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The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict?

The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict? By Meic Pearse. Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter Varsity Press Books, 2007. 231pp. $18.95.

Meic Pearse's The Gods of War, like Caesar's Gaul, seemingly falls into three parts. The introduction and first chapter establish Pearse's thesis: while people have used religion as a catalyst for conflict, this hardly means that it is the efficient cause of most, let alone all, wars. Decidedly anti-religious, secularist notions, either Fascist or Communist, instead animated the brutal regimes and conflicts of the last century, history's bloodiest. In the second part, by far the largest, running from chapters two through eight, Pearse surveys the conflicts involving the Mediterranean world and Europe from the Greeks down to the present. This includes Alexander s and Rome's wars of expansion, as well as the rise of Islam, and then the wars of Western Europe, most notably the Crusades, the Wars of Religion surrounding the Reformation, and then also the English Civil War.

Unfortunately, Pearse failed to make as much of the discussion as possible: e.g., he writes about the devastation caused by the Thirty Years War, a war that arose from the Czech Protestants revolt against the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor (clearly a war of religion, yet neglects to note that the war would have ended sooner had it not been for the interference of Richelieu's France, who sided not with its Catholic coreligionists, but instead bankrolled Protestant Sweden against their political enemies, the Habsburgs of Austria and Spain. This would have been in keeping with his thesis that motives other than religion produce violence. This second section is marred as well by Pearse's lack of familiarity with the state of scholarship pertaining to the Crusades and the Spanish Reconquista. Even a passing acquaintance with the recent work of Thomas Madden, Jonathan Riley-Smith, and R. A. Fletcher inter altos, would have called for a complete rethinking of his thesis as it pertains to these conflicts.

As regards the English Civil War, while Pearse seems familiar with Nicholas Tyacke's work (he alludes to Tyacke's Anti-Calvinist in another volume he authored), he seemingly has no idea what Tyacke's thesis was, and how it pertains to the origins of the English Civil War. This section also disappoints in some of the assertions Pearse makes: the number of deaths from the crusades he garners from a website whose author accepts the inflated numbers of the medieval chroniclers; he asserts the univocal stance of the ante-Nicene church against Christian involvement in war, a stance equivocally maintained by Clement of Rome and Clement of Alexandria; and he cites a canon from Basil of Caesarea in which, Pearse alleges, Basil consciously taught something new, even though Basil himself writes that he followed the Fathers. Pearse also looks at the place of religion in various national myths and how these justify belligerence, namely those of Serbia, Russia, and England. In describing these myths--he lists among those that guided England's imperial motives both Arthur and the Grail on the one hand (though he does not explain how the French contrivance of the Grail spurred England and not France), and the obscurity of British-Israelism on the other--he fails to make recourse to the thought of Ernst Cassirer or his The Myth of the State.

Pearse's final section, the last three chapters, which contains by far the best and most engaging aspects of this work, inquires whether Christians can fight, an whether pacifism in any garb is tenable. While guided by certain Anabaptist principles regarding the Christian's relation to the state, Pearse nonetheless asserts that the Christian has a moral duty to defend the weak and helpless, labeling the pacifist stance moral narcissism. Looking at Augustine 's just war theory, he points out that on the ground no wars ever rise to the level of being just. This may seem like the abuse destroys the use (something for which he indicts certain modern atheists who damn all religion for its involvement in war), but more so it indicates that the calamity of war cannot be sterilized, and in this world naivete about cultural confrontations (e.g., globalization confronting Islamic cultures) invariably leads to violent reactions. Despite the need to research further certain questions and to give others more thought, this is still a thought-provoking read, good perhaps for introductory college classes in which such issues arise, or among adult reading groups.



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Author:Jenkins, Gary W.
Publication:Journal of Church and State
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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