Warfare in World Religions: Has the Time Come to Junk All Religions and Found a New One?

By Ronald Brown

I adopted my traditional “stick of dynamite” approach to get my students out of their Sunday school, Hebrew school and Madrasa ruts.

“All the world religions are so mired in religious warfare they should be destroyed,” I said. “What humanity needs is a new god, a new holy book, and a new religion.  Warfare and violence are so deeply rooted in the religions of the world they are beyond saving. They cannot be salvaged.”

So began my UTS course on “World Religions and Global Conflict” (LTR 5513) in the spring semester 2017.

Such a time to take over the course! “Christian” United States was bogged down in wars in Muslim Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria; Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia were threatening to go to war; Orthodox Russia was reasserting its superpower aspirations; Israel was expanding Jewish West Bank settlements and carrying out ethnic cleansing against Palestinian Christians and Muslims in East Jerusalem; China was fashioning Confucianism as the nation’s national religion; India and Muslim Pakistan, both nuclear-armed, were fighting over Kashmir, and the BJP Hindu nationalist party was busily transforming India into a Hindu nation.

My 20-some students reflected the diversity of UTS – American Christians of various denominations, students from the Philippines and Africa, Unificationists, and of course their residually Catholic professor. Many of the students were active in interreligious dialogue and eagerly spouted the tried and true seminary and church slogans, “God is love,” “All religions strive for peace,” “Only a few radicals believe in holy war,” and “A nice dialogue over coffee and cookies will bring world peace.” Other students were dedicated to peace studies and taking UTS courses in the topic.

My goal for the semester was to blow up the “God is love” myth and zero in on the centrality of holy war, jihad, crusades, terrorism, and genocide to world religions.

Singing kumbaya, sipping tea, and exchanging love and peace platitudes with members of diverse religions will not make religious violence simply go away. Hence my goals in the course were to explore five questions: 1) What is the role and function of warfare in the human condition? 2) Can religion and warfare be separated? 3) Why did the attempts of Jesus and Buddha to sever this ancient bond fail? 4) Do world religions threaten the survival of the human race in the 21st century? and, 5) Has the time come to found a new religion?

What is the role and function of warfare in the human condition?

Konrad Lorenz, Raymond Dart, Desmond Morris, Niko Tinbergen, Robert Ardrey, among many others, argue that humans descended from killer apes and still retained deep in their genes and instincts a propensity for war and violence. Some insist that rather than genetic origins, human belligerence is the result of traditions and customs evolved over millennia as a result of the need to compete for territory, mates, food and power. Whether genetic, instinctual or historical, humans are a warlike species. Book titles such as On Aggression, The Naked Ape, African Genesis, The Territorial Imperative, The Social Contract (Ardrey, 1970), and The Hunting Hypothesis illustrate their argument.

As a result, humans evolved social structures, governments, economies, literature, and religions that recognized the inborn drive to violence. In biological terms we can say that violence is hardwired into the human genome. Richard Dawkins described this predisposition to violence as the selfish gene. In the Jewish Bible, God had no qualms about killing the Egyptian firstborn, destroying the pharaoh’s army, instructing Joshua to slaughter the population of Jericho, or ordering King David to massacre the Jebusite population of Jerusalem. The Koran united religious leadership in one person, Mohammed, making him prophet and king. Warfare was as deeply rooted in Islam as it was in Judaism. The sacred books of Hinduism, Confucianism and Shintoism also incorporate warfare, violence and genocide into the teachings and practice of religion. Many religions even included a god of warfare in their pantheons.

Can religion and warfare be separated?

All the major world religions emerged as appendages of a particular people. From ancient Babylon, Egypt, India, China, Greece, and Rome until today this bond has remained intact. According to Aztec legend, the peoples who are the Mexicans today were a homeless tribe wandering the deserts of the North American southwest until their god Huitzilopochtli appeared to their leaders. “You shall be a homeless nation,” Huitzilopochtli uttered, “until you come across an eagle perched on a cactus with a rattlesnake in its beak. This land shall be yours for eternity.” Like the covenant between Jehovah and Abraham in the Jewish Bible, the god of the Aztecs promised them a far-off land that was already inhabited. From their inception both the religion of the Aztecs and the Jews incorporated genocide into their divine mission here on earth. The eagle, cactus, and snake grace the Mexican flag until today. Religion and warfare are part of the founding experience of both peoples.

The Old Testament’s account of Abraham’s covenant with Jehovah was clear: the Jews would become a mighty nation and inhabit their promised land in exchange for worshipping Jehovah as their one and only god. If they failed to keep their side of the bargain, Jehovah would revoke their right to the land of Israel. Some strict Orthodox Jews argue that the Jews failed to worship their god and were duly punished first by the Babylonians and later by the Romans with the destruction of the First and Second Jewish Kingdoms.

Every other world religion emerged as the religion of a particular people. Hinduism elaborated a complex caste system that rigidly structured society from the Brahmans to the untouchables and venerate India as a deity. The Prophet Mohammed established the leadership of the caliphs, defined Muslims as a people (umma), and elaborated complex rules (sharia) regulating food, business, marriage and divorce, pilgrimage, and daily worship. Today ISIS, the Islamic Brotherhood and many other groups are waging holy wars to expel America, European, Russian, and Chinese occupiers of their sacred lands.

In China, Confucianism is again becoming a national religion that places China at the center of the world and relegates all other peoples and nations to various states of barbarism. Shinto likewise is the national religion of the Japanese people.

Why did the attempts of Jesus and Buddha to sever this ancient bond fail?

Christianity as taught by Jesus was strictly other-worldly and apocalyptic. “My kingdom is not of this world” — Jesus stressed and demanded that his followers render to Caesar what belonged to him and to God what is His. The core teaching of Jesus was his imminent return. In Matthew 24:34, Jesus consoled his followers with the promise to return quickly. “Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” As a result, he instructed his followers to leave their wives and children, give what they had to the poor, and come follow him. The things of this world, such as government, economics, laws, and warfare had no place in his otherworldly teachings.

But this otherworldly Christianity was unable to sustain itself when it became evident to the followers of Jesus that his “imminent” return had been indefinitely postponed. Like a head without a body, the Christian community struggled to keep the faith. In the person of Emperor Constantine, this bodiless head encountered a headless body, the declining Roman Empire. Christianity proved its mettle at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 when, under the sign of Christianity, Constantine defeated his rival for the throne. The Christian head infused a divine mission into the decaying body and the Roman Empire enjoyed a new life. Constantine and later a host of European emperors, kings, dictators, and presidents, harnessed the Christian faith to their (this-worldly) national and imperial goals.

Buddha also taught an otherworldly religion that had held enlightenment as the ultimate goal of human existence. Like Jesus, Buddha rejected Hinduism’s this-worldly concern, with its rigid caste system and myriad laws regulating every aspect of daily human life, as illusions and obstacles to achieving enlightenment. But just as the teachings of Jesus were coopted by European kings, emperors, presidents, and dictators, so the teachings of Buddha were adopted by the kings of the nations and empires of South Asia, Tibet, and Sri Lanka (Theravada Buddhism). Today we see Buddhist monks taking the lead in violent crusades against Christian missionaries and Muslim minorities in support of Buddhist Thailand and Myanmar. Only in northeast Asia (China, Korea and Japan) did Buddhism manage to retain its otherworldly character by leaving the affairs of this world to the prevailing Confucian and Shinto governments.

Do world religions threaten the survival of the human race in the 21st century?

In his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, Samuel P. Huntington prophesied that the 21st century would be one of clashes between at least six religious-rooted civilizations: Western Civilization (Western Europe and the USA), Orthodox Christian (Russia and others), Hindu, Sinic (Confucian China, Korea, and Vietnam), Buddhic (South Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia), and Muslim. The age of the nation-state is over; fasten your seatbelts for a wild clash of civilizations. Without natural borders like the other civilizations, the Muslim world is in conflict with all its neighbors. From the Muslim regions of Thailand, Myanmar, China, and the Philippines in Asia to colonial created half-Muslim and half-Christian states of Africa, and between the Muslim migrants to Europe and the USA, Islam is at war with its neighbors.

Detail from “The Battle of the Milvian Bridge” (painted 1520–24) by Giulio Romano.

Nuclear-armed Muslim Pakistan and increasingly Hindu India under the BJP (Hindu Nationalist Party) have been at war for almost a century over the province of Kashmir. Nuclear Jewish Israel threatens to destroy any Muslim neighbor that threatens its survival. Increasingly Orthodox Russia is pushing back at Western expansion into its civilizational territory, and Christian America and Western Europe are currently at war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, and elsewhere to resist the Muslim drive to restore the lost unity of the Islamic world and the leadership of a single caliph.

Each civilization and religious-based people that seeks to restore its once great but now lost greatness cites its holy books and history as justification. Muslim fighters cite the great victories won by the prophet Mohammad and the early caliphs over pagans, Jews, and Christians as justification for their wars to expel “Crusaders and Jews” from their sacred lands and so-called “terrorists” take this struggle to Europe and the world. Osama bin Laden wrote that he organized 9/11 to show his opposition to the stationing of American (Christian) troops in Saudi Arabia, the protector of the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina. The supporters of Israeli Dr. Baruch Goldstein compared his 1994 massacre of 29 worshippers in a Hebron mosque in the occupied West Bank to God’s instructions in Judges 2:2-3, “And ye shall make no league with the inhabitants of this land; ye shall throw down their altars … (for they are) thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you.”

As long as religions were armed with swords, chariots, and bows and arrows, religious warfare was limited. But today nuclear bombs, chemical and biological warfare, and man-made epidemics put the entire human race at risk. All world empires have been inspired by some form of national destiny but when this destiny becomes infused with a divine purpose there is no compromise with the enemy.

Has the time come to found a new religion?

The objective of my course, “World Religions and Global Conflict,” is to force my students to take a long, serious and hard look at Christianity and the other world religions. Students of theology and all thinking followers of world religions must confront both the genetic propensity of humanity toward violence and warfare and seriously ask if Christianity and the other world religions are so compromised by violence that they are no longer salvageable.

Has the time come to junk Christianity and found a new religion? Can Christianity still be salvaged and made serviceable for the myriad of issues that confront humanity in the first decades of the 21st century? New times demand new religions.

For thousands of years, hundreds of millions of ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Aztecs, Mayas, Germanic and Celtic peoples, and Indians worshipped gods, erected temples, composed sacred writings, elaborated legends, and performed rituals. Today these are all dead religions. New movements such as Pentecostal Christians, Mormons, and the Unification movement labor to salvage Christianity and adapt it to the 21st century by tinkering around the edges.

But is Christianity so deeply and fundamentally corrupted by violence that even these heroic attempts to adapt the faith are doomed to failure? Futurists like Huntington predicted and newspaper headlines confirm that warfare in the name of religion is the wave of the present and future. Is humanity fated to extinction in the name of God?♦

Dr. Ronald J. Brown is a professor of history, political science and ethnic studies at Touro College and teaches courses in world religion at Unification Theological Seminary. A docent at the New York Historical Society with degrees from Harvard Divinity School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the University of Geneva, Switzerland, Brown is the author of A Religious History of Flushing, Queens; Into the Soul of African-American Harlem; and How New York Became the Empire City.

19 thoughts on “Warfare in World Religions: Has the Time Come to Junk All Religions and Found a New One?

  1. Dr. Brown,

    An excellent article. You have told us well what is wrong about religions and the need for a new one. We look forward to your follow-up class on what this new religion would look like. What would be its characteristics? How deep would its critique and counterproposal have to go? Keep up the good work!

  2. I agree with the author on many points. Religions are deeply affected by a propensity to violence. I just wonder are religions themselves the fault or is human nature itself the fault? Human beings have a tendency and propensity to violence. Violence has been endemic in human history and human civilizations. Communism has also been a very violent “religion” in its practice and used violence without qualm to futher its aims. On the balance, all religions have had a peace-inducing influence on human beings. Human beings also have a tendency to justify the use of violence to achieve their aims and agendas. As John Lennon wrote in “Imagine,” nothing to kill or die for and no religion too. There will come a day when mankind will live in peace and there will be no need of any religion or any new religion. We seem a long way from that at the moment with so many wars currently being waged and further wars looming on the horizon. I feel that religious thought is conducive to creating better moral citizens and peace-loving citizens as long as they practice the highest ideals of the founders of their religions.

    • “Students of theology and all thinking followers of world religions must confront both the genetic propensity of humanity toward violence and warfare and seriously ask if Christianity and the other world religions are so compromised by violence that they are no longer salvageable.”

      Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Unificationist thought system, confronts both the genetic and cultural propensity of humanity toward violence. His belief system intentionally reconstructs the genetic and cultural aspects of a restored marriage, a reconstituted family lineage and inheritance. Cross-cultural and exchange marriage are the fast track towards the realization of a more peaceful world. The purpose of a blessed marriage union is to salvage the human conscience genetically at conception; thus allowing for a re-engineering of the superstructures of conscience and human relationships to cure itself further of the disease of fratricide. This would in the long term lead to the thorough dismantling of the deep emotive-spiritual, political and economic infrastructures of violence and warfare. Other world cultures compromised by violence would be salvageable through ecumenism, and the practice of cross-cultural blessing and exchange marriage.

      • I have been fascinated by the common sci fi film theme of aliens arriving on earth and having to decide whether humanity is worth preserving. Sometimes they decide that we have a genetic defect (the killer ape hypothesis) that makes us natural killers.

  3. Dr. Brown,

    Good overview but you seem to stress that it is “Christianity so deeply and fundamentally corrupted by violence that even these heroic attempts to adapt the faith are doomed to failure.” However, it is clear from recent world events that it is violent outgrowths of Islam (ISIS, Al Qaeda, Taliban, etc.) that are the truly bad actors on the world religious stage. Indeed, it is Christianity and the open, free, and productive society that it has spawned in the Western world that has provided the essential stopgap measures of preventing a worldwide takeover by truly militant religions and even atheistic regimes like the former Soviet Union and today, North Korea and Communist China. Further, the principles of Christianity have provided the moral compass to permit democratic Western nations like America to involve itself in doing good around the world in many different ways. It seems that by getting rid of Christianity entirely or even just tinkering with it may have the opposite desired effect.

  4. Triumphalism is always a problem. Both Dr. Hendricks and John Kennedy ask pertinent questions. In the Cheon Seong Gyeong, specifically Book 10, there are numerous references to “Godism,” “Headwing Thought,” and the internal/causal aspects about how we might fashion “True Religion” or perhaps that place John Lennon “imagined.”

    Human nature is no small matter in all this.

  5. Dr. Brown,

    The short answer to your question, “Is humanity fated to extinction in the name of God?” is no. The answer to the question, “Has the time come to junk all religions and form a new one?” only leads to more questions. What is a religion, what is a junk religion? And, what is the new construct and superstructure of an effective thought system that can bring about ultimately shared objectives and our most intimate desires? To embark on such an architectural mission, the Unification Thought thesis, principles and methodology would be the new vehicle of thought. Having a thought system is not to admire just for the sake of its beauty; rather, as the infrastructure vehicle that would take us where we ultimately want to go.

    • Robert,

      I just watched the film, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951 version). I have long believed that rather than looking to theologians, churchmen (and women), and religious people in general to discover the forces that are shaping the future of world religions, science fiction has much more to offer. This is a theme I would love to develop.

  6. Dr. Brown,

    The answer is not to junk all religions but to transcend and include them. This is the thesis of Ken Wilber’s new book, The Religion of Tomorrow. Human beings are born with a “fight or flight” survival instinct, but reason and compassion should develop and enable mature humans to solve problems without violence. It is the role of parents, teachers, and social norms to help children transcend their egos and ethnocentrism as they mature to a higher consciousness about others and the world. In theological terms, the “fall” prevents that from happening.

    Unfortunately, many religions have an inadequately developed social consciousness and are unable to transcend their own group centrism — the “selfish gene” expressed as ethnocentrism. So the issue is not to start over with a new religion, because its consciousness would start out at the level of a newborn, but for existing religions, proud of their inherited identity, raising the level of their spiritual consciousness to transcend group consciousness and accept the idea that all of us share this world is important.

    One example of a lower level of spiritual consciousness is the “commandment stage” in childhood. This may be before the age of 10, when children begin to reason, compare, and think beyond parent’s instructions. For religion, this stage expresses itself in literal fundamentalisms. This can be a problem for Islam and now Unificationists too when the leader’s words are taken and put into books arranged by topic, and not kept in context, because words get used to support selfish positions.

    If you study the evolution of Mohammad’s thought, you find that the mature Mohammad had transcended the jihadism of his earlier life, and he began to make peace with Christians and Jews and gave the name Islam (“peace”) in that later period of his life. But the majority of his words from the earlier period support violence. I worry that many Unificationists behave in this way, and that one goal of the seminary is to get students beyond this doctrinaire state to a real thinking and compassionate personality that can transcend inherted doctrine and group centrism. That would be, in my view, a True Parent’s perspective.

    • Ali,

      The goal of this Blog and my teaching of “World Religions and Global Conflict” is to make my students aware of how deeply warfare is rooted in world religions. The very founding act of Judaism, for example, God’s covenant with Abraham, was a declaration of war. According to Genesis, God gave the Land of Canaan, which was already inhabited by others, to Abraham. The genocide of the Canaanites was necessary.

      Mushy talk of love and peace among Christians does not take the role of warfare, violence and genocide seriously. Most students (and teachers) just ignore warfare. Christians easily ignore what they dislike in the Bible.

  7. I admit that the subject of this article concerns each and every living person. I believe that religions are not supposed to incite wars but rather bring peace and love.

    Since Cain killed his brother Abel, for whatever reason that drove him to commit such a violent act, it was based on his fallen nature and the conflicts and wars raging since then are due to humans’ fallen nature and to their ignorance of the Creator’s will.

    What if the followers of every religions adhered to the best of what their religions teach and effectively acted accordingly? Wouldn’t the world be in better shape with less conflict? The problem is with politicizing religions in accordance with the desires of humans.

    Consequently, as there seems to be no solution due to the rupture of a direct relation between humans and their Creator as a result of the fall, we shall unfortunately have to expect the continuation of conflicts and wars until the time when all humans stand for the final judgement where all religions will melt in front of the Lord of heaven and earth.

  8. I think the subject matter about religious wars and conflict is tied to politics and economics. We have no clear clues on what exactly caused Cain to kill his brother Abel in God’s first family, Adam and Eve. But in Abraham’s family, the issue of conflict became clear. The issue of conflict was not about religion; it was about legitimacy and inheritance. It was about who is the legitimate son who can inherent Abraham’s wealth and property. Is it Ishmael, is it Isaac? And this is where politics comes in. Both boys were Abraham’s sons. Jews would argue and say that Isaac was the legitimate son. But Muslims would argue that Ishmael was the older son and therefore he is the rightful person heir to Abraham. After all, it was Abraham’s and his wife’s lack of faith when they didn’t believe God when He told them they will have a son. In fact, Sarah laughed and mocked God and allowed Abraham to sleep with Hagar, their servant.

  9. It is all very interesting and so are all the comments. Religions all have their roots and traditions and all think their religion or faith is the correct one and nobody wants to change or even listen to the other. We can’t just junk religion that easily, nor can we introduce a new one that easily. I believe that the spirit world is changing and good is dominating there more and more. That good spirit world will start to dominate and the general consciousness of humankind will change and be able to come to the true understanding of God’s heart. Religion as we know it today will fade into the background. Of course it will not happen over night.

  10. Provocative thoughts and surely a provocative course; fitting within the context.

    To the central question posed: No and no.

    To some degree such is already occurring and has occurred many, many times before. (Movements, revivals, even schisms fit in here). One might as well ask: Will the world (insert: “of evil, physicality, adharma, etc.”) ever end? And how does (any) religion actually assist or thwart that goal, if that truly is the goal or purpose? Many religions — or one? Is the purpose/goal — in actuality – served or being served? And is such best served by the one — or the many?

  11. Some religions emphasize the issues of salvation and redemption far more than others. Though Confucius spoke of “spirits” and “heaven,” his perspectives on these concepts were far different than Judeo-Christian teachings — no mention of God as a parental being, e.g., Chinese scholar, Herbert Fingarette refers to Confucianism as an attempt to view that which is “secular” in a more “sacred” fashion. Confucianism may not be a religion, per se, but acts as a social contract in the attempt to fashion an ethical society.

    Since the word religion stems from the Latin ligo/ligare (to bind), it would seem that once God and humankind could achieve “re-binding” and oneness, then the purpose of religion has been fulfilled.

    • David,

      The central goal of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Theravada Buddhism, and Confucianism is the construction of a human society, ethical or otherwise. Christianity, when compared with these religions, comes out very poorly. Jesus taught that the end days were near, for example: “This generation shall not pass away…”. The Sermon on the Mount was apocalyptic with no concern for this world or constructing an earthly society. Therefore when Jesus did not return as he had promised, Christians had to fashion their own societies with little or no guidance. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Theravada Buddhism, and Confucianism, on the other hand, provided detailed outlines for the construction of a human society.

  12. As others have noted, the issues of economics and politics are often at the heart of religious conflict. Divine Principle clearly asserts that jealousy and envy produce resentment and resentment leads to rage, rebellion and retaliation.

    A central tenet of Unificationism is that humankind doesn’t know or understand God’s heart — the heart of a parent. Consequently we act in ways that are completely oblivious to God’s intentions, hopes, purpose and desires. The “suffering heart of God” is an important theological notion all religious people need to grasp.

    Theologian Ronald Goetz views this emerging philosophical concept having increased credulity and offers this insight:

    “Twentieth-Century theology has been extremely diverse. Schools and fads have abounded, from neo-orthodoxy to neo-liberalism, from demythologization to the “God is dead” movement, from Christian realism to secular Christianity, from process thought to the various liberation movements. Twentieth-century theology might appear to be so completely at sixes and sevens that it has no distinguishing characteristics save an utterly discordant pluralism. However…we can begin to make out some of the larger features of the theological landscape. Indeed, despite all the real and intractable differences among theologians, a curious new consensus has arisen. The age-old dogma that God is impassible and immutable, incapable of suffering, is for many no longer tenable. The ancient theopaschite heresy that God suffers has, in fact, become the new orthodoxy.”

    Healing of any kind cannot occur unless the cause of the malady or disease is identified. Only with a proper diagnosis can the proper remedies be applied to get on with the healing process. Divine Principle surely addresses these issues in profound ways. As those who espouse “Applied Unificationism,” our essential trial is to live according to the Unificationist way in the hopes that others will see the value in that particular modality. Then “natural surrender” to the ideals of the Creator is more likely.

  13. By incorporating Western discoveries in psychodynamic repression and how to resolve it, all religions will lessen the kind and type of behavior noted in this piece. In the case of the Unification religion, Divine Principle attempts to address this through its theological construct of the “four fallen natures.” However, events impacting the Unification movement since the late 1980s provide ample evidence the cognitive line of development via theological formulation is necessary but not sufficient to address and heal an individual’s hidden psychological maladies.

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