Is Religion the Main Cause of Wars?

Today’s blog post is about religious violence – in particular the claim that most wars and conflicts in the world are caused by religion. This claim is often made by so-called New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris who argue that violence is an inevitable corollary of religion’s being irrational, anti-science, and intolerant of others.

My aim in this post is to respond to the New Atheists by drawing from Michael Horner’s insights on this topic. Horner was my apologetics instructor at Trinity Western University in 1998 and he recently delivered a seminar on religious violence at a conference in Toronto in December of 2014, from which I will be drawing heavily. I hope to reproduce some of his main points while adding my own comments throughout.

Horner (2014) argues that the causes of violence are often subtle and complex. In some cases, extremists who act violently in the name of their religion are actually failing to live up to the core tenets of their religion. In other cases, religion is used as a facade to mask deeper political, social, and economic motivations. Therefore, we should guard against labeling violence as “religious” just because its key players are religious or claim to be so.

A key source in Horner’s response to the New Atheists is a three volume study co-authored by Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod entitled Encyclopaedia of Wars (2004). This study covers 1,763 wars that were waged over the course of human history and it reports that only 123 of them were religious in nature, which accounts for only 7% of the total amount! 4% of the total were Islamic wars and 3% were non-Islamic.

When I first heard these statistics quoted during Horner’s seminar, I felt skeptical – and for two reasons: first, the small percentage of religious wars depends on the larger sample which Phillips and Axelrod (2004) selected for study. Thus, the percentage is only accurate insofar as the sample is representative of all the wars humans have ever waged throughout history. Second, it is notoriously difficult to distinguish religious from non-religious causes. That’s because sociological, political, cultural, and economic causes often interact with religious ones, making them hard to separate. Admittedly, I have not rigorously checked the authors’ criteria for classifying wars, so I will not press my skepticism too much on this point. But I have to say that 7% is still a remarkably low percentage, whatever qualms one might have with the authors’ methods of classification. It’s definitely not the outcome that the New Atheists were expecting!

But it gets worse for the New Atheists. We now have plenty of evidence that tens of millions of people in recent history have been slaughtered by evil dictators who did not have religious agendas. In Lethal Politics (1996) and Death by Government (1994), R.J. Rummel estimates the combined death-toll caused by dictators such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Tojo and Pol-Pot at about 122 million lives lost! The key point here is not whether these dictators were motivated by atheistic ideology, but rather that they lacked religious agendas. That fact is hard to square with the New Atheists because it shows that violence need not (and often does not) have a religious source.

So if religion is not the only (or even the primary) source of conflict in the world, then what is? Horner urges us to consider multiple sources. For example, conflicts can arise from the lust for money, power, land, and freedom.[1] Wars can also result when groups of people succumb to an “inside/outside” mindset. This mindset becomes dangerous when outsiders get labelled as evil or hostile simply because they are different from those within a group. The fear of outsiders – whether they be ethnic, racial, or cultural outsiders – then serves as the basis for violent action.

So what should we conclude from this? Horner ends with two main points: (1) wars and conflicts have multiple causes – not just religious ones; and (2) we have good evidence that religion does not feature prominently in most of the wars waged throughout human history. But if (1) and (2) are correct, then the New Atheists need to revise their moral evaluation of religion. End of story.


[1] In fact, the banner of ‘freedom’ can be used as a platform to justify self-serving political aims, as when the United States entered Iraq on the pretense of weapons of mass destruction. The French Revolution is another example.

2 thoughts on “Is Religion the Main Cause of Wars?”

  1. You raise a couple of useful points, Thomas. First, it has certainly become vogue in modern secular society to repeat the unexamined – and frankly propagandistic – slogan that “religion has caused more suffering than [insert comparative here]”. I mean, how many people have actually verified this dictum in any meaningful way? It is usually recited as a sort of self-evident truth. Second, the need to avoid monocausal explanations for armed conflict is an imperative I would do well to bear at the forefront of my mind, because I tend to forget it. 🙂

    There seems to be a ‘loose nail’ in the edifice of Horner’s argument, though. Perhaps you left this out of your terse reproduction of it, but does he ever define what “religion” is, precisely? In your fifth paragraph, you note the difficulty of distinguishing religious causes of conflict from social, economic, political ones, because these variables all “interact” with each other. However, even this language seems to accept that “religious”, “social,” or “political” factors are neatly circumscribed categories, and that it is simply the responsibility of the analyst to disentangle them from one another (I am not ascribing this viewpoint to you, only to an interpretation of the language in your article). I think this plays into the hands of the New Atheists: They want “religion” to be this separate, neatly defined category that they can stand completely apart from, and that allegedly does not explain their actions. It is an explanatory category into which they box the beliefs, motives and actions of “the Other”, but which they believe is inapplicable to themselves. By extricating themselves from the realm of “religion”, the New Atheists can then act as transcendent judges of the rest of benighted humanity from the lofty heights of irreligion.

    I think this is making it too easy for them.

    I suppose, if the etymology of the Latin word “religio” comes from the base meaning of something to do with “linkage” or “tie” (to the past, or to an object of devotion), and the word “cultus” has a similar meaning, then I believe one can plausibly argue that the word does not – strictly speaking – demand theism as a necessary component. It is perhaps, only a connotation. If this is correct, then “religion” can be either theistic or atheistic. Thus, I would say that theism or atheism are worldviews from which sundry religions spawn. Similarly, “credo” is a fairly religiously-neutral term in my opinion, amounting simply to a confession or a statement of beliefs, which New Atheists undoubtedly have. So one can have an atheistic or a theistic credo.

    Thus, Marxism-Leninism is a prime example of one such atheistic religion or credo. After all, it is undoubtedly a statement of belief (quite a militant one, at that) and cultivates devotion towards an abstract notion of “the People”. And it is fundamentally grounded in a worldview that rejects the concept of God. So it is an atheistic religion.

    If you probe deeply into Soviet history, you will see all the hallmarks of “religion”, even if they believed that these things were based on “scientific materialism,” rather than the spiritual: they had a prophet (Karl Marx), a concept of predestination (historical determinism), a universalist message, a trinity (Marx, Engles & Lenin), scripture (the writings of the aforementioned), days of religious observance (May Day, Red October), and on and on.

    So, one may grant the New Atheist the notion that “religions” (undifferentiated) have “killed more people than” thus and so; however, they are religions to which many of them belong, or that are at least premised on a worldview to which they themselves adhere. They are not without a hand in it.

    1. Hi Justin,
      Your suspicions were correct. The seminar to which I referred in the blog post did not define the word “religion” explicitly, and I am aware that the attempt to define it is notoriously difficult.

      If it is defined broadly – e.g. a system of beliefs and practices through which groups to people make sense of reality – then it encompasses worldviews like humanism, scientific materialism, socialism, and the like. If it is defined narrowly to only encompass theistic forms of devotion, then the history of violence perpetrated in the name of non-theistic worldviews remains inexplicable if “religion” is said to be the culprit.

      Finally, if religious, social and political concepts are interdependent and inseparable in the manner you suggest (and I am very sympathetic to that view), then the New Atheists’ critique of religion will have a hard time getting off the ground. I am sympathetic to their opposition towards irrationality and intolerance, but then they should just state their opposition as such instead of making religion per se their target.

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