Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


The idea that human beings should exist in a state of harmony with each other.

Formally at least, social peace has long been a goal of organized religion. Religious principle, however, historically has failed to ensure the absence of societal conflict. The tendency to war in particular has been a noteworthy feature of most societies, despite the fact that most forms of religious teaching are vehemently at odds with the taking of human life. This seeming contradiction results from the tension that exists between religion and culture. While religion may eschew violence and promote peace, societal conditions, national pride, or political exigency may call for conflict, directed toward either the members of the society or the nation itself (civil war or political repression) or directed against "outsiders" (e.g., citizens of other societies or nations).

In the face of this conflict, whole religions, or simply elements within religious organizations, have adopted various positions. Some have remained steadfastly pacifist, vocally decrying all forms of violence. Such is the case with many Protestant sects, such as the Quakers. Others have accepted the inevitability of conflict, working instead to moderate its effects. For example, armies have long enjoyed the presence of religious figures (chaplains) of military rank who provide religious services for those suffering under the strains of battle. Religious groups also have become involved in helping to set the rules of war. Such was the case in the Middle Ages in Europe, where the rules of combat were regulated by the code of "chivalry." More recently, organized religion has worked to limit the ability of nations to use weapons of mass destruction during wartime, such as deadly gases or nuclear weapons.

At the other extreme, religion has sometimes openly embraced conflict as a means to religious ends. Such was the case during the Crusades of the early Middle Ages, when Christian armies left Europe to conquer the souls of the "heathen" in the Mediterranean region. In the twentieth century, some sects within Islam also have embraced the concept in the form of the jihad *, or holy war. The seven-year war between Iran and Iraq, for example, was viewed in these terms by some Iranian clerics. As a result, Iranian soldiers were promised instant martyrdom should their lives be taken during the conflict.

During the late twentieth century, there have been growing calls within most major religious organizations for adherence to purely pacifist principles. Within Christianity, for example, individuals and groups have vocally supported a more active role for the churches in ending societal conflict of all varieties. Such advocacy was clearly manifest in the United States in the strong religious presence in both the anti-Vietnam War and the antinuclear movements of the 1960s and 1970s. There also has been a strong linkage between advocacy for church involvement in the peace movement and advocacy for involvement in movements designed to foster a more humane world through the promotion of social justice.

W. E. Hewitt


J. Kelsay and J. T. Johnson (eds.), Just War and Jihad (New York: Greenwood, 1991).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500