Does Religion Really Cause War?

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PART 4 OF “OUR ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT GOD”

December 16, 2009

By Kevin M

“More wars are started in the name of religion…”

This common refrain might be the favorite preserve of non-believers all over the planet, but it’s also living proof that if a lie is repeated enough times, it will be accepted as the truth. If you doubt this, start studying some non-religious books—like history books. There have been religious wars in history to be sure, but by far the most and the greatest of human conflicts had nothing to do with religion, or were only superficially religious in nature.

The most popular references to support the assertion obviously are the Crusades and the near perpetual Arab-Israeli conflict. But I wouldn’t be too certain either of those conflicts were or are entirely based on religion either. Ultimately, war is most commonly fought over control of land, people and resources. Attaching a higher purpose—such as religion, freedom, saving the planet, or just about any other we can dream up—is often a latent attempt to add some sort of nobility to a bloody conflict for the purposes of stirring the emotions and drumming up support.

Now I’ll admit that the fact that the Arab-Israeli conflict, with all of its global implications, does tend to give weight to the religion-war connection but this is largely because it is one which has been raging for most of our lives right up to the current day. And the fact that people might strap bombs on their backs, to be detonated in places primarily populated by people of different religions, displays a level of “faith” by the perpetrators that’s as mysterious as it is frightening. But both situations tend to carry exaggerated weight because they’re happening in our own time, and we’re nothing if not shortsighted when it comes to events that came before we did.

Let’s go back deeper in time and take a look at other wars—the really big ones.

Wars down through the centuries

Let’s pose some questions from history relating to some notoriously warlike civilizations, peoples and conquerors.

Did the Roman Empire conquer the known world to spread their religion? The people the Romans conquered were just as pagan as the Romans—were they attempting to bring paganism to the pagans? Or were they invading for the purpose of expanding their empire and control? Did the prospect of revenues from future tax collections influence their march in any way?

What faith drove Attila the Hun to conquer half of Europe?

Was Ghengis Khan a holy man, looking to evangelize at the point of a sword? Was he a closet Christian with a hidden agenda?

Did Napoleon march Christian French armies to conquer and impose their faith on an already Christian Europe, or was he after something else?

Was the American Civil War between the mostly Christian Union and the mostly Christian Confederacy fought in the name of religion?

Did World War 1 have any religious purpose at all?

How many people did the Japanese convert to Shintoism after conquering nearly a third of Asia and a good chunk of the Pacific?

Was Adolf Hitler a devout but misunderstood Christian, bent on eliminating Jews in the name of Jesus Christ (himself a Jew) and waging a war of conquest against Christian Europe?

Did Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung execute internal wars on their own people, killing tens of millions of their own countrymen, in the name of advancing a religion the masses refused to accept? If that’s the case, is communism a religion?

The reality of these conflicts

Communism is an entirely secular philosophy, so is Nazism. In fact, most of the –isms throughout history have been secular in origination and in practice, which has put them in direct conflict and opposition not only to religion, but to most human institutions. For all of the talk and press about “religious intolerance”, it is clear that one of the most pronounced features of the –isms is their inability to coexist with other belief systems. It’s almost always ‘join the movement or perish’.

It can be stated categorically, that all three of the 20th Century’s most notorious dictators (Hitler, Stalin and Mao) were purely secular figures bent on the elimination of religion, including Christianity. Religion was viewed by these men as a dangerous counter philosophy.

The list in the previous section represents most of the biggest bloodlettings in human history, and none of them were an attempt to advance any religion, let alone Christianity. The assertion that more wars are started in the name of religion than anything else is totally invalid as a matter of historical fact. Can we drop the claim as a legitimate reason to reject faith?

Now I’m not attempting to infer that there have never been any truly religious wars fought anytime or anyplace in history, but what I am saying is that those conflicts either tended to be more localized and, generally speaking, not ranking among humanity’s greatest conflagrations.

War and Christianity

Some will argue that when Christians have engaged in and supported the persecution and execution of alleged heretics, witches, the demon possessed and people who refused to convert to the faith or to one of its sub-sects, that they were participating in acts of war. That argument is totally correct.

When Christianity has been involved in war or other acts of violence in the name of promoting or protecting the faith, they were often being either hypocritical (and the Bible has much to say on that particular topic) or they were otherwise disconnected from their faith. I contend that when Christians beat the war drums, it’s usually our politics talking and not our faith. We are guilty on this count and in need of correction.

In Jesus Christ’s own time, there were numerous conflicts taking place within his own country (what we now call Israel) and yet there is no written evidence that he took part in any of the conflicts, or even endorsed one side over another. The easiest and by far the most popular position he could have taken—had he sought power within the context of the human system—would have been to support the overthrow of the conquering Romans by the Jews. Instead he directed his followers to “turn the other cheek” and “do good to those who persecute you”. Are those man-made directives, or are they straight out of the upper regions of Heaven itself?

Why do so many believe that the doctrines of man are somehow “purer” than the doctrines of the faith? We certainly don’t see that in anything Jesus taught or did.

Part of our problem—as Christians, as members of other faiths, as members of the human race—is our attachment to war as a means to an end. War is not a characteristic of the Christian faith, or to most other faiths. But war is part of the human system and we ALL need to take ownership of that fact. Blaming war on religion is not only inaccurate, it’s a complete waste of time.

And here’s the ultimate evidence: eliminate religion from the world and we will still have war; the only thing that will change is that we’ll have one less institution to blame it on.

Study the life and teachings of Jesus Christ if you still believe that “more wars are started in the name of religion…” Is war a function of religion, or is it a function of the human system?

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11 Responses to Does Religion Really Cause War?

  1. Kevin – Great article on the true origins of war. You are correct when you imply it is a human condition versus a religious imperative. Too many Christians have been snookered into believing otherwise and often use Old Testament examples of war as a justification for such activities while claiming to be New Testament Christians. What gives?

  2. Steven and Debra – You hit on something there with Old Testament examples in support for war. Most of those examples were specific and at the direct instruction of God himself. We can’t assume that because a nominally Christian nation goes to war that God is directing it. If we assume that we can justify nearly anything.

    In the New Testament the prime support is Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple. Not sure how that becomes a justification for war – Jesus didn’t kill anyone. That was a display of righteous anger, how that turns into a war is a mystery.

  3. We agree. God did direct the wars depicted in the Old Testament by speaking to leaders directly, in one form or another. How many of today’s leaders can make that claim and not be in jeopardy of being carted off to the funny-farm by the men in white coats?

  4. Keven, great post!

    Like you said, unless Communism is a religion, this fable fails automatically. And if religion didn’t exist, it would just be one less institution on which to blame the world’s perils. All I can do is my part to pass on Jesus’ message of redemption to others, so they know the truth.

  5. Jason – When you study the facts of history, and even the drivers behind current conflicts, the religion-causes-war supposition fails completely.

    It seems that it’s a feel good/sophisticated sounding claim that lives on in spite of the facts because it’s aimed primarily at supporting a system of non-belief. As human beings, we’ll cling to any doctrine, supposition or cliche that supports our own beliefs and philosophies.

    There may be compelling reasons a person chooses not to believe, but this one belongs in the abject fail column. I’d hate to have my eternal destiny riding on an incorrect assumption.

  6. Great post, Kevin!

    I am a member of a Mennonite church, which emphasizes nonviolence. In every other respect, we’re pretty much the same as Baptists or any other Protestant denomination. The idea behind nonviolence is basically the example and teaching that Jesus gave us. How can you read the Gospels and believe that Christians should kill their enemies (when we’re commanded to love)? We’re called to lay down our rights and love generously & freely even when killing would be justified.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective on this topic. I especially liked your point on the intolerance of all the -isms. I’m not saying that people aren’t correct when criticizing the shortcomings of the Church, but a fair approach would also criticize many other “institutions” as well. With the Church, we have to understand that it’s made up of people who are imperfect and sinful. We’re aiming for holy living, but we will always fall short. That’s why we must rely on righteousness through Christ and not our own power.

  7. Thanks for your comments Paul. Even within the Church, we often forget that our allegiance to Jesus Christ must supercede all other passions in life. Being sinful by nature, this isn’t always the case.

    I completely agree that we’re to deal with our enemies with love, not anger, and certainly not vengeance. But this is completely counter-intuitive to the way of man, which is also why it’s so difficult to do. But think of the witness when and if we can do it!

    Violent responses invite violent counter responses, and round and round we go. The human way really hasn’t worked, all you need to do is to look at our long, long history of warfare, as well as in our own time at the number of lawsuits, divorces, etc being brought. Conflict is mans way, not the way of Christ. What a statement if we could model Jesus in a conflict, rather than join the hostilities.

  8. I think man and sin causes war. People like to blame their actions on things like religion. That is a cop out. It’s like saying guns kill people… guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

  9. Hello I loved your informative article on Does Religion Really Cause War?. This is really helpful. Thanks for sharing this information.

  10. Excellent post. I’ve found myself on both sides of the fence regarding belief in God, but even when my faith was in doubt did I ever believe the “religion is the leading cause of war” nonsense. Hell, one person tried to convince me that World War II was started because of religion. I mean, really? An atheist following this mindset is just as foolish as a christian who takes the Bible out of context to support their own extreme branch of Christianity.

  11. Hi Anthony–I agree on that last point about taking the Bible out of context. As Christians we have to be especially careful not to try to make the Bible say what it doesn’t say, just to support our own positions. I think that happens too much society wide, not just in faith circles. That’s where the religion/war connection is drawn. Thanks for visiting.

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