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Columnists

The good fight?

Agnostics Anonymous

At the time of writing, 40,000 Yazidi refugees are hiding in the Iraqi mountains. This ancient religion revolves around the worship of an angel, Melek Tawwus, whom Muslims identify as Satan. ISIS has therefore labelled them devil-worshippers and is beheading and crucifying men, women and children.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Germany, people are chanting 'The Jews should be gassed'; a century after the outbreak of the First World War, and less than 70 years since the death camps closed for business, antisemitic hatred is back.

War and religion go back, ooh, years and years. In biblical times, those who lost a war were often forced to worship the victor's gods. Emperor Constantine is credited with starting the first war specifically intended to spread or protect a religion. Having seen a cross of light in the sky with the words 'in hoc signo vinces', Constantine had the cross inscribed on his soldiers' armour and won a decisive battle.

His success inspired later Christians to spread their message through murder and terror, most notoriously during the Crusades. This was the brainchild of Pope Urban II, who reinvigorated the idea of holy war by creating an indulgence which meant that murdering infidels would cleanse the killers of their sins.

The Crusaders murdered or forcibly converted thousands of Jews before storming Jerusalem and killing everyone they encountered in a bloodbath worthy of ISIS. 'Although carrying out a massacre in a stormed city was not unprecedented, the sanctimonious pride with which the perpetrators recorded it possibly was,' writes Simon Schama.

Did God punish those who had dashed babies' brains against the walls in front of their mothers, in his name? He did not. The Crusaders took Jerusalem. Holy war, then as now, worked, and war became one of the dominant metaphors for faith for Christian and Muslim writers.

Some adherents of these religions insist that this is the wrong sort of holy war, a misinterpretation of the true meaning of jihad. The 'real' Christianity is pacifist, they insist, and Islam is 'the religion of peace'. Of course, if either of these were true, we'd never have heard of them.

Holy war for the purpose of increasing a share of the world population is fundamental to Christian and Muslim practice and history. Non-proselytizing peoples such as the Yazidis and the Jews are gradually (or swiftly) exterminated, while the ranks of those who proselytize through slaughter - such as Muslims and Christians - swell and multiply.

Far from being a distortion of these religions, it is thanks to centuries of 'convert or be killed' that they have enjoyed their overwhelming success. As Jesus said: 'I came not to send peace, but a sword.'