Is religion the cause of all wars?

Image from 1916 believed to depict a practice run for the Battle of the Somme. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Image from 1916 believed to depict a practice run for the Battle of the Somme. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The argument is often put forward by atheists that “religion is the cause of all wars.” On at least two occasions I’ve had this very thing said to me. But is it really true? Come, let us reason together.

Firstly, let us consider the assertion itself. “Religion is the cause of all wars.”

“As aphorisms go, ‘Religion is the cause of all wars’ is a neat one. It’s also very generalizing. How does one define ‘religion’ in this sentence? How, or to what extent, or on what scale, does one define ‘wars’?”

As aphorisms go, it’s a neat one. It’s also very generalizing indeed. How does one define ‘religion’ in this sentence? How, or to what extent, or on what scale, does one define ‘wars’? Is, for example, a massacre led by the men of one village against the inhabitants of another village a ‘war’? What about a neighbourhood dispute?

So we can see immediately that we have here a very sweeping statement. Very sweeping statements, unless they’re axiomatic, usually require some kind of clarification and justification. (In my experience the assertion, “Religion is the cause of all wars,” is generally treated by its proponents as if it were an axiom, but rarely justified.)

Equally open to interpretation is what is meant by ‘cause.’ For millennia, philosophers have differentiated between various kinds of ‘cause’: for example a thing’s ‘efficient’ cause, its ‘final’ cause, its ‘proximate’ cause. Therefore if one asserts that religion ‘causes’ all wars, we are entitled to ask what type of causation is meant.

Finally, it is worth noting that when a person asserts, “Religion is the cause of all wars,” the burden of proof rests with him or her. If ‘all’ wars is what is posited, it is incumbent on the one positing to demonstrate, logically or statistically, the truth of such a statement in all cases.

Some wars caused by religion

“It is clear that some wars are genuinely caused by religion. The two examples most commonly levelled against religious believers (especially Christians) are the Crusades and the Thirty Years’ War (1618—1648).”

Notwithstanding the above considerations and ambiguities, what is clear is that some wars are genuinely caused by religion. The two examples most commonly levelled against religious believers (especially Christians) are the Crusades and the Thirty Years’ War. The latter (1618—1648) was a brutal and often merciless conflict between Protestant and Catholic armies, in an age when Europe was racked with — quite literally — burning religious convictions.

If it isn’t stretching the definition of a war too far, one might also adduce the example of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which was very much a conflict between two competing visions of Northern Ireland: a Protestant vision of Northern Ireland as a full component part of the UK; and a Catholic vision of Northern Ireland as part of the Republic.

So, yes: if we were to assert that some wars are directly caused by religion, such a statement is manifestly true.

All wars…?

However, the question remains: Are all wars caused by religion? Remember that the burden of proof for this rests with the person making such an assertion.

“The causes of the First World War were almost entirely to do with nationalism and with imperialistic sabre-rattling.”

And to such an assertion we may well give the answer: “World War One.”

Could anybody really maintain the claim that World War One was caused by religion?

In an address given by Andy Johnston in 2014 at an event commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, he puts forward three key causes of the War. These are:—

  1. The Strength of Nationalist Feeling in Europe;
  1. The Strength and Growth of Imperialism in Europe;
  1. The Combination of Aggressive Imperialism and Personal Ambition in Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.

In other words, the causes of the First World War were almost entirely to do with nationalism and with imperialistic sabre-rattling.

“World War One is by no means the only instance of war occasioned by imperialism and territorial greed. We might equally cite the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, which was a result of Prussian or German imperialist ambitions, and which in some ways was a sort of mini precursor to the First World War. We might cite the Boer War, one of the many conflicts resulting from the European land-grab of Africa in the nineteenth century. European colonialist, yes; religious, no.”

Now to be sure, there were religious aspects mixed in with the First World War at its outbreak. Not least of these was the thorny question of Home Rule in Ireland. The Home Rule question, and the tightly related question of the fate of Ulster in the north of Ireland, was a clash between too competing, religiously-motivated visions: the Protestant vision of a province which was part of the United Kingdom; and the Roman Catholic vision of a self-determining, Catholic Ireland.

The outbreak of the First World War actually offered an abatement of these tensions, as both Protestants and Catholics in Ireland could get behind the British war effort, and almost certainly averted civil war in Ireland.

However, whilst this and other religiously-blooded issues were in operation around Europe at the outbreak of the War, we can hardly describe them as causing the War. The cause of the War, clearly, was the imperialism and nationalism across Europe already noted.

And isn’t this more often the cause of war?

World War One is by no means the only instance of war occasioned by imperialism and territorial greed. We might equally cite the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, which was a result of Prussian or German imperialist ambitions, and which in some ways was a sort of mini precursor to the First World War. We might cite the Boer War, one of the many conflicts resulting from the European land-grab of Africa in the nineteenth century. European colonialist, yes; religious, no.

Or to take a more recent example: the Falklands War of 1982, clearly a dispute over territory.

Take even what is probably the most obvious conflagration of the twentieth century, World War Two. Like the First World War, the reasons why WW2 happened are varied and complex. But not least among them, the War was in many ways the clash of two anti-religious ideologies: Soviet communism and German national socialism. In Holocaust Memorial week (Holocaust Memorial Day was 27 January) it’s worth reflecting that the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust were the victims of what was, at heart, an atheist ideology.

“From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?”

James 4:1 (Authorized Version)

Rather than the simplistic and dismissive aphorism that “religion is the cause of all wars,” I think James, the brother of the Lord, has it more to the point when he gives his own diagnosis in his one New Testament letter. He asks,

“From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?”

Or in another translation,

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?”[1]

Although the context of James’ diagnosis is different — he is not speaking about war per se but about quarrelling and arguments between Christians (as the rest of the paragraph shows) — his analysis is nonetheless applicable.

Human greed, pride, envy, anger: here, surely, are to be found the constituent elements of the start of most wars large and small. Not all; there are still the Crusades and the Thirty Years’ War, genuinely rooted in religious convictions. But in a world of fallen human beings, a world still living in the long shadow of our first parents’ primal sin, why should it surprise us that the human heart is literally at the heart of most of our global conflicts?

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus![2]

 

 

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Scripture quotations (unless stated otherwise) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] James 4:1. The first is from the Authorized Version, the second from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[2] Revelation 22:17,20

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