May 11, 2011

  • Religion as the Cause of War

    There’s been a good-natured discussion on religion and war over on trunthepaige’s site here and here as part of a larger discussion on atheism and “myths.” I’m not particularly concerned with proving or critiquing these supposed atheist myths, but I did want to question a specific statistic brought into play by Paige:

    “It is a fact that religion was the motivator of only 7% of all of histories wars.”

    This kind of thing gets said all the time, but it seems pretty darn difficult to me to prove this so specifically. I told Paige, I would love love love to see how that statistic was made. Has somebody actually got a list of every war in the history of mankind? And then counted them all up? Decided what’s a ‘war’ and what’s… a skirmish/conflict/police action? And THEN decided whether religion was the deciding motivator or cause? Because frankly, I have to admit, I’m hugely skeptical of this.

    There’s no such thing as historical consensus. Professional historians spend their lives arguing over causality. No historian is going to say THIS war was motivated by religion, and THIS war wasn’t. They might say religion was A motivator. But I think it’d be completely impossible to make a list of every ‘war’ ever, and then comprehensively go through them and decide absolutely whether religion was the motivator for each. Isn’t going to happen.

    That isn’t a fact that I could believe without seeing some serious evidence to back it up.

    In response, Paige linked me to a 1400 encyclopedia on war and American society, but couldn’t give me a specific citation, so I was left to wonder… was this is a statistic directly stated in the book somewhere? That book could very well be a valid and worthwhile source, I’m not questioning its historical accuracy, because I’ve never read it. But surely you understand the immensely complicated nature of causation? You can’t just read a list of wars on a chart somewhere and decide that war A was caused by religion and war B wasn’t. Or take the word of whoever made the chart.

    Historians spend a lot of time trying to work through the nuance of these wars… E.H. Carr, a pretty well known historian, wrote in the 1960s that the main job of historians is to decide on causes, and then rank them in order of importance. Obviously, then, (if you believe this to be the main task of historians, which quite a lot of historians disagree with) the causes, and their relative importance, are up to the individual historian to discern and argue for. Does the linked Encyclopedia argue that there exists consensus among historians over the cause of every war? If it does, it’s wrong. Completely and absolutely.

    I can’t think of any war to my knowledge that has ONE cause. Events like those tend to be big, complicated, nuanced things, with multiple possible causes, both religious and non-religious… the only way any of this classification would even make sense is if one said something like x% of wars were in some way related to religious issues.

    I’m pretty confident I could list you 150 wars that have religion among their causes. I’m pretty sure I could list you twice as many. The problem with doing so is that it’d be impossible to decide whether it’s THE cause.

    I could say X war had religion as one of its causes, and so was caused, in part, by religion, and thus deserves to be counted. Then, you’d be free to tell me you disagree, and that you don’t think religion was a prime cause. In order to actually come up with some idea of how many wars in human history have been “religious” we have to decide two things:

    1) – what is a war? Do we count the French Wars of Religion, say, as one 30 year long war? Or many wars? If we’re going for a statistic, that kind of thing is very important to decide upon before hand. We also need to decide what is required to be a “war” and what’s going to instead be classified as something else – a conflict/police action/internal dispute/revolution/etc. That’s also going to be important.

    2) – does having religion among the causes for a war make it a “religious” war? A lot of historians will argue it’s basically impossible to rank causes to any event. Take a look at this article. Causation is HARD. The author of that, Michael Stanford, basically argues that it isn’t even worth trying to decide cause for events, because they can’t be accurately discerned. Even historians who agree that causation can be discerned often suggest that it isn’t really possible to rank them. In “Historical Causation: Is One Thing More Important Than Another?,” S.H. Rigby says ranking causes is impossible. If cause A and cause B (say, A = religion and B = politics, if you want) both can be identified as causes, are you going to decide one was 40% responsible and one was 60% responsible? What does that mean? That if A hadn’t existed, the event would have had a 40% chance of not happening? That’s going too deeply into counter-factuals to be accurate to any degree.

    So essentially, we need to decide the parameters of this discussion, something Paige adamantly refused to do. So, I’m putting the question to you, dear readers:

    do you think it’s possible to come up with a statistic for how many wars in human history were “religious” wars?

    If you were to do so, how would you define “war” and how would you decide whether or not to classify it as a religious conflict?

Comments (41)

  • I will pray for you.

  • I liked my lavender-shaded midget unicorn sex rebuttal.

  • You’re absolutely right, and there’s a third difficulty, which is defining “religion.”  How do you define religion in such a way that it includes all the things we take to be religions (including Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism), but does not include things we know aren’t religion (including nationalism and sports enthusiasm)? 

  • Even if they had religion as the cause, I’m sure it wasn’t the sole cause for those wars like how one of those points you mentioned. The thing is we might never know these things as much as we want to. It’s not so simple to define any of it.

  • religious affronts was used as a tactic to start wars more than the root cause. You’ll see governments still playing the same game today but use patriotism stirred into a frenzy instead.

    War-Was & still is a boy toy & money game.

  • I disagree with the idea that there is no historical consensus. Historians all agree that the Crusades were, at least partially, motivated by religion, as the evidence is overwhelming and obvious. Causality is easy when someone says “I’m going to this because _____!” It becomes harder when they appear to be deceptive or the information is lacking.

    As for religion, yes, it has been the cause of numerous wars throughout history. In addition, it has led to hatred, bigotry, persecution, and genocide. Innumerable volumes of countless books of knowledge were lost when Christians burned down the Library of Alexandria, and the Catholic Church intentionally kept people oppressed and ignorant for a millennium.

    Also, I’d ignore trunthepaige. I’ve read some of her blogs, and I’ve concluded she’s a raving, incoherent idiot. She doesn’t know how to spell, she never cites sources, and she’s got these bizarre ass-backward misconceptions with no basis in reality. In short, she’s a moron and not worth your time.

  • @TheThinkingPerson - Very true about the Crusades, but you’ve got to be careful, because they weren’t actually just started because of religion. They were mainly political and military in nature in the beginning. As the Ottoman Turks expanded westward and conquered more and more of the Byzantine Empire (especially after the battle of Manzikert) the Byzantine Emperor asked the western nations for help protecting his empire. Sure, there were all kinds of religious undertones behind that request, and equally, religious undertones behind why the nations that answered decided to do so. Buuut… keep in mind one of the main causes for the initial request wasn’t religious.

    Then, you enter into all kinds of debate about whether “I’m going to this because _____!” is causation. The article I linked in my post by Stanford essentially argues that the only provable causation is exactly that… the decision made by the person or people involved. Everything else is condition, not a cause – something that influences that decision, the only true cause(s). That’s part of the reason why he dismisses the search for causes altogether.

    (as for Paige, she’s one of my oldest xanga friends, and I respect her opinions. I just felt in this case that my own opinions were strong enough to warrant a separate post)

  • It amazes me you wrote a whole post to contend with something Paige said. You know you can’t get that hour of your life back, don’t you. 

  • I too found that statistic to be a bit dubious, for the reasons you cited. Most wars happen for a variety of reasons, and many people tend to rank certain reasons higher or lower due to their own biases. Many atheists are guilty of circular logic in declaring that war or that war primarily caused by religion, and many religious people are similarly guilty for discounting religion as a factor.

    There are evil religions, and there are people who have used religion as a tool to control the masses. Religious people shouldn’t feel they have to defend these people and ideas just because they are religious. And atheists shouldn’t let their heads swell, as many have used the lack of religion quite, shall we say, religiously, and great evil has resulted. Both people and institutions ought to be judged on their own merits, not on their religiosity or lack thereof.

  • To blame religion for war is like blaming athiesm for communism, or the genocidal dictators that were responsible for communists dictatorships: its too broad and complex to attribute as a single cause. Some religious movements certainly do bear the blame for war – the Crusades the most popularly known one – but to blame ALL religion in the history of humanity is just ludicrous. Still, this was a really good responce.

    I recently got into an ugly argument with an atheist acquaintance over a similar topic. He is of the opinion  that religion, ALL religion, bears the responsibility for  the wars, bloodshed, and atrocities committed by humanity. What made the argument ugly was his inability to discuss like an adult (resorting to nasty personal attacks and name-callings) and the inability to listen to anything that disagreed with his opinions.

  • Oh fine (jumps in with both feet).

    Eh, but Nikbv, the original context is that atheists have used this mysterious stat that “Religion is the primary cause of wars!” without backing it up. Paige’s defense may have some problems, but you’re getting away from the original reason why this was brought up. For example, this book was written to counter that statement ( ) which shows you what a hot topic of debate it is. Interestingly enough, I could find no validation, statistics, or origin for the original quote whatsoever. For the record, the Oxford-trained historian disagreed with it, but he was a Christian.

    Your articles cited as defense are not quite helpful to your cause. For example, in the article labeled “this”, you indicate that it says causation is hard. However, the article does identify the cause of World War I (indicating it can be done in some circumstances) and is mostly concerned with identifying the causes of movements (French Rev, Italian Ren, etc.) rather than wars, which tend to stem from more discrete events. Also, Rigby deliberately is making the argument more difficult than it is. Sure, I can’t say religion is a “53.7%” contributor to a war, but I can consider terms such as “necessary or sufficient” or “majority and minority” cause that allow us to dodge the numerical context.

    Your arguments about wars and causation are not that difficult to deal with, and for one, the author of the book I cited tried to get some counts and causes. Also, Boom, list of wars (thank you search engines!): I’ll let you look up each one and check causes as an exercise, haha. But, and if you’ll forgive me a grad student moment (pushes glasses on nose) it’s just a matter of making a reasonable assumption or two and sticking to it. Pick a generally approved list of wars, go down and check each one for causes, delete wars whose causes are hotly disputed or unclear and voila! data set. Crowing that Paige can’t create a research context is a bit unfair, it’s not her area of expertise. It’s a fair challenge, but is rather heavy on semantics, don’t you think?

  • @GreekPhysique - Thanks for that. I really appreciate that you did decide to jump in with both feet – that’s exactly the kind of thoughtful discussion I was looking for here. Which, incidentally, would be my response to your first point; I know I didn’t exactly engage Paige’s post full on. In my comment there (but removed from my post here, I think) I mentioned that I was only going to focus on that one element of her post. I really didn’t want to start getting into the whole ‘atheist myth’ thing. That kind of argument is never going to end well. It doesn’t result in thoughtful discussion, it results in a bunch of pointless name-calling about all those darn idiot atheists and idiot Christians.

    I haven’t read the book you cited, but a couple of the articles I found reviewing it seemed less than completely positive. One said, if I recall correctly, that it seemed like a good introductory book for college classes. I realise you’re citing it as a demonstration of the discourse level, though.

    You’re right that Stanford does give a cause for the First World War, “the cause of the First World War was the decision of
    various European governments to go to war.” But in doing so, I don’t think he’s saying the cause of wars is more easily identified – he’s demonstrating the pointlessness of isolating causation without considering conditions. Essentially, causation can be stated very simply: “what motivated the actors.” This isn’t unique in his article to wars or movements.

    He isn’t drawing a distinction as you suggest between the two; they’re both examples to his argument. That argument, as I said, and as he states in his conclusion, is that, “finding causes in history is necessary, apparently
    simple and nearly impossible… The true business of history is the study of the men and women who made
    it.” I think this makes his article very relevant to my blog here, wherein I try to argue for the difficulty in pinning a cause to a war, religious or otherwise.

    I still maintain, though, that going down a list of approved wars and simply checking each one for causes is going to raise more questions than it will create a data set. Your author argues that the 20th century wars were mainly secular ones, and there’s no doubt that they were, in many ways. On the other hand, as I argued in another place in Paige’s blog (though I didn’t include it here) it’s impossible to separate religion in many ways from them. The example I used there was the Second World War, where I suggested that Nazi antisemitism and the acceptance of Nazi ideology amongst the German populace had centuries deep roots in religiously linked German culture and traditions of antisemitism.

    Looking at a list of wars and simply quoting something like “Versailles, national pride, economic collapse, and greed” for the causes of German aggression might be an easy answer, but it doesn’t really do much to delve deeper, and look more closely at how those conditions were formed. I think it’s not unreasonable to argue that when you do that, you find that religion (as part of cultural and societal traditions) helped form the mindsets that resulted in those decisions that Stanford would label as causes.

    All this being said, I’m not going to engage in the atheist-theist rhetoric about the evils of the other side. I’m not blaming Christianity, or religion, for all the world’s woes. That’s not my point here, which I guess explains some of the confusion among those used to that kind of debate.

  • @NikBv - I definitely agree with you that the whole exercise is rather pointless. Finding those awful atheist barbarians in 450 AD or what not means nothing. But I wasn’t sure if you were aware of the full context of the debate, I should have assumed better of you. And yes, I’m not quoting the book as any sort of source, as I could not find a review done by an irreligious critic (amazon was sparse, review I did spot was by Christian guy, so I didn’t look much further. That was my error, apparently others exist).

    I am indeed trying to dodge the theist/atheist classic debates myself. And I do appreciate that you framed it more as a research question. I just suppose I get a bit cranky when I hear “it can’t be done” for a research topic–e.g., even though Freakanomics is a bit more freak than econ, I love the concept of devising careful thought experiments to decide debates.

    Thanks for a lengthy and thoughtful response.

  • @NikBv - Also on a secondary topic that I think you did well to bring up, the World War II debate. Given some of the research in psychology, I think it’s hard not to argue that the source of well, pretty much everything is beliefs. Beliefs become thoughts become actions become consequences or what not. Unfortunately, what that does is bring the theist/atheist debate into much harsher sections; now it’s “WHICH ONE OF US IS THE REAL MURDERER” time, which does no real good.

  • Yup..definitely agree that to say x% of wars are caused by y is a gross over-simplification.

  • Yes to the first question.

    War is war and conflict is conflict. 

  • war…what is it good for?

  • While I am opposed to religion, I think war is more about power and money.  Most leaders of any age, during any war/conflict wanted power and money. 

  • Male chimps hunt down males from other groups to gain their territory and females. Sounds like war to me and (I assume) not a religious thought amongst them.

  • 7% of xanga wars have been started by trolls.  Here is the link:  Link

    I won’t tell you where the information is on that page.  You will have to find it yourself.

  • @TheThinkingPerson - It’s actually very much in dispute how or why the Library at Alexandria was burned down. 

    “the Catholic Church intentionally kept people oppressed and ignorant for a millennium.

    This ignores the fact that it was the Muslims that kept science alive during the Middle Ages, not atheists. Thus, to say “Religion” in general caused the ignorance of many is deceptive. 

  • Great post and thanks for your sharing!! NFL Pro Bowl

  • The greatest carnage has been caused by secular forces:

    1. World War I – 14,000,000

    2. World War II – 64,000,000

    3.  The Communist Mass Murders – 100,000,000

    Blaming religion for wars is like blaming Miley Cyrus for the AIDS epidemic.

  • @TheThinkingPerson - The Crusades happened centuries ago and pale before the atheist mass murders of the 20th century: 100,000,000.

    People who criticize religion are really criticizing Christianity.

    What are your thoughts on iSLAM?  Do you know anything about its history?

  • @LoBornlytesThoughtPalace - *sigh* Don’t give me that tired argument, Curtis. I’ve explained before why the communist regimes of Stalin, Mao, et al. were mostly atheist, true, but their motivations for their genocides lay elsewhere. Stalin, for example, killed/gulag’d anyone who opposed him because he wanted to create a totalitarian police state with himself at its helm. His policies about forced collectivization of rural farms in the Ukrainian SSR and other areas are what led to the mass famines, not his atheism.

    It’s a similair situation with Mao-the difference being that he was an idiot who thought that giving farmers industrial tools would somehow modernize China. It didn’t, and it led to the mass starvation of millions. Again, atheism was not a factor there.

    I wonder how many times you will continue to bring that argument up. I’m not a communist, a fascist, or a Maoist, so if you’re trying to make me feel guilty over those lost lives, it’s not working.

    Besides, those regimes were only atheistic in the sense that they didn’t believe in god. Stalin, Mao, and Kim-Il Sung all made a point to set themselves up as gods (the latter’s personality cult is still very much alive in the DPRK).

  • @TheThinkingPerson - Yours is the tired argument.

    Your excuses for atheism not withstanding, the Communist mass murders of the 20th century were secular not religious.

    Religion attentuates the baser nature of man.

    Secular culture and thought like atheism are man with all his evil, unleashed.’

    That’s why secular culture is responsible for more murder and mayhem then religious culture could ever produce in its wildest dreams.

  • @LoBornlytesThoughtPalace - Very true. Secular forces have fought wars that caused dozens if not hundreds of millions of deaths. And, I appreciate your distinction between secular and atheist in this issue. While it might be a bit silly and semantic, though, the issue here is the percentage of wars, not the percentage of casualties.

  • @NikBv - To disregard the raw carnage created by secular wars is to disregard the reality of war.

    Also the Communist mass murders of the 20th century were committed by atheists.

    Vladimir Lenin said, “Atheism is necessary for the Communist program.”

    Atheism is necessary for mass murder. For the atheist creates his own morality. 

    Lenin, Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Castro, Hitler all used mass murder as a matter of policy. That is to say, mass murder was good for the State, therefore it was moral.

    Atheism can be shown to be a complete absurdity in a 3 sentence proof.

    People who are gullible or evil enough to be atheist are nervy enough to deny all responsibility for the catastrophe wrought by their evil religion.

  • @LoBornlytesThoughtPalace - Right, but you’re missing the point of my blog here. Read more of my entry than just the title before you decide on a comment…

  • @LoBornlytesThoughtPalace - Uhh, no, religion causes human being to disregard reason and common sense and do things without having a logical reason to.

    I’d argue with you, but I won’t because A. That has gotten me nowhere in the past, and B. I’m still sort of disgusted with you for still-still!- pretending to be a woman despite being outed as an identity thief.

    Instead, I shall leave you with a song I’m sure you will enjoy:

  • @TheThinkingPerson - I’m sorry, but what you are saying is completely wrong.

    The Catholic Church developed the education system that is teaching you. Logic and reason have been critical to Christianity since Jesus did his first miracles.

    Atheism is a religion much like the one you describe where reason and logical thought are alien. Need I repeat my 3 sentence proof that demonstrates that atheism is a faith based religion?

    In fact, atheism is more unreasonable than even the most outrageous religious sect.  Atheism is used by charismatic leaders beguile the weak minded and institute tyranny.

  • Also complicating the issue is that religion itself is not always a distinct concept. Throughout most of history religions have been so thoroughly intertwined with culture and politics that it can be difficult to tell whether it was religion influencing the government or the other way around. If a theocratic government goes to war, it may very well use its religion as a justification for its actions even if there are underlying motives that go beyond the religion. This is probably the case with the Crusades. While religion is undsiputably a significant player in their cause, there were also many political strifes and imperialist attitudes (as well as plain old xenophobia) that probably would have caused at least some of them anyway.

  • Bear in mind religion could be a motivator or a justification or something that just made people not oppose something so much.  Like in america, most christians aren’t anti-gay bigots, but gays won’t have legal rights for a long time yet because the bulk of christians aren’t willing to go against “the bible says so”.  It’s the whole “all that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing” thing.  Religion is far better at making good people go along with bad things than it is at making people evil or whatever.

    A lot of the extreme behavior like genocide is I don’t think caused by religion, but enabled by it.  And by “religion” I don’t mean spirituality etc, but rather a dogmatic belief system promoted by fear, indoctrination and other uses of physical or psychological pressure where people are ostricized for not conforming, and so on.  And this is harmful whether it be a christian construct or a communist one, for instance.

  • Onetime I pointed out to Paige that Limbaugh had said something and she countered this by saying it wasn’t true because it was just a hatchet job on some Liberal Drive By Site. I then presented the link to the transcripts which were on Limbaughs very own website and she promptly went into ignore (ignorance)mode.

  • Very interesting post. I have always ASSUMED that religions were a major contributor for many wars, not all of them, but many.  I have never thought to look up a statistic that actually proves that to be the case, and now that you point it out, I dont think it can be possible. As you noted, what is classified as a war? What is only a conflict or a skirmish? Currently, a Jihad is waged against Americans, but officially is that a war? The War on Terrorism is against extremist beliefs, but in their eyes it’s an attack on Islam. I dont think this question can be answered truthfully. Good post though!

  • do you think it’s possible to come up with a statistic for how many wars in human history were “religious” wars?

    If a religious war is one in which religion is explicitly in the name of a religion, or as a direct ideological result of religious motivations, then yes I believe it is possible to come up with a statistic.

    If you were to do so, how would you define “war” and how would you decide whether or not to classify it as a religious conflict?

    I would restrict “war” to refer only to conflicts that are sanctioned by and have popular social support; governmentally or not. If the war meets the above definition by the initiating party, then it is a religious war.

  • I don’t really have a whole lot to say on this, as religion is one of those things I tend to try and stay away from (whether for or against). But for the sake of thinking, are you talking about certain religions or certain religions? Do these include ‘cult’ type religions or more like catholic/protestant?

    I think the misinterpretation of religious documents has been the backing of a lot of grief in peoples lives (both individually and as a whole). Notice I say misinterpreting, plenty of religious documents have great passages that help enhance a person’s life, but why do they have to be so interpretable?

    Also, people try to change history all the time, try to make things that are true false and are false the truth, I heard a while back that they were trying to say that the concentration camps in Nazi Germany never happened and it was all just a story or some BS like that.

    We read a book, watch the news or read a pamphlet today that is in one way or another slanted into one person’s paradigm, or one groups viewpoint. Just to learn something simple you just about have to read 4 books and then piece the facts together yourself and figure out what may not actually be completely true.

    It’s like my sister and sister in law, one is very playful and likes to joke, the other is very serious and can’t take a joke, one day my sister was crying because of something our sister-in-law said to her, which if she had said to me I would have just made a witty remark and it would have been over and we’d laugh. Instead, now from my sisters point of view given to me from her my sister-in-law is basically a very mean person. At first I was shocked, then I thought about it and what I knew of each and decided that it was just a misunderstanding in the translation of the context.

    Okay, I lied, I guess I had a lot to say. bleh.

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