This month the online newspaper the Huffington Post has been running a series of articles on religion. Unlike a number of printed papers I could name, the Huffington Post treats religion seriously and this week's article 'Does Religion Really Cause War - And Do Atheists Have Something to Answer For?' is well worth reading. As the title suggests, it addresses that tired criticism that religion and religious people are responsible for wars. Its conclusions are that it is far too simple to say that religion causes wars and that, in fact, the role of religion may not be as negative as widely assumed. Here, as elsewhere, atheism stands accused of not thinking hard enough.
Nevertheless, precisely because it is such a frequently used criticism of religious faith, the argument that war is a product of religion is worth considering. After all, we have recently had some horrific imagery from the Middle East that seems to suggest that religion is a bad thing. Nevertheless a number of points strike me.
The first is that no one should be surprised that some wars have a religious element. After all, any religion worth having deals with deep matters: of morality, of hopes and fears for this life and for eternity, and of what is - or isn't - sacred. So if someone thinks that a particular valley is the home of the most holy God then they are going to be seriously annoyed if someone decides to turn it into a rubbish dump. Now because atheists do not have any real concept of the sacred, they find such passions to be alien. (Incidentally, have you noticed how hard it is to get excited about anything in atheism?) But feelings over religion inevitably run high and we should all understand that.
The second point is that precisely because religion involves such deep issues it moulds lives and shapes communities. How people dress, live and speak will be formed by the religious beliefs of those they grew up with. So when a nation or region made of different faiths comes under economic or political stress it is hardly surprising that the resulting fractures will run between the religious communities. The observer may find it easy to label the subsequent conflict as 'Protestant vs. Catholic' or 'Hindu vs. Buddhist' or 'Sunni vs. Shia' but that is to make a lazy and dangerous oversimplification.
A third observation, again related to the power of religion, is that it is always tempting for politicians to try to hijack religious feelings for their own cause. Call a war 'an economic necessity' and you are unlikely to get queues at recruiting offices; call it a 'religious duty' or 'the battle against satanic evil' and things will be very different.
As the Huffington Post article points out, it is far too simple to say that atheism is blameless in this area. The death toll of wars in which religion has played no obvious part is depressingly high. In fact, the moral ambiguity at the heart of atheism makes it fertile ground for warmongers. After all, if there is no God, then it is all too easy for a Caesar - and his legions - to take his place and demand our allegiance. No, war is a danger for all of us, whether our faith includes or excludes a god, but I'm content to follow one who has, amongst many titles, that of 'Prince of Peace'.