The Crusades

Faithless Fairy Tales Part 3

By Jeff Laird

This is the fourth in a series of articles examining how inaccurate, warped versions of real historical events are misused in order to attack Christianity. These Faithless Fairy Tales may satisfy "once upon a time" appetites, but they don't represent the truth. These are some of the more common anti-religious historical myths thrown at Christians, debunked by means of the actual storylines.

The Crusades are a particular favorite of the anti-religious or anti-Christian critic. Typically, the Crusades are described as brutal acts of atrocity, targeting innocent and peaceful Muslims in a racist, zealous religious war aimed at forcibly spreading Christianity. This view is not just a caricature, it's blatantly false. A parallel error would be describing US military action in the Pacific as an effort to forcibly convert people from Shintoism to Christianity. Or, describing the Cuban Missile Crisis as Atheism threatening Christendom with nuclear annihilation.

In truth, both Christian and Muslim forces participated in brutality, aggression, and conquest. There were multiple causes of each engagement, including political and military motivations. The wrongs done by either side cannot be excused, but they weren't particularly savage for warfare of that era. And, as with any war, there is a significant difference between a rallying cry, and the actual motivations for the conflict. The full story of the Crusades isn't flattering to anyone involved. But it's not the cartoon of religiously-motivated evil so often leveled against Christianity.

It's especially off-base to paint the Crusades as examples of Christian bigotry and violence, or conquest. They were initially a response to centuries of Islamic military conquest, and the persecution of Christian pilgrims. The net exchange of land during the Crusades was negligible, but it did halt Muslim advances into Europe. Without that response, Islam would have blitzed its way through the continent by the middle of the second millennium. That's exactly what was happening when the first Crusade was launched, near the end of the 11th century, after more than 400 years of Islamic onslaught.

The first crusade began in 1095, as the result of several factors: Islam's advance via the sword, combined with the harassment of fellow Christians, sparked outrage. As a result, the First Crusade of 1095-1101 was the only one backed by immense religious fervor from the general population. The Roman Catholic Church called on believers to defend Christianity, offering indulgences and other blessings to those willing to fight. Unfortunately, this would prove an all-too-convenient recruitment tool, more than a genuine motivation for action. The intervention of the Catholic Church made Christianity a rallying cry even as popular or religious support for the wars dwindled.

The First Crusade successfully recaptured Jerusalem, and resulted in the creation of small, semi-independent "Crusader Nations" along the way. The Second Crusade began about fifty years later, after Muslim forces attacked and captured a nominally "Christian" city. This conflict was less successful on either side, and little was accomplished overall. The Third Crusade was a response to Saladin's recapture of Jerusalem. Crusaders retook a large amount of land, but settled for a truce before taking Jerusalem back.

These three major Crusades represented a full century of warfare. But, note carefully the impetus behind each one. For the first hundred years, each Crusade was launched in response to Islamic aggression. In fact, Muslims of that day would probably resent suggestions that Christians were attacking defenseless, passive people. They recognized European actions as counters to their own, and fought back in kind.

Further crusades were less popular and even less successful. Some were directly instigated by Popes, some by kings and emperors. By the Seventh Crusade, even the re-capture of Jerusalem by Islamic forces did little to stir up the European people. Both Christian and Islamic sides attacked, counter-attacked, and fortified cities. Lands were captured and lost, cities changed hands, soldiers fought and died. Little, in the end, was really accomplished, other than drawing an end line for the advance of Islamic expansion.

Tragically, both sides dealt in barbarism, which cannot and should not be excused. After Saladin was criticized for freeing Christians in exchange for bribes, for example, successive Muslim leaders took a "slash and burn" approach towards Christians for the remainder of the Crusades. Ugly as it may be, such actions were perpetrated by both sides and were common for warfare of that era.

Despite popular myths to the contrary, soldiers were not motivated to join the Crusades by plunder and power. Individual soldiers were told, in no uncertain terms, that fortune and glory were not to be expected. Men did not march to the Crusades to seek wealth, nor did their families typically cheer them on. Most who joined fully expected to die, though they were told their deaths would serve as penance for sins, and grant them favor with God. This was a direct result of Catholic propaganda, indulgences, and so forth. While religion was often used as a rallying cry, the core motivations of their political instigators, for later Crusades in particular, were the same as most other wars: land, money, power, revenge, and so forth.

Lingering impacts of the Crusades on the Islamic world were mostly psychological, and even those came long after the fighting was over. Historically, the Islamic world viewed the Crusades as an unremarkable period of war against an enemy which they generally defeated. Forces attacking from the East, such as the Mongol Empire, were considered more dangerous, and far more brutal. Almost all Arabic-language mentions of the Crusades prior to the mid-20th century are from Christian writers. Of course, specific regions experienced near-constant battle, and developed stronger anti-European sentiments which persist today.

Much as the "science vs religion" myth was a product of 19th-century revisionist history, but is echoed by uninformed skeptics today, the idea that evil Christianity attacked unsuspecting Islam during the Crusades is just the echo of historically late, prejudiced voices. As Islam has drifted back to militant roots, lingering suspicion that Western civilization seeks to hold back Muslim progress has re-kindled the "evil Crusaders" caricature for many Arabic peoples. Terrorists frequently refer to the United States as "Crusaders".

Even in the West, the caricature has become ingrained enough for pop culture to take the "evil bigoted Christian invaders" theme as a given. The 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven, for instance, was criticized by historians specifically because it reinforced such a slanted, anti-factual perception of medieval Christendom. But filmmakers and artists aren't the only ones. Politicians ignorantly repeat the same fable, in a misguided attempt to make nice with Islam, no matter what. Just after the September 11, 2001, attacks, in a speech at Georgetown, former president Bill Clinton practically blamed the Crusades (along with the USA) for the hijackings.

When all is said and done, one has to admit the Crusades were ethically questionable, at best. This is particularly true as time went on and motivations became more overtly political. And, much of what individual armies or soldiers did during the Crusades was morally wrong. But those wrongs can't be sensibly blamed on Christianity; one can't fault a philosophy on the basis of actions which run counter to its basic tenets. And any attempt to fault Christendom for those wars, or their violence, has to deal with the fact that Islamic ruthlessness was just as harsh, if not worse, and had run unabated for centuries prior.

Returning to the WWII analogy, the fact that the US forcibly imprisoned Japanese-Americans doesn't mean the entire war effort was wrong, or was pursued for the wrong reasons. Nor does that blemish make the US an evil nation. On the contrary, most criticisms of WWII internment camps are grounded in their fundamental incompatibility with the general principles of the United States! It also doesn't change the fact that Japanese treatment of civilians and prisoners was, in truth, far worse. In a similar way, one should note the Crusades were, in general, contrary to the teachings of Christ; even more so were atrocities also violations of those teachings.

Were attacks on Japan in the 1940's grounded in religion? Or racism? Or conquest? Of course not. Economic and political tensions led to a Japanese attack on US soil. This instigated a response which resulted in Japan's eventual defeat. Was the Cold War a battle of Christianity against Atheism? Not really, though religious differences were more pronounced than in WWII. In all cases, the stark differences in religious and cultural attitudes between each side served as convenient lines to define "us" and "them." Wars of equal fervor were fought before, during, and after the Crusade eras over even more transparent politics and nationality. The Crusades were ultimately typical of inter-kingdom warfare of the time.

Of course, it could never be said that the Crusades had no religious connections at all. Or that religion played no role in the continuation of those conflicts. Religious and cultural differences were held up as rallying cries in WWII, as well, enhancing the "us versus them" mentality. However, it would be ridiculous to say religion was the predominant cause of the Crusades. At that time in history, every army marched under some level of belief that a divine presence was on their side. There were ample political and military factors to inspire armed conflict, as historical details prove.

There were many voices opposing the Crusades within Catholicism, as well as Christianity in general. Historians note that the Roman Catholic Church's involvement in the Crusades was a major factor in the groundswell of dissent which eventually became the Reformation. Sadly, most of this dissent was drowned out. Even believers who objected to harsh treatment of Muslims and Jews along the warpath sometimes found themselves attacked as enemies.

In short, while religion was a theme of the Crusades, and even a tool of the Crusades, it was not truly the cause of the Crusades. Christianity did not rise up to attack unbelievers, or to pillage peaceful lands. In truth, it was Muslim forces overtly spreading Islam by the sword which ultimately instigated the Crusades in the first place. Had the Crusaders not taken the fight to Islam, Islam would have continued to advance. The historical consequences would have been staggering if the 1400s dawned with Islam, rather than Christianity, as the dominant religion of Europe.

Though it's not quite the same attack, it's worth noting how often the Crusades are mentioned as part of the allegation that "religion causes most wars." This is a rampant figment that's especially popular with the New Atheists, and parroted without question by like-minded skeptics. Historically, though, it's ridiculous. For example, the recently published Encyclopedia of Wars cataloged every major conflict in recorded history, some 1,763 in all. They applied a fairly aggressive definition of a "religious war," and determined that 123 of those confrontations were "religiously motivated." That makes religion, per that particular analysis, the source of around 7% of human warfare. Not surprisingly, if wars involving Islam are excluded, that number drops to about 3%, or less than one in thirty.

So, religion — of all kinds, not just Christianity — has been a legitimate factor in less than one out of fourteen historical wars. The same work estimated those campaigns accounted for about 2% of all war deaths. At the same time, note that Encyclopedia of Wars covers 4,329 years of human history, and Islam has only existed for 1400 of those. So Islam has accounted for more than half of all "religious" wars fought in recorded history, despite existing for less than one-third of that total time. If "war" and "religion" are linked in the minds of humanity for any reason, that reason is Islam.

The wrongs done by Crusaders cannot be excused. The exploitation of religious faith to achieve political ends, perpetrated in no small part by the Catholic Church, cannot be excused. That era's Christendom — that is, the collective persons within Christianity of that time period — has much to be ashamed of. Christian principles were overridden by belligerence and contempt for Biblical precepts.

Honest condemnation of what happened in the Crusades is one thing. The truth is tragic enough as it is. But the skeptical sendup is as silly as claiming that money-hungry, land-grabbing Christians of the 1940s butchered idyllic Japanese people, and marched them into internment camps, so shame on the US founding fathers, and the Declaration of Independence! Typical anti-Christian claims related to the Crusades are inexcusably ignorant, as is suggesting that religion is the source of most wars. Painting Islam as a victim in the Crusades is downright bizarre. And it's particularly inane to claim that Christianity — the actual system of faith and life laid out by Jesus — is especially to blame for what happened during those conflicts.

Published 7-23-14