By Matias Uusisilta
Even though predicted to vanish in various turning points of history and despite Nietzsche’s famous declaration that ”God is dead”, religion is still here. It affects the society we live in, global and local politics and most importantly, lives all over the world. Even the secularized European, whose archetype was formed in the Age of Enlightenment, who lives his life with ethics and values based on humanity and liberalism, should be aware that religion is all around us.
But how exactly does this religion affect our society? People who identify as antitheists claim that all institutionalized religion is a way of using force over people and endorsing the existing power relations, basically claiming that institutionalized religions bring more harm than good into the world. In this piece, I am going to try and draw a bigger picture of how religion affects the worst and most violent forms of human interaction – war and genocide – to observe whether the antitheist claim really is true. In the second part to be published later, I will focus on the benefits that religion can contribute to our societies, something that I would like to call a protheist view.
It is a well-known allegation that religions cause wars. To see whether this is true one should look at history and statistics. From the UCDP (Uppsala Conflict Data Program) data, one can observe that religious aspirations are rarely the main cause of conflict. According to Isak Svensson who has studied these statistics in his book Ending Holy Wars: Religion in Conflict Resolution in Civil Wars, the aspirations behind what may seem to be religious conflicts are usually in fact ethnic struggles or land disputes. According to statistics, in the time period of 1975-2010 only 28% of conflicts have had a religious component. Whereas in over 70% of conflicts, none of the parties have stressed any conflicting positions relating to religion. As religion is in many cases used to reinforce the identities of ethnic groups it might seem that it is the cause of the problem, when in reality the conflicts evolved due to ethnic disputes.
Another interesting point of view, when considering the use of religion as a tool to control the masses, is found in the study of genocides. Genocides are usually conducted by the government but in many cases religious institutions and authorities have been involved in the process. In the book In God’s Name: Genocide and Religion in the 20th Century, Omar Bartov and Phyllis Mack write that various scholars, who have studied the role of religion in acts of genocide, affirm the antitheist claim: institutionalized religion has in 20th century genocides endorsed the existing power structures even to the point of taking an active part in them. This was seen in the inaction of military chaplains of Nazi Germany, Rwanda’s acts of massacre taking place in church buildings and the Bosnian genocide that was endorsed by the Orthodox church.
But even in these large scale human rights violations, a small glimmer of hope can be seen in the acts of various individuals. Such as Dietrich Boenhoeffer in Nazi-Germany, Margit Slachtas in Hungary and others whose names are not found in our history books, who decided to fight against the ongoing atrocities, even though the institutions of their own religious traditions either stood silent or took an active part in them. Unfortunately, these individuals who claimed religious motivations behind their actions, seem to have been abnormalities in their traditions; individuals with a heightened sense of universalism and deep faith in God’s love for all humanity.
It seems that even though religion isn’t usually the main catalyst for war or genocides, religious institutions have in recent history taken part in them, and not actively prevented them. Still the brave individuals bring hope that religion can be an instrument of peace too. Such people as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi are some of the most famous examples of individuals who have used religion to unite people and fight against injustice in our societies. Yet there are many more: Catholic priests in Latin America who draw inspiration from liberation theology to actively improve their communities, religious individuals and organizations in Israel and Palestine who work for peace in the divided land, and religious activists who are willing to shelter asylum seekers who are facing forced deportations in Europe. Where religious institutions have failed to address atrocities and inequality, it has been the courageous religious individuals that have risen to resistance. This sense of universalism and pursuit for social justice is what the religious institutions need to learn from those individuals. Only by grasping this, institutionalized religions can prove the antitheist claim to be false.
Matias Uusisilta is a student of Religion in Peace and Conflict at Uppsala University. He spends a significant amount of his time participating in various forms of social activism in an effort to make the world a bit of a better place for everyone. Despite sometimes falling into cynicism, he has a firm belief that humankind will eventually find a way to live together in harmony.
Image: Scott Chacon