Came across an interesting article recently at Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM), which prompted me to do some digging of my own and I found that my own research accords with what they have published. One frequently reads that 'religion causes wars' or that 'all wars in human history' were caused by religion. But, is this fact?
Let's start with the wars of early human history. What part did 'religion' play in the Egyptian wars of expansion? Or the Assyrian wars of conquest? Or Babylon's? How about the Persian invasions of Asia Minor and Greece? Or Ghengiz Khan's invasions of Eastern Europe, Persia, India and China?What of the Roman conquests? Motivated by Jupiter worship? Hardly. Religion played no part in these at all, though I have seen a claim that, because the Bible mentions some of them, and that God was involved in defending Israel or Judah, they were 'religious' ... Pretty tenuous, especially as the same person was arguing from the position that the entire Bible is a fabrication, a falsehood and therefore not worth reading. From the same argument comes the claim that the conflict between the invading European settlers of the Wild West and the Native American tribes was a 'religious war'. The reason given for that claim is that the various politicians who sent in the army or sought to drum up support from the settlers labelled the Red Indians as 'unbelievers' and 'savages'. Right.
A recent book, The End of Faith, renews the claim that 'religion is the most prolific source of violence in our history', but, as I've just stated, a very cursory look at about a 1,000 year span of pre-Christian history suggests religion had no part in a millenium of wars of expansion and conquest. Again, a survey of the wars in the next thousand years, one finds a similar pattern, with one exception - the Islamic Wars of conquest into the Christian Kingdoms of Ethiopia, Egypt, Libya and the rest of North Africa, and, of course, the Byzantine Empire and the Zoroastrian, Hindu and Buddhist lands of Persia, Babylon, Afghanistan and India. But even these actually represent only a small proportion of all the wars going on at the same time everywhere else.
Once we hit the Crusade period, those with an axe to grind against religion (usually, specifically, Christianity) really have a field day. Those evil Crusaders who attacked the peaceful, inclusive and tolerant Muslims with no provocation. Quite. In fact the Crusades were a response to Muslim persecution of Christians, not very different in some areas to what is happening everywhere in the Muslim world to Christians, and other non-Muslims, today. Though we are presented, by revisionists today, with an image of a peaceful 'paradise' of flowering art and scientific creativity in Muslim controlled Spain, and of scientific innovation and research elsewhere in Muslim lands, what is forgotten is that most of this was built on trades, skills and studies already in existence when they conquered these lands.
The Viking invasions, the Germanic Celtic invasions of Gaul, Spain and Italy were not 'religious' and even the often quoted war on the Cathars had, as an underlying motive, the suppression of a group who threatened the power and authority of the French nobility and Crown. William the Conqueror's wars, and those of his descendants, were certainly not 'religious' and the same can be said of many more. Yes, the Thirty Years War, had religious roots, and Phillip II of Spain certainly had a religious excuse for his attempted invasions of England, but his real motive was to avenge his sister's being 'sleighted' by Henry VIII. Cromwell's wars in Scotland and Ireland had a large religious element, but the primary objective was the suppression of support for the Crown. Other researchers have analysed the causes and motivations of the wars of our history and concluded that only around 6% in total of over 1,700 recorded wars, had any religious motivation - and a little over two thirds of those were Islamic invasions. The defining characteristic of a 'religious' war is that it is waged for the purpose of forcing a group or population to 'convert' or in order to suppress and destroy a rival faith. Those who wish to destroy all faith ignore that, and argue that any mention of 'faith' in any context in any war - or the use of any terminology associated with any 'faith' - makes it a 'religious conflict'.
Can one argue that the Conquistadores were conducting a 'religious' war on the Aztecs, Incas and others? The answer, if one bothers to check who gained what and why, is a clear 'no'. The much maligned Roman Catholic Church's 'men on the ground', have left a large volume of correspondence to Rome and to the Kings and Queens of Spain and Portugal protesting and objecting to the manner in which populations were being enslaved, impoverished, stripped of wealth and treasures. The anti-religious folk all point to the decoration of churches and claim this 'proves' the church was behind the robbery - but in fact the wealth which went to decorating churches represents about 0.1% of the total that went to secular treasuries and fueled further wars of expansion and conquest in Europe.
Even a cursory look at the causes and motivations for England's external wars of the 16th to 19th Centuries shows no 'religious' motivation, but a strong secular/commercial one. A murderer waving a Bible is no more a Christian than Richard Dawkins - except in the minds of those who wish to see said murderer as 'a Christian'. Hitler, it is often said, was a Roman Catholic and therefore his 'motivation' for the Holocaust and for his war on Russia and everywhere else, was 'religious'. The fact is that he was Roman Catholic by baptism, confirmation and education - it would have been remarkable if he was not in Austria at the time he was born - but he did not practice it post WW1. In fact he was scornful of all religious leaders, mocking them publicly. He never attended Mass, and rejected the suggestion he appoint a 'Chaplain'. Religious motivation? Hardly, but he was influenced by Marx to a degree, and by the ideas of prominent secular and humanist thinkers. It's all in his book if you read it.
Stalin hated religion, dynamited churches, had priests and bishops sent to the Gulags in Siberia - but again, there are modern revisionists who want to argue that he was motivated by his 'religious beliefs'. He himself declared he had none. In fact, he had priests rounded up and shot, and sent elderly bishops to Siberia and labour camps. If that is an example of his 'religious' belief driving him, it is a strange one.
Then there is the question of the Churches making deals with both Hitler and Stalin. Rome (in)famously signed treaties with both Mussolini and with Hitler. Easy, of course, to criticise, but now consider for a moment, the fact that in order to keep the churches open, and allowed to minister to those who remained faithful to the Christian teaching, rather than the twisted Nazi and Communist ideologies, they had no choice but to do deals with the 'Devil'. Again, it is easy to say they should not have, but that begs the question of how you minister to those who do remain faithful, and keep faith alive in a hostile and aggressively anti-faith environment. The charge Jesus left his followers is to 'minister to the faithful' - not abandon them to the wolf packs. As a part of that ministry, many of the faithful became involved in hiding fugitive Jews and other 'undesirables' and the churches provided comfort and succour to those who did so.
Today we see the active persecution of the church in China, where churches are being bulldozed and congregations penalised by the officially atheist regime. I have actually seen ignorant idiots safely in 'liberal' western societies advocating similar actions to be taken to 'destroy Christianity' on the grounds that it is evil, brainwashing, anti-science and, of course, responsible for all wars, conflicts and - to quote Stephen Fry and Phillip Pullman - "responsible for the deaths of billions in the Americas and elsewhere." As I am unable to find any support for their assertion that the entire Spanish (and Portugese) conquest of the Americas was actually driven by the Roman Church (or any other) - whose priests and bishops spent an inordinate amount of time trying to stop the rape, murder and plunder of the Conquistadores and their successors - I find their numbers suspiciously dramatic and a little inflated.
That there have been, and are, some rather nasty and bloodthirsty religions in the past is undeniable. Even the Buddhist faith practiced human sacrifice until it was forcibly ended by the British and others. In Burma the British were horrified by the sacrifice of 200 young men to appease the spirits at the site of the 'new' capital being built in the 1860s - and launched a campaign which ended in the country being made a 'Protectorate' to end it. Mr Fry and his ilk, I suspect, simply ignore the fact that Judaism and Christianity did not, and do not, practice the genocidal system of sacrificing their enemies, and proclaim there is no difference. Ethnic cleansing has many faces, few of them 'religious' (though I'm sure someone will point to the passages in the Bible that command racial purity and the expulsion or murder of non-Jewish wives and offspring. What is more there is NO evidence this was ever actually practiced, then or later.). The fact is that Christianity expressly forbids such practices, and, once again, if you look at ALL the evidence, it quickly becomes apparent that while 'religion' is often used as a cloak, the real motivation is often 'commercial' and nothing whatever to do with any 'faith'.
Usually the motivation is 'capital gain' in the form of land seized, slaves obtained, treasure taken, and prime examples are the Muscovite wars of conquest and expansion, China's seizure of Tibet and the removal of ethnic Tibetans and their replacement with ethnic Chinese. Or Stalin's mass removal of Cossacks, Tartars, Ukrainians and Georgians and their replacement with ethnic Russians - the source of much of the problem in the Eastern Ukraine today. As with any ideology, everything can be twisted by those who are clever at manipulating others (and humanity is full of those who never look beyond the exciting message, or the charismatic messenger). When it suited Hitler, he made a point of being photographed with clergy. Stalin ordered some hastily released Bishops and priests to bless banners and the troops heading for the suicidal battles of the 'Patriotic Front'.
Much is sometimes made of the fact that those on both sides of any conflict invoke the protection of God for their side, but this doesn't 'prove' anything other than our natural desire to hope that we will survive - or at least find a path to a 'better place' than the battlefield if we die there. As my grandfather once remarked, "there are no atheists in a shell hole when death is raining down on you".
Despite the atheist, humanist and secularist propaganda, the vast majority of wars are not 'caused by religion'. They are caused by ideological agendas, by human greed, envy, spite and the hope of gain. This is what motivated Argentina to invade the Falkland Islands, what drove the bush wars in Angola, Mozanbique, Vietnam and Korea. The desire for political advantage and power is what drives the various civil wars in Central Africa, in Syria and in Ukraine. These can only be called 'religious' if we are to declare political ideology to be a 'religion'. I suspect that will really cause a few wars.
Propaganda is a powerful tool, and it has been used against people of faith very effectively for the last hundred years or so. Sadly, even though the evidence against the charge that "religion is the cause of all wars in history" is right in front of the vast majority, they will still swallow the lie and not check the facts. A case, perhaps, of 'don't confuse me with facts; my mind is made up'. And that, my friends, is a very sad commentary on the state of western thinking, freedom and access to information. A very sad commentary indeed.