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Is Religion the Cause of Most Wars?

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There are many common misconceptions about religion that are often taken as unquestioned facts, such as the idea that religious people are inherently anti-science, that a literal reading of holy texts is the "true" religious stance, that faith is incompatible with reason, and that all religions claim to posses sole and absolute truth.

While all these ideas are true for a minority of the population, they do not describe normative religious beliefs and practices for the majority of believers. It is understandable that these misconceptions persist, though, because they come from the loudest voices on the extremes, and like other polarizing positions in politics and culture are simplistic ideas that promote easy "us vs. them" thinking. But there is one common misconception about religion that is voiced often and consistently as an obvious truth -- often by educated, thoughtful people --that is just not factually true: The idea that religion has been the cause of most wars.

In his hilarious analysis of The 10 Commandments, George Carlin said to loud applause, "More people have been killed in the name of God than for any other reason," and many take this idea as an historical fact. When I hear someone state that religion has caused most wars, though, I will often and ask the person to name these wars. The response is typically, "Come on! The Crusades, The Inquisition, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, 9/11. Need I name more?"

Well, yes, we do need to name more, because while clearly there were wars that had religion as the prime cause, an objective look at history reveals that those killed in the name of religion have, in fact, been a tiny fraction in the bloody history of human conflict. In their recently published book, "Encyclopedia of Wars," authors Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod document the history of recorded warfare, and from their list of 1763 wars only 123 have been classified to involve a religious cause, accounting for less than 7 percent of all wars and less than 2 percent of all people killed in warfare. While, for example, it is estimated that approximately one to three million people were tragically killed in the Crusades, and perhaps 3,000 in the Inquisition, nearly 35 million soldiers and civilians died in the senseless, and secular, slaughter of World War 1 alone.

History simply does not support the hypothesis that religion is the major cause of conflict. The wars of the ancient world were rarely, if ever, based on religion. These wars were for territorial conquest, to control borders, secure trade routes, or respond to an internal challenge to political authority. In fact, the ancient conquerors, whether Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman, openly welcomed the religious beliefs of those they conquered, and often added the new gods to their own pantheon.

Medieval and Renaissance wars were also typically about control and wealth as city-states vied for power, often with the support, but rarely instigation, of the Church. And the Mongol Asian rampage, which is thought to have killed nearly 30 million people, had no religious component whatsoever.

Most modern wars, including the Napoleonic Campaign, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the American Civil War, World War I, the Russia Revolution, World War II, and the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, were not religious in nature or cause. While religious groups have been specifically targeted (most notably in World War II), to claim that religion was the cause is to blame the victim and to misunderstand the perpetrators' motives, which were nationalistic and ethnic, not religious.

Similarly, the vast numbers of genocides (those killed in ethic cleanses, purges, etc. that are not connected to a declared war) are not based on religion. It's estimated that over 160 million civilians were killed in genocides in the 20th century alone, with nearly 100 million killed by the Communist states of USSR and China. While some claim that Communism itself is a "state religion" -- because it has an absolute dictator whose word is law and a "holy book" of unchallenged rules -- such a claim simply equates "religion" with the human desire for power, conformance, and control, making any distinctions with other human institutions meaningless.

Of course the Hebrew Bible chronicles many wars -- most notably Moses' conflicts in the desert and Joshua's conquest of the nations of Canaan -- and we may see these as examples of religiously sanctioned violence. Here, though, we must recognize that archeological evidence points to the conclusion that these conquests never occurred, or at least not as dramatically as described in the Bible. As one who reads the Bible for spiritual truths, not historical facts, I am, of course, quite happy that no such slaughters occurred. The ancient Rabbis also understood these stories not as celebrated victories, but as warnings about the dangers of warfare.

Judaism has always taught that war may only be considered when there is a clear threat, and only after every other option has been exhausted. Avoiding war must be the goal. Deuteronomy states, "When you approach a city to do battle with it you should call to it in peace." In other words, even when threatened, seeking peace must be the first course of action. The ancient Rabbis took this teaching so far as to flatly state, "In God's eyes the man stands high who makes peace between men. But he stands highest who establishes peace among the nations."

To be clear, this is not to say that religion is not a cause of conflict. Obviously it is, has been, and no doubt will continue to be. Clearly there are those who have committed horrendous acts based on religious zeal, and we must be alert to these threats and respond forcefully. But in a world with billions of people who are self-defined as religious, those who believe that violence is the will of God and that the murder of innocents is a holy act are a small, insane minority.

Peace is the highest religious aspiration for which we must work. As he envisioned a future where the world is perfected by the conscious acts of human beings, the ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah wrote, "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." While religions have often fallen well short of this utopian vision, we must recognize that greed, unbalanced power, and causeless hatred - not religion - are the causes of most wars, and eliminating these should be our focus.

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