Are the religious wars ending?

The dreadful religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries finally ended not because warfare among nations declined, which it did not, but because religion declined as the cause and the issue of the fighting.

It seems to me that it is time to notice a similar phenomenon in the events of our present times.

Communism and anticommunism have been the equivalent in our times of the wars between Roman Catholics and Protestants in that earlier era. Communism in its heyday aroused deep emotions both among its followers and among its opponents. Profound fears and hopes drove armies to battle and released a degree of ferocity among the warriors which is not present in ordinary nonideological warfare.

There are a number of wars or possible wars going on right now around the world. There is an ideological content in some. But there are also territorial and economic factors which are important and usually dominant.

For example, the issue between the Argentines and Britain has nothing to do with ideology, with communism vs. anticommunism or even with any East-West rivalry. It is solely and exclusively the result of Argentine rulers coveting a small piece of real estate in their neighborhood which they thought the British were no longer willing to defend.

And the Soviets are muscling in on the act not to defend a communist country or even to support a ''national liberation movement'' but solely and exclusively to exploit an opportunity to build some influence in a part of the world where they have little. So we have the spectacle of the communist Soviet Union actually giving sympathy and some implied military support to a country which is violently anticommunist at home.

The other side of the coin is the Argentine rulers welcoming the opportunity to enter into closer economic ties with the Soviet Union which seem to bring along with them Soviet reconnaissance information about British naval movements. We have here an incipient economic partnership taking on military alliance overtones between the communist Soviet Union and anticommunist Argentina.

Then take a look at the Arab-Israel issue. Arabs and Jews got along together remarkably well over most of the past 2,000 years. Trouble between them dates from the time the Arabs of Palestine felt that the Jews arriving from Europe were beginning to try to push them out of their traditional homeland. Then there was rioting, and then there were four wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973). Another such war beginning with an Israeli invasion of Lebanon could start any day now.

Arabs and Jews have different religions, although sharing common ancestors and the Old Testament of the Bible. But their religious differences did not cause war until the Israelis reached for more Arab lands. Land is the reason for Arab-Israeli friction, not ideology or religion.

Ideology has little to do with recent events in Poland. The Soviets reclaimed control there through the instrument of the Polish army not for any ideological reason. The fact that Poland is overwhelmingly and devoutly Roman Catholic is a symptom, not a cause, of ancient issues between Moscow and Warsaw. The real cause is Russian fear of Germans, which leads the Soviet Union to keep Germany divided as a precaution against a German military revival. To keep Germany divided they need control over their supply line to Germany through Poland. The Poles are the victims of geography, not of ideology.

In southern Africa the issue is sometimes presented in ideological terms. The white South Africans brand any black political activism as being ''communist.'' But in reality the issue between blacks and whites is over territory, and over the resources which the disputed territories provide. The blacks want back what was theirs before the coming of the white man. The whites are clinging to those lands which produce gold, diamonds, uranium, and many another metals, foods, and usables.

What about the East-West issue itself? There are ideological overtones, particularly in the minds of Washington politicians. But the primary cause of East-West friction is rivalry between Washington and Moscow over dominant influence in those parts of the world which once belonged to the great empires of Britain, France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Portugal.

The past 60 years have witnessed the dissolution of the 19th-century empires. Washington fears the Soviets picking up a large part of those older empires. The Soviets the same. The world is moving into a less ideological phase which could mean less emotion and less ferocity in the issues among the nations.

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