Does religion cause war? It’s a firm yes from British zoologist and vocal atheist Richard Dawkins, who sees a direct correlation between the two. According to Dawkins, “religion causes wars by generating certainty”. American neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris agrees with Dawkins, stating that faith and religion are “the most prolific source of violence in our history”. Harris and Dawkins are not the only ones to espouse these views about religious ideologies, with many others believing that religious conviction can be a dangerous thing which leads to violent conflict.
Are these claims true? Let’s reflect on the examples of the major wars this world has seen in modern times and see what role, if any, religion played in them.
World War I (1914–1918)
Also known as The Great War, it was one of the deadliest events in history. It was a global conflict that essentially pitted the Central Powers (Germany, Turkey and Austria-Hungary) against the Allies (France, Great Britain, Russia, Italy, Japan, and from 1917, the United States). The main cause of World War I is often considered to be the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, who was shot by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914. But the assassination merely acted as a catalyst for war—nationalism, militarism, imperialism and political alliances were the fuel behind World War I.
The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, was intended to ensure a post-war world that would never allow itself to go through such a devastating global conflict again.
Unfortunately, a resentful Germany felt that they had been duped into signing this treaty. The Treaty of Versailles placed the entire responsibility for the war on Germany’s shoulders, forcing them to make several billions of dollars in reparation payments, give up much of their territory and overseas colonies, and accept Allied occupation in the region around the Rhine River.
World War II (1939–1945)
While post-World War I conditions did not make another war inevitable, they certainly paved the way for the Nazi Party to gain support among Germans, as they promised to overturn the country’s humiliation and make them a superpower to be reckoned with.
In his 1925 autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, Hitler describes himself as becoming an anti-Semite before his move to Vienna at the age of 18. This was confirmed by Elisabeth Grünbauer, who shared her memories of Hitler as a young man in a 1994 interview. Hitler had boarded in her family home in Munich for more than a year before leaving to fight in World War I.
Regardless of when Hitler began expressing an anti-Semitic position, there can be no doubt that it heavily influenced his actions when he came to power. But his obsession with creating “a pure race” indicates that his anti-Semitism was related to race, rather than religion.
The Russian Civil War (1917-1923)
The conflict is remembered in the Guinness World Records as “the world’s costliest civil war”, in terms of the number of lives lost during combat and in events relating to the war. It was fought between opposing political factions (Bolshevik versus anti-Bolshevik) and claimed the lives of more than 9 million people, 8 million of whom were civilians. However, religion did not play any part in causing this war. It was a struggle between various political and military groups for control of Russia.
The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)
The war broke out when China began resisting Japanese expansion in its territory. This war resulted in the death of 25 million civilians as well as more than 4 million Japanese and Chinese military deaths.
Although tension had been brewing for a long time, the war is said to have been prompted by an incident near the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing, when Japanese troops opened fire on local soldiers.
• Also described as “The Great War of Africa”, the Second Congo War (1998–2003) directly involved nine African nations and killed an estimated 3.8 million people.
• Let’s not forget the millions who lost their lives in the revolutionary wars and purges of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Mao’s China, Ceaușescu’s Romania, and North Korea under the Kim family’s dictatorship.
But what about the wars where religion was involved?
Are there wars where religious reasons are cited as the motivations? Absolutely. We would be remiss to leave out the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, The Thirty Years’ War and the ongoing Israeli Palestinian conflict just to name a few.
There can be no denying that throughout human history religious extremists have contributed to many horrific events or that terrible atrocities have been committed by people who aligned themselves with various faiths and claim to be waging a holy war—such as recent Jihadist attacks. Yet as we reflect upon the many wars which have been committed throughout history, it is clear that politics, competing ideologies, ethnic conflicts and power struggles are just as culpable.
As religious commentator and former nun Karen Armstrong states, “We have seen that, like the weather, religion ‘does lots of different things.’ To claim that it has a single, unchanging and inherently violent essence is not accurate.” She says that religion is often a presence in armed conflict, but it is not the cause, and that leaders who seek power or wealth often use religion to achieve their own ends.
Should we just get rid of religion?
Although it appears apparent that religion is not always the sole or even a primary cause of war, “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Harris believe that theism (belief in God) is not only unjustified, but harmful and should be vehemently opposed.
In his 2014 Sydney Morning Herald article “God is with us, unfortunately”, Sam de Brito suggested that the removal of religion would solve global conflict.
“Remove questions of God from Israel and Gaza and you’re left with two people who have more in common than they care to realise,” he wrote. “Remove God from the rest of the Middle East, it wouldn’t be devouring itself in a sectarian war over a 1400-year-old disagreement.”
But de Brito was not the first person to suggest that the key to world peace is as “simple” as removing religion.
In 1789, Catholicism was the official religion of France. The population of France was predominantly Catholic—Jewish and Protestant minorities were not allowed to be full members of the state. But by 1794, France’s churches and religious orders had all been closed down. The philosophes—or the intellectuals of the French Enlightenment—had been criticising the Church, denouncing it for its wealth, power and influence. Church property was nationalised, 30,000 priests were exiled and hundreds more were forced to marry or were killed. The Christian calendar was replaced. And so began an event we know as the French Revolution.
“Every sensible man, every honourable man, must hold the Christian religion in horror,” declared the philosopher Voltaire.
“Religion has . . . kept him (man) in ignorance of the real duties of true interests. It is only by dispelling these clouds and phantoms of religion, that we shall discover Truth, Reason and Morality,” claimed the French-German philosopher Baron d’Holbach.
But the subsequent Reign of Terror demonstrated that the removal of religion did not eliminate or even prevent violence.
What does the Bible say?
In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins describes God as “the most unpleasant character in all of fiction” using attributes such as “petty”, “unjust” and “unforgiving” to support his description.
I can’t speak on behalf of all religions—only from my personal experience raised in the Christian faith.
But the God that I’ve read about in the Bible isn’t anything like the picture that Dawkins draws. The book of Exodus describes God as “compassionate”, “slow to anger”, “abounding in love ” and “forgiving”.
Jesus said that one of the two greatest commandments was to “love our neighbours as ourselves”. I can only imagine how many wars we might stop if we followed these principles!
The books of Luke and John talk about Peter, one of the disciples, cutting off a soldier’s ear in anger and Jesus rebuking him, before healing the soldier. Peter’s hot temper and rash action could easily have become a reason to start a fight but Jesus’ intervention calmed things down.
(Fun fact: Britain and Spain actually did go to war when a British captain claimed Spanish sailors had cut off his ear. The war lasted almost 10 years and was called the War of Jenkins’ Ear).
What is the real root cause of war?
Ultimately the root cause of war is our human selfishness. Whether it’s for political power, ideological control or even in the name of religion, it’s our desire for the things that we don’t have which lead us to go into battle.
“What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them” (James 4:1,2, NLT).
Let’s not make religion a reason for war. Instead, let’s make religion a chance to show compassion, an exercise in self-control and a light in the darkness.
If you’d like to find out more about the benefits of religion, send us a line here. We have some discovery courses which will help you learn about who God is and what plans He has for your life.
Vania Chew is based in Sydney and works as a marketing assistant at Adventist Media.
All Bible texts quoted in this article are from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois, 60188. All rights reserved.