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How many wars have been caused by religion?

My fundamentalist brother and I have an extensive argument currently going on. His claim: Communism and Fascism in the 20th century have caused more deaths than all religious wars throughout history. Does anyone have a list of wars attributed to a religious difference?

Posted: January 30th 2008

bitbutter www

I don’t think that either of you can make a strong case for your claim.

Any war, since it involves the actions of many individuals, can be expected to have a great number of causes. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect to be able to attribute any war to religious belief alone, just as the political ideologies associated with 20th century wars were not isolated drivers of conflict either.

Here are some of the factors that I believe play a significant role in triggering many wars: The desire for political power, disputes over scarce resources, fear and mistrust of foreigners, ideological commitment (religious or secular), misaligned economic incentives (the possibility of profit through war), the general ignorance of citizenry and it’s misplaced trust in media and political rulers.

In considering any particular war, I don’t see how it would be possible to disentangle these, and calculate the effect of each to establish which was the 'main’ cause.

It does seem true that the religious belief that an earthly ruler can be a instrument that enacts the will of a god, can lead to a very volatile situation; a populace which needs relatively little persuasion to take up arms against a convenient 'enemy’. But this danger is by no means uniquely associated with religious belief. A populace trained to trust the authority of the state can quickly be moved to bloodshed too.

Posted: November 6th 2010

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themodestagnostic

Every war in history can be traced back to dogma, or irrationality of one kind or another.

The big three are nationalism, religion and racism. These fragment into a broad plethora of ideologies, but they are all nourished by one of these 3 “roots” of lunacy.

More specifically though, WWII was in every meaningful sense a religious war. Hitler came to power, on the back of a message straight out of the Martin Luther playbook; he was consistently supported by the catholic church and his entourage was shot through with people (like himself) extolling the most absurd religious ideas and concepts imaginable.

Stalin, and his outrages were not conducted on the basis of atheism, but on the basis of raw power. In fact, one can argue that a population brainwashed into considering the monarch divinely appointed, is simply waiting for the next demagogue or strong man to wrest the reins of power to himself, which is exactly what Stalin did.

Finally, these conflicts and horrors come after nearly two millennia of “Christianisation”. This alone is a dead giveaway. What went wrong here? How did the “central” message of Christianity fail so spectacularly? Because it’s just some stuff that people made up, Christianity specifically is merely a kind of proto-marxism, and religion generally is just a subset of Dogma.

It is the desperate human need for certainty, and the criminals that arise to fulfill this need, whether religious, fascist or racist that are the uniform source of the problem. More credulity, more slavish obedience to bigger and even more terrifying masters is not the antidote to totalitarianism. Reason, skepticism and outright ridicule is.

Posted: February 24th 2008

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Eric_PK

Wars – at least in the 20th century – are about nationalism, though religion is often a major part of nationalism.

To get popular support for a war – which you need even if you are running a dictatorship – you need to demonize and dehumanize your opponent. There are many popular tactics here:

  1. hates us
  2. is against our values
  3. is a different color from us
  4. is savage (cannibalistic, treats people poorly, whatever)
  5. worships the wrong god
  6. etc.

Religion is a big part of this, for a few reasons.

First, all religions have inherent in them the concept that I am right and all other believers are wrong (okay, that’s not true for some eastern religions…) Not only is that specific belief useful, it also sets up a pattern of “us=good; others=bad”, which works for all the other levers you want to use.

Religion also encourages deference to authority (with some exceptions), which is also good to help start a war.

And finally, there’s that whole “heaven” concept, which leads to things like “kill them all, and let god sort them out” (from 12th century crusades) and the 72 virgins of the present day.

So, to summarize, you get:

“We are absolutely right and just”,
“They are absolutely wrong”, and
“If I die I go to heaven”

To talk about the historical question, it’s well established that Hitler was a catholic and remained a catholic, and I believe that was true for Mussolini as well. It’s certainly true that they maintained strong ties with the church throughout the times, and one cannot but see a connection between Luther’s “On the Jews and their Lies” in 1543 and the Nazi’s “Final Solution”

The Soviet Union is a different case. It ended up being anti-religious because the churches were one of the few organizations who could challenge the governments power after the revolution, and this was codified as official atheism, though the country remained religious during the soviet years.

So, I think your brother is confused about what has caused wars. Perhaps you can ask him how you can motivate people by non-belief in something?

Posted: February 15th 2008

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SmartLX www

First of all, your brother should (and probably does not) accept two things:

1. Even if religious wars have caused fewer deaths than other types, religion is still responsible for a whole pile o’ death. A lesser evil is still evil. Following on from that, just because some things have killed more people than religion (and some things certainly have) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to stop and prevent religious violence as well. Doctors are still working to eradicate malaria even though cancer is more widespread and still needs curing.

2. The deaths attributable to Communism and Fascism are not due to lack of religion, or to atheism. Most Fascist regimes were superficially religious (the Nazis, for example, were always officially Catholic). As for Communism,
just because it demands atheism doesn’t mean it follows from atheism. It’s just incompatible with any religion because the Communist ideology will not tolerate any competitors. It’s too close to a religion itself.

I’ve made my points, so now I’ll get you started on this list.

I’m no historian, I’m afraid. I’ve had a look around the Web, but it’s difficult to find a simple list of wars for which the primary motivation was religion. Go to Google and try.

To begin with, many religious conflicts have gone completely undocumented because nobody involved was literate. Tribal warfare was often driven by the concept of a literal battle between the gods of different tribes. Before organised polytheism, few people claimed to have the true gods, only the best gods.

Once we get into early recorded history, motivations are somewhat opaque at first because a nation needs no more reason to invade another than the orders of its absolute leader. Religion often comes into it, but usually only to motivate the people after the decision has been made to attack.

Later on, even the best-known examples of religious violence may not count as real wars. The Crusades were, certainly, but all the different Inquisitions (Wikipedia lists four) were entirely civil affairs (that is, affairs between one country and its own people). Once Lutheranism and Protestantism emerged in Europe, it’s likely that as many people were tried and executed for their beliefs as slain in battle.

Acts of ethnic cleansing continue to this day, with varying degrees of religious justification. Recent examples occurred and are still occurring in Kosovo, Burma and all over Africa.

The biggest current, ongoing religious conflict is the War on Terror. It’s not officially Christianity on the march but many in the religious right do see it that way. The Muslim extremists on the other side certainly consider themselves to be waging a Jihad or holy war.

It’s nearly always really freaking complicated. Religions are certainly one of the major factors in this world causing violence and death, but often in ways such that casualties can never be counted.

Your brother has an easier job counting the casualties from twentieth century wars and waving them in your face. As I said to begin with, deaths not explicitly religious in nature do not let religion off the hook, and atheism is not responsible for them any more than Christianity is responsible for the Nazis’ attempted extermination of the Jewish people.

Edit: Go look up the Thirty Years War, a protracted conflict between Catholics and Protestants across Europe. It was responsible for the deaths of double-digit percentages of several European nations (the old “German states”), which today would mean a good few million people. It would be hard to blame that war on anything else.

Posted: February 4th 2008

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