“Never discuss Politics or Religion at the dinner table”, many of us were taught when growing up. Anyone who has ignored this rule will have discovered that there are certain strongly held opinions that appear over and over again. Christians may find, on declaring themselves members of the Christian community, that there are particular statements about God, faith and religion that they are expected to have an answer for. “Not at the Dinner table” aims to present a reflective Christian perspective on these age old statements and questions; while also hopefully opening up alternative avenues for discussion.
“Religion causes more wars than anything else…”
Despite being a blunt statement this assertion is actually multi-layered and a Christian’s response could tackle any one of what we’ll come to see is a fair range of underlying assumptions and concerns. In this post I shall look at some of the implications of the empirical evidence and begin to pull out some of the more immediate issues. Following posts will consider other implications raised by this onion of a statement.
On the Record
Let’s begin by taking the statement at face value and comparing it to the historical record. No-one would argue that human history is without conflict, war and aggression. One can choose, at random, any particular part of the historical – and even pre-historical – record and find ample evidence of the suffering caused by people taking up arms against one another. Even in those countries that have enjoyed a period of relative peace the legacy of war and aggression is never very far away.
The island of the United Kingdom, for example, has not been successfully physically invaded for nearly a millennium – the Norman invasion of 1066. However, if we limit our scope to ‘modern’ times, say the last two hundred years, a simple list of titles serves to show that, despite not being overrun, the UK has not been at peace. Starting with the Napoleonic wars of the 1800’s we find:
- Napoleonic Wars (1800 – 1815)
- Peninsular War (1808 – 1814)
- Ghurkha War (1814 – 1816)
- First Opium War in China (1839 – 1842)
- Siege of Montevideo (1843 – 51)
- Crimean War (1853 – 1856)
- Second Opium War in China (1856 – 60)
- Zulu War (1879)
- First Boer War (1880 – 81)
- Boxer uprising in China (1899 – 01)
- Great Boer War (1899 – 1902)
- World War 1 (1914 – 18)
- Easter Rebellion in Dublin (1916)
- World War 2 (1939 – 45)
- ‘Cold War’ (1946 – 1989)
- Suez War (1956)
- Falklands War (1982)
- Gulf War (1991)
- NATO Air Strikes on Serbia (1999)
- Allied Strikes on Afghanistan (2001)
- Iraq War (2003)
- Libyan intervention (2011).
Taken as an average, with the dates above, the United Kingdom has been directly involved with, or prosecuted, a war approximately every ten years since 1800! It would be both futile and slighting to attempt any form of calculation regarding the amount of human suffering and grief carried by such a list of dates and titles. I leave it to the reader’s compassion to feel what cannot adequately be stated in words and numbers. But if we widen the scope of the tenet we are discussing to include the potential for oppression, torture, intolerance, terrorism and injustice the picture presented is quite overwhelmingly bleak. Whenever and wherever people have lived, even in a seemingly peaceful nation such as the United Kingdom, there is the inescapable footprint of conflict.
(Widening the scope of concern to the larger Western and Eastern world is fairly straightforward even using the above list as a starting point, for few of the conflicts mentioned took place in isolation. They were either fought against one or more countries or, as in the case of the Gulf War, against a single state but with the support of other allies.)
There is one fact that is very clear from the list. None of these conflicts, were defined as, or could be described as having been, motivated by religious ideals. It is unsustainable therefore, to assert that organised religion had any major influence upon the instigation or prosecution of these wars.
In their Encyclopedia of Wars Alan Axelrod and & Charles Phillips went further than the above list and attempted a listing of all the wars in history – coming to 1,763 in total. Of these they classify 123 as being wars of religion. This would amount to 7% of all the wars fought in the world so far as being the result of religious differences. However, for those wars defined as being ‘religious’ in either origin or warring parties, it seems to be a clear assertion that other factors still need to be taken into consideration.
Even relatively minor conflicts, whatever lines the two sides are drawn up against, require the convergence of sociological, political and economic factors to be in place before they turn to violence. William T. Cavanaugh, in his book Myth of Religious Violence, goes further and makes the point that even the term “religious wars” is a “Western dichotomy”. He goes on to argue that for each of the wars labelled as ‘religious’, those persecuting them were not unaware of, or were also manipulating, other secular concerns such as economic or political ends. In other words, even the relatively small amount of conflicts that revolved around religious conviction required the acquiescence, co-operation and encouragement of the political and economic establishment of the time.
It would seem then, that the ‘age of reason’ failed to remove humankind’s propensity for conflict and aggression. When the enlightenment’s darling Voltaire wrote that “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”, it must have seemed entirely reasonable to assume that the removal of the bulk of the ‘absurd’ notions of organised religion, through the application of pure reason, would result in a world of balance, tolerance and unity. Sadly, 93% of the world’s wars tell us a very different story. Such a figure leaves us with the fact that, contrary to the commonly stated notion of Religion causing more wars than anything else, the human condition, with its mistrust, greed, resentment, political instability, nationalism and commercial avarice, to name but a few, have resulted in far more conflicts, deaths and suffering than the differences between faith communities.
To sum up then. Does religion cause more wars than anything else? We have seen that, despite any number of people who would sagely nod their head in agreement with it, the modern collection of historical and empirical statistics do not actually support the validity of this statement. Quite the contrary, history shows that out of all the wars undertaken; only a very small minority can source religious views or beliefs as legitimate starting points.
Humankind’s inherent aggressions, desire for wealth and prosperity have a larger role to play in acts of war, alongside concerns for national security, political stability and peace. In short, the so-called ‘separation of Church and State’ has not removed any perceived propensity for war and intolerance.
However, this is just scratching the surface of the topic. The historical record shows us only one aspect. In the following posts I will attempt to bring out some of the deeper issues that are contained within the seemingly mistaken assertion that “Religion causes more wars than anything else.”
Not at the Dinner table… But
- A discussion of the merits of the political and ideological policies that were casual in each of the conflicts listed above would make a very interesting topic.
- What can ordinary, everyday citizens like you and me do in order to promote peace?
- What could a Christian’s response to war be?
- Could there ever be such a thing as a ‘Just War’?