The charge that most of the wars in history were religiously motivated is a popular one, especially with the New Atheists and their followers. Sam Harris has written in his book The End of Faith that religion is "the most prolific source of violence in our history."1 But a cursory review of the wars fought throughout history shows the opposite is true.
As Robin Schumacher reports "An interesting source of truth on the matter is Philip and Axelrod's three-volume Encyclopedia of Wars, which chronicles some 1,763 wars that have been waged over the course of human history. Of those wars, the authors categorize 123 as being religious in nature, which is an astonishingly low 6.98% of all wars. However, when one subtracts out those waged in the name of Islam (66), the percentage is cut by more than half to 3.23%."2
To see just how far the New Atheists will go to keep their fable about religion being the major source of war and violence in the world, one has to look no farther than Christopher Hitchens. As William T Cavanaugh writes in his book The Myth of Religious Violence, Hitchens is guilty of very selective classification of not only what causes violence, but what classifies as religion and what doesn't.3 Not only does Cavanaugh provide examples where Hitchens takes clearly secular states, such as Stalin's regime, and ascribes their atrocities to the "religious impulse", but he also points out that religious pacifism is discounted because it isn't violent. He writes:
"Hitchens thus seems to employ a functionalist conception of religion, but he does not do so consistently. For most of his book, what Hitchens means by religion seems to be limited to some substantivist list of world religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism all come in for criticism and dismissal. When it helps to make his case against religion, however, things like Kim Jong-Il's militantly atheist regime in North Korea count as religion too. … Religion poisons everything because Hitchens identifies everything poisonous as religion. Likewise, everything good ends up on the other side of the religious-secular divide. For example, Hitchens writes of Martin Luther King, Jr. 'In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian.' Hitchens bases this remarkable conclusion on the fact that King was nonviolent and preached forgiveness and love of enemies, as opposed to the Bible, which in both the Old and New Testaments is marked by a vengeful God. Here, what is not violent cannot possibly be religious, because religion is defined as violent."4
Echoing Cavanaugh's concern on the misleading lumping of the pacifistic teachings of Jesus and his act of self-sacrifice that becomes the ultimate example of humility and peace for all his followers, Keith Ward tells us the real reason for the continual string of wars that color our history:
"Human history as a whole is a history of warfare and violence. The early recorded history of humanity is a story of imperial conquests and wars. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Egypt and Greece, together with almost endless waves of so-called barbarian hordes, make our books of early human history into chronicles of almost continual conquest and warfare.It is clear, then, that the charge of religion as the primary progenitor of war is on its face absurd and folks like Harris and Hitchens really have neither interest in history nor the roots of conflict between states. Rather, they simply want to continue to paint a picture that may win them their own converts and offer slick talking points, Unfortunately , those interested in facts find a different answer.
"Religion may have played some part in these affairs, but it is the desire for power and wealth that is the constant factor. It is natural that warrior-kings should try to enlist the loyalty of their followers by getting them to defend some preferred set of values, and to denigrate the values of other societies. Since religions usually embody values, kings can readily enlist the gods on their side, as protectors of the values of the empire."5
References1. Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.
(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005). 27.
2. Schumacher, Robin. "The Myth that Religion is the #1 Cause of War" CARM.org
http://carm.org/religion-cause-war. Accessed 3-5-2013
3. Cavanaugh, William T. The Myth of Religious Violence:Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict.
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 218.
5. Ward, Keith. Is Religion Dangerous?(Oxford: Lion Hudson ple, 2011). 68.