Is Religion Responsible for the Most Wars and Violence?

Introduction

I was listening to NPR the other day and heard this little bit of oft-repeated tripe: “Religion has been responsible for more violence and wars than any other blah, blah, blah.” Does this atheistic motto have any credibility? Let’s have a look.

Ancient World Empires

Which of these world empires ever fought against, or conquered another nation, due to religious beliefs?

  • Egypt – not over religion
  • Assyria – not over religion
  • Babylon – not over religion
  • Persia – not over religion
  • Greece – not over religion
  • Rome – not over religion

While the religious beliefs of the conquering nation were often imposed once it took power, this was a method of indoctrination to crush future rebellion (like assimilation through intermarriage, languages, cultural syncretism, etc.). Doing so showed the “superiority” of the conqueror when they placed their “gods” on display. This also allowed these empires to use religion as a test for loyalty – but the wars they fought were for power and wealth, not faith.

Ancient and Modern War Leaders

What about the leaders of the most violent people groups? How many of them fought wars to further their own religion?

  • Nebuchadnezzar – not over religion
  • Egyptian Pharaohs – not over religion
  • Alexander the Great – not over religion
  • Roman Caesars – not over religion
  • Attila the Hun – not over religion
  • Genghis Khan – not over religion
  • Napoleon – not over religion
  • Hitler – not over religion
  • Mao – not over religion*
  • Stalin – not over religion*
  • Hussein – not over religion

None of them fought wars for their religion (Hussein, for example, killed members of his own religion), although each held to strong philosophies and world views – the motivation for their wars was not religious dispute. (Unless one counts Atheism as a religion.*)

Modern and Contemporary Wars

Is there any evidence that before the advent of the world’s great religions human beings behaved in a less warlike or murderous manner? Hardly. Mankind has never needed religious excuses to make war, and the 20th Century alone was a reminder of this fact. Religious fervor was actually on the decline in Europe, yet even in America where it remained strong:

  • World War I – not over religion
  • World War II- not over religion
  • The Cold War – not over religion
  • The Korean War – not over religion
  • The Vietnam War – not over religion
  • The Gulf War – not over religion
  • The Iraq War – not over religion

How many “religious” wars would have to be fought to even approach the bloodshed so far recorded? Where does this “religious violence” idea come from? There do not seem to be many possibilities left, but let’s look at some current “religious wars.”

What About The Middle East or Ireland?

Some conflicts do have some religious elements (e.g., Arab-Israeli conflict or the continuous fighting in Northern Ireland), but so do politics and mountain climbing. This is because people are in conflict, and people are often religious. The fact that people who are religious fight each other does not mean that religion caused the fighting. Lots of people never fight or go to war, and they are just as religious as anyone else.

Further, the lines drawn among these warring people are predicated on a territorial base, with the religions of those particular regions being used as convenient labels (for example, there are Palestinian-Jews, and Jewish-Arabs). The Irish and English, for example, have been warring with one another since the 14th century. How can this be labelled as a Catholic-Protestant war if the conflict began 200 years prior to the Reformation?

What About The Crusades or the Inquisition?

When challenged to name uncontested examples of religious violence, the Inquisition and Crusades are typically the only two listed. However, there are several problems with using these examples to back up the idea that religion causes violence.

First, these acts stand out precisely because they are historically unusual!  If religious wars were so commonplace, why are these the only two examples most people ever bring up? In all honesty – if you were to come upon a gang of people in a dark alley late one night while walking home all alone, would you be more or less fearful if you discovered that they were coming from a Bible study?

Second, the reports of violence involved with both of these is massively mis-reported and exaggerated.  All of the deaths from the Inquisition and Crusades together pale in comparison with the death toll of any one of the above wars.

Third, while Islam allows for violence in the spread of its message, there is no biblical mandate for “holy wars” today. While the Crusades have been labeled “religious wars,” they were defensive on the Christian side – and the evil acts committed by some crusaders was not condoned. One really can’t blame Christianity for what Christians do unless it taught them to do so in the first place.The Inquisition was not a war, and although it was religious in nature, it was was used to serve the political service of the state (and the violence came from the state, not the Church).

*The Most Violent Religion is Atheism

There is one religion that stands out prominently for its violence and it’s not some fundamentalist sect – it’s Secular Humanism (Atheism). Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Leopold II, Tojo, Pasha, Pot, Sung, Jong . . . none were fighting for any religion other than atheistic fascism. Mao and Stalin, who top the list as the most murderous villains in human history, were actively fighting against religion.

Conclusion

Blaming religion for the “most violence in the world” is patently ignorant, and rather blatantly overlooks not only the tremendous good that it has done for the world, but also the potential violence it has stopped. It’s time to start challenging this ridiculous canard whenever it is put forth as accurate.

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