A friend of mine told me recently, with evident sadness, that his once-Catholic brother decided to abandon all religion because, in his opinion, it was the chief cause of war throughout the ages. He had singled out the Crusades as a convincing example.
I had, of course, heard this dubious line of reasoning before. It is certainly not valid from a historical point of view, though it has been endowed with a certain currency by secularists who are always seeking for reasons to dismiss religion.
“This could not be the reason my friend’s brother left the Church,” I thought. There must be another reason, one hidden and unarticulated. No doubt many others have proffered the same excuse for their defections.
Thomas Madden, Ph.D., is the director of St. Louis University’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. He is a specialist in the Crusades. According to Madden, the crusades were defensive wars with the goal of defending Christian lands from Muslim attacks and reclaiming lands already taken. His own research led him to the conclusion that, “without the Crusades, Christianity would likely have been driven into extinction.”
Every institution has its problems and aberrations. But it is not religion but irreligion that, by far, has been the leading cause of war. Religion has been the most powerful force in the development of civilization.
In his book The God That Did Not Fail (Encounter Books, 2006), Robert Royal, who is the president of the Washington, D.C.-based Faith and Reason Institute, has stated the following:
“Organized irreligion in the twentieth century committed atrocities on a scale that the fiercest religious wars never approached. The scientific racism of Nazi Germany killed forty million and attempted genocide against Europe’s Jews. The scientific socialism of the Communist countries killed a hundred million (and still counting) people around the globe.”
Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mussolini, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong were not exactly men of God.
Henri De Lubac comes to the conclusion, in his book The Drama of Atheist Humanism, that “man cannot organize the world for himself without God; without God he can only organize the world against man. Exclusive humanism is inhuman humanism.”
Christ’s directives, “Turn the other cheek,” “Love thy neighbor,” “He who lives by the sword perishes by the sword” and “My peace be with you,” are not statements that incite warfare. Leaving religion because it is too war-faring is the logical equivalent to joining the Nazi Party because it is so peace-inducing.
Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James has written perhaps the most objective work on the religious experience in general. His Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study of Human Nature is a classic in its field. Although James had little interest in the legitimacy or illegitimacy of religious experience, he was an excellent observer. In addition, he recognized the value of religion.
“The highest flights of charity, devotion, trust, patience, bravery,” he writes, “to which the wings of human nature have spread themselves have been flown for religious ideals.”
James grounds the religious experience in human nature, something from which one cannot defect. Therefore, his appeal is to everyone.
He finds that all religions have two things in common: a sense of uneasiness and that there is a solution to this uneasiness through a higher power. This uneasiness, simply stated, is the sense that there is something deficient about us as we stand.
Consequently, we long for something better by engaging in some higher power. James has nothing to say about God, but his work casts a convincing light on man’s natural aptitude and fundamental need for religion.
This aptitude, or impulse, of course, can be misdirected. People may believe in the promises of a political party, in success, in materialism, or in some form of utopia. But, as history shows, these beliefs do not answer the fundamental uneasiness that characterizes all human beings.
The need for some kind of religion, James finds, is universal. The slogan “May the Force be with you” from the movie Star Wars became a cult favorite no doubt because it resembled a religion for those who may not have had a formal religion or belief in a higher power poised to improve our lot.
Can a person abandon religion entirely? If the aptitude and need for religion is built into his very being, the answer appears to be “No.” He may entertain false religions, but he cannot shake himself free from the fundamental religious impulse that resides in his soul.
“What bothers an agnostic like me,” said 20th-century French writer André Malraux, “is that it seems — yes, it seems, that man cannot live without the transcendent.”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be fulfilled” (Matthew 5:6). Here we see how Christianity is consistent with what William James says about everyone: the presence of a fundamental thirst and the existence of a solution. But Christianity goes much further: Its solution is a loving God who fulfills our needs through sanctifying grace.
Marx rejected religion because he thought it was at odds with social justice; Nietzsche rejected it because he thought it stifled personal growth; Freud rejected it because he thought it was unhealthy; Comte rejected it because he thought it was inhuman; Sartre rejected it because he thought it suppressed freedom.
Yet we can say that none of these modern atheists abandoned religion entirely. Each kept a scrap and misled himself into thinking that he had rid himself completely of religion.
Christianity not only has retained all the scraps but, by God’s design, it has woven them into a complete and coherent tapestry that includes social justice, personal growth, good health, humanity and freedom. Rather than attempt to abandon religion, one should find one that is directed to a real God and satisfies all of humanity’s fundamental needs.
Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.
This column was updated after posting.