A world without religion would certainly have no grounds for religious persecution, that’s true, but would that equate to less conflict? Personally, I don’t think so.
Firstly, let’s deal with the popular fallacy that ‘most wars are caused by religion’. This is simply untrue. An academic study on the subject of the role of religion in 73 major conflicts over the past 3,500 years concluded that 60% of wars had no religious motivation whatsoever and only 4% were viewed as truly religious wars.
Any identifiable ‘set’ to which you might belong – family, colour, creed, nation, class and a myriad other separate allegiances – defines two basic groups: an ‘us’ group and an ‘other’ group. Our human tendency is to want to bond with the ‘us’ group and part of that bonding process involves an equivalent distancing of ourselves from the ‘other’ group. If conflict should arise between such groups, potentially escalating all the way up to warfare, that bonding alone will, in many cases, be powerful enough motivation to dictate behaviour.
There are many issues that governments choose to resolve by means of conflict and there are, undeniably, cases in which governments have sought to make use of existing social divisions, including religious divisions, in order to pursue their own agendas. As an example, consider the demonisation of the Jews in Germany during the 1930s achieved via a massive propaganda campaign following the seizing of power by the Nazi party. This was a necessary precursor to the subsequent attempt to eradicate the population in the ‘final solution’. The purpose of the campaign was to get people to view the Jews, not as human beings, but as vermin.
The holocaust was an example of what has more recently become known as ‘ethnic cleansing’ – a phrase I personally find unpalatable – but the reasons behind this attempt at genocide were basically not religious. The Jews were used as a scapegoat for the failure of the country up to and including the First World War. In the act of rebuilding the country and uniting the nation, they were identified and labelled as the ‘other’ group. The distancing of the vast majority of the population from the ‘other’ group resulted in a strengthening of allegiance with the ‘us’ group which, in this case, was the nation; and that was the desired result.
The Jews were not persecuted by the Nazis because of their religious beliefs. They were persecuted because they were identified by a ruthless administration as a dispensable and relatively defenseless minority that was also easily recognisable as the ‘other’. What would Hitler have done in the same situation had religious division not been a tactic available to him i.e. if religion simply did not exist?
In the conclusion to Mein Kampf, we may read the following:
‘A state which, in this age of racial poisoning, dedicates itself to the care of its best racial elements must someday become lord of the Earth.’ – Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler
In those few words we have a central tenet of the Hitler philosophy. His struggle (kampf) was not primarily about religion; it was about race. If religion had not been available as a tool to assist his administration in the identification of a scapegoat group (the other), there were plenty of other races ranked in the lower echelons, in his grand order of things, that might have equally well sufficed.
Personally, I believe it is naive to conclude that without religion there would be less conflict though it is true that there would be one less social division that might be manipulated by those in positions of power. Quite simply, war is a frequent consequence of one society seeking to dominate another for whatever purpose.
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