Review: Violence in God’s Name: Religion in an Age of Conflict by Oliver McTernan

By Maurice Timothy Reidy

Violence in God’s Name: Religion in an Age of Conflict
Oliver McTernan
Orbis Books, $20, 192 pages

Not long after September 11, British Prime Minister Tony Blair tried to assure a nervous public that the terrorists who acted that day were not representative of Islam. The attacks, he argued, were “no more a reflection of true Islam than the Crusades were of true Christianity.” Blair’s words were part of a larger campaign to convince Western audiences that the terrorist attacks were not primarily religious in nature, but the result of economic and political grievances. When war came, President George W. Bush argued that it was not a war against Islam, but one against despotic regimes.

The instinct to absolve Islam of responsibility for the terrorist attacks is understandable and, in many ways, admirable. It is also, in the opinion of Oliver McTernan, entirely wrongheaded. In Violence in God’s Name, McTernan, a former Catholic priest and broadcaster for the BBC, argues that religion was not the secondary cause for 9/11, but the engine that drove the terrorist agenda that day and in scores of other conflicts worldwide. To deny as much, McTernan contends, is to underestimate the strength and determination of religious extremists. “My argument is that the religious factor in contemporary conflict does matter, and that it should not be dismissed as an epiphenomenon, a proxy for some other cause,” McTernan writes. “Religion needs to be acknowledged as an actor in its own right.”

McTernan rehearses the three main theories on the causes of conflict: grievance, greed, and creed. Some blame social inequalities for war, others the presence of “lootable” resources like diamond and timber; the risk of conflict, the argument goes, is significantly higher in countries where power promises access to precious commodities. The third theory, that religion plays a primary role in conflict, has become more popular since 9/11.

The terrorist attacks present compelling evidence that religion cannot be ignored as a primary cause for conflict. McTernan also examines religious divisions in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, and Israel. This is the best section of the book, with excellent overviews of all three conflicts.

The practice of using religious texts to justify violence is, of course, hardly new. McTernan cites the obligatory examples, including (as expected) the Crusades. But he also writes about lesser-known cases, such as the story of the Singhalese king Dutthagamani. Historically, religious leaders have excused these acts as aberrations, not representative of their respective traditions. McTernan’s provocative point is that there are so many examples of religiously motivated violence that they cannot be so easily dismissed. Religious leaders must take responsibility for these actions and, most importantly, find a way to prevent them in the future.

The big question is how. Unfortunately, McTernan doesn’t supply a satisfactory answer. While his political suggestions are helpful, his prescriptions for religious institutions are frustratingly vague and naïve. He argues that religious leaders who believe there is only one way of “interpreting the sacred” must become “pluralists,” committed to their tradition, but also to the importance of religious diversity. What does this entail? McTernan hints that religious traditions should surrender their claims to the capital-T truth in order to cut down on discord. That would no doubt solve a lot of problems. However, many religions claim to have a unique understanding of the divine. To deny that understanding would be to deny an essential part of one’s faith. This is a problem that ecumenical leaders have struggled with for decades. It cannot be solved by a simple call for tolerance.

McTernan makes a persuasive argument that religion is still a player on the world stage and cannot be ignored. But a more nuanced understanding of belief is needed to solve the age-old problem of religious discord.

Maurice Timothy Reidy is an associate editor at Commonweal magazine. He has written for The Hartford CourantAmerica magazine and the Columbia Journalism Review.