Is religion the cause of most wars in the world?

Part 1: Religion isn't the problem

By Maggie Peil

In a high school Psychology class, I learned that if we hear something at least six separate times, we will subconsciously believe it is true. After that we become part of the problem, repeating the same information to others without ever validating it. We all do this, especially when the source is well-respected or an authority. It is how knowledge is transferred. We can't possibly rely on direct observation for everything, so we have to trust others to supply accurate information to us.

I have heard from many people that religion causes the majority of wars and conflicts. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (two popular atheists who are undeniably very smart guys and very persuasive debaters) have suggested that even if religion is not the overt cause of most wars, it is probably a significant underlying cause and a convenient excuse for all kinds of conflict. Dawkins said in The God Delusion "Even if religion did no other harm in itself, its wanton and carefully nurtured divisiveness...would be enough to make it a significant force for evil in the world." Even John Lennon (in his song "Imagine") suggested that if it weren't for religion (or countries or possessions), we could all live peacefully.

So when the subject of war and religion came up recently, I hopped on the bandwagon without a second thought. A young Christian woman said to me:
Religion has torn families apart and started countless wars. People are treated differently because of their religion. People are killed in the name of 'God'. To this day the most controversial topic is religion, and God. Why is this?
I immediately assumed it was true that religion has historically been the primary source of "countless wars" and conflicts.

As I examined her question, I took it piece by piece to get an idea of the magnitude of the problem. I was surprised by the results. The deeper I dug, the less convinced I was that religion is a primary source of human conflict. Instead, wars and conflicts seem to stem from fundamental flaws in the personalities of all humans.

FAMILIES TORN APART. I could not find any comprehensive worldwide study on religion and how it affects families. I did observe that many of the disruptions of families were related to attempts to control a family member's behavior. Religion can be used to justify bad behavior, but the underlying cause generally seems to be pride, greed and control no matter what the adopted religion is (or isn't). Here are some examples that I came across in my research:

Women in some Muslim counties under Islamic Law can legally be murdered for sex outside of marriage.

Despite being illegal in India since 1961, a bride is usually expected to provide a dowry to the husband, and the husband may abandon, beat, or kill the woman if the dowry is judged to be inadequate (not a religious issue).

In the USA, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that about 1 in 10 violent acts are within a family, and about 1 in 5 murders are within families. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the principal causes of domestic abuse are cultural, not religious.

COUNTLESS WARS. I assembled a list of wars (from multiple non-religious internet sources) and researched the causes of each. From what I could piece together, there were about 20 major wars that happened BCE (aka B.C.). Of these, I found none that were caused by differences in religion. Theocratic leaders (such as an Egyptian pharaoh or a Roman Emperor) might have claimed to speak for God (or even claim to be God), but their wars with neighbors were usually about land. They either protected their own land from invasion, or tried to get more land because they wanted the slaves, resources, or a trade route.

In the Common Era (aka A.D.), I found about 60 major wars. I could only find six that had religion as a major factor (and even those six had other political factors involved). From this informal survey, it looked like about 10% of wars were related to or caused by religion.

In their Encyclopedia of Wars, authors Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod included a comprehensive list of wars throughout world history. They documented 1763 wars overall, of which 123 (7%) were classified as involving religious conflict. They said that less than 2% of all people killed in warfare were killed because of a religious conflict. These are even smaller percentages than the numbers I came up with in my informal research.

I discovered that when it comes to wars, the underlying causes are seldom related to religious differences or attempts to convert an opponent to a different religion. They are more likely to be about domination, independence, control, wealth, resources, economics and/or politics.

In Part 2 of this series, I'll look into evidence (or the lack thereof) that religion is a major source of personal conflict for people around the world.

Is religion the cause of most wars in the world? The series:
Part 1: Religion isn't the problem
Part 2: People are the problem
Part 3: The Bible says be nice to each other

Image credit: Capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, 1099, from a medieval manuscript; Public Domain

TagsFalse-Teaching  |  Political-Issues  |  Sin-Evil

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Published 1-16-14