Hart: Atheist Delusions—Chapter Eight

Chapter eight is entitled “Intolerance and War.” The last chapter dealt with the same topic focused on the historically inaccurate secular telling of the Church’s dealings with heresy and the events surrounding witch hunts and the various inquisitions. In this chapter Hart focuses on the secular account of the so-called “wars of religion.” This is the modern myth that religion is inherently violent given its belief in ultimate ends and absolute truth. The proof of this contention are the various historical conflicts, from the Crusades up to the end of the “Thirty Years’ War” and the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Part of the myth is that these were wars purely over different religious beliefs, specifically those between Protestants and Catholics. The second part of the myth we are supposed to believe is that by the nation-state domesticating and privatizing religion the result was a more perfect harmony and peace among people from there forward. But as to this myth in general Hart makes his main point:

Given, though, the lines of coalition that defined these conflicts, and given their ultimate consequences, they ought really to be remembered as the first wars of the modern nation-state, whose principle purpose was to establish the supremacy of secular state authority over every rival power, most especially the power of the church.

Hart goes on to point out that the so-called “wars of religion” were really the exploitation of the Protestant Reformation by regional kings and princes for the furtherance of their own power, which ultimately culminated in the modern nation state.

Hart also addresses the differences between the Crusades, the “only ‘holy wars’ in Christian history,” and the European wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Crusades initially were an understandable, if like the times, violent, response to the robbing and murdering of Christian pilgrims by the Seljuk Turks. Many honorable nobles stepped forward to leave home and family and venture forth to defend the defenseless, liberate captives, and secure holy sites once again. From there however a downward spiral of needless violence and atrocity took over due mostly to the “louts, brigands, and killers,” who also signed up with what were, in hindsight, purely selfish motives of personal gain. As Hart notes though, these efforts and the conflict between Islam and Christendom were “entirely of their time.” Noble goals are often undermined by base motives—something evident in most conflicts.

Of special interest though is Hart’s treatment of the European wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These are markedly different from the Crusades. Hart surveys the various conflicts from this time period from the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) up to the “Thirty Years” war (1618) which concluded with the Peace of Westphalia. It is helpful to quote Hart at length here:

The European wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were something altogether different [from the Crusades]. They inaugurated a new age of nationalist strife and state violence, prosecuted on a scale and with a degree of ferocity without any precedent in medieval history: wars of unification, revolutions, imperial adventures, colonialism, the rebirth of chattel slavery, endless irredentism, ideologically inspired frenzies of mass murder, nationalists cults, political terrorism, world wars—in short, the entire glorious record of European politics in the aftermath of a united Christendom. Far from the secular nation-state rescuing Western humanity from the chaos and butchery of sectarian strife, those wars were the birth pangs of the modern state and its limitless license to murder. And religious allegiances, anxieties, and hatreds were used by regional princes merely as pretexts for conflicts whose causes, effects, and alliances had very little to do with faith or confessional loyalties.

Of course William Cavanaugh has also written extensively in this area making a very strong case that the secular state has not been the “keeper of the common good.” It is pretty rich to have modern secular states lecture everyone regarding the supposed violence “religion” engenders. Modern secular states, those external shells of the internal smoldering of nihilistic ideologies, those creators of gas chambers, ovens, gulags, massive pits for graves, killing fields, mass executions, the fire-bombing of hundreds or thousands of civilians with conventional and atomic weapons are hardly in a position to pontificate regarding the cause and use of violent means.

Hart also points out that prior to the Reformation it was a united Christendom which provided a check on warfare and violence. The Church used the threat of excommunication to prevent private wars and attacks on noncombatants such as women and peasants. The Church calendar also prevented wars. The “Truce of God” instituted penitential periods, days of the year, on which armed aggression was forbidden. There were so many days set aside for this purpose that “more than three-quarters of the calendar consisted in periods of mandatory tranquility.” The truth is that before the Reformation and its exploitation by princes to wage war, the Church was the most significant source of peace keeping among the different cities, regions, and people groups in the west.

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6 Responses to Hart: Atheist Delusions—Chapter Eight

  1. Burk Braun says:

    I wouldn’t disagree too strenuously with this post, but it goes overboard in portraying the innocence of religionists in this period. Firstly, why are people so easily mobilized by religious difference, even if you posit that the darker ulterior machinations were more political than religious? The same thing is taking place right now in the Islamic world, where an essentially political jihad swathes itself in the cloak of religion. Why? because it works- it works to effectively divide people, it works to blind people to more conventional power relations, and it works to inspire many people to utmost devotion and self-sacrifice.

    Secondly, the historical specifics are somewhat complicated the minute you actually read what went on. In the < HREF="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_Wars" REL="nofollow">Italian wars<>, the popes were lustily in the fray, fielding their own armies and hatching alliances to take various territories. See pope Julius II. And in the < HREF="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_Wars_of_Religion" REL="nofollow">French wars of religion<>, the concluding event was the edict of Nantes on religious toleration, which should indicate the degree to which religious motivations were primary, not secondary.

    In your favor, one could say that the prior religious uniformity of Catholicism was beneficial in a conservative sort of way, and had cracked up, which led to conflict. But the new conflict was quite religious in its character (unless you de-value protestant beliefs as merely “heretical”). And the idea that Catholic uniformity was somehow sustainable in the face of new intellectual currents that breaking the Catholic mindset unleashed is absurd. People gradually realized that their cultural affinities lay more in their localities and nation than in the far-away, dissolute, rapacious, and corrupt church.

    Thankfully the sphere of human consciousness and concern is once again tending to globalization, now on solidly-based humanistic terms (not to say technological means) rather than religious terms, and not a minute too soon!


  2. Darrell says:

    “Secondly, the historical specifics are somewhat complicated the minute you actually read what went on.” But you haven’t actually read what went on. You’ve read Wikipedia. So we have Hart on one hand, a scholar who has researched this area thoroughly, and on the other hand we have Wikipedia. Forgive me if I go with Hart here.


  3. Eric Reitan says:

    A distinction I propose in my book, which may be helpful in thinking about the history of religious violence, is between religion and religionism–a distinction analogous to the distinction between sex and sexism or between ethnicity and ethnocentrism.

    In each of these cases, we have a relationship between a bifurcating ideology and the difference that is invoked as the basis and justification for the polarizing in-group/out-group bifurcation.

    Religion is a bit more complex in its relationship with the attendant bifurcating ideology because, unlike sex or ethnicity, religion is at least in part characterized by a belief system. Since a bifurcating ideology is a belief system as well, religionism essentially takes a belief system and adds to it, creating a more complex belief system with self-referential elements. What the bifurcating ideology adds is the following:

    “If you accept this belief system you are part of the in-group; if you reject it in favor of an alternative, you are part of the out-group. The out-group is dangerous and must be silenced or suppressed in order for the truth and goodness embodied in our belief system to blossom fully. Furthermore, members of the out-group have excluded themselves from the moral community by aligning themselves with this dangerous belief system, and so the normal standards of moral decency which we direct towards members of the in-group do not necessarily apply to them.”

    (Reading Sam Harris will quickly reveal, I think, that this kind of bifurcating ideology is not limited to religion but can and does characterize atheists. This is why I think Sam Harris is probably the most pernicious of the so-called “new atheists.”)

    While many world religions include these sorts of ideological elements, the elements themselves cannot be understood or applied until the basic belief system at issue has first been formulated–a fact which hilghlights that these ideological elements are not essential to a religious worldview but an addition TO it.

    But, of course, many treat the ideological add-on as if it were essential, and so think that allegiance to a religion requires this sort of racism-like animosity towards alternative religious views. This strikes me as a mistake. The problem is not religion as such, but bifurcating ideology, which latches onto many things, including religion.

    By the way, Darrell, if you haven't see my recent comments regarding Burk's review of NATURALISM, you can find them as comments on his recent Atheist Spirituality post (I probably should have posted them as comments on his review).


  4. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Eric-

    I agree that in-group/out-group tribalism is the bane of our attempts at getting along. The problem is that a philosophy that conjures absolute personal and cosmic meanings out of what is essentially a parochial or tribal tradition is going to be particularly prone to this confusion of meaning and membership.

    I mean, isn't the concept of a chosen people at the very core of Judaism? And isn't the membership in the belief in Christ at the very core of Christianity? You say these are intertwined, and I would emphasize that they are virtually indistinguishable, at least until you get to more universalistic mystical religions like deism, etc.


  5. Darrell says:


    “The problem is that a philosophy that conjures absolute personal and cosmic meanings out of what is essentially a parochial or tribal tradition is going to be particularly prone to this confusion of meaning and membership.”

    The problem is that you fail to see the parochial and tribal aspects of philosophical naturalism/scientism, which conjures up absolute and cosmic meanings—one being that there is no God and the material is all that exists. This is what Eric is noting about Harris. You place the so-called progressive, scientific, and rational people in the in-group and people of faith in the out-group. This is what allowed atheistic communists to turn the 20th Century into a grave yard. Your world-view is as dichotomized any other religious fundamentalism.


  6. Darrell says:

    Eric, those are great points and observations. I plan to get your book at some point, it looks very good. This bifurcating ideology you speak of, I think, is a result of the modern narrative and the creation of the “secular.” I think this bifurcation to be at the very heart of modernity and why the violence of the modern nation-state is so extravagant. Something that sets Christianity apart from other faith views is its idea of the stranger—the other. What we see with the person of Christ is that he befriended the stranger and welcomed him in. In fact, one might say that all are outside the only “in-group”—the Trinity—and all of us are strangers welcomed inside and so at the very core of the Christian faith is the welcoming of the stranger, the other. The parable of the Good Samaritan is perhaps one of the best illustrations of this principle. Even with Israel, God made provision for the stranger, someone outside the group.

    I did see you comments regarding Burk’s review of Naturalism and thought them very insightful. I would also agree with you that some of my responses were not helpful in the sense of explaining better and the reasons for that, such as they are, I need not go into here. I also enjoyed finding and reading your own blog.

    Please keep in touch as you will no doubt find some of the conversations here rather interesting.


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