Religion has played a central role in history. Recently, however, textbooks and public school instruction have tended to downplay and ignore it.
The opposite error, however, is at least equally serious. Some blame religion and religious believers for virtually every act of violence that has ever marred the human story.
Several years ago, for instance, one prominent writer painted a picture of prehistoric human existence in which our ancestors lived in nature just like other animals, hunting for food. Only occasionally, when desperately hungry, did they fight to survive.
"Then man discovered religion." War became common as people tried to impose their beliefs on those who failed to see the light. Perhaps, though, he suggested, if humanity were to shed religion, we would be able to return to that happy state when our ancestors were "just like the beasts of the jungle, living and letting live except when (they) needed something to eat."
Humans have always been religious. This is apparent in the cave paintings of France and in the thousands of fertility-goddess figurines discovered at prehistoric sites. Clear evidence of religious belief (including faith in an afterlife) can be found in Neolithic burials. There's no hint of a blissful human existence before religion.
And surely it requires little imagination to think of other things besides religion that lead to war. (Pride, greed and lust come to mind.) The last century saw scores of millions of people die at the hands of militantly secular tyrants. Young Joseph Stalin was an altar boy. But it wasn't that altar boy who occupied Eastern Europe, starved the Ukraine and populated the Gulag.
Did the faithful Catholics who followed Columbus to the New World kill off native Americans because they were slow to accept Christianity? Some have claimed so. But they're misinformed: Though the Spanish conquest was often ugly, and although religion was an important element (on both sides), Catholicism was scarcely the sole factor. (Smallpox and syphilis aren't particularly Christian.) Other motivations — gold, for example — played major roles; Cortez and Pizarro were hardly embodiments of the Golden Rule.
Coercion and violence, it's often said, account for the spread of Islam after the seventh century; those who rejected the new faith, claims one writer, were decapitated. But, again, it wasn't so. Many centuries passed after the Arab conquest before nations such as Egypt converted, and large minorities of Christians and Jews (and, in India, a Hindu majority) survived and have even flourished into modern times. Muslim Egypt commonly had a Christian prime minister and a Jewish royal physician. (The greatest Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages lived in Egypt, where he was both a rabbi and a physician to the rulers.) Although there were undoubtedly occasional violations, forced conversions are prohibited in the Qur'an itself.
One writer, typical of many others, points to the conflict in Northern Ireland as yet another case of "using force to promote a religious viewpoint." Each side saw itself as "the protector of eternal religious truth," and the bloody, decades-long civil war was about whether Catholicism or Protestantism was "the superior creed." Balderdash. Where were the theological arguments in this conflict? They were virtually invisible. Moreover, if devoutly orthodox Catholics had really led the Irish Republican Army, the pope could simply have ordered them to disarm and they would instantly have obeyed. But he didn't, because he knew they would ignore him. No, the fight in Ireland was between two rival nationalisms. They were tinged with religion, but theology played little if any role.
The same is true of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which often serves as a parade example of the evils of religion. The murderous struggle between Jews and Palestinians has often been described as an attempt "to convince each other of the superiority of their respective religions." Again, this is nonsense. The Arab-Israeli conflict arose between two secular 19th-century movements, Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, over one little parcel of disputed land.
These notions rattle around, without supporting evidence, in many heads. But misunderstood history often leads to mistaken beliefs and actions in the present. Like many things, religion can play a positive or a negative role. Yes, there was an Inquisition. But there have also been St. Francis, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer and Emperor Asoka of India. To blame religious people for all human evil — for what some would call, simply, original sin — grants skeptics a powerful weapon that they haven't earned.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org, the general editor of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" online at www.mormoninterpreter.com and he blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson.