My mother and I have been having this argument lately. Given the apparent importance of this issue in a society increasingly divided between secular pluralism and religious conviction, I was not too surprised to encounter the same exact argument being played out between the Jewish Stephen Dubner and his Catholic mother in Turbulent Souls, Dubner’s beautiful memoir of his Jewish family’s conversion to Catholicism and his own return to Judaism.
The argument between Dubner and the elderly Mrs. Dubner about religiously motivated violence – just as my own argument with my mother – is a thinly disguised expression of anguish about what at least one of the parties, and often both of them, perceive as religiously motivated violence done to the once-unified fabric of our own families.
So: is it true? Is religion the cause of war?
Religion can widen an existing gulf, drive deeper a wedge already placed. If there was disagreement, whether about morals or practicals, a difference in religion can help the two parties articulate the difference, making it less likely that the disagreement will simply be forgotten without leaving a mark. If there was resentment, religion can nourish sickly self-righteousness. Above all, for both the party that undergoes a conversion and the party that stays put, it is too easy to attribute any lack of mutual amiability to a religious difference – and to draw on religious commitment to grow and deepen it – rather than hunting out its true cause.
Above all, there is nothing to be done about the fact that religion shapes our values (as well it should), or at least the way we understand and defend those values. As a friend of mine put it, the difference between religious and non-religious people is that the religious, of any religion, tend to make moral decisions based on an explicitly articulated moral code, rather than gut feeling or habit. In family relationships, this can be a big gap to bridge.
But at the same time, we must ask: religion causes conflict compared to what? Is there any evidence that pagan societies are less violent compared to monotheistic ones? Hardly. If nothing else, the terrifying surge of male-selective infanticide through abortion in predominantly Confucian societies suggest the opposite. Is there any reason to think that non-religious families experience less internal conflict? Lack of religion hardly vaccinates anyone against longstanding grudges, poor communication, hardness of heart, or even just being a teenager.
At the same time, when existing negativity in a relationship is mixed with religion, at least one of the parties may be pushed to articulate the differences in a way that creates a path toward their resolution. Vague negativity (“I just don’t like you”) can be more dangerous to a relationship than negativity forced to comply with religious principles (“I disagree with what you are doing about X, but God commands me not to judge you”). The fact that both the Old Testament and the New place a heavy, almost fatalistic emphasis on honoring one’s father and mother (see my earlier post on Philip Rosenbaum’s The Promise) provides further hope that religious disagreement within families need not lead to an exacerbation of conflict.
Mom and I haven’t resolved the question of the role of religion in political violence; probably we will never reach too deep an agreement on this point. The Dubners did not do much better. But the real matter is not religion; it is God. Religion, like other ideologies, can be a tool for good or for harm, depending on who is wielding it. Religion can destroy our relationships. God can heal them – if we look upward to Him instead of burrowing down into religious self-righteousness.