Is Monotheism Itself a Cause of War?

That’s the question posed by James Carroll in today’s Guest Voice in the On Faith segment of the Washington Post. (Actually the entry is titled Is God The Root of All Evil?” but Carroll answers looks at war.)

Is monotheism itself a cause of war? Does the radical intolerance of “other gods” lead to intolerance of those who worship them? Are religious wars built into the structure of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?

This has been the main charge lodged against all three Abrahamic faiths at least since the Enlightenment, yet ironically, this divisive notion of monotheism is itself a product of the Enlightenment. The very word, with that tell-tale “ism,” wasn’t even coined until the modern era (The OED dates it to the 17th century). Christians affirm the “Credo,” Jews the “Shema Yisrael,” Muslims the “Shahadah” – all declaring that there is one God. But what does that word “one” mean? In a scientific age, it is taken as a number. God is thought of as a solitary entity, standing apart from all others, and therefore, it is thought, against all others. If this is the meaning of monotheism, then, yes, such belief is inherently a source of conflict, not peace.

Contemporary Jews, Muslims and Christians may themselves have been influenced by univocal Enlightenment thinking, but in fact their traditions affirm the oneness of God not scientifically or philosophically, but religiously, which is the opposite. A religious fundamentalist who goes to war against modern “secularism” shows the spirit more of that secularism than of ancient religion. Thus, Moses Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish sage, rejected the idea that God’s “oneness” is a category of quantity. Instead of a unit, the “oneness” of God affirms a unity. Oneness in this sense means not the Being who stands apart, radically different and superior, but the Being who is present as the reconciliation of all oppositions. That God is one means, as Isaiah saw, that the God of this people is the God of all people.

*Sputter* Excuse me. Enlightenment thinking brought about all the evil “isms?”

First Carroll sets up a straw man; there is never a single cause for any war although the war might be justified simply by pushing one cause. But I’ll get to that in a moment. Religion (and not just monotheism) is a wonderful tool to separate two peoples; to create an identifiable Us vs. the easily demonized Them. It can be used to extend and create hatred. That is the charge being leveled, a charge Carroll ignores.

But let’s just examine the comment for what it claims. That the religious traditions affirm the oneness of God. This got tossed out the window for secular scientific and philosophic thinking. Now one can quibble about the exact dates, but I’d pencil the dates the Age of Enlightenment in at around 1650-1800. You could add or subtract a couple of decades here or there, but that’s roughly accurate.

Now. Let’s see.

  • Muslim conquests: 632–732 (Islam vs. everyone)*
  • Crusades: 1095–1291 (Catholics vs. Islam)
  • Spanish Inquisition: 1478 – 1834 (Catholics vs. Judaism)
  • Thirty Years War: 1618 – 1648 (Protestants vs. Catholics)

*Carroll even makes point that the Muslim conquests weren’t really Islamic because they didn’t follow the teachings in the Koran. Oh. Right. I wonder if the people fighting the battles knew that.

So all this “religious warmongering” not due to faith, but due to misguided – um – church leadership?

No war is ever fought solely due to one issue.

The US didn’t invade Iraq just for the oil; it was simply an added condiment. The Muslim conquests used Islam as one factor to greatly increase the power of the Caliphs. The Crusades were as much about keeping Western influence in the Middle East as keeping routes for pilgrimages open. The Spanish Inquisition was just fine confiscating Jewish property for the greater glory of the Church and the Inquisitioners. Finally. Luther’s theses made a nice excuse for the northern European nobility to finally break Rome’s economic and political strangle hold.

And Carroll’s claim that people only define Monotheism as the problem. Perhaps he should take a quick tour through the history of Japan 1850 to 1945. There the rise of Japanese Nationalism was directly tied to an extreme (fundamentalist) form of State Shintoism.

Were any of these “wars” purely religious? No student of the Enlightenment, someone trained to believe in science, philosophy and history, would say so. No, that takes a person of faith. It takes a person of faith set up a strawman that can be taken down in a few short paragraphs.

BTW. You should read the comments. They are hilarious.

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5 comments so far

  1. Teresa on

    I told you! I told you on my blog that there would eventually begin to be an argument for rolling back modern thought to the pre-enlightenment! I TOLD YOU!

    Orthodox religious thought is only possible in a Middle Ages-style environment.

    Granted, this is more ham-handed and rediculous than the one I thought we’d see…but here it is.

  2. blc303 on

    I bow to your foresight.

  3. Teresa on

    NOW will you recant youor herpto-supremecist Godzillofascist ways?

  4. blc303 on

    To quote that paragon of ethics, Ted Stevens: “NO!”

    There is absolutely no way I will bow to a cartilage-based, entropy-sucking, worm-faced squid thing.

    The signs of the second coming are there Teresa. Open. Your. Eyes.

    We already have virgin births on our side. Even your watery representatives flee!

    Be gone, back to your dank caves and grottos – Squamata skeptic!

    Note: if you are thinking WTF?! Don’t worry. This is a running joke between me and Teresa that got started with my shark post and has been going on ever since. We haven’t completely lost our minds. (Emphasis on completely.)

  5. Teresa on

    It’s called a running joke. Deal. :-)


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