A forum for comments of any sort dealing with the study of religions in history. While primarily directed to students of the history of religion at the university of Guelph, and the University of Guelph/Humber, it is open to anyone interested.
Monday, June 27, 2016
Religion and War
I came across a blog by an evangelical atheist where the meme that religion is the principle cause of war was repeated. I wrote this response on this blog, but I wonder if the blog owner will publish it.
While religion has been intrinsic to many wars in history, it is not a major cause of most wars. Wars generally are caused by greed, a lust for power, and pride. Often religion has been used to motivate followers as an effective tool for battle.
Religion, of course, is not ‘modern’ but has existed, as far as archaeology and history can tell, since humans were identifiably human. But lets to do a quick count of wars in western history: wars in ancient Greece were not about religion but about city state rivalries; the wars that created the Roman empire over a thousand years were about a lust for power and a kind of tribal/ethnic pride in battle as being glorious; the multiple wars that destroyed the empire in the west were about migration and about a Germanic tribal culture that glorified combat; the expansion of Islam was about religion, but also about keeping the original Bedouin Muslims from fighting each other – better to have them fight someone who was not Muslim than engage in inter tribal battles. Ironically, the Crusades were about religion but when Pope Urban II preached the first crusade in 1095 it was also about stopping the knightly class from fighting each other by pointing them at a common enemy, Islam.
In western Europe, the 100 years war between the places that became England and France was not about religion, but again about a culture descended from the Germanic tribes that conquered the Roman Empire and which maintained their belief in glory in battle; the first set of wars following the Protestant Reformation were about religion – which is where the meme you write about originates – as were the French wars of religion in roughly the same era. The 30 years war used religion as an excuse but was in fact a dynastic dispute – as the Lutheran Swedes were allied with the Catholic French against the Catholic Spanish. This long war also contributed to the meme that religion is a principle factor in war. The various wars fought by European powers to expand around the world had religion sometimes mixed in and sometimes as an afterthought. The Spanish famously (or infamously) came to the Americas for God, Gold and greed, and you can debate which of these was paramount. The English and the French came to the Americas to profit as capitalists but brought their religion with them.
Africa and Asia was colonized by the Brits as part of imperial expansion primarily for profit and with virtually no religious motivation. Religion came as a means to pacify locals once conquered and from a genuine belief in the truth of Christianity. The European wars caused by Napoleon were not religious; the French revolution was anti-religious (you might argue that atheism was a motivator here – and if you define religion functionally rather than substantively, you could argue that atheism is a religion); the American revolution was primarily political and economic, but the evangelical roots of much of the 13 colonies contributed to the sense of a special mission which helped motivate the revolution. The First World War and the Second World war were not religious at all, unless you define Naziism as a type of religion focussed on race rather than God; the Russian revolution and the expansion of the Soviet Empire was partially driven by atheism and specifically rejected Christianity (except in the second world war where Stalin used Russian Orthodoxy to inspire defence against the Nazi invasion). Korea was not religious, Vietnam was not religious.
The various other wars fought by the American Empire since the second world war were wars of cultural and social and economic expansion – I suppose in a functional sense, nationalism can be equated to traditional definitions of religion, but not in the way you mean religion. The Gulf war, the Iraq war, the war with ISIS/ISIL are religious on one side but not on the side of the Western powers. The western powers are concerned with oil supplies and control of the states where most oil is produced, while the wars fought among Muslim states, within Muslim states and against western powers are religious on their side. So these modern wars are 50% religious. There are numerous civil wars occurring all over the Muslim world, usually moderate Muslims battling extremist Muslims. These are religious wars.
To summarize: I will say something that is not politically correct: most of the wars in history that are specifically religious involve Islam. Yet even here, once Islam settled down into functioning polities war for them also became about power and lust for power and only superficially about religion. As for Christianity, there are only three specifically and unequivocally religious wars: the Crusades; the Protestant Reformation wars that ended in 1555 and the French wars of religion, ending in 1598. I have said nothing about Africa and Asia as I am not well informed on their histories – what I do know says there were no or few wars based on religion, but there were many wars.