The Crusades

Faithless Fairy Tales Part 3

By Jeff Laird

Crusades Single Page/Printer Friendly
Continued from Page One

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.

Faithless Fairy Tales:
Part 1: Galileo
Part 2: The Scopes Trial
Part 3: The Crusades
Part 4: The Spanish Inquisition

Image Credit: Husité - Jenský Kodex; 15th Century; Public Domain

TagsControversial-Issues  |  History-Apologetics

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Published 7-23-2014