Does religion cause war?
Since records began there has been religion on some level, whether it is the belief in a Christian God in comparatively recent times or whether it goes further back in history to Hinduism or Judaism along with other religious beliefs. During the same time period there have also been a large number of wars and battles between countries and civilisations. But what are the causes of these wars? Many argue that such things as politics, power and material goods are the causes of these wars, whereas others claim that it is religion which is the main reason. Where it can be said that religion has had a large influence on many conflicts in the past, it can also be argued that political issues and power struggles have had just as large an impact. While some argue that religion is the cause of wars, it is inconclusive whether war would or would not exist if there was no such thing as religion.
Some would say The Crusades are a major example of religion causing war. From the 11th century to the 13th century Christian states in Europe launched what are sometimes called Holy Wars against Muslims in the East. These wars centred on the city of Jerusalem which held a Holy significance in the Christian world. However when 3000 Christians were massacred, this began the ‘retaliation’ and therefore the beginning of The Crusades to release the Holy City of Jerusalem from the rule of Muslims. In this example, religion has clearly caused The Crusades as there would not have been any war if the city of Jerusalem did not have Christian significance.
However, a contrary argument to this would be that it was the massacre of 3000 Christians which caused The Crusades to begin and not because of differing religious beliefs, although it is unquestionable that religion played a major part in the beginning of the Crusades as the massacre may not have taken place without a religious background. As the argument for religion causing war heavily outweighs the opposing argument, in this context it is fair to say that using this example, religion does cause war.
Although the previous example concerning The Crusades suggests that religion does cause war it would be unfair to generalise this conclusion from one example of war to war in general. There are many counter arguments when discussing the topic of religion causing war such as political or cultural issues. One such example of this is the conflict in Northern Ireland which is commonly perceived as a religious one although religious and political leaders have used religion to incite division or unison within their people. The Unionists (those who wish to remain a part of Great Britain) are predominantly Protestant whereas the Nationalists see themselves as Irish and are usually of the Catholic faith. It is this difference between the ‘identities’ (British or Irish) of the people which has caused conflict and not because of the commonly held belief that it is one of religion and sectarianism. By using this example it is clear that religion is not the sole cause of war although it can be used as an incentive to continue a conflict which is shown through the conflict in Northern Ireland where it has almost become a religious conflict, such is the commonly held view of the hostility. This example can therefore be used as basis for an argument stating that religion does not, in general terms, cause war.
Ignoring The Crusades, and more specifically the First Crusade, it is difficult to confidently state that there have been other wars which have undeniable religious causes. However, one which has underlying holy origins is World War II. In the book Mein Kampf it states ‘hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.’ (Hitler, 1924) While some say that Hitler was irrational in his thinking, it is undeniable that one of the main reasons for creating the Nazi Party was a misguided religious belief, such as the one above, and therefore the beginning of World War II can be put down to religion to an extent. This is shown by his actions following his writings in Mein Kampf.
To an extent the ‘anti-terrorism’ war in Afghanistan is also an example of a war with a religious cause although some argue that the war began for other reasons. As the terrorist attacks in America were the catalysts for war in Afghanistan, it can be said that the conflict did have a religious cause. This is because of the terrorists having a misguided belief, much like Hitler and his determination to eradicate the Jews, that they were acting in the name of an Islamic God. Because of this belief the cause of the conflict in Afghanistan can be put down to religion and therefore suggests that religion can cause war and conflict.
On the other hand the examples of wars which have been caused by religion cannot automatically assume that all war is caused by religion or generalise a cause of one conflict to all conflicts. Following on from this another example of a war which does not have a religious cause is the Gulf War in 1990. The basis for war in this example was the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, caused by a non-religious belief that Kuwait was a part of Iraq, along with the fact that Saddam Hussein wanted to invade and capture more land for himself. Therefore, this example again confirms the idea that religion is not the sole reason for war and that again, political issues are just as likely to be the catalyst for conflict.
A final argument against the claim that religion causes war is one which is based on opinion and also has large quantities of evidence to back up the point; that war would occur anyway even if religion did not exist. One viewpoint is that it is human nature to always want more (greed) and this, more than religion, can cause conflict with others which may lead to war. The evidence to support this point comes from the large number of wars and conflicts which do not have religious causes.
In conclusion, it is unfair to suggest that there would be no war if religion did not exist as it is probable that human beings would use other motives for war or find other things to fight over. However, having said that it would also be unfair to declare that religion does not cause war as The Crusades, World War II and the war in Afghanistan to name just a few, defy that notion. Following on from this, some wars do have religious causes but consequently it is false to suggest that religion causes war in general as there are other hugely significant causes such as political issues, power struggles and the greed of humanity for more material possessions which are just as likely causes for war as religion.
Hitler, A. 1924. Mein Kampf.
Barnes, L. P. 2005. ‘Was the Northern Ireland conflict religious?’ Journal of Contemporary Religion. Vol. 20. Issue 1. pp 55-69.