If you’ve ever visited an atheist website or read any of the best-selling pop atheist books of the last decade or so, you’ll have come across the assertion that “religion is the main cause of war”. In fact, this hymn is sung so often, and with such gusto, that people now accept it as fact. But does it stand up to scrutiny?
If you press an atheist on why they believe this, they’ll usually say the Crusades, the Inquisition, and 9/11. It’s true that religion was a motivator in those events, but are they enough to support the claim that religion is the main cause of war?
Poisoning the well
The first point to address is that the statement “religion is the main cause of war” lacks the distinctions needed to be a meaningful point. It’s like blaming every musician for Mumford and Sons. It poisons the well. Sure, some musicians make awful hipster music, but that’s not true for all musicians. The reasoning doesn’t follow. The irony being, of course, that those who use this argument are the ones who claim to have reason on their side.
Furthermore, saying “religion is the main cause of war” – even if true – is not adequate to disprove any one religious claim. Scientology could be the cause of every single war in history, but that does not make its claims false; ideas need to be challenged on their own merits. Such statements tell you nothing about the truths and falsehoods of a particular religious claim, like Jesus being the messiah or the existence of God. Alas, this doesn’t stop people from being persuaded by them.
The second – and most important – point is that it’s simply not true. Not even close. It’s a quantifiable and demonstrable fact that religion is not the main cause of war. Anyone who claims otherwise does not know history. The Crusades were a holy war – a Christian response to Muslim persecution in the Middle East – as were the Inquisition and 9/11. However, the numbers killed in these examples are infinitesimally small compared to the death and destruction achieved by secular warfare. That’s not to condone those religious conflicts, but remember the charge here: religion is the main cause of war.
What are the facts?
Anyone interested in actual facts should get acquainted with the three-volume peer-reviewed book “Encyclopedia of Wars”. It’s a seminal work that documents over five thousand years of warfare, totalling 1763 wars. Of these, only 123 are deemed to have a religious cause, which is about 7% (3% if you subtract Islam). A second scholarly source, the “Encyclopedia of War“ (not to be confused with the Encyclopedia of Wars), confirms this by putting the total at 6%. Thirdly, this report from 2014 found that “Corruption, economic inequality and political instability have a greater impact on countries’ likelihood of conflict than religious differences.”
World War One and Two, for example, both responsible for a staggering amount of deaths, had no religious animus. (Atheists often claim that Hitler was a Catholic, but he was scathing of Christianity in his private writings. Christianity to Hitler was one of the great “scourges” of history. And even if he was a Catholic, it doesn’t matter because his motivations were non-religious.)
Then there’s the invasion of South Korea by North Korea. Was that religious? Nope. What about Vietnam? Nope. There have since been wars in the Middle East, but you’d be hard-pressed to say they were caused solely by religion. If religion was to disappear overnight, the land and oil claims wouldn’t just go away. So certainly from the first World War up until Vietnam – the timeframe that saw the vast majority of deaths (millions upon millions), none of the wars were religious in nature or cause.
The unholy trinity
But it gets worse for atheists.
Three of the worst mass murderers from recent history, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, between them responsible for 100million plus deaths, did not adhere to any religion. They were communists, materialists, and avowed atheists. To put that into perspective, the 3,000 people killed during the entirety of the Inquisition is about the same number killed by Stalin on an average Tuesday afternoon. Again, I’m not exonerating the Inquisition; I’m just putting the facts on the table.
That doesn’t mean every atheist will murder millions, but it does mean that ideas have consequences. If you’re a materialist who runs the biggest government around, there is none greater than you. If there is no cosmic bench to stand before and give an account, you can do whatever you want. To be clear, atheism doesn’t dictate this behaviour, but it certainly allows it.
Without a doubt, religion can cause war, but it’s far from the main cause. In fact, a cursory look through human history shows that the countries that tried to drive out religion with state-sponsored atheism were the ones that produced, by far, the most death and misery. The next time you hear a sceptic say “religion is the main cause of war,” tell them they’re not being sceptical enough.