History and Religion

First off, some context. This was written against several individuals who stated that religion causes horrible things. While I agree that religion has caused atrocities, to squarely blame such things entirely on the religion is a mistake. To set out my position going into this: I don’t like religion. Too often it is a restrictive system of exclusion based on particular beliefs and creeds, often hinging on some dogmatic minutiae. Too often it has blocked rational thought and limited personal exploration and expression. On that note, however, I do have a problem with some of the criticisms of religion purely due to their ahistorical nature.

Time and again, religion has been blamed for any number of atrocities with little explanation and justification for the position, but also with little nuance for how religion has been used. Take the crusades, for example. Crusade scholarship today has rejected the Runciman approach of the crusaders merely being out for wealth and power by noting their sacrifice and devotion. There is simply no doubt today that many of the crusaders genuinely felt divinely impelled to do what they did. However, to blame religion (like any monocausal explanation) for what they did is an injustice to the complex historical matrix that made up the background of the First Crusade. First, we have to turn to the belief system that formed some of the religious context. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament will demonstrate that it takes some pretty warped logic to twist Jesus’ words into “travel several thousand kilometres away from here and kill foreigners in my name.” The closest you can get to that is a questionable use of terminology in Jerome’s Latin translation of some of Paul’s letters over six-hundred years after it was translated, as Christopher Tyerman has demonstrated. It’s impossible to justify the actions of the crusaders from what Jesus commanded, and yet the implicit criticism that it was somehow Jesus’ words that caused such atrocities remains.

Clearly then, understanding such an event needs to go beyond what the claimed origins of the religion teach if any sort of comprehensive answer is to be reached. Let’s look at the siege of Jerusalem by the First Crusade in 1099 as an example. When they breach the walls of the city they massacre the Jewish and Muslim population. It’s pretty safe to say that Jesus would never have condoned such behaviour, yet it is still considered to be the fault of religion when the history is not considered. To put it into its historical perspective, massacres frequently accompany difficult sieges. This has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the nature of mediaeval warfare. The crusaders had travelled from Western Europe to the Levant. From the time they entered the Byzantine Balkans they had been harassed. Upon crossing over into Asia they had to deal with further harassment by the Turks. On reaching Syria they besieged Antioch and were in turned besieged in Antioch. After nine months of desertion and extreme privation they were finally able to set out south for Jerusalem. Their journey had been extremely difficult, and it should come as no surprise whatsoever that they engaged in mass slaughter upon entering the city. One could expect that those who were engaged in fighting for Christ should have been better behaved, but if they were fighting for the Jesus of the New Testament the question comes up as to why they were fighting at all. The crusaders were also aware that the Fatimids were bringing an army up to Jerusalem; leaving the city with a population of the co-religionists of the enemies behind them, as they had planned to engage the Fatimid forces to the south, was a very bad idea and thus the massacre was also pragmatic. The contemporary historians of the crusades had to justify the violence upon entering the city or the supposedly noble and sanctified basis of the entire expedition would be in doubt. To do this, they used the apocalyptic imagery found in Daniel and Revelation, complete with horses wading in blood up their necks.

In doing this, the mediaeval sources bring me to the next point: the role of religious propaganda and how it needs to be understood in the context of the time. The crusader sources tried to defend their actions by placing themselves in a promised Biblical role. It’s a very flimsy justification but it was also the best piece of propaganda they could come up with to explain what they did. Three weeks ago I gave a conference paper arguing that the Byzantine emperor Herakleios’ wars against the Persians in the seventh century were not “holy wars” as some have argued but merely wars in which the religious propaganda set out by the state is so pervasive in the source material that one needs to be look very carefully and read between the lines to understand the history. In this case, religion is just more ideology used to justify whatever; the crimes do not belong to “religion” per se but rather to those who are using the religion as an ideology to support their agenda. I can return to Herakleios if anyone wants a further example.

The point that needs to be taken from this example is that the explicitly religious explanation given by the sources is problematic because other factors clearly played a role in the events. To associate the behaviour of eleventh-century individuals with the teachings of the founding figure of their religion is a desperate argument that not only fails to consider what that figure taught by the historical context of the period and the events on an individual basis. This is an injustice to historical complexity and is as much a crime against history as attempts to use religious propaganda to justify atrocities is. I would agree that religion has caused war and violence, but that needs to be separated from the religious propaganda that permeates the historical source material. Cause and justification are not the same thing but the oft-imperfect sources from the ancient and mediaeval worlds blur this fact, frequently intentionally. The failure to appreciate these nuances amounts to using and twisting history for the same propagandistic motives as the crusader historians, and countless other individuals and governments trying to justify their actions or beliefs.

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One Response to History and Religion

  1. abtwixt says:

    This is a really interesting post. It is really important to separate the idea of religion “causing” atrocities from individuals “using” religion as a tool to commit the atrocities they want. Case in point: the only truly atheistic governments that have ever existed — the Communist states of the 20th century — caused much hapless bloodshed and suffering of religious people in the name of their NON-religion. It is people, not their weapons (including religion), that truly cause atrocities.

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