Israelis and Palestinians are killing each other by the hundreds in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Hindus and Muslims are slaughtering each other in India, herding neighbors into house or trains then setting them afire. Catholics and Protestants continue to kill each other in Northern Ireland. Sunnis and Shias have their arms wrapped around each other's throats throughout the Islamic world. And of course, on Sept. 11, 19 Muslims were so determined to murder helpless Christians and Jews that they were willing to die to shed the blood of other religions.

Not a terribly good reflection on faith, is it? If religion makes people want to murder each other, maybe religion is bad for the world.

Religion has certainly been bad for history. In recent decades alone, Hindus and Sikhs have been slaughtering each other, blowing up airliners and firing artillery shells into temples. In the fighting over Sri Lanka, Tamil Hindus have fired machine guns at school buses full of Sinhalese Buddhist children, and the Buddhists in turn have firebombed Hindu schools. Thousands of Chinese grew up as orphans because their Buddhist parents were murdered during World War II at the urging of Shinto priests.

Looking further back, huge numbers of Eastern Orthodox Armenians were murdered by Muslims at the turn of the century. Much of Europe's history has been a nightmare of Christian-on-Christian killing, including the 30 Years' War, in which an estimated 7.5 million people--one-third of the European population at the time--died owing to Catholic-versus-Protestant slaughter. England's history is full of Protestants murdering Catholics; France's history is full of Catholics murdering Protestants; Spain's history is full of Christians murdering Jews. Pretty much all of Europe is to blame for the Crusades, in which Christians murdered Muslims. This inventory could go on at considerable length. King Olaf Tryggvason's declaration from about the year 1000--"all Norway will be Christian or die!"--sums it up.

So is faith bad? The fact that religions preach love, but often generate violence, cannot be dismissed as a minor imperfection.

And if you talk of mere hatred--as opposed to all-out killing--the accounting is even more horrifying. Many faiths and denominations have throughout history dedicated themselves to hating other faiths and denominations. About 100 years ago, to cite one of many examples, Protestant denominations called the Pope the Whore of Babylon, while Pope Leo XIII declared Protestants "enemies of the Christian name." Sunnis and Shias have been denouncing each other since just a few years after the Prophet Muhammad died. The Eastern Orthodox church has in its past denounced Catholicism as a false religion. In 1997, a small group called the Union of Orthodox Rabbis declared that the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism are "not Judaism at all." Intrigue among Buddhist and Shinto sects have led to much violence.

Considering this bill of attainder, it could be awfully tempting to turn away from religion as a retrograde or divisive influence. This seems to be the view in Europe, where rates of religious observance have been in sharp decline for a century. Today, just 10 percent of the citizens of the European Union regularly attend worship services of any faith; in the United States, the comparable figure is a little more than half. Europeans seem to be aware of the bloodshed that faith has cost in the past--religious killing has been comparatively rare in the United States, probably a reason observance remains relatively high--and to be saying, "To hell with it."

Killing in the name of God or belief, which shames every religion, ought to give the person of faith pause. But should it cause us to abandon faith? Would the world be better off if religion disappeared?

Some people would say yes, and since it's impossible to conduct this experiment, as faith is definitely not going away, we can't be sure. But when we observe the horror of religiously motivated violence or hatred, maybe the correct question is, Without religion would it be even worse?

What's really underlying many "religious" disputes is ethnicity, money, and national distinctions, factors that would exist regardless of whether anyone had ever heard the word "God." The fighting in Israel today, for example, is not primarily about religion--Jews, Muslims and Christians have coexisted fairly peacefully in that area for most of the last 1,300 years. Until recently, the Holy Land fighting was mainly about land, and whom it's been promised to. Palestinians hated Israelis because they viewed them as oppressors, not because they were Jews--although that hatred has turned lately to anti-Semitism. Israelis hated Palestinians because they viewed them as terrorists, not because they were Muslims--although, lately the hatred has turned anti-Muslim. If the land dispute could be resolved, the religious dispute would rapidly fade to secondary or tertiary status--though ethnic tensions pitting Ashkenazim and Sephardim against Arabs might drone on.

Similarly, the tension between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland has a religious component, but its essence is class-based and nationalist. Protestants in Northern Ireland tend to be well-off and Anglophile; Catholics, to be working class and to want the Brits out. Suppose religion vanished tomorrow morning, and these two groups divided themselves by arbitrary labels that had nothing to do with faith. Let's say one position was arbitrarily designated "Orange" and the other "Green." Do you think the conflict would instantly end? No, it would continue as before, if not worsen, since Christianity--both Catholicism and Protestantism--would no longer be present to urge each side to love its neighbor.

Similar ethnic, class, and nationalistic disputes underlie pretty much every fight that looks on the surface to be about religion. Suppose the Christian and Islamic faiths vanished. Sept. 11 might still have happened. Within the Arab world, where many resent the West, violent fanatics might have vowed to kill themselves solely on secular grounds. Indeed, it can be argued that since the mass murderers of Sept. 11 openly violated the Quranic prohibition against killing the innocent, they weren't true Muslims anyway. What they were was terrorist fanatics. And a certain number of people like this would exist in the world whether religious faith existed or not.

Men and women of all faiths must feel deeply chastened about the continuing violence in the name of religion. We ought to feel the very worst about violence, or hatred, perpetrated by those who say they believe what we believe. But this does not mean we should give up those beliefs. Rather, we must work to make belief sincere. Only then is there a chance the violence will stop.

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