Rodney Stark

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The Crusades: Wanton Religious Violence?

gb-starkThe Crusades are often cited as the prime example of the evils of religion and of Christianity specifically. The picture is often painted of an innocent world on which Christians came in violent fervor, raping and pillaging as they went. But this picture of the Crusades is inaccurate on a number of levels. Here, I’ll explore the historical context of the Crusades with an eye towards seeing why they occurred. I’ll wrap it up with a discussion on violence and religion.

The Historical Context of the Crusades

The Crusades were not just some bubbling up of violence latent within all religions. Instead, they were part of a history of conquest across the Asian and European continents. Prior to the Crusades, there was a sweeping conquest by the Muslims of territory formerly possessed by various Christian nations.

Muslim invasions had pressed in on all sides. Rodney Stark, in his extremely important work on the Crusades, God’s Battalions, notes the conquests which had pressed in on Europe from all sides. After surveying a number of Muslim conquests, he notes:

Many critics of the Crusades would seem to suppose that after the Muslims had overrun a major portion of Christendom, they should have been ignored or forgiven… This outlook is certainly unrealistic and probably insincere. Not only had the Byzantines lost most of their empire, the enemy was at their gates… (32-33)

Prior to the Crusades, it is absolutely essential to note that the invaders were, quite literally, at the gates. Constantinople was threatened in the East, and Spain was overthrown in the West. Europe was under assault. The map below illustrates the situation in the time during and before the Crusades well.

The question of the Crusades must be understood within this historical setting: much of the land which European countries had controlled had been taken, by force. Furthermore, those who had taken these lands were knocking on the very gates of Europe, having already crossed into Europe in many places. Stark’s words, therefore, seem to ring true: is it really genuine to assume that these invaders should have been ignored or forgiven? Is that the reality of “secular” nations? It seems to me the very fact that so much land had been lost, as well as so much wealth, would lead many to war for “secular” reasons rather than religious reasons.


Regarding the beginning of the Crusades, Stark writes:

[T]hat’s when it all [The Crusades] started–in the seventh century, when Islamic armies swept over the larger portion of what was then Christian territory: the Middle East, Egypt, and all of North Africa, and then Spain and southern Italy, as well as many major Mediterranean islands including Sicily, Corsica, Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, Malta, and Sardinia. (9)

So the Crusades were not unprovoked mass murders of innocents. But they were indeed quite brutal, and involved no small amount of very un-Christian activities. Raping and pillaging has no part in the Christian worldview. But Stark once again has a sobering point: war was hell. “[I]t was a brutal and intolerant age” (29). The criticism of brutality equally applies to both sides, but it is also equally anachronistic about the realities of that time. This is not to say that the horrors which occurred were not awful; it is to say that to criticize the Crusaders or Muslims as though they were doing something extraordinarily brutal for their time period is extremely short-sighted.

The Crusades as a Polemic Device

The Crusades were not all-good or all-evil affairs. Like virtually any part of human history, both good and evil intentions and outcomes were involved. To view the Crusades as either an entirely evil affair showing how religion is ultimately prone to violence or as a benevolent attempt by loving people to liberate lands that were rightfully theirs is to grossly oversimplify the historical reality. Unfortunately, modern looks at the Crusades have largely leaned towards the former of these positions, without any acknowledgement of the historical context as noted above.

Instead, the Crusades were a complex of historical events which were often brutal, often provoked, and never motivated for just one reason. To say that the Crusades are a typical example of the violence of religion is, frankly, ahistorical. Was religion involved? Yes. Were there even “religious reasons” involved in the motivations for the Crusades? Clearly. But the general movement with recent attacks on Christianity has been to argue that the Crusades were purely religious instances of religious brutality. The historical perspective provided above provides evidence against that limited perspective.

The Crusades have been used as a kind of polemic device against Christianity. Whenever it is argued that Christianity is reasonable, someone inevitably brings up this historical period. Readers will note that this historical perspective has not attempted to explain away the Crusades. Instead, I have argued for the notion that these events were historically complex, involving a number of factors beyond purely war for the sake of a faith.

As Keith Ward has noted:

It is… beyond dispute that the Crusades were a major disaster… The Crusades can be seen as justified defense… but their conduct and continuance rapidly became unjustifiable on any Christian principles. (68-69, Is Religion Dangerous? cited below)

The point is simple: there were many motivations behind the Crusades, some of them justified. Yet in carrying out the Crusades, many horrible actions were taken which were unjustifiable. Does this somehow disprove Christianity? Not on Christianity’s own principles, on which we expect to see people acting as sinner-saints in the process of sanctification.

Crusade The Taking of BeirutReligious and Secular Violence

Apart from the historical outline given here, there is another, equally important point: the dichotomy between religious violence and secular violence is simply a myth. The reason for this is because human actions are far more complex in their motivations than a simple dichotomy of one or the other reason. In our everyday experience, we know that the decisions we make are very rarely made for only one reason.

Oddly, Stark is able to note that “many historians have urged entirely material, secular explanations for the early Muslim conquests…” (13). This, in contrast to the many historians and new atheists who continue to press that the Crusades were entirely religious in their provocations. The unfortunate truth this reveals is the very human tendency to simplify history beyond the point of breaking. Human actions, particularly corporate human actions, have extremely complex motivations behind them. They are not all-or-nothing affairs which happen due to one reason or another. Very often we make decisions for a combination of reasons of differing strengths, weighing options against each other whether we realize it or not.

By utilizing the Crusades as a rhetorical device–a polemic weapon–many have done damage to the historical events themselves. Worse, they have engaged in faulty reasoning and attacked the religious other due to their own emotional hatred. The Crusades were not all-good or all-evil affairs. They were affairs of human history. To forget that is to drown them in a sea of obfuscation. Let us get beyond simple polemical attacks on the “other.” Let us instead engage in honest history and dialogue with our neighbors.


The Myth of “Religion”: Constructing the Other as an enemy– I explore the notion that religion is violent and argue that one of the major difficulties with this notion is that the distinction between secular/religious is a myth.

For an interesting exploration of some aspects of Muslim Philosophy, see my book review: The Closing of the Muslim Mind.

Essential reading: Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions (New York: HarperOne, 2009).

Pacifism, Matthew 5, and “Turning the other cheek”– Glenn Andrew Peoples discusses pacifism in the Christian tradition and some of the arguments in its favor. Ultimately, he finds these arguments wanting.


Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions (New York: HarperOne, 2009).

Keith Ward, Is Religion Dangerous? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006).

Image Credit:

The image of the map is from this page with free resources for instructors. I do not claim credit for this image, nor do I claim that the makers of this resource in any way endorse this post.



The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.


The Continuing Influence of the Reformation: Our lives, our thoughts, our theology- Reformation Review

The Reformation has had a lasting impact upon our lives. You may not realize it, but from the economy to politics, from theology to family life, the debates of the Reformation resonate through to today. Here, we will investigate in very broad strokes the influence the Reformation continues to have on our daily lives.


The Reformation period led to a development of thought about the family. Praise of the family over and against celibacy was ubiquitous throughout the Reformation thinkers (Diamard MacCulloch, The Reformation, 647ff). Erasmus was one of those spearheading this critique. Along with this notion of the importance of the family, the notion that marriage was sacred was reaffirmed. Although not a sacrament according to Protestant thought, marriage was still a sacred institution created by God (Ibid, 648).

The Reformation’s thought on marriage was largely patriarchal. Men were the heads of the family both spiritually and in society. This was less a development of the Reformation as it was a continuation of the view of marriage in contemporary cultural thought. Interestingly, Protestantism led to a relaxation of two aspects of marriage. First, the clergy was allowed to marry; second, divorce was legally established in many Reformation contexts (MacCulloch, 660). By allowing for divorce, the Reformers undercut the notion of marriage as a sacrament (as above), but they also helped draw a distinction between the moral law of the Bible and the law of the land. Whether this was for better or worse, one may debate.


Capitalism had already begun before the European Reformations, having its renewal start in Italian city states in the 12th Century (for a detailed and extremely interesting discussion of this, see Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason71ff). The Reformation, however, provided a place for capitalism to flourish. John Calvin’s thought touched upon nearly every contemporary problem, and one of these was usury (money lending at interest). Focusing upon the cultural context of the prohibition of usury in the Hebrew Scriptures, Calvin argued that his contemporary cultural context provided a way for usury to work without being necessarily wrong. Lending money in such a fashion was essential for the later development of capitalism (Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 259-260).

The Reformation also paved the way for a “Protestant Work Ethic.” Martin Luther’s notion of the “priesthood of all believers” demolished the hard distinction between the “temporal” and “spiritual” realm which dominated the thought of the church at the time. By breaking down this barrier, hard labor was elevated. It was no longer seen as an inferior life to that of monastic withdrawal; rather, any type of work could be pleasing to God (McGrath, 256-258). In contemporary churches, one can often hear about how the engineer, the retail worker, the auto worker, and the like should all utilize their skills to the glory of God. Such thinking came directly from the Reformation.


Clearly, the most pervasive influence of the Reformation has been upon theology. I have already written on a number of these aspects. The Reformation thought necessarily reflected upon the church. How do we define the church, and who belongs in the church? These questions drove the Reformers to a number of views on the role of the church universal. I discuss these at length in my post on the Church Universal. Central to the Reformation was the notion of sola scriptura. However, it quickly became apparent that without any specific way to interpret Scripture, radical individualism would follow. I’ve written on the Reformers views on these topics and the continuing debate today in my post on Sola Scriptura. To try to list all the areas of theology that the Reformation touched upon would be impossible for a post of this size, so suffice to say I will be discussing these more in the future.

Other Aspects

Diarmard MacCulloch, in his magisterial study of the Reformation, aptly named The Reformation, notes a number of other aspects of contemporary society that remain influenced by the Reformation. Briefly, these include aspects of life like dying (ha!), discipline, manners, love and sex, and religious diversity. In short, no aspect of society remains untouched by the Reformation.

Counter Reformation

It would be remiss of me to write this without noting that one of the huge continuing influences of the Reformation was the Roman Catholic counter-reformation. The Reformation did not go by unnoticed by Roman Catholics, by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, the Catholic Church reacted against the Reformation and, in part, did so by incorporating many aspects of the Reformation.

Interestingly, some of the debates that played out within Protestantism were mirrored within the Roman Catholic Church. For example, a debate similar to the Calvinist-Arminian arguments became pervasive in Banezian and Molinist schools of thought. It is intriguing to note, however, that the Catholics largely allowed these debates to remain internal without dividing. The Catholic Church, it seems favored doctrinal humility over unity on a number of levels (for a discussion of doctrinal humility/unity, check out my post on the Church).

That is not to say, however, that the Roman Catholics were eager to affirm every aspect of the Reformer’s theology. Part of the counter-reformation included the Inquisition and the formation of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus to counter what he saw not as doctrinal aberration but lives that were not conformed to the moral standards of the church (Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations333ff).

Finally, it could easily be argued that the modern innovation of Vatican II has its roots within the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The changes brought about by Vatican II reflect a development of thought that has occurred since the Reformation on many of the issues brought up by the Reformers.


The Reformation’s influence on today’s society is pervasive. Our thinking on family, economy, working, theology, sex and sexuality, and more are all reflections of the influence of Reformation thought. In many ways, these aspects of our lives are just further reforms on the thoughts of the Reformers. The aspects in which we have changed dramatically since the Reformation, it could be argued, are areas in which the Reformation laid the groundwork for exploration. Our thoughts are Reformation thoughts. Our debates are Reformation debates. Our God is the Reformation’s God.

Regardless of your own feelings on the Reformation, these comments are undeniable. The way you think is largely formed by the debates that happened during the Reformation. Your freedom of expression was opened by Reformation developments on the value of every human being. Investigating the Reformation is a worthy endeavor because it opens up new avenues for exploration of our own era.


Please check out my other posts on the Reformation:

I discuss the origins of the European Reformations and how many of its debates carry on into our own day.

The notion of “sola scriptura” is of central importance to understanding the Reformation, but it is also hotly debated to day and can be traced to many theological controversies of our time. Who interprets Scripture? 

The Church Universal: Reformation Review–  What makes a church part of the Church Universal? What makes a church part of the true church? I write on these topics (and more!) and their origins in the Reformation.


Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010).

Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2003).

Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason (New York: Random House, 2005).


Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction was a gift from an anonymous donor. I was blown away when I saw it show up at my door and I have to say Thank you so much for being such a blessing! Whoever you are, you made my day. Well, more than just one day actually. This series of posts is a direct result of your donation. Thank you!



The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.


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