Tag Archives: religion

Were Disagreements Over Christian Doctrine the Main Cause for European “Religious Wars” of the 16th and 17th Centuries?

Many people assume the separation of church and state established in the US Constitution resulted from 16th- and 17th-century “religious violence” and “religious wars” in Europe. The wars of this period included the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and the English Civil War (1642–1651).

These wars were foundational to the development of the political institutions of the West. They were part of a vast social/cultural/political process that ultimately replaced feudalism and the “divine right of kings” with the centralized, capital-based governments that dominate the world today.

The ferocious wars of these centuries made a deep impression on the collective memory of European people. Estimates of Central European deaths in the Thirty Years’ War run from 3 to 7 million (many of these resulting from starvation and disease among the civilian population). Deaths from war, disease, and starvation during the English Civil War have been estimated at around 800,000, or 4 percent, 6 percent, and 40 percent of England, Scotland, and Ireland’s populations respectively. Because nearly all of the participants in these wars had religious loyalties and convictions, religious feelings were often exploited by rulers. But religion was not the underlying motivation.

Two well-known examples involved the establishment of Lutheranism and Anglicanism. In the 16th century, Martin Luther’s reasons for breaking with the Catholic Church were theological, but the Reformation would have been quickly crushed if it hadn’t been supported by powerful European rulers whose motivations were primarily political and economic. King Henry VIII of England separated from Rome and formed the Anglican Church for pragmatic, nonreligious reasons—largely due to the refusal of the pope to grant an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He believed the Catholic Church was interfering with the internal affairs of his kingdom. He also wanted to nationalize the vast holdings of the Catholic Church in England to consolidate his power.

In The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford Press), William Cavanaugh refers to recent scholarship to show that the underlying causes of the “religious wars” of the 16th and 17th centuries weren’t religious. Cavanaugh includes eight pages of examples, of which the following quotation is only the first:

If there truly were a war of all sects against all, one would expect that war would have broken out soon after Europe split into Catholic and Protestant factions. However, between the time that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517 and the outbreak of the first commonly cited religious war—the Schmalkaldic War of 1546–1547—almost thirty years would pass. The Catholic prosecutor of the Schmalkaldic War, Holy Roman emperor Charles V, spent much of the decade following Luther’s excommunication in 1520 at war not against Lutherans, but against the pope. As Richard Dunn points out, “Charles V’s soldiers sacked Rome, not Wittenberg, in 1527, and when the papacy belatedly sponsored a reform program, both the Habsburgs and the Valois refused to endorse much of it, rejecting especially those Trentine decrees which encroached on their sovereign authority.” The wars of the 1540s were part of the ongoing struggle between the pope and the emperor for control over Italy and over the church in German territories (The Myth of Religious Violence, 143-44).

Cavanaugh provides massive documentation showing that rather than the state being the peace-making force that eventually solved the problem of religiously motivated violence, the process of centralizing public authority in a secular state was itself the most significant cause of violence. “There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the transfer of power to the emergent state was a cause, not the solution, to the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (ibid., p. 162).

These wars replaced the religion of the church with the religion of the state.

The historical evidence renders . . . the idea that the modern state saved Europe from religious violence . . . unbelievable. State building . . . was a significant cause of the violence. An important aspect of state building was the absorption of the church by the state, which exacerbated and enforced ecclesial differences and therefore contributed to warfare between Catholics and Protestants. In the process, the state did not rein in and tame religion but became itself sacralized. The transfer of power from the church to the state was accompanied by a migration of the holy from church to state (ibid., p. 176).

(The reason many still consider religion the primary cause of war and violence is discussed in (Is Religion Evil?)

 

 

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Should Christians keep the Old Testament feasts?

We enjoy exploring the symbolism of the Old Testament feasts, but we don’t recommend that Christians observe them on a regular basis. The feasts of the Old Testament were intended to be an opportunity for the Israelite people to acknowledge the goodness of God as their provider and intercessor.

Although the Jewish religious festivals are celebrated by Jewish Messianic believers, they are not relevant to Gentile Christians. Paul told us in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 that Jesus is the Passover Lamb. The Lord’s Supper, therefore, has replaced the Passover. Hebrews 7:27 and other passages declare that man has been once and for all reconciled to God by the death of Christ. Other passages such as Colossians 2:16-17 and Romans 14:5-6 declare that the Old Testament feasts are no longer to be observed:

So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ (Col. 2:16-17 nkjv).

God’s moral law proceeds from the righteousness of God and can never be abolished. The Mosaic Law, as an expression of this moral law, is “passing away” in that it has been superseded by another law, that is, the standard of grace revealed in the New Testament. The believer is now under law to Christ (1 Cor. 9:21; cp. Rom. 8:2-4). Although the Christian is not under the Mosaic Law as a rule of life, some of the Law of Moses is restated in the New Testament—nine of the Ten Commandments are included. The Mosaic Law still constitutes a revelation of the righteousness of God and remains as a part of Scripture which “is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17 nkjv; cp. Rom. 15:4).

Baruch Maoz, an Israeli pastor of Jewish extraction, doesn’t believe it is wrong for Christians of Jewish cultural background to keep the feasts. At the same time, he explains why Gentile Christians shouldn’t observe the Old Testament feasts or other aspects of Old Testament ritual—they have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. They are the “shadow”; He is the reality.

The Mosaic Law in its moral aspects has lost none of its commanding authority. The moral aspects of the covenant are now the rule of life for all those who live by grace. That is one of the reasons why the English Puritans and the Scottish Covenanters identified so warmly with our forefathers. While they longed and prayed for the salvation of our people and our restoration to grace, they knew themselves to be bound to our destiny by the common duties they shared with us as promulgated in the Mosaic Law.

Messiah and the Law

Of course, the ritual aspects of the Law, its symbols, hopes and expectations, all find fulfillment in Jesus. Having been fulfilled, they no longer have the religious value they had in the past yet, for us Jewish Christians, they form part of our national culture. The shadows have passed to give room for the reality, and it is not right for us to insist upon those shadows as if they were still in force. The Mosaic religious institutions, including the sacrifices; the feasts; the specific form of the Sabbath duties; and the restrictions and requirements in terms of dress codes, beards and the such like, are no longer binding. Nor may we exercise our liberty by living as if they were binding. It is our glad and happy duty to demonstrate by our lives, our worship and our communal behaviour that Messiah has come.

The ritual aspects of the Law, particularly the sacrifices, intimated God’s method of salvation, but salvation itself was never provided by it except as it reflected the sacrifice of Messiah. It was not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats could provide a sufficient sacrifice (Heb. 10:4). The promise of forgiveness made in the Torah was dependent on the sacrifice of Messiah and derived its strength from that ultimate sacrifice.

To act now as if Messiah came but did not affect our relation to the Law is—as I said before—to deny with our lives what our mouths profess. To think that the coming of Messiah did not alter the Mosaic Law’s relation to us is to ignore the biblical message, which declares that the Law was given through Moses, grace and truth were realized through Jesus the Messiah (John 1:17). Whatever else we may want to say about this passage, there is no doubt that it contrasts two periods—that of the Mosaic Law with that of Jesus, the Messiah (Judaism Is Not Jewish, pp.127-28).

If a Christian congregation occasionally reenacts aspects of an Old Testament feast day for the sake of better understanding their old covenant heritage, it would be within the bounds of Christian liberty. However, such reenactments should be done with a clear, conscious awareness that they are not required of Christians, convey no special spiritual benefits, and are strictly of educational value.

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Is Religion Evil?

From the time of the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), many have viewed religion with indifference or hostility, but there has never been such widespread hatred of religion as can be seen today in popular culture. One manifestation of hatred towards religion is the popularity of so-called “new atheism.” Here are some typical “new atheist” quotations:

That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization. —Sam Harris

We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid. —Christopher Hitchens

One of the things that is wrong with religion is that it teaches us to be satisfied with answers which are really not answers at all. —Richard Dawkins

Nothing is wrong with peace and love. It is all the more regrettable that so many of Christ’s followers seem to disagree. —Richard Dawkins

Most conscientious people know why the “new atheists” feel the way they do. Religion is often misused to rationalize violence, misuse of authority, hatred, and war. But many good things can be used for evil purposes, including family and ethnic loyalty, philosophy, patriotism, and political/economic theory. In fact, although “new atheists” look to science as the basis of rationality and human dignity, science is no more immune to misuse. Principled opponents of eugenics programs have been called “antiscientific,” and the Darwinist principle of the “survival of the fittest” has been used to rationalize slavery and ethnic cleansing. Marxist dogma claimed a “scientific” basis for exterminating entire classes of people it labeled “parasites” or “enemies of the working class.”

Although reason and science have proven their power, they are useless as moral guides without the guidance of religious principles. During World War II science made it possible to incinerate Dresden, Tokyo, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima, but contributed nothing to the discussion of whether doing so was justifiable.

Most people recognize that knowing whether a potential action is “good” or “bad” is more important than merely knowing how to do it. Determining whether an action is moral or immoral is a judgment of value and faith, not of mere reason. Values and faith are intrinsically linked to religion. Even the most basic assumption of science that “knowledge is good” is a judgment of value—a religious act. (See What is religion?)

Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other “new atheists” aren’t the only people who recognize how destructive misused religion can be. One need not be educated in Oxford or Harvard to recognize religious fanaticism. People from every historical period and every culture know the dangers of religion gone amok. A short list of those who warned against religious dogma and religious excesses would include Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), Isaiah, Zarathustra, Socrates, and Jesus Messiah. Despising religion instead of seeking its renewal isn’t a step towards enlightenment but a step towards nihilism and despair.

Religion—in the sense of a faith system that establishes parameters for good and evil—is just as necessary as science. Rather than being the enemy of science, true religion humanizes and civilizes it and keeps it from creating monsters.

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Is Richard Dawkins’ Claim That Religious Faith Is the Main Cause of Violence Correct?

One of Richard Dawkins’ recurring themes is that religious faith is the primary cause of violence around the world. Mr. Dawkins is right when he says that religious faith is often manipulated for terribly evil ends. Jesus said that too, and on that point Christians should be in agreement with Mr. Dawkins. Further, I’m sure that a case can be made that the greater the claims for truth and righteousness a group or person makes, the more revolting is their hypocrisy. Perhaps this is what makes religious hypocrisy especially repugnant. But religious hypocrisy isn’t the only kind of hypocrisy, and religious faith isn’t the only kind of faith implicated in violence.

Richard Dawkins points to violence around the world that is justified with religious rationalizations, and says that it is wrong for children to be given identities such as Catholic, Muslim, and Hindu at a young age that result in their distrust and hatred of others with different religious/faith identities.

His implication seems to be that someone (presumably people who agree with him, assisted by governmental power) should stop religious indoctrination of children. This raises the question: What will replace religious training of the young? Children are inevitably going to develop identities and will have to have some kind of faith, even if it isn’t “religious.”

Would it be better if faith in a particular form of religion and the people who represent it (Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, etc.) were replaced with faith in a “universal” ideology such as Communism, or faith in one’s people or nation (Judaism, nationalism, etc.)? Probably not. The ideologies of Communism and Fascist/nationalist movements were major contributors to the two World Wars and other major and minor wars of the past century.

What about faith in something that transcends religion, ideology, ethnicity, and nationalism? Can we trust the corporate/economic system (let’s call it “mammon”—the worship of material wealth) that is currently invading and reshaping the world, obliterating cultures, peoples, and traditions, and making the poor spiritually and materially poorer while granting a small elite hitherto unimaginable riches and power?1 Degraded “mammonite” culture is proliferating like a bacterial infection by means of the Internet, mass media, and actual military and political aggression. In fact, it seems apparent to many that one of the greatest forces for destruction and evil in the world today is misguided faith in the corporate/economic beast that is reshaping the world to suit its needs.

Faith in mammon doesn’t seem to be a good idea either. How about faith in science and reason?

Unfortunately, as the political and social leaders of the past 300 years have discovered, science and reason are tools that can be used for good or evil, but they aren’t adequate objects of faith.

What’s left as a basis for faith?

  • Religion (faith in God) is out.
  • Nationalism is out.
  • Ideology is out.
  • The corporate/capitalist system is out.

It looks like Mr. Dawkins would have to say that we need to have faith that atheists like him would indoctrinate children wisely if government gave them the power to do so.

If Mr. Dawkins had this kind of power, we would discover sooner rather than later that he and others sharing his perspective are really no more trustworthy than the religionists, ideologues, and nationalists who have caused humanity so much suffering and heartache.

The ultimate cause of violence in the world is not religion, nationalism, ideology (including atheism), or even mammon. The primary cause of violence is evil that is deeply embedded in human nature, an evil deadliest when undetected or ignored. Hearts unaware of their own wickedness corrupt faith of any kind into evil and violence.

  1. In Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:9, Jesus personifies the Aramaic word for riches, making it the name for an idol/false god that people worship rather than the true God. Back To Article
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Is Religion Just a Crutch for Weak People?

Many people today think religion is “pre-scientific,” bound to the past, and practiced only by the superstitious and ignorant. In their view, we’d be better off without it. John Lennon expressed this sentiment in his song “Imagine” when he wrote, “Imagine there’s no heaven, and no religion too.”

This anti-religious viewpoint has a lot of appeal to people who don’t want their personal moral choices “restricted” by tradition or creed. It appeals to young people who want to “kick over the traces,” and to older people who long to suppress the ache of a guilty conscience. Regardless of its appeal, it doesn’t hold up under examination. Religion is basic to human experience. It is such a basic aspect of our experience that we can’t get rid of it. Other creatures may live without religion, but people can’t. We are religious to the core.

Why are people so incorrigibly religious? Perhaps the main reason is our consciousness of the inevitability of death.

No matter how we try to suppress it, we all know that we are living on borrowed time, making decisions that define us forever. With maturity and age this awareness becomes even more intense and more troubling. Death is approaching; time is limited; the ways we invest our lives express our values and our source of meaning.

Our religion gives us our basic set of values and our source of meaning. Living consciously in the shadow of death, we express our religion involuntarily by the way we live.1 Animals live entirely in the moment, aware only of present time. But human consciousness, which is created in God’s image, constantly scans past and future, searching for patterns of meaning that link the isolated experiences of our lives. Humans can be immersed in the present only for a limited time, like a diver who submerges to see the wonders of a coral reef but inevitably comes back up for air. Meaning is as essential to our survival as the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.2

The longing for ultimate meaning has a dark side, as does the longing for greater knowledge. Both religion and science have been misused. People have done terrible things in both their longing for meaning and knowledge. Evil people exploit our longing for meaning and knowledge to promote their agendas. The life-denying effects of false religion are confirmed by Scripture:

Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence ( Colossians 2:23 ).

If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world ( James 1:26-27 ).

But it would be as unreasonable to condemn religion because it is sometimes misused, as it would be unreasonable to condemn science because it is often twisted to evil purposes.

The issue isn’t whether we are religious, because we all are. It is disingenuous to claim that one can live without religion, or that true religion is responsible for evil done by false religion. The crucial issue is whether our basic values are true or false, whether our reason for living brings life or death, whether or not it is aligned with the purposes of the Creator.3

  1. The term religion comes from a Latin word that refers to “the bond between man and the gods.” Worship is uniquely human. For ancient people, the “gods” referred to deities personifying aspects of their experience. But the “gods” also had a symbolic reference — a reference to the transcendent powers that unify human experience and give it meaning. Back To Article
  2. The fact that we are hungry for meaning and concerned with establishing a link between our past and our future doesn’t imply that it is good to be anxious about the future. Jesus Himself spoke of the importance of living fully in the moment. But He didn’t speak of doing so in the context of living like an animal. In fact, He stressed that animal existence couldn’t be our goal. As people, we don’t live on bread alone, “but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). He showed His disciples their potential for enjoying the present because of faith in the Father’s goodness — i.e. because of religion. Back To Article
  3. A final comment to a brilliant popular musician: Doing away with the possibility of final punishment for evil and reward for good — the possibility of ultimate justice — would never make the world a better place. If convinced of “no hell below” and “only sky” above, people would be even less compassionate, more desperate for immediate satisfaction, and less willing to endure personal hardship for the sake of others. Back To Article
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