Religion is the Biggest Cause of War
Updated: Jul 15
“More wars have been fought in the name of religion than anything else.” - Anonymous (paraphrased)
“A glance at history, or at the pages of any newspaper, reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion.” - Sam Harris The number of atheists who claim religion is the greatest cause of war throughout history is astounding. You can see the claim on atheist websites and in a variety of books. It’s one of those claims that’s repeated so frequently that few people take the time to actually challenge it. However, it’s really not difficult to test. And, after you do test it, the notion that more wars are caused by religion than anything else is a bit odd because it’s simply not even close to being true. Let’s start by taking a look at America.
What about the United States? The United States is one of the more religious nations on earth. Over 90% of Americans believe in God. If religion causes war, it would therefore follow that America’s domestic conflicts and foreign wars have primarily been caused by religion or America’s desire to force its religious beliefs upon others. But, is this what our daily lives and history actually show? - Crime – Day to day crime and conflict in America seems to have almost nothing to do with religious beliefs. It’s interesting that there were 1,163,146 violent crimes in the United States in 2013. Yet, only 1,223 crimes were reported to have been motivated by a religious bias. And, while that’s still too many, it’s only 1/10th of 1% of violent crime. If religion really caused conflict, you would think that more violence would actually be attributed to it. But, in almost none of the crimes in the U.S. do the headlines read “Baptist violence escalates!” It’s also interesting that we don’t see prison gangs of Catholics, Presbyterians or Jews killing each other. That’s because America’s belief in God isn’t really the cause of our internal conflicts. - American Wars – What about America’s wars? Does America’s belief in God cause our wars? Let’s take a look. Depending on whether you just count officially declared wars or all military conflicts, the United States has engaged in about twelve wars since its birth. There was the Revolutionary War to break free from England, the War of 1812 (again versus England), the Indian Wars, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the War on Terror. Of these wars, only the War on Terror was caused by religion. And, it wasn’t fought by the United States to advance religious beliefs; it was fought to defend America and its allies against religious extremists who had attacked us. In all, since our nation’s birth, about 970,000 U.S. soldiers have died in the theater of war. America’s bloodiest war ever was the U.S. Civil War – about 530,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died. The war was mostly about slavery, states’ rights, and economics. It wasn’t about religion. In the one war about religion, the War on Terror, about 6,915 have died. That’s about 7/10ths of 1% of all U.S. soldiers killed in war. So, using the United States as an example, it doesn’t look like belief in God and religion is inherently the cause of crime or war. It’s not. And, of all the wars fought, religion was the cause of only one. What about ancient Empires? What about the great ancient empires? Did they fight their wars to advance religious beliefs or were their gods merely called upon for assistance to secure their own desires? Let’s look at one of the biggest – the Roman Empire. After reviewing histories written by the ancient Roman historians, Appian, Eutropius and Tacitus, it’s clear that Roman wars and civil wars were generally motivated by a desire for land, resources, wealth, power or self-defense. Of the many foreign wars and civil wars Rome fought from its founding in the 8th century BC through the 1st century AD, none were attributed to religion by these historians.  Even the Jewish revolt of 66 AD wasn’t really about religion; it was the result of the oppressive policies of the Roman procurator. So during the roughly 900 years covered by these historians collectively, no wars seem to have been started to advance religion. However, during this time, Rome was engaged in almost continuous war as it conquered peoples and kingdoms that compose most of what is now modern Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East and Asia Minor. They became one of the largest, richest and most powerful empires in the world. Yet religion wasn’t the motivation for the expansion of their empire or their wars. Haven’t there been wars to advance religion? It’s obvious that there have been wars fought to advance religious beliefs and to suppress those who held to non-conforming beliefs. This happened during the Crusades and the Thirty Years War in Europe. There has also been persecution of those who held to other religious beliefs. The Spanish Inquisition during the 15th century is a great example. However, in the grand span of history, these seem to be exceptions to the rule. What do the numbers show? Okay, let’s cut to the chase. What do the numbers through-out history really show? Have more wars been fought in the name of religion and caused more deaths than anything else? Not according to the Encyclopedia of Wars. Based on an analysis of the data presented, it appears that of all known historical conflicts, 7% were caused primarily by religion. These wars accounted for 2% of all known deaths from warfare. That’s hardly consistent with the claims made by many atheists. Nigel Barber, a Biopsychologist and atheist, agrees with this conclusion: “Religion is rarely the intrinsic cause of conflict and explicitly religious wars, such as the medieval Crusades are rare.” Yes, there have been wars that were motivated by religion, but to say religion or the belief in God is the primary cause of the world’s conflicts is grossly inaccurate. It makes no sense for atheists to keep saying this when it’s absolutely not what history shows.
Copyright 2021 by Patrick Prill
This blog is a chapter from Things Atheists Say - that simply make no sense (Nashville, TN: Fidelis Publishing, 2021)
 Sam Harris, The End of Faith, (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), 12.  2013 Hate Crime Statistics, (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2013), https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime/2013/topic-pages/victims/victims_final  America’s Wars, (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, 2017), https://www.va.gov/opa/publications/factsheets/fs_americas_wars.pdf  Kurtis, Lee, Memorial Day: The number of Americans who have died in battle since the Revolutionary War, The Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2017, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-memorial-day-20170529-htmlstory.html  Appian’s Foreign Wars, Eutropius’ Abridgement of Roman History and Tacitus’ Histories.  The Romans generally allowed conquered nations to freely exercise their religions. However, from the 1st century through the early 4th century various Imperial edicts were imposed that sought to eliminate Judaism and Christianity within the Empire. Because of this, the Jews revolted again in 135 AD. The Christians did not rebel.  Tacitus, The Histories, (London, England, Penguin Classics, 2009), 250. Also, 1st century Jewish historian, Josephus, records in Wars of the Jews, that the revolt was caused by Florus, the procurator, and his heavy handed approach (2.14 - 2.17).  Alan Lurie, Is Religion the Cause of Most Wars?, Huffington Post, June 10, 2012, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-alan-lurie/is-religion-the-cause-of-_b_1400766.html  Nigel Barber, Is Religion Better at Making Peace or Making War?, Psychology Today, August 1, 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-human-beast/201208/is-religion-better-making-peace-or-making-war