Religion As A Cause Of War

I would argue that a major cause of most (but not all) wars is religion. Religion divides people into separate groups and tells them that they are incompatible with each other. It provides justification for the killing of others and the promise of reward for martyrs.

There are numerous examples of religious wars. Some of the main ones include the Crusades, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, The War On Terror, The Thirty Year War, Northern Ireland and the numerous religious wars of England and France (which culminated in the Saint Bartholomew Day Massacre). A frequent justification for the British, French, Spanish, Portuguese etc, (which led to horrendous massacres) empires was so that the natives could be converted to Christianity. Religions claim they have the one truth that will save only them and all other religions are wrong and/or the work of the devil. The Torah, Bible and Koran all contain justifications for the killing of non-believers (who after all are going to Hell). They are clear that following a different religion is an unforgivable crime deserving death and destruction of entire cities (see here). 2nd Kings 10:19-27 records how every member of the religion of Baal was killed (with God’s approval).  2nd Chronicles 28:6 records the killing of 120,000 “valiant” men because they did not worship God. These are two of many examples.

Religion played a part in causing World War Two (as well as nationalism). Hitler believed he was doing God’s work (see a post on this topic), denounced atheism and regularly referred to God in his speeches. The Holocaust built upon the anti-Semitism that came from the Christian belief that Jews were guilty of murdering Jesus (see here). If there had been no religion, there would be no difference between Christians and Jews and therefore no persecution. Fascist dictatorships in Spain, Italy and Latin America were strongly supported and endorsed by the Catholic Church.

Some argue that Atheism is responsible for the crimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. However this is confusing correlation and causation. They killed people because they were brutal Communist dictators, not because of their religious beliefs (or lack of any). Collectivisation still would have failed and caused famines killing millions, regardless of the religious beliefs of the nation. For comparison, Scandinavian countries are very secular, yet are not dictatorships. (see here)

Even wars which were caused by reasons other than religion, religion was used to justify it and motivate soldiers. For example, the fact that Protestant Germany invaded Catholic Belgium was a main part of the recruitment process in Ireland during World War One, even though it was not a purely religious war.

Religion creates division between people who otherwise have little differences. It justifies hate and murder. It is responsible for numerous wars and conflicts. Along with nationalism it is the major cause of war.

(In my next post I will look at this topic in a specifically Irish context)


Filed under Religion

15 responses to “Religion As A Cause Of War

  1. My question is, as I believe that you have touched the surface of great thoughts, whether religious beliefs are truly the fuel of the fire or are those beliefs just a flag that the leaders use to rally the people under?

    • Thats the million dollar question and it doesn’t have an easy answer. It really depends on the situation. I think most times religion is the genuine cause, take Al-Queda for example

  2. No doubt religion can be used as a tool to manipulate people. But so can anything–“race,” color, class, dress, tradition, heritage, region, etc. If religion is removed from the equation, something else will simply be chosen as a tool to manipulate. Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot proved that point.

    • I don’t think that is necessarily true. I think its perfectly possible to be irreligious and still not go to war. Take the Nordic countries. They are the most secular free countries yet have not been involved in wars or had colonies

  3. Hej Robert,

    You are very correct Robert. Ideas has consequences. But I believe you failed to see the core problem, which is man himself.

    Nordic countries were very religious. Starting with polytheism in Nordic Mythology to Protestantism. It is in 20th century that Nordic countries began the move toward secularism, mostly because of sexual liberty and rebelling against puritanism.

    Denmark colonized Estonia(1206-1645), Faroe Islands and Iceland (1536?- today), Greenland (1814-1979), and East Indian island(?-1845)

    Norway, Sweden, and Finland also had colonies. They have also being in many wars. e.g The Battle of Jutland, WW.I. Moreover Denmark and Sweden fought against each other for a long time.

    Majority of Danish, as I am married to a Dan and live in Denmark, do not believe in Personal God, they are non-religious but not atheist, since most believe in some higher powers/energies and many are mixing eastern religion e.g. Buddhism, with what they like to form what they believe.


    • I’m not to going to argue with you regarding Danish history which you would probably know more about. I will just say that your examples of colonies and wars happened before the secularization of those countries, forming a rough correlation. Secondly they are quite minor compared to other (more religious) countries. No Scandinavian country had colonies in Africa or Asia, the few they had were of very small islands. I may be incorrect in saying this but I thought Scandinavian countries were more dragged unwillingly into modern wars (like WW1 & 2) than active participants

      The main reason I mentioned Scandinavia was to show that atheism/secularism doesn’t automatically lead to Stalin-style mass murder

      • I do not think atheism/secularism/Christianity automatically lead to mass murder because the problem is not with ideology but with people holding them.

        In Denmark, 60% are members of the Danish Lutheran church(State church) but only 4% goes to church. Christianity in Denmark is more or less a tradition. Norway, last Monday, separated the church and the state, to officially became secular, and Denmark is on its way, since the state is forcing the church at the moment to marriage homosexuals.

        I am glad that the church and the state are going to be separate because what is of the church is of the church, and what is of the state is of the state. Christians, in the government/state ought to use reasons, and good arguments to present cases. The time of just saying we simply believe, is over. It is time to think! Time to give reasons.


        • Sorry I was wrong with Denmark 60% are members of the Danish Lutheran church. It’s 80% of whole Denmark and 60% in Copenhagen according to last year research(Line Nybro Petersen, University of Copenhagen, PhD thesis “‘Wicked Angels, Adorable Vampires!”)

  4. There is no substitute for data and careful study. A few people have done this for wars through the ages, and each of them have found that religion was a major cause in only about 10% of wars. Other factors (nationalism, perceived loss of traditional land, totalitarian states) are far more important. And you may not wish to know that atheism has been associated with more killing than religion, according to the studies. Check them out in Does religion cause wars?.

    Of course any war is one too many, and all of our viewpoints and traditions have blood on their hands, so none of us can be complacent.

    • I admit that there are always a multiple of over lapping causes for war and it is hard to separate them out. The wars you are referring to were caused by Communist dictators, the fact they were atheist is irrelevant.

      I completely agree that arguments should be based upon facts and logic and I want to thank you as you are probably the first commenter whose has referenced a study, rather than relying on rhetoric.

      However I believe the study wildly under estimates the influence of religion on war, for example it rated the Northern Ireland conflict as only a number 1 on a scale of 0 to 5 with 5 being the most religious.

  5. G’day Robert, I’m interested in your comments about Ireland, as obviously you have personal experience. But that in fact may be the problem – if we are too close to something, we may only see the limited view from our own perspective, and not the big picture.

    The main study I quoted set up a series of criteria (whether the rhetoric supporting war was religious in content, whether religious leaders in the country supported or opposed the war, what other factors were relevant, etc) and then scored each of the criteria. I think they had more chance of being objective and thus were closer to getting it right than our subjective assessments.

    Your comment about the communists and atheism is revealing. That is exactly what many christians might think about the atrocities committed by their side. We have to be even-handed and judge each ‘side’ by the same criteria. Do we know how many of the church’s atrocities during (say) the middle ages were really committed for religious reasons, or for power or greed, etc? Contrary to your comment, we have quotes to show that some of communisms atrocities were committed in the name of atheism, but again, do we know the balance of factors?

    I think we need to (1) accept the findings of this independent study, and (2) by very humble about any claims we make.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  6. Robert, you mentioned al-Qaeda, and I’d like to take that up.

    Al-Qaeda’s motives behind 9/11 were two-fold: to get the US to withdraw its unquestioned support of Israel and to force it leave the gulf (specifically, US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia). In fact, these were the reasons detailed by bin Laden in his confessional videos, as well as by Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in the 911 Commission Report.

    These are very Realist concerns. I am not arguing that al-Qaeda does not have strong ideological roots, but that is more for the purposes of recruitment. Nowhere in their statements have they said that they would like to kill 300,000,000 American infidels.

    Religion is a rallying cry. It does, like you say, create an in-group and and out-group. But you can’t say nationalism (secular nationalism) doesn’t play a part. The Tamil Tigers, for instance, were a Marxist group! And saying that Hitler only acted out of his religious convictions is, in my flaws opinion, a bit of a stretch.

    Good day to you! I await your thoughts.

    • Its true that there is never just one reason for any war, there is always a multitude of overlapping reasons. Bin Laden couches his language in religious terms and has a Islamic caliphate as his aim. The reason he objects to American troops in Saudi Arabia is that they are non-Muslims near the holy site of Mecca. While nationalism does play a part, it would be a grave mistake to underestimate the role of religion.

      I’m sorry if I gave the impression that nationalism does not play a part. It absolutely does and was a bigger motivator than religion for Hitler. My point is that it also was a motivator.

  7. Cecelia

    national identity is of course often (not always) linked with religious identity. so it becomes difficult to spate the two. Is the current conflict in the Ukraine because of religion or because of other geopolitical factors?

    Things I suspect are much more complex – focusing on the wrong cause does nothing to0 increase our understanding of war – think of an onion – many layers – explanations for human behavior also have many layers

  8. why does religion at times become an obstacle to human development,even cause of war and hatred?
    Can you please answer my question? I’m doing a project on this topic and if you have any idea in what other way please answer.
    I’ll be waiting for your reply ASAP.

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