justify any other.

        • Paddy S

          Utter nonsense.

      • RIRedinPA

        >>logic and reason have done rather badly without the influence of religion.<<

        Would you care to provide some proof of that statement, that without religion mankind would not have logic or reason.

        • sjmckee

          Logic and reason are valued primarily in the nations with a history of Christian practice. Incidentally both are a function of free thought and Democratic government, also associated with a Christian history, past and present.So, to be precise, logic and reason are publicly practiced and valued in the nations with a Christian history. The practice of logic and reason are part of our nature but just not allowed everyplace.

          • RIRedinPA

            Ah, I see. So logic and reason never existed in any of the Chinese dynasties, or India, or Persia. Only in Christendom. I was not aware of that.

          • Ron Todd

            Only in the christian west did logic and reason become modern science.

          • RIRedinPA

            We need to be careful of what we are terming science and the scientific method – prior to 1800 there were no scientist (in the sense of people who formulated a hypothesis, observed test on that and then either supported or dismissed the hypothesis based on the results of that test). In that sense, Newton, Copernicus, Galileo all were not scientist, more accurately, they were natural philosophers.

            It is true to claim that the early church funded many “scientific” efforts but so to did secular sources. This is less about the Christianity embracing science and more about intellectuals of that era seeking out seeking power, position and funding within the accepted ideological apparatus of the time.

            Christianity as a whole has a relationship with science as that described of wayward Catholics to their sect, a cafeteria one. Christians pick and choose those which they want to believe and so you get an acceptance of the laws of gravity but not evolution, a belief in natural laws and a suspension of that belief for supernatural events. Christianity, in and of itself is antithesis to science, for it is based on irrational dogma and thought and arbitrary authority. The methodologies of science are incompatible with the methodologies of religion, Christianity included, and you cannot have the former until one excludes the latter.

            An excellent example is the idea of antipodes – the diametrically opposite location of the earth from where you are. Sometimes used to refer to a geographical location but also to antichthones, the people who would reside in the antipode. Pope Zachary, in the late 700’s declared the belief heretical and even into the time of Columbus the idea was still rejected to a degree. (Note: Not for a belief in a flat earth, despite American high school history many learned people in medieval times believed in a round or spherical earth, it was a belief that the other side of the planet was inhabitable, and therefore, if the passage to an antipode of Europe was impossible because of the climate needed to travel through to get there, it would be impossible to reach any inhabitants there and follow through on Christ’s instructions to be missionaries to all mankind.)

            The scientific method took root in the West not because of but despite Christianity (particularly early and middle Christianity) is based on faith and obedience to the church, and critical thinking of the type that eventually became science was more a threat to its power base than a resource. No, the scientific method took hold because of radical thinkers who had the courage to follow knowledge regardless of whatever path it led.

            By the time what we think of as science presents itself, the church is in the beginning of its wane in influence and no longer has the “Auctoritate Dei super hominem”

          • jansand

            The phrase as above applies perfectly. “Utter nonsense”. The ignorance involved in denying the logical and historic accomplishments of non-Christian cultures is profound in their scientific mastery.

    • Fergus Pickering

      The world is illogical and unreasonable or hadn’t you noticed?

      • sjmckee

        Oh no, I’ve noticed and I’m reminded every day.!

        • Fergus Pickering

          Logic and reason are human constructs. They do not exist out there like planets and hedgehogs. My cat gets on very well without them.

  • Patrick778

    “The worst genocides of the last century — Hitler’s murder of the Jews and Atatürk’s massacre of the Armenians (not to mention his expulsion and massacre of the Greeks in Asia Minor too) — were perpetrated by secular nationalists who hated the religion they were born into.”

    The overwhelming majority of Nazi Party members considered themselves to be Christians. You could look it up — but not in The Spectator.

    • Paddy S

      Actually the ones in power were not: Heydrich, Himmler, Goebbels, Goering and even Hitler himself were not Christians – they couldnt be to worship Christ was to worship a Jew, something they were loath to do.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        I really appreciate how embarrassing it must be for you bead mumblers to be saddled with the most evil person of the 20th century. But suck it up.
        Goebbels was the only top Nazi to be excommunicated. His crime? He married a Protestant. “You see; we do have our standards.”

        • Paddy S

          Listen you obviously know little history so will be kind: biggest murderer of 20th century was Mao, another communist atheist. Many of the top 20 murderers of 20th century were communist atheists. As for your claim about Hitler being a catholic, read Table Talk, Ian Kershaw, Andrew Roberts, Anthony beever none would agree with that. He was a pagan.

          • Dian Atamyanov

            Their religion was communism. Find me a country that has fallen into decay after following the core ideals of the Enlightenment and you might have a shadow of a point.

          • Paddy S

            France 1789-1794 when the Enlightenment became a living force.

          • Dian Atamyanov

            A tragedy in the fullest sense of the word – was for the “right” reasons, ended up on the “wrong” path, and at the end was more a struggle for power than a struggle for ideals. They never achieved the ideals of the Enlightenment, though, to have even attempted them as a governing method.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Hitler was a Catholic. Suck it up, Paddy.

          • Paddy S

            Wrong. He was an anti christian.

          • Fergus Pickering

            You can say it as often as you like but it doesn’t make it true.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Read “Mein Kampf”: Hitler makes repeated references to “doing God`s will”. Good book to read on public transport if you don`t want anyone to sit next to you.

          • Fergus Pickering

            I read ‘Mein Kampf’ when I was eighteen. I have never felt the need to repeat the experience. I also read The Communist Manifesto. Ditto. Weird people.

        • Victor

          Look, the allegation that the Nazis were really Christians is nonsense and shows an almost total tone-deafness to 20th Century European ideological/philosophical history.

          Central to the Nazi world-view was the material struggle between the various races, whom the Nazis actually saw as separate species. It’s a view they derived from the first two generations of German Darwinists, even though Darwin himself would no doubt have been horrified by their conclusions.

          Another source of Nazi ideology was a vulgarised version of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, a declared non-believer in traditional religion. True, the Nazi version of Nietzsche was provided with a phony German nationalist gloss by the latter’s elderly sister, whom Hitler affected to revere. But there was no way the great nineteenth century Atheist’s viewpoint could be Christianised.

          In private, Hitler repeatedly declared himself to be a complete materialist, even though he does seem to have been haunted by an almost Calvinist sense of predestination. Moreover, in the Nazi movement’s early days, many of its leaders posed (sincerely or otherwise) as anti-clericals.

          But, once in power, Hitler ordered them to pull their horns in, as part of his general campaign to convince respectable, conservative Germans that he was the heir to Frederick the Great, Bismarck et al and not the guttersnipe radical they feared.

          Part of this campaign involved top Nazis retaining membership of the churches into which they were born. In Hitler’s case, this meant remaining a nominal Catholic.

          Bear in mind that, in German-speaking countries, it’s traditional for the state to require people to formally state their confessional allegiance. Apart from anything else, this ensures that a percentage of taxes is distributed for the upkeep of churches etc.

          In a largely Christian country, it would have been politically reckless for the Nazi leadership to collectively declare itself “Kirchenlose”. But religion nevertheless remained firmly out of favour in the leadership’s circles.

          And, of course, Christianity was particularly despised as a Semitic “slave” religion, allegedly imposed on the Aryan Germans by the Jews, in order to sap the former’s manly strength.

          And, no, I’m not a Christian apologist. I’m a Jewish agnostic who has spent many years trying to find out exactly why so many of his family members were slaughtered.

          And, yes, I do accept that Christian antisemitism helped lay the ground for the Holocaust. But that doesn’t turn Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, Eichmann and their ilk into Christians. Nor, even if true, should the case for or against religious belief be grounded on such arguments.

    • Dryermartinithanyours

      Agree with Paddy S, they were thorough-going secular Scientism-ists who were fed up with the ongoing assault of communism on their own society, yet kin to its modernist sentiments, absent the self-harm communism entailed. The sort of reaction we are experiencing today, and which may peak if we descend into partial civil war.

    • justejudexultionis

      Yes but what about all the Christians who fought *against* Nazism on the British and American sides? Does the fact that a doctrine is occasionally abused invalidate its core teachings? Of course not.

      • Benjamin O’Donnell

        Who was “twisting” the Christian tradition? The Christian Nazis who were simply taking centuries of Christian anti-semitic pogroms into the industrial age? Or the Christian Allies who ignored and downplayed the anti-semitism within the Christian tradition in order to nobly defend the Jews?

        • Paddy S

          Actually anti semitisim predates Christianity and Nazis persecuted Jews for being racially impure nothing to do with religion.

  • Paddy S

    Karen Armstrong has had a reputation for years as an Islamic apologist although like many professors she seems to regard Christianity with far less love. As for the idea that religion is behind all wars – only an ignorant history free person would really believe that, and I know very few honest atheists who actually buy that nonsense. Although some of the new atheists well thats a different story…..

  • Alan P

    Wars between nations are almost always about resources, so in that sense religion is not directly responsible.
    When it comes to conflicts that are not between nations (ISIS is not targeting nay particular nation but all non muslim peoples) but are often civil wars, religion can play a significant role. Old Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland to name but two.
    Hitler focused mainly on the Jews because 2,000 years of christian propaganda indicated that was acceptable.
    All religions seem to become corrupted as they grow. Very few follow the ideals that they claim their god promotes. The reason, I believe, is simple. All religions are administered by human beings not by any god and are subject to human failings and these failings are influenced by society as a whole.
    Without christianity it is improbable that Jews would have been persecuted but it is highly probable that some other religion would have persecuted a different minority for a different reason.
    The problem with all religions is that they are exclusive in the sense that, if you do not agree with their beliefs you are wrong. That attitude, in itself, creates conflict with other religions.

  • rtj1211

    I think the truth is that religious texts are capable of being interpreted in many ways and, if they are interpreted in a preadolescent, tribal and intolerant way, they are capable of creating mindsets which are capable of initiating and imposing warfare on populations.

    After all, the sort of hellfire and brimstone you find in the Old Testament is ‘religion’ every bit as much as the message of forgiveness preached in the New Testament. If you respond to the Old but not to the New, you can invoke God in demanding eyes for an eye and teeth for a tooth. The same is true of Islam, which is currently rather similar to middle-ages Christianity. Firebrands with global caliphate in their minds, just as Empires were being created by Christian nations in Western Europe centuries ago.

    There is plenty of correlation between those writing about religions and those demanding war against Islam. At this organ as well as at others.

    Not surprising that many folks see a link between religion and warfare……….

    • Ron Todd

      If a religious text can be interpreted in many ways suggests that it is not of a true religion. If there was an all powerful god in the sky would he not give us an unambiguous text.?

      • Fergus Pickering

        Why on earth should he? Because you want it? Why should he care what you want?

        • Ron Todd

          An unambiguous text would make it easier to believe it was not just some piece of nonsense made up by primitives.
          Why should he care what I want indeed why. Why should he care what you want?

          • Fergus Pickering

            Ah. Nonsense made up by primitives. Like Thomas Aquinas let us say.

        • Ron Todd

          looks like my first reply was censored.

  • mattmark

    Is there any truly rational person who hasn’t lost patience with the devious apologists for religion? With arguments that, at bottom, plead special epistemological exemption for religion’s metaphysical pretensions? With the inflexible dogmatism and sheer wilfulness of theists who shamelessly and repeatedly advance patently spurious arguments, putting unsuspecting people of good will to the trouble of refuting them, step by tedious step, over and over again, to no beneficial pedagogical effect? With the hypocrisy of believers who haven’t the least wish to see their arguments repaired if this means having to modify their convictions, yet still claim the support of ‘logic’ that’s demonstrably fallacious, and of ‘history’ distorted beyond all recognition? With obfuscation and evasiveness in all its forms, including that of travesty (no rational, informed person claims that “religion causes all wars,” nor is it necessary to defend any such claim to make a case that religious belief is pernicious)?

    The mindless tenacity of believers’ refusal to apply the same standards of elementary skepticism to their religious views that they would expect a child to apply to everything else has engendered one of the most heartfelt dismissals of the 21st century, ‘Can’t you please just God off and leave us alone?’ which in epistemological terms is as appropriately directed to Ms. Armstrong as to an ISIS executioner.

    • Paddy S

      I dont know atheists can be pretty dogmatic about that fairytale known as evolution.

      • mattmark

        (?) The gulfs between those who can and can’t grasp the concept of evolutionary change, and between theists and atheists, aren’t coincident sets. Many theists have no problem with evolution, or with science in general.

        The term ‘dogmatist’ is usually reserved for someone who persistently affirms the truth of a proposition for which there is insufficient
        epistemological warrant. ‘God exists’ is such a proposition; ‘Evolution is a confirmed scientific theory’ is not.

        • Paddy S

          How and where is the macroevolution evidence

        • Paddy S

          How and where is the macroevolution evidence

          • mattmark

            Dewey 575 and 576.

          • sjmckee

            I might be able to help your argument, as follows: To believe that life on earth happened spontaneously or as some might say, accidentally you must believe in something beyond the belief that there may be a Creator.

            You must believe that not only did some event occur (the proverbial lightening strike into a pool of primordial soup) causing life to begin BUT you must also believe that this life form created from a random natural occurrence new to the cosmos, could duplicate itself and then evolve. WOW!

            So, life is formed from non-living building blocks and then it can recreate itself. C’mon, that sounds like two miracles.

          • mattmark

            (?) All life is formed from non-living building blocks called ‘atoms.’

            When atoms combine to form molecules, those molecules have properties the atoms by themselves don’t possess, despite the fact that there’s nothing in the molecules but the same old atoms. Life is similarly a series of emergent properties. It’s not that difficult a concept. Think of the ability your house has to define space for you while keeping you warm and the rain off your head. These are emergent properties not present in the pile of construction materials from which your house is built, though of course there’s no material in the structure of the house that wasn’t also present in the pile.

          • sjmckee

            It is indeed not that difficult of a concept but it does not get you where you want to go. The question still remains how from non-living atoms that compose a universe without life suddenly create a living thing and several million years later their is a guy on the corner calling a taxi. Quite a leap don’t you think?

          • mattmark

            It’s only a ‘leap’ if you persist in conceiving of life as some sort of special, magical thing that differs from other chemical processes in any respect besides the characteristic emergent properties to which it gives rise. It doesn’t.

            By the way, atoms perform the equivalent of hailing taxis all the time, whenever they induce electrons to jump from one
            nucleus to another. If you really want to exercise your sense of wonder you might start with that, instead of taking it for granted as a phenomenon somehow less mysterious or remarkable than life.

          • sjmckee

            Not trying to prove God but you have given literally no explanation for how non-living atoms arranged themselves to create life, as we know it. We know that it happened, we just don’t know how. Except of coarse the leap of faith that asks you to believe it was random. OK, but remember you have to then also make the additional leap that this randomly created life also (wow) was able to duplicate itself. This takes no less belief that to say there was a creator.

            And, atoms do not exercise any type of the free will associated with hailing a taxi. Especially since a snap decision may make the randomly associated atoms, known as a human, decide to forgo the taxi, walk home and stop for flowers on the way.

            The most terrible new idea must be that humans themselves are fully understood as at the mercy of each
            chemical reaction the immediate environment stimulates.

            However we arrived their is no suggestion that it should be taken for granted. It is indeed a wonder!

            Incidentally, life does seem to be, …”some sort of special, magical thing.”

          • mattmark

            Since it’s clear you haven’t yet grasped the point, I’ll
            break it down into simpler steps.

            “…you have given literally no explanation for how
            non-living atoms arranged themselves to create life, as we know it.”

            I wasn’t trying to do that, but if you want to know how
            life got started on earth there are several plausible theories. What you need, more than this, though, is to consider life in the wider context of the processes that constitute it; so why not start with Robert Hazen’s The Story of Earth? It’s current, informative and readable.

            “Except of coarse [sic] the leap of faith that asks you to believe it was random.”

            The philosophical question of whether the self-assemblies
            that make up our universe are the outcomes of probability and/or chance, or, alternatively, evidence for some kind of underlying teleology, is not what’s at issue here. How could it be? No matter how you decide this question the answer will have the same significance for the origin of a single hydrogen atom as it will for the origin of living structures. It can thus contribute nothing of the least relevance for establishing which sort of origin, living or non-living matter, requires the greater leap of faith. In short, if you want to talk about ‘leaps of faith,’ waiting around until life comes on the scene isn’t an option. You have to start earlier, with atoms, and even before.

            “… you have to then also make the additional leap that this randomly created life also (wow) was able to duplicate itself. This takes no less belief that to say there was a creator.”

            Duplication is one of the emergent properties associated
            with life; but why would it require more of a leap of faith to suppose that this property can appear without teleological guidance than to suppose that atoms can combine to form molecules without it? If you find such unguided emergence implausible, logical consistency suggests you should be having just as big a problem with emergent properties in non-living as in living systems, the rigidity and solidity of rock or metal and the fluidity of water, for example. Your real difficulty seems to be with the notion of randomness itself, but it’s obvious that life is no more on the hook for this than any other set of processes in the cosmos.

            Are you starting to see the problem with the thrust of your remarks, now? As they apply equally well to life and non-life they don’t succeed in showing that ‘randomly arising life’ is something distinctly implausible. Whereas the concept of emergence acknowledges and accounts for the distinction between life and non-life without having to commit itself either to randomness or teleology.

            “And, atoms do not exercise any type of the free will
            associated with hailing a taxi.”

            Again, the question of whether things are free or determined has nothing whatever to do with the distinction between life and non-life. Whether or not the apparent ‘choice’ you make in hailing or not hailing a taxi is, at some level, determined, it’s undeniably the configuration of non-living atoms which constitute the living you that is going through the decision-making motions. While the ability to hail a taxi is undeniably an emergent property (only certain configurations of atoms can do it, just as only certain configurations of atoms can heat your house in the winter), what experimental evidence can you think of that would support a hypothesis that hailing a taxi is any less or more determinate than atoms combining to form molecules?

            “The most terrible new idea must be that humans
            themselves are fully understood as at the mercy of each chemical reaction the immediate environment stimulates.”

            We are at the mercy of chemical reaction, no matter
            what. What was ‘new’ in the century just past, under the influence of Einstein, Heisenberg, Cantor, Godel, etc., was the movement away from a deterministic, Newtonian conception of the universe to a probabilistic one of quantum uncertainty. What you need to realize is that, no matter which model you find the most persuasive, it will apply just as emphatically to non-living as to living systems. It makes no sense to treat the genesis of either emergence or chemical reaction as something especially problematic in complex life forms if you’re going to give a free pass to the genesis of the same things in non-life forms.

            “It is indeed a wonder!”

            Yes, we agree. I just wanted you to see that it’s no more puzzling or wondrous that atoms should combine to form proteins than that they should combine to form any other kind of molecule. If you want to critically examine the role of randomness in the universe, you’ll have to start wondering sooner. It’s arbitrary to single out life for engaging in the same kind of electron exchange and energy exploitation we see exhibited in everywhere else in the cosmos .

            “Incidentally, life does seem to be, …”some sort of special, magical thing.””

            If that were true it certainly couldn’t be deduced from any of the remarks you’ve been making. You should probably forget about magic, other than as a metaphor. Life isn’t something that exists in some noumenal realm or in the fourth dimension; life is scattered across different configurations of atoms that are best understood as occupying places on a continuum, alongside all the other non-magical forms of matter we’ve been doing our best to make intelligible. It’s a continuum that ascends from simplicity to complexity; and since we know that new properties emerge at each new level of complexity, we have no grounds for regarding life and its associated properties as being any more ‘special’ or mystifying than other configurations of matter appearing on the continuum. Whatever life’s spot in the hierarchy, it owes it to the same chemical processes and relationships between complexity and emergence that qualify everything else for membership.

          • sjmckee

            Congratulations on the effort but you have done nothing to prove your point.

            No problem with randomness, or anything related to natural selection or evolution for that matter. The point of interest is still how life began. We know about atoms and enzymes and proteins but the tricky question still is how life came to these things AND with the ability to replicate. No need to produce more science, it is well known, but once again you are left with the decision to believe that this happened by chance or by a creator. One must believe a miracle either way, whether by religious formulation or by random chance of a secular miracle..

            So now it’s time to ask what you get by lining up on one side or the other, keeping in mind there is no proof for either. Yes, you have a theory and indeed surrounded by many facts but still no proof. You have what the religious have, a belief.

            With one belief you get a rich history (not all good as you will surely jump to point out) from which all of the best things in life have derived from – principally the notion that all people in all places have exactly the same value, a revolutionary and world changing idea.

            A secular attachment gives you…nothing! Oh yes, you get reason and rationality (developed by Greek and Christian thinkers over the centuries) but I’m afraid that is all. Keeping in mind what life looked like prior to the great religions, it was not a picnic. As someone said, “red in tooth and claw.” Recent rather striking examples of the non-religious are fascism and communism, 20th century creations made to replace Christian sentiments and delivering 100 million dead with residual suffering ongoing.

            Secularism and nihilism, such close cousins that over time tend to look alarmingly alike.

          • mattmark

            I’ve done what I could for you, though as you’ve just
            confirmed it was a futile enterprise from the start. If you can’t see that random self-assembly is the real target in your account, which (notwithstanding the arbitrary exemptions granted them by your curiously selective sense of wonder) elevates chemical reaction and the structural properties of atoms themselves just as high on the miracle scale as replication (hardly surprising, since replication makes use of no ‘magical,’ non-natural materials or chemical processes), you aren’t likely to move beyond this limiting inability to sort out basic distinctions to the kind of rigorous clarity necessary for understanding more complex kinds of emergence.

            If you’re really interested in theories about the origins of
            life you can try the book I recommended, or something else. Speculation about non-natural ‘creators’ has no more relevance for the question of how replication managed to bootstrap itself into existence than for how atoms accomplished the same feat. ‘How… ?’ is a query that seeks, and can only be relevantly addressed by, an ‘explanation’ (electrical, chemical, mechanical, psychological, historical, etc.), and attributing any phenomenon to ‘creative’ acts or processes that are unknowable, even in principle, is simply another way of saying, ‘We can never know how.’

            Fortunately, nothing like this seems to be true for life and its origins. While much remains to be learned, life’s processes and structures are no more miraculous and inexplicable in principle than those we see elsewhere in our environment (essentially, they are the same structures and processes, elaborated differently at different levels of emergence), many of which we are making very encouraging progress in understanding.

            P.S. We’ll have to leave secularism, nihilism, fascism and the epistemological and ethical warrants of belief for another time and place. They have no relevance for the point you allege I’m failing to ‘prove’ and which I’m still not persuaded you adequately grasp, or indeed have made more than the most cursory of efforts to apprehend.

          • sjmckee

            Don’t flatter yourself. You have done all you can in that the last two posts of yours are mere gibberish. Nice try. I was trying to get you to understand that you do not know, nor does anyone else. You are captured by a belief that is no less fantastic than believing in a God. At a minimum this should reduce your condescension and increase your respect for those who believe differently.

          • mattmark

            (?) Please see the added ‘P.S.,’ above. A foreign language is ‘gibberish’ to those who do not understand it, and you are clearly deficient in your reading. Alas, your incivility is as predictable and unfortunate as it is unprovoked. It simply reinforces the impression that you aren’t the sort of individual who has profited from the good advice of others very often, and that this is likely to be a lifelong trend, to the great detriment of your learning.

          • sjmckee

            Read this slowly so you might understand. Your attempt to make an argument is dripping in pretension and condescension. i.e. “I’ve done what I could for you.” I don’t take seriously a lecture about incivility from your type.

            You must understand you never attempted to address the question posed. Instead you retreated to the gibberish of atoms, emergent properties, etc. Read my posts carefully and see if you can finally find the point of the debate.

            Rather than break out the jargon and the well known science, ask yourself if you have answered the question of how life came from non-life. There is a theory but there is not proof. More directly, their is a belief that you embrace as if a fact.

          • mattmark

            You must have been a great joy to parents, friends and teachers over the years who ‘condescended’ to suggest that the armour of your preconceptions might in fact be a prison. If you can unbend enough to read the Hazen book you might find it unexpectedly liberating. It would be a small step in the direction of informing your opinions with something other than bristling hostility that anyone should have the nerve to find them deficient. Those so pathologically averse to input that might entail having to revise their religious convictions that they prefer attacking the message-bearers are hardly in a position to speak of respecting ‘difference.’

          • sjmckee

            When atoms are rearranged, from a pile of wood to a house. It is still made of the same atoms, but with a different purpose, and still not alive.

        • Bruce Lewis

          The term ‘dogmatist’ is usually reserved for someone who persistently affirms the truth of a proposition for which there is insufficientepistemological warrant. ‘God exists’ is such a proposition.

          So is the dogmatic pronouncement, “God does NOT exist.” I’m agnostic. To me, THAT seems the only rational position to take. And my kind of “agnostic” respects the “truth-bearing allegories” that many religious “myths” embody.

          • mattmark

            You do not need to affirm the proposition, ‘God does not exist’ in order to be a thorough-going atheist.

          • philly_z

            Query: would you consider “Unicorns do NOT exist.” to be a dogmatic pronouncement? Why or why not?

          • Fergus Pickering

            Yes it is dogmatic. I have never seen a unicorn is not dogmatic.

          • Bruce Lewis

            Exactly, Fergus, and I’d add that an animal that was once CALLED a “unicorn” probably DOES exist.

          • Fergus Pickering

            And there is the dogmatic statement ‘All swans are white’ which turns out not to be the case.

          • philly_z

            Alright, so I presume you would say you are also agnostic regarding the existence of unicorns? Or agnostic with respect to the sun rising in the east tomorrow? After all, we can’t be absolutely certain and therefore it must be “the only rational position to take.”
            For the record, I am an atheist and I passed through the “agnosticism” halfway house on my way here, as many do. What broke me out of it was considering why people insist on a higher degree of knowledge or certainty when it comes to God than is remotely useful or practical in any other area of human endeavour (and on the flip side, why theists are content with an infinitely lower degree of certainty, i.e. “faith”, than would be tolerated elsewise).

          • Bruce Lewis

            In fact, there will come a day–hopefully millions of years from now–when the sun will, indeed, NOT “rise in the east tomorrow,” so it IS wrong to say “the sun ALWAYS ‘rises’ in the east.”

        • disqus_KdiRmsUO4U

          A bit late in the day but IMO

          Evo. by N/Selection is not a confirmed theory but a conjecture which in the light of modern knowledge re dna and the complexity of the molecular structure of life is unsustainable.

          Religion is basically politics with a manifesto based on mysticism.
          In that respect in principle it is no worse nor better than many other political movements be they capitalism socialism communism or atheism.
          The ‘enthusiastic’ adherents of all such movements have shown a willingness to inflict suffering in the name of their belief system

          To me it clearly follows that the problem rests deep in the psyche of flawed human species.

          Whether God exists now or not it seems impossible to know.
          It does sees certain to me that at some point in past time an entity outside of human comprehension set in motion events that led to what we experience today.
          I believe that POV is known as Deism or latterly intelligent Design.

          • mattmark

            Evolution is properly classified as a confirmed scientific theory, along with relativity, quantum mechanics, gravitation, electromagnetism, etc.

            To admit that it is “impossible to know” whether God exists amounts to admitting that a belief that He does exist is not epistemologically warranted… which is the position of atheists.

      • Ron Todd

        Read the good book ‘evolution of the species ‘ I found it very convincing.

      • MaxSceptic

        Evolution is a theory.

        If you don’t think it is true come up with a better one, with better reasoning.

        (A burning bush 1200 BC does not qualify)

        • Paddy S

          wrong date. I dont have any theory to present: I dont buy world being 6000 years old nor do I buy odds of life spontaneously emerging naturalistically 3 billion years ago (odds are 40 billion to 1 against). Or the cosmos created or emerge from nothing.

          • Ron Todd

            If the odds of simple life emerging is 40 billion to one (where did that number come from) How much greater are the odds of an all powerful god in the sky just emerging?

          • Paddy S

            Murray Eden.

          • mattmark

            Those are indeed long odds. On the other hand, it only had to happen once! 😉

            There’s something about ‘odds’ that people tend to forget. ‘Forty billion to one against’ may sound staggeringly unlikely, but it’s not ‘never.’ On the contrary, if you have correctly assessed the probability it’s a guarantee that once every forty billion times we can expect an instance.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          Never trust a Bush unless it`s burning,

    • sjmckee

      Slow down Matt. Religion is based on belief and not too many arguing they can prove God. However, they are allowed to defend this belief no matter how sure of yourself you are. Why so angry about a group who believes in God and sets out to live better and often happier lives than those who do not. Damn few hospitals built by Atheists. It is my experience that religious people are often better people than the non-religious.

      Atheism and nihilism often look the same in practice to me, although I’m always told by atheists how they follow a strict moral code when this code is essentially made up as needed.

      Remember, Christianity offered the most powerful idea of all time – that every single person has value. Earthshaking! It is that thought that developed over the centuries, supported by Christian scholars and leading to the Enlightenment, Democracy and then separation of Church and State.

      Now someplace in your moral code is a place to thank the Christians who have given you your right to be an angry Atheist.

      Your welcome.

    • Victor

      I’ve got nothing against Atheists. But most of them are also “Humanists” and
      I get occasionally peeved by their persistent “refusal to apply the same standards of elementary skepticism to their …….views that they would expect a child to apply to everything else”.

      • mattmark

        Even if skepticism and humanism were not so intertwined, guilt by association is a logical fallacy. It is of course impossible to explore (never mind resolve) issues with someone who is willing to call black white.

        • Victor

          I don’t think I’ve suggested guilt by association. An atheist who’s not a humanist falls outside the range of my observation.

          Nor, as far as I’m concerned, is there any guilt attached to humanism or (per se) any other idealistic and universalistic belief. To my mind, guilt shouldn’t be about beliefs but about actions.

          But I’d be interested to learn why you think scepticism and humanism are so intertwined.

          • mattmark

            “I don’t think I’ve suggested guilt by association.”

            (?) If you weren’t suggesting this, then the claim that “most” atheists are also Humanists would bear no logical relation to your subsequent epistemological claim (which is, in any event, false whether applied to atheists or Humanists). As a desire to tar atheists and Humanists with the same brush is the sole plausible motive for alleging such a set overlap to begin with, why suddenly so disingenuous? (We already know the answer: it’s simply another transparent evasion… so don’t bother replying.)

            “But I’d be interested to learn why you think scepticism and humanism are so intertwined.”

            No, you wouldn’t, any more than you’d be surprised to ‘learn’ that a publisher considers the concepts in the following title bedmates, coherently treatable in the same reference work:


            You cannot be unaware that Humanism goes hand-in-hand with religious skepticism, which is the only facet of skepticism that need concern us here.

            As you already know this perfectly well, I decline to be sucked in any further. You can try the disingenuous, false ignorance routine on someone else. (Never fear, you’ll find no shortage of willing victims.)

          • Victor

            It must be wonderful to understand my thoughts and motives better than I understand them myself. My congratulations on
            your progress towards omniscience. I also note that you
            decline argument and draw my own conclusions.

          • mattmark

            As no-one has advanced any claim to omniscience here, and as you’ve offered nothing recognizable as an argument that could be declined, it’s clear we can add travesty to your arsenal of evasive tactics.

            Given the total transparency and predictability of every move you’ve made so far, it’s hardly to be wondered that others do indeed understand your thoughts and motives better than you do yourself. I’m sorry, but you simply are not worth engaging.

          • Victor

            I don’t want to engage in tit for tat but I’m starting to think the same about you.

            But, just for the record, I’ve not uttered a single criticism of atheism. And the only criticism I’ve made of humanism is the failure of many (in my limited experience, most) humanists to apply scepticism to their humanistic beliefs, as opposed to their non-belief in a deity or deities.

            To my mind, the central issue here is the apparent inability of humanism to provide us with a theory of ethical obligation (as opposed to merely a theory of ethics) that doesn’t involve the naturalistic fallacy or some other evasion.

            If you’re able to provide me with such a theory, I’d be immeasurably grateful, as I’ve been searching for more than half a century. The closest I’ve ever got is Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” .But that turns out to be God in a suitable disguise.

            I, of course, accept that most humanists are sceptical about “revealed” religion, as are many who define themselves as religious believers.

            However, the challenge is, surely, to be sceptical about our own beliefs, including those that are most dear to us.

  • Jon Jermey

    It’s saddening to watch the religious right attempt to capture the Spectator, as they have already done with the Republican Party in the US with such disastrous results. May we hope that the editors and staff can continue to reject the wishful myths of the right as effectively as they reject those of the left?

    • sjmckee

      Yes, you should be protected from all thought and ideas that you don’t already agree with. As is well known the major media is all controlled by the religious Right, including the NY Times, Washington Post, ABC, NBC, CBS, BBC and almost all other news organizations. It is of course covered up, hidden by relentless left wing interpretation of all news so as to hide true ownership. Beware….

  • Barry Lyons
    • mattmark

      Thanks for posting this. While it’s encouraging to know rational people are still taking the trouble to express rational thought in print, exposure to rationality never seems to have a beneficial effect on the neurological short circuitry that passes for thought in the irrational. We are left to ponder how some people can live among westerners for years, see for themselves that they are just plain, ordinary folk, not the Great Satan, and still fly a plane into the side of a building.

  • Benjamin O’Donnell

    The Holocaust was a Christian atrocity because anti-semitism is a fundamentally Christian (and later Islamic) pathology.

    For more than 1500 years before the Nazis took power in Germany in the mid-1930s, Christian clerics preached the perfidy of the Jews, often whipping local communities into a genocidal combination of rage and grief culminating in Easter pogroms against the local ghetto. The Nazi programme against the Jews was simply the intensification, the culmination, the apotheosis if you will of the old Christian pathology, made hyper-efficient with modern techniques of industry and communication.

    And the men who perpetrated that culmination of Christian anti-semitism were almost all Christians themselves. Their belt buckles bore the motto “God is with us”. Their oathes were sworn by the Christian God. Their Fuhrer’s first official act was to sign a treaty with the Vatican giving the Catholic Church in Germany control of the education system; and that local Catholic church reciprocated by celebrating Hitler’s birthday in church services every year until his death in 1945.

    Hitler himself began life as a conventional German Catholic and, though he passed through “positive Christianity” and wierder mutant theologies on his way to a kind of sub-Wagnerian faux-Norse paganism at the end, he was never an atheist or humanist or a rationalist of any sort. The majority of the senior members of the Nazi party during the war were confessing Catholics, only one of whom was ever excommunicated, Joseph Goebbles – and not for his anti-semitic propaganda, but for the far more heinous sin of marrying a protestant and not forcing her to raise their children as Catholics.

    For Christiamity in general, and Catholicism in particular, to try to shift responsibility for the Holocaust onto the shoulders of Enlightenment rationalism is a grotesque and nauseating act of ideological chutzpah.

    • This all sounds plausible, but it’s wrong. Pius XII was celebrated by Jews around the world after WW2. Religious Catholics were the main rescuers of Jews.

      • Benjamin O’Donnell

        Given that the main opposition to the Catholic Church making Pius XII a saint is currently coming from Israel and the worldwide Jewish community, I find it hard to believe that he was “was celebrated by Jews around the world after WW2′, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to demand a citation for that one. Moreover, even if true, the current lobbying of the Catholic church against Pius’s sainthood suggests the Jewish community has certainly changed their tune now that more archival documents are available…

        As for Catholic rescuers of Jews, yes, a small minority of Catholics (including the future Pope John Paul II) acted courageously and morally in rescuing Jews – along with a minority of Protestants and quite a few atheists and agnostics and humanists.

    • Paddy S

      Everything you just wrote there is a grotesque, misleading and nauseating act of ideological bullcrap.

      • Benjamin O’Donnell

        How so? Where was I factually wrong? What have I missed out? How am I wrong? Or are you just doing the equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and yelling “I can’t hear you!”?

        • sjmckee

          Your are wrong becasue your opening statement is completely false “The Holocaust was a Christian atrocity because anti-semitism is a fundamentally Christian (and later Islamic) pathology”

          So, because their is a history of Christian antisemitism all acts of antisemitism are the fault of Christians.

          And as for you statement that, ” a small minority of Catholics..” implies that most Catholics did the opposite. How have you concluded that it was a “small minority”? Would love to see that research.

          This effort to entwine Hitler with Catholicism is a silly exercise. As you may have noticed, no Catholic ever asked for the extermination of Jews and world domination by a lunatic.

          • Benjamin O’Donnell

            You wrote: “Your are wrong becasue your opening statement is completely false ‘The Holocaust was a Christian atrocity because anti-semitism is a fundamentally Christian (and later Islamic) pathology'” The opening statement was the thesis, for which the rest of the post was the supporting arguments and evidence – are you not familiar with the format?

            You wrote: “So, because their is a history of Christian antisemitism all acts of antisemitism are the fault of Christians?” No, that’s not what I said, or what I wrote. I suggest you read it again.

            You wrote: “And as for you statement that, ‘a small minority of Catholics..’ implies that most Catholics did the opposite. How have you concluded that it was a ‘small minority’? Would love to see that research.” The majority of the German population supported Hitler and approximately half of that population were Catholics. The German Catholic Church, under direction from the Vatican, supported the Hitler regime.

            You wrote: “This effort to entwine Hitler with Catholicism is a silly exercise. As you may have noticed, no Catholic ever asked for the extermination of Jews and world domination by a lunatic.” World domination by a lunatic? No. Extermination of the Jews? Given the number of anti-semitic massacres the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches had provoked and even organised in the previous two millennia, it’s disingenuous in the extreme for them to deny responsibility now.

  • Treaclebeak

    “Muslims may retort that if we had not trampled all over them, they wouldn’t have needed one.”

    Well, they might indeed make that retort, however it would be nonsense, since until the 18th century, it was the Moslems who did most of the trampling.

  • Ellis_Weiner

    “In fact, it’s a modern mantra. ‘Religion causes all the wars.’”

    As we say in America, bullshit. Talk about a straw man…To read Mount reading Armstrong is to be told that poor “religion,” regardless of how nonsensical its mythology, how mutually hostile its various manifestations, how mutually murderous its innumerable sects, how fervently ignorant its champions and how self-righteous their denunciations of others, only means well. It’s bad secular values and bad actors that corrupt it.

    “This is the misunderstanding which drives fanatical secularists to demand that faith be driven out of the public square and permanently banned from re-entry, like a drunk from the pub he always picks a fight in.”

    Yes, “fanatical” secularists who fanatically resent the common spaces being used to advertise someone else’s silly superstition. Will it shock Mount to learn that atheists (such as myself) don’t “fanatically” demand that believers stop believing, but only that they stop promoting their personal beliefs in public spaces and institutions?

    Religion “emerged in the first place — as an anguished reaction against a heartless world.” In part. It also emerged to address and assuage the universal desire to continue living after death. And as a series of (false) explanations, meant literally, of things early civilizations didn’t understand or couldn’t explain.

    Mount defends religion like a mother in a 1930s gangster movie swearing to the cops that her vicious, murdering son “is really a good boy.” One is tempted to call him a fanatic.

  • Mike

    I don’t believe that everyone says religion causes all wars nor does it poison everything but equally everything doesn’t poison religion either. Religion is a man made construct that was invented by the ‘elite’ to control the masses, instill some common sense of purpose and perhaps morality into society. The prophets of the time were excellent orators who could rally round the ‘faithful’ to force their message through to the masses, but nothing more and nothing less.

    All man made ideas whether ‘spiritual’ or actual have certain flaws and religion is no exception. Just as all cars designed by man are not equal and some have more flaws than others, so it is with religion. To continue with that analogy, we could be still driving around in Model T fords had mankind not evolved car development over the past 100+ years and again, its the same with religion. Most religions have evolved and changed of the centuries but Islam has hardly changed at all in 1500 years of its teachings.

    As for wars, many were fought over religion but as the article points out many were fought over land ownership or control. Religion is control or certainly was centuries ago and still is today with one or two religions. Some wars were fought over ideology as was the case in the USSR and now with Islam in Syria or Iraq.

    The reason many might say is its all down to religion these days because Islam is a religion, a ideology, a culture and a governance all rolled together. Is ISIS carrying out their genocidal acts over religion, ideology or what ? Its very difficult to say when a religion has four facets rolled into one and the call to arms is spiritually based. I suspect that just like the Protestant vs Catholic wars 500 years ago, a religion was perverted to legitimize expansionist policies by many countries back then and today its no different with Islam and its supporters desire for a world wide caliphate.

    Would we be better off without religion ? Probably as it wouldn’t be a rallying call for the uneducated brain washed followers and that would remove one element of the current problems facing us.

  • Robert Morris

    Whoah buddy! Ataturk committed the Armenian massacres?!? Allow me to point you to wikipedia. Better hope no one Turkish finds this…

  • Robert Morris

    And who can forget the firing on Fort Sumter in 1849? Or was it 1836? The historical ignorance of this article is frankly staggering.

  • jansand

    What is probably most missing from this discussion is that humanity, from the most ancient myths and even real histories right down to the present have been outrageously murdering each other, raping each other, stealing from each other , torturing each other, and doing all sorts of horrible things to each other or, alternately, behaving wonderful to each other and justifying their actions through religion, philosophy, custom or whever the hell proved convenient or acceptable to permit them to act as they wanted. I doubt religion or government or any other strictures had a hell of a lo to do with it as some form of social excuse since these things have been going on unceasingly for untold ages. It’s all a kind of social fraud and seems to be an inbuilt part of human psychology to make people comfortable with their behavior. That’s what the animal is and there seems very little possible to change it. Recently we have stopped eating each other and that is considered progress but when global warming starts massively to destroy agriculture we will then presumably start assessing each other more digestively.

  • Robert Landbeck

    While corruptibility of religion should itself give one pause to consider the origins of their claims; Ms. Armstrong does error in her thinking. Not only does religion ‘poison’ our conception of God with it’s theological counterfeit, but without any demonstrable revealed insight to support it’s foundation claims, constructs an intellectually dishonest conception of faith that leads, not to any insight into the human condition or God, but only to illusion and self deception and the frustrations of failure that often lead to nihilistic fanaticism. Religion as we understand that idea from history and tradition is probably humanities greatest own goal. And unwilling to question itself, blocks and prevents the imagination from the pursuit of higher goals.

  • Semantics really. Religion isn’t a cause typically. It’s an excuse. Religion is a tool to take advantage of the ill educated and poor.

    “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” Seneca the Younger (c.3 BCE – 65 CE)

    • mattmark

      …except when rulers themselves are religious, in which case the wise have to devote a considerable portion of their wisdom to ensuring that they aren’t perceived as marching out of step.

  • David

    The Nazis were not secular. They were (mostly) Catholic. Hitler was a Catholic. He never repudiated his Catholicism. His words and writings are full of religious rhetoric about how he intended to do God’s will. The Nazis signed a treaty (the Reichskonkordat) with the Catholic Church to give the Vatican full control over Germany’s education system and to spread its disgusting anti-Semitic innuendo throughout Germany, resulting in the violence towards Jews as well as boycotting Jewish business, illegally seizing their property and deporting them. How is this secular?

    Look at almost any war you like and religion plays a vital part in the separation of peoples and is constantly used as a way of manipulating the credulous. It is almost always the only reason a war is prolonged.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Bullshit. Explain to me how the War against Hitler was a religious war.

      • David

        The war against Hitler wasn’t a religious war. I never suggested it was. It was a necessary war because the West was far too late responding to the rise of fascism. People in the UK happily elected politicians who kept these tyrants in power because they wanted a quiet life. What I did say was Hitler was not secular and could not have come to power without the help of the Catholic Church. He also needed a widespread contempt across Europe against Jews. This anti-Semitism comes directly from St John’s gospel which blames the Jews (and all future generations of Jews) for the murder of Jesus.

        • Fergus Pickering

          Nonsense. Anti-Semitism is fuelled because most Rich Bastard Bankers are jews.

          • David

            Yes, of course, because anti-Semitism began when Jews began controlling big business. You idiot. Christianity is anti-Semitism. To not know the history of Christianity and anti-Jewish sentiment is irresponsible. Anti-Semitism was official Catholic doctrine until 1965.

          • Fergus Pickering

            Try not to be rude as well as ignorant. The OT is a history of anti-semitism. Nobody liked the Jews. The Christians were late on the scene.

          • sjmckee

            Ahhh.. at last we know who you are and why your earlier and later posts looked like the work of an idiot.

          • Fergus Pickering

            Why so, O wise one? Is it not true about Bankers? And the anti-semitism of the excellent and Catholic G. K. Chesterton was fuelled by this very fact. I don’t let bankers bother me, but that’s just me. I don’t let snivelling toads like you bother me either.

          • sjmckee

            Jewish Bankers are coming Fergus… BOO!

            Because Chesterton had a thing for Jewish bankers then I think you are right to think likewise. Of course, I mean Chesterton believed it. Excellent reasoning.

          • Fergus Pickering

            Oh jolly well done! The feeling about Jewish bankers was general then. I took Chesterton as typical. This sort of thing may have gone down well at your school debating society but we are grown up now.

        • sjmckee

          So Hitler was not secular thus he was religious. Just what religion would that be. Because he used a few symbols, made a few arrangements with religious leaders and because there were Nazi’s who were or had been Christian this makes Hitler a religious warrior. His coming to power had exactly nothing to do with Christians. Nothing! The Catholic church had no assist to Hitler gaining power but did a few unpleasant things to keep the Church alive.

          • David

            I am tired of answering the same point over again. Just read Mein Kampf, any of his speeches or the Goebbels Diaries. Fascism in 20th Century Europe simply was the Catholic right wing.

  • sjmckee

    I would recommend reading Rodney Stark on the crusades (and all of his books) before tackling this one. Offers an alternative and credible view of Western history. A very honest look at Islam as well.

  • Only blind believers Monotheism spread hate and did mass murdering all over the world,they cannot tolerated people of other faith.These religions ,;Christianity Islam and Judaism are real enemy of mankind. They murdered millions people for their bigot fundamental causes.What they did good for mankind ?

  • pearlsandoysters

    Actually, there is an excellent book “The myth of religious violence” by William T. Cavanaugh, which is very good and tackles many aspects of the issue in question. I doubt that Armstrong is any better once I’ve been sincerely disappointed by her previous books.

  • mike otter


  • mike otter

    the overwhelming majority of posts talk about history rather beleifs and as such miss the point – religious beleifs and ideas, ie philosophy, theology and theosophy exist in an abstract metaphysical world and can harm no-one as long as they are words and ideas. Once the ideas take material form they are subject to the same human frailties

    as any other battle for resources. To me the author’s point is sound though the analysis behind it a bit shallow – conflict through politics and religion are characteristics of present human evolution and whether we can evolve beyond them remains to be seen. If we do it can only be if religious ideas are elevated beyond the scramble for resources – and take on the same significance as a game of chess or rubgy or academic seminar.

  • TNT

    Fatuous article about a fatuous book written by a fatuous author.


  • Ron Todd

    Many non religious people have done bad things. That does not excuse those that promote false religions let alone those that use false religions as an excuse to do bad things. There are many mutually exclusive religions logically at most one of them could be true leaving a lot of violence in the name of made up gods.

  • Eli Arrives

    Anti-Whites say there should be no White Countries

    Anti-Whites say there should be no White Towns

    Anti-Whites say there should be no White Neighborhoods

    Anti-Whites say there should be no White Schools

    Anti-Whites say there should be no White Classes

    Anti-Whites say there should be no White Sports

    Anti-Whites say there should be no White Anything

    Anti-Whites say there should be no White people

    Anti-racist is a codeword for anti White

  • Hegelguy

    “Religion does not poison everything – everything poisons religion.”

    Which amounts to the same thing in practice: religion is still poisonous.

    Whether you are a chronic drinker or the drink just gets into you, you are still a drunk, and indeed, a worse one in the second case as in the first you are at least able to desist if you want.

    If religion is so pollutable it must have a problem.

    Have you no sense of humour?

    And this Armstrong: she is merely an ignorant blowhard. I looked at what she had to say on Hinduism; she knew nothing.

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    “All terrorism is now routinely attributed to religious intoxication.”

    No it’s not. The trendy word these days is ” infection”, which nicely rolls up people who may or may not believe in that particular world view/paradigm. Look at some of the comments flying around regarding our P.M’s meeting with the President of Iran, this week. It’s shocking but not surprising really.. Anything to avoid the perpetual arguments that revolve and even evolve around whether seeing is believing or whether it’s more true to believe there’s more to seeing than meets the eye.

  • Brain Molecule Marketing

    The fact is, medical fact, that there is no conscious control of behavior and no free will. So, self-reports of why behavior happens cannot be medically true.

    Especially, when magical-imaginary-supernatural-religious explanations are given for anything, especially individual behaviors, they are false claims, by definition.

    Neither so called “beliefs”, nor anything else subjectively perceived and reported using everyday language, can be the basis for individual behavior. Religious statements are nonsensical, of course. What we call “beliefs’ are just everyday statements of imaginary things and forces that cannot exist. Claims that magical things exist are simple lies.

    However, even atheism faces a real challenge in both the acceptance of the biology of no personal agency and yet, blaming religious statements for behaviors. This cannot be physiologically possible.

    See: “Atheism at Crossroads: Religious Statements (“Beliefs”) Don’t Effect Behavior, Probably. Now What?” —

  • LewisL

    What must we think of any religion if the belief it engenders is not strong enough to resist the urge to become the ‘state power.’

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “Religion does not poison everything””Oh, yes it does.”
    “What, even cricket?”
    In fact, yes. Even cricket.”


    To state that religion is the cause of all wars places religion in a position with humans that it doesn’t begin to occupy. Human motivations for violence obviously began before any of the Abrahamic religions. What might have been a belief 200,000 years ago was hardly a modern bloodthirsty faith. Violence has most frequently been found in written histories as a result of conflicting interests in controlling material aspects of perceived survival needs. Before that, we know there was violence, but we don’t have evidence of motivations. But, we do know more about motivations in today’s humans. Religion just forms a piece of the complex. Religions are not at the center of human activities, regardless of pronoucements by religionists throughout the world.

  • swatnan

    The Old Testament is a pretty vicious and immoral text, it seems.

  • The acid test regarding whether or not a particular religion is poisonous or not is really quite simple; ask yourself this one question:

    If one were to follow the teachings of its scripture more and more closely, would this improve their behaviour? Or likely cause them to behave badly.

    Sam Harris illustrated this little dilemma superbly when he spoke about the Jain religion and their (incredibly naive and immobilising) doctrine of peace: (this is a religion where it’s spiritual leaders dare not look up from their feet lest they step on an ant etc.)

    “The more extreme you become as a Jain, the less we need to worry about you”

    Now, compare that to Christianity, Islam and Judaism and ask yourself the same question.

  • Oscarthe4th

    Perhaps religious belief–or the lack thereof–isn’t all that important in determining who is likely commit atrocities.
    It seems to me that the starting point on the road to systematic atrocities is a dogmatism that projects a faithful or pure group against a dangerous and hostile world that must be rejected or transformed at all costs.
    Whether that group commits violence as religious crusaders, as nationalist patriots, or as the vanguard of the proletariat is less important than their need to carve up flesh in their dogmatic pursuit of a better world.

  • Toy Pupanbai

    About Religion: (Pat tells it how it is!)

  • Of all the gaffes uttered by that master of misspeak, George W. Bush, his description of the War on Terror as a crusade takes the bloody biscuit.

    The West is ashamed of the Crusades, but Muslims are proud of the centuries of Jihad which preceded and succeeded them. Why should that be?

  • The last religious war in which Christianity was the instigator was the Taiping Rebellion, in China during the middle of the 19th Century.

  • Pancho Villa

    What all this illustrates to me is that some otherwise reasonable people are restricted to a very small circle of beliefs. And that in turn suggests some of us are born followers who are incapable of breaking out of self-defeating cycles on our own.

    So I can wish for my neighbor what I wish for myself all I want, but, truth is, it will never come to pass without my leading him all the way. And that will never happen because he’s too obstinate to be led anywhere.

    I feel all better now.

  • Jum1801

    Some wars are caused by religious differences – a long damn way from the arrogant cynic’s view that “religion causes all wars.” The more accurate assessment is that human nature, and the desire to impose one’s will on others, is what causes war.

  • rosario

    Hello, correction……. Samson was not a suicide bomber!!!!!!!

  • NL

    Atatürk responsible for the Armenian Genocide? Shome mishtake shurely?

  • Raj

    Religion do not the cause wars. Dogmas do.

    People who strongly believe in their dogmas, can lose their capability to rationally think, and are capable of killing people in millions. For the longest time, the primary dogmas were religious, and to a large extent they continue to be so. But dogmas, now cover a huge range of beliefs now, from Socialism, Communism.

    The partition of India and Pakistan may not be a war, but millions of people were killed in the partition. The genocide in Rawanda, the bosnian war. the list goes on and on.

    The primary dogma of the world, continues to be religion, till it is replaced by something equally well meaning.

    As they say, the road to hell is paved by good intentions.

  • julis123

    “After years of Israeli blockade and creeping land grabs, Yasser Arafat’s entirely secular Palestine Liberation Organisation has segued into the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas.”–The Israeli blockade of Gaza began after Hamas seized power. But don’t let the facts interfere with your blaming the Jews.

  • chexay

    “Militant Sikhs today prefer to quote the martial teachings of the Tenth Guru rather than those of their founder Guru Nanak, who taught that only ‘he who regards all men as equals is religious’.”

    All the Gurus are considered equals so your point is redundant. The tenth Guru taught the same as the first and the militarism does not contradict the belief in equality and oneness of all. Equality does not mean that one denounces one’s right to defend oneself. Let’s not forget that the Sikhs were militarised in response to Islamic extremism and that after battles, when the Islamists tried to kill us all, we would tend to their wounded as well as our own – a courtesy not shown to us by them. Were it not for the Sikhs the entirety of what is now India would be Islamic.

  • markacohen

    Karen Armstrong set the record straight and she is quite right to say that most violence in history is driven by secular forces: vying for power, domination and reactions to domination. She is also correct that all religions have a deeply charitable and communitarian aspect that is often (or perhaps always) corrupted or co-opted by secular power and the religion’s own success. The atheist response–at least one not hysterically inflected by 9/11 as say Hitchen’s was)–is to say fine but what does that prove? That there is nothing divine about religions. She herself admits this when she claims that religion can not really be separated from politics before 1700 in Europe at any rate. So logically (as Noel Malcolm noted out in his review) religion is equally responsible for malfeasance as politics before 1700 too. The conclusion to be drawn is that religions are purely human creations and act as all the others do in history, with all their complexities, a mix of necessity, venality, error, hypocrisy, adaptation and beautiful accomplishments. They are political, social, aesthetic, cultural phenomenon no more or less. The criteria she judges them by are all secular too. She uses the utterly un-religious tools of scholarship and lay, humanistic morality to call them good or bad in all of their varieties. In other words she looks at them precisely as an atheist would.