The Wars of Religion

Excerpt Taken From:  "Shaped By The Bible" by William H. Willimon

Europe found itself, in the seventeenth century, exhausted and bloodied by seemingly endless 'wars of religion.'  The causes for the turmoil were as much political as religious; that is, religion was the 'glue' which held nations together during the Middle Ages.  When the cohesion was threatened by shifts in religious outlook, nations were destabilized and the result was politically chaotic.  Religion, which nations had relied upon for political stability since the Holy Roman Empire, became a political liability rather than an asset. The threat of anarchy led to a flight away from the authority of churches and their hierarchies toward individual conscience and reason.  Each individual now had the right to decided on the Bible, to interpret scripture.  

The new, emerging nation-state found individuals easier to manage than institutions and groups.  Detached, isolated individuals appear to be more malleable than people who must answer to some higher authority other than themselves...  The state became the new organizing principle for human life, the main protector of life from the cradle to the grave, the chief source of meaning and identity for modern people.  

Today, when occasionally someone asserts that religion is the chief cause of strife in the world what they usually mean is that if all these religious people would only convert their religious loyalties into nationalistic ones we would have peace.  In other words, limit the claim of our religion to the claim of the almighty state as the rest of us modern people have done.

One of the goals of the Enlightenment and the democracies that it created was to rise above the bloody religious conflict of the 17th century.  By subordinating beliefs about God, religious identities and the claims of religious communities to the claims of the new modern nation, enlightened philosophers hoped for a world in which people would no longer kill one another in the name of God.  The irony is that since the triumph of the Enlightenment, people no longer kill one another in the name of God.  Now we kill on a scale unknown in the 17th century, in the name of the new nation-state.  We have created a world in which people are convinced that it is wrong to kill, unless the nation is threatened because the nation now provides people with a source of ultimate identity, protection, and meaning in life.  

It is ironic that in its attempt to overcome the imperialism of religion, the Enlightenment submitted us to the most bloody imperialism in all of human history- the modern state.  In fact, when one counts all of the people who have been killed in this century by their own governments, one must conclude the modern nation to be the most disastrous of all human inventions.  

People were told that violence could be avoided if we would use our 'reason.'  The Bible and religion were considered unreasonable.  

The 18th Century held to 'reason' as a universal attribute of humanity...  however, this line of thought had a darker side.  If people were found to be 'unreasonable' then there could be only be one explanation for them.  They must be sub-human.  So 18th century Europeans felt justified in enslaving Africa because its people seemed to lack those attributes which made human beings human--reason.  19th Century Americans had few misgivings about exterminating and uprooting millions of Native Americans because with their tribalism, primitive cultures, and premodern ways, these people were obviously 'savages.' and we modern nationalistic, 'reasonable' people were right to overcome them, as 'reason' was destined to overcome superstition.  In the 20th Century the Nazis charged that Jews in Europe were 'tribal,' disloyal to the modern nation, superstitious and irrational--with reason.  When we dropped the bomb on civilians in Japan, Americans were told that the Japanese were 'irrational,' that they did not value human life as much as we, and that they were maniacal fanatics.  Our 'reason' was revealed to be a decidedly two-edged sword, a path to as much inhumanity as humanity.  

Our much praised 'reason' was but a culturally conditioned, limited, yet often useful, way of looking at the world.  The notion of reason had been helpful in forming modern European society, in setting up constitutional democracies, in giving birth to science.  But it definitely had its more sinister side, particularly when it was used against those people and cultures who did not appear to fit our definition of what it meant to be 'rational' and therefore 'human.' 

Looking back to the Bible, the Bible is not unreasonable whereas modern, secular, scientific people now have reason.  It is that the Bible has a very 'different' definition of what it means to think, to be reasonable.  

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