Book Review

Arnaud Blin, War and Religion: Europe and the Mediterranean from the First through the Twenty-first Centuries. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019, pp. 335, ISBN: 9780520961753 (hbk). £27.00/$34.95.

For those engaged in conflict and peace studies, Arnaud Blin has provided sheer pleasure in this book of historical, philosophical and linguistic clarity. Certainly, it is not alone among the publications of recent decades, and John Gittings’s The Glorious Art of Peace: From the Iliad to Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2012) is another good example. The difference which Blin provides is a focus on religion in a substantive and detailed explanation of the categorical relationship to war.

The reading of the book delivers a formative investigation in two ways. First, there is Blin’s own thesis, and then there are the many specific topics which flow from that source and is a great benefit for scholars across related fields. There is great comprehensiveness as well as insights which are so intriguing as to warrant further thought.

Blin’s thesis is that the history of the categorical relationship has shifted from a time when religion and war ‘cohabited without necessarily feeding on each other’ (p. 2). Two developments brought change. First, the emergence of Christianity and Islam, and for this reason Blin scopes and focuses the investigation to the greater Mediterranean region, with the treatment extending to northern and central Europe. Blin does not exclude ‘non-western’ cultural systems in his consideration; however, he proceeds with a well-debated proposition that ‘religion’ is an imposed western category. This might put off an oppositional school of religionists, but for others the second dimension is extremely important. The changing relationship came from the political empowerment of Christian and Islamic institutions. That factor has to do with an understanding, in westernized religions, of dogma and its relationship to moral obligation and to use war if necessary. Blin quotes (p. 3) the modern ‘classical’ thinker on war, Carl von Clausewitz: war is ‘an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will’. From that insight Blin takes the next step from James Laine’s critical proposition that the discovery or revelation of ‘Truth’ leads to the desire that the world ought to be governed by that ‘Truth’ and that is an inevitable pathway in the history of conquest.

It is the doctrines of the sacred which is the passionate motivation. ‘War thus bestows on the combatant an aura’, says Blin, ‘that gives him or her a sense of superiority to those who did not fight and did not kill’ (p. 20). Thus, there is within westernized religion nuances which separate the drive to war against the drive to peace. These nuances, Blin concludes, comprise the individualistic creed that defines modernity.

There will be those who disagree with Blin’s answer to the central question of what causes a religion to foster violence and war, but the replies would seem to arise from passionate belief in the dogma. The historiographical evidence, though, does point towards Blin’s belief that westernized religion separates out the inner, sacred, society from the outside world.

Other insights which re-energize the fields of conflict and peace studies can be briefly described, as follows.

There is the religious conception of purification. The idea was encapsulated in the quotation of Élie Barnavi, placed at the start of the book’s Introduction: ‘The goal of religious wars is the purification of the city through the elimination of the ideas that pollute it’ (p. 1). The application here is not only war-like dogma, but the dogmatism of religious pacificism that only recognizes peace in purity.

If we understand the conception of purity as a thesis, Blin does have an antithesis, although he does not introduce it as such—it is the reviewer’s analysis from the reading. Most modern Christian and Islamic institutions positively acknowledge a religious-secular mixture in the socio-political discourse. Arguments on purity and dogma no longer are persuasive in wider discussions on war and peace. Blin briefly touches on the Prussian-German model—‘combined Germanic military culture with Christian morals and theology’ (p. 6). The model introduced to the westernized world a conflation of religious and secular thought, stemming from the religious-cultural beliefs of Teutonic Knights.

To continue the reviewer’s post-Hegelian frame, Blin does achieve a synthesis for his analysis. The categorical relationship between religion and war has shifted because the categorical understanding of religion and war has shifted. Our view of religion has evolved, as has our view of war. Blin states: ‘Though war is depicted as a positive outlet for man to display such qualities as courage, loyalty, and heroism, one can already find in these emotional texts the tension between man’s quest for social peace and his recourse to violence, even if committed in order to achieve and protect the peace’ (p. 13).

Both the culture and religion are in a strange, binary, process of synthesis—a tension, but often a conflated bringing-together of utopian pacificism and a technological drive for war-like aggression. Blin’s book establishes an excellent grounding for contemporary discussion.

Neville Buch

Professional Historians Association (Qld)