One of the most popular clichés of our day is that religion is the greatest cause of war and violence in human history. This myth rages across college campuses, pervades the minds of modern skeptics, and receives a near dogmatic adherence in the marketplace of ideas. Some of the loudest voices perpetuating the cliché belong to the self-proclaimed four horsemen of the New Atheist movement (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the now-deceased Christopher Hitchens). In both print and public rhetoric, frequently and with great vigor, they assert that faith and religion are the bane of humanity’s existence. Harris, in particular, likens any and all religious devotion to terrorism, calling it “the most prolific source of violence in our history.” But perhaps the most famous manifestation of this fiction is found in the lyrics of John Lennon’s Imagine:
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
In my own conversations with skeptics both on and off the college campus, I can attest to this claim surfacing with more fervor than the gopher in Caddy Shack. So even if you haven’t encountered it yet, I suspect you one day will. However, whether that occurs on a campus, at the corner store, or while listening to a classic rock station, the question remains the same: Is it true? Simply making the assertion is not the same thing as formulating an argument, much less a cogent argument with credible evidence. So one must ask: Can it be established, based on an examination of the public record, that religion actually is the cause of the greatest acts of suffering and violence in human history?
At first read, this question only leads to more questions. What is meant by religion? Which religions? When people perform acts of violence in the name of their religion, are they being consistent with that religion’s teachings? What do religions of the world say about war and violence? You get the point.
Many atheists are clever enough to avoid explicitly saying that religion is the direct cause of war. Since a wild baseless assertion like that can be recognized fairly easily, it usually comes in more subtle and implicit terms. Thankfully, this crafty approach has already been condensed for us by apologist Vox Day. In his book, The Irrational Atheist, Day summarizes the New Atheists’ line of reasoning with the following syllogism.
- Religion causes division between people.
- Religion provides the dominant label by which people are divided into groups.
- Wars are fought between divided groups of people with different labels.
- Therefore, religion is the implicit cause of war.
Again, we must ask anyone who makes this assertion how they know this to be true. What is your evidence?
Typically at this point the skeptic will launch into a diatribe on one of several, predictable possibilities: the Crusades, the Thirty Years War, the Wars of Religion, and Islamic Extremism. No doubt Christians wouldn’t disagree with the latter entry. But don’t get bogged down there; it only side tracks from the main issue. Focus on the central question: Is religion the cause of war, either explicitly or implicitly?
According to a recent article published online at the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM), the historical evidence does not substantiate the claims made by Harris and other atheists. Religion is simply not the primary cause or motivation of war. In fact, the evidence overwhelmingly points in the opposite direction, namely, that the cause of war stems mainly from non-religious sources and motivations. Moreover, the chief perpetrators of wartime atrocities (especially in the 20th century) have been non-religious. Here are a few quotes from the CARM article that illustrate the point well:
“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,2 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%.
That means that all faiths combined – minus Islam – have caused less than 4% of all of humanity’s wars and violent conflicts. Further, they played no motivating role in the major wars that have resulted in the most loss of life.
Kind of puts a serious dent into Harris’ argument, doesn’t it?
The truth is, non-religious motivations and naturalistic philosophies bear the blame for nearly all of humankind’s wars. Lives lost during religious conflict pales in comparison to those experienced during the regimes who wanted nothing to do with the idea of God – something showcased in R. J. Rummel’s work Lethal Politics and Death by Government:
Non-Religious Dictator Lives Lost
Joseph Stalin – 42,672,000
Mao Zedong – 37,828,000
Adolf Hitler – 20,946,000
Chiang Kai-shek – 10,214,000
Vladimir Lenin – 4,017,000
Hideki Tojo – 3,990,000
Pol Pot – 2,397,0003”
While the full length article on CARM can be read here, this article is clearly built upon the earlier and foundational work of Vox Day in his book The Irrational Atheist. Similarly, Day also quotes the Encyclopedia of Wars as well as his own statistical analysis on the percentage of wars waged in the name of (any) religion when compared to those that are clearly motivated by non-religious figures or factors. In the context of listing all 123 wars labeled as “religious” in the Encyclopedia of Wars, Day’s following words are worth noting:
“…That is 123 wars in all, which sounds as if it would support the case of the New Atheists, until one recalls that these 123 wars represent only 6.98 percent of all the wars recorded in the encyclopedia…In light of this evidence, the fact that a specific religion is currently sparking a great deal of conflict around the globe cannot reasonably be used to indict all religious faith, especially when one considers that removing that single religion from the equation means that all of the other religious faiths combined only account for 3.23 percent of humanity’s wars.
The historical evidence is conclusive. Religion is not the primary cause of war.”
The real irony about the skeptics’ use of this argument is uncovered by the data in the CARM article. The historical evidence shows that the predominant cause of war is decidedly in favor of non-religious sources. What’s more, the numerical data of lives lost at the hands of notable atheistic figures is staggering (e.g. Stalin, Hitler, and Mao). In the 20th century alone (and going back further to the French Revolution and Enlightenment), the historical evidence is clear: atheism and non-religious sources have caused more war and violence than all the other religious wars combined in recorded history.
The problem is not God. We have met the problem and the problem is us, sinful, fallen mankind. Guilt, suffering, and death are not God’s doing – that is our contribution. That is our war against God. We are the rebels. We started the war. Thankfully for us, Christ ended it. The incarnation was his D-Day. The Virgin’s womb and a stable in Bethlehem was his beachhead. Jesus came to conquer sin and death once and for all. And how does he fight and win this war against sin, death, and the devil? Not by leading the disciples in a march up Jerusalem’s hill on a magnificent steed. Not by feats of strength and military shock and awe. Not by overwhelming force, but by overwhelming weakness. In the greatest military conflict in human history, life and death contended. Good Friday was the day and Mt. Calvary was the battle field. What happened there was nothing less than a cosmic battle between good and evil. But here’s the shot heard around the world. Our Captain, Jesus, laid down his arms. He fell on the grenade. He took the bullet for us. He stepped into the breach of our sin and death. And that is how he wins. Jesus wins by losing. For the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of men and the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men. Jesus leads the charge into the belly of the earth and comes back out again alive and resurrected. Christ holds the field victorious in his death and resurrection.
And that’s the apologetic import here. Don’t lose the Gospel in the fog of war. Tearing down the atheists’ argument is an important part of the job. So, when you come across this argument about war and religion, debunk it quickly and decisively – as well you should; all the evidence is in your favor. But when you do, know that you have not yet completed the job. Christian apologetics is not merely razing your opponents’ views with a single fell swoop of your intellectual war machine. Rather, Christian apologetics must point to the lasting peace in Christ’s death and resurrection by making a positive case for them as real events that occurred at a real time in a real place. Look the person in the eye and tell them: “Jesus did this for you.” Unless that message is clearly communicated, unless Christ crucified and risen is proclaimed, you will have won the battle but lost the war. One must always be prepared to give a defense of our main assertion, that Jesus died and rose in human history for you. It is historical, verifiable, veracious, and worth fighting a war of words over any day.
 Siemon-Netto, Uwe. The Fabricated Luther: Refuting Nazi Connections and Other Modern Myths. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2007, p. 22.
2 Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005, p. 27.
3 Day, Vox. The Irrational Atheist: Dissecting the Unholy Trinity of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. Dallas: Benbella Books, 2008, p. 107-108.
4 Ibid, p. 106.