“Religion is the number one cause of war…. it’s been responsible for more deaths than anything else in history… just look at those crusades!”
You may have heard these objections, or at least something similar- the claim that Religion (and Christianity in particular) has driven countless bloodthirsty campaigns, instigated more murderous brutality and sparked more civil, national and international strife than anything else known to humanity since time immemorial. It is a very popular claim, but like most sweeping generalisations it doesn’t take much digging before the foundations begin to crumble.
Let’s take, as a starting point, the Encyclopedia of Wars by secular historians Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod. This lists every major war and rebellion and conflict throughout recorded history, from 3500 BC right up to the modern era- in all, almost 2000 wars are examined in depth. One of their findings was that only 7% of these wars had any kind of religious motivation, which accounted for around 2% of casualties. (Also note that the umbrella term ‘religion’…. this 7% encompasses every religious belief, meaning anything that is attributed to any kind of Christianity is a small proportion of this already small number). Just taking these facts into account, claims about religion being the major source of bloodshed throughout human history start to look a little shaky.
Next, consider this- even the wars that can be identified as having any kind of ‘religious’ motivation at all cannot be simply attributed to a religious belief alone. To anyone who argues that religion, and Christianity in particular, is such a widespread source of war and violence, our first question should be- what wars did you have in mind? What are all these wars that have supposedly been fought in the name of Christianity?
A standard response is that perennial alleged skeleton in the closet of Christendom, the Crusades. The popular conception is that all of a sudden, on a whim and completely unprovoked, the bloodthirsty hordes of Christianity burst out of Western Europe and rampaged across the middle East slaughtering innocent bystanders and looting and pillaging indiscriminately. The problem with this view is that it utterly ignores the historical context and paints an extremely simplistic view of the reality of what happened, and also why it happened. I’ll cover the Crusades in a separate post, but something that is often either ignored or completely unknown is that (at least initially) the Crusades were in fact largely a defensive action following several centuries of aggressive Muslim expansion across Europe and North Africa.
Now consider this: Every major conflict of the past 150 years has been utterly devoid of any kind of religious motivation, and these wars have accounted for more casualties than all of the other wars in human history combined. Hundreds of millions have died since the beginning of the 20th Century in wars that have been fought over land, oil, politics, greed, brutal ideologies… really, everything but religion. It’s likely that wars over oil have caused more death than religious wars. It is easy to casually say that religion is the greatest cause of bloodshed known to man, but it is something else altogether to support such a claim.
Finally, from a specifically Christian perspective, there is this fact- anyone who says they are committing bloodshed and violence and conquering other lands because of their Christianity is showing that they are either misguided or (to be blunt) lying. The terrible things done in wars that were supposedly ‘Christian’ in nature were done contrary to the teachings of Jesus, not because of His teachings. In Gethsemane He rebuked Peter for attacking one of the guards who had come to arrest Him. He told us to love our enemies and to pray for them (Matthew 5:43-44). When considering not just the historical evidence, but also the teachings of Christ, it is impossible to see how anyone could claim that Christianity is the source of war and violence that so many claim it is.