Wars of Non-Religion; or, Religion is Not the Root of All Evil

I cross paths with fair amount of people very angry and jaded about religion, not merely non-religious but actively hostile toward it.  One of the very common arguments is if we’d get rid of religion we’d get rid of excuses to go to war.

I’m calling anthropological bullshit.

War is a product of civilization.  In cities, you have thousands of people from which to draw.  Pre-civilization cultures have far fewer people.  To lose a soldier is to lose a valuable worker.  Waging war is much more of a threat to basic survival.

Larger populations are not the only things that come with civilization; it also brings land ownership and material possessions.  In short, it creates things worth claiming through violence.  Once you start producing things beyond basic necessities, other people want to steal your stuff.

Resources are the primary motivation for most wars.  People want what other people have, whether it’s goods, productive land, or lucrative trade routes. Sometimes the grab is for expansion, to better yourself and your own culture.  Sometimes it’s more basic, a struggle for survival as your resources can no longer sustain your people.

Sometimes religion is given as an excuse, because “we want their stuff” is not socially acceptable.  Also, religion – and other issues – can certainly be involved. But religion is rarely the primary motivator.  Remove the religious component and most wars would still have occured.  Humans have always been good at finding reasons to kill each other.

Knights Templar - Crusader Knights
Heavy woolen tunics and capes were poor choices for the Middle East

The Crusades

Crusaders were undeniably loud about their religious motivations.  Pope Urban VI specifically called for Christians in Western Europe to reclaim the Holy Land from the infidels.  The resulting religious fervor was stunning.  30,000 soldiers set off on a three year march without adequate preparation:  supply lines were weak and equipment was ill-suited to Middle Eastern climate.  Along with them came 30,000 peasants who believed God would care of them on this holy quest.  Several thousand children also joined. All of the peasants and children died along with more than half the soldiers before reaching Jerusalem.

But the Muslims had controlled the Holy hand for 400 years, and it’s not like Europe just finally noticed.  The tipping point was the Seljuk Turks, a conservative Islamic faction, had recently gained control of the area, and they turned away (and potentially murdered) Christian pilgrims.  That certainly offer a religious motive.  But the Muslims were also applying steady pressure on the Christian Byzantine Empire, which requested assistance from the pope in regaining valuable territory.

Incidentally, the Byzantines were mortified when the Western “army” showed up, describing them as barbaric, religiously frenzied, violent, disorganized, and dishonorable.

Moreover, Italian merchants became immensely wealthy bankrolling the Crusades.  The Holy Land had been a major center of trade for 2000 years, and for that reason everyone wanted it.  And who becomes the major traders of Europe?  The Italians.  Wealth and trade are two of the big reasons the Renaissance starts in Italy rather than elsewhere.

Finally, Europe was growing.  Land has been parceled out, so if you were going to own land, you were going to have to be the eldest son of a landowner….or you had to find land somewhere else.  Also, Europe was still very much a warrior culture from the chaos of the Early Middle Ages, but it was no longer fashionable to regularly steal your neighbor’s stuff…particularly when that neighbor was a Christian.  The Crusades were a convenient answer to growing problems.

Religion was certainly involved.  But there were a lot of other motivations in play as well.  The Crusades were significantly about land and wealth.  Withoutreligion, the details would have changed, but the wars themselves certainly could have still happened.

Fighting Bishop at Antioch
The landholding upper class was practically synonymous with warfare. Here, a bishop (left) rides into battle like other knights, fulfilling his military duties as a vassal and landowner. This was standard practice, not something specific during the Crusades.

9/11 and the Invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan

9/11 was, without a doubt, caused by 19 Muslim extremists who belonged to an extremist Islamic organization.  So that HAS to be religious, right?

Not really.

Osama bin Laden did not hate America because it was full of non-Muslims.  Bin Laden hated America because he hated Israel, which America strongly supports, and he hated Israel because of the treatment of Palestinians, of which most are Muslims. Many Islamic countries do not even acknowledge Israel as a legitimate country, not because it is primarily Jewish, but because it is seen as an occupying force.  If Israel dissolved as a country, a lot of Middle Eastern tension would subside.

But aren’t Jews and Muslims some sort of mortal enemies?  Absolutely not.  Jews have historically found themselves more welcome in Islamic territories than Christian ones.

Besides, blaming an entire group for the behavior of its extremist members is a gross abuse of statistical study.

And the US certainly did not invade Iraq or Afghanistan to hunt down Muslims.  It invaded to remove further threats to American security.

World War II

Many people think the Holocaust was about religion.  It wasn’t.  Hitler’s issues with the Jews was entirely racial, and there were plenty of people rounded up for being Jewish who didn’t follow the Jewish faith: they simply descended from Jews.

Polish Children Holocaust
You don’t need religion for this to happen. These aren’t even Jewish children. They’re Polish Christians. The Holocaust was about ethnicity, and Jews and Poles – regardless of faith – were seen as the lowest of undesirables.

Perhaps even more important here, however, is World War II was absolutely, positively, not about the Holocaust.  Hitler didn’t invade countries to get rid of their Jews.  He invaded them for their land and resources, and along the way he had to figure out what to do with all those pesky Jews.  Likewise, the Allies in no way stepped in to right the wrongs of the Holocaust.  Their war was a defensive one.

Japanese Internment
Incidentally, you don’t need religion for this to happen either. Here, Japanese-Americans await “evacuation” to concentration camps on the West Coast.

Witch Trials

The European Witch Craze sometimes gets lumped in here, even though it wasn’t a war.  Hunting witches is not inherently a religious activity.  Witches harmed the community through magic.  People who harm the community need to be dealt with.  Cultures that believe in witchcraft understand something has to do be done with witches.

In Christian Europe, Satanic worship was sometimes part of the accusation of witchcraft, but not nearly always, and such worship was, in part, an explanation of how a witch could gain her harmful powers in the first place.   Witch-hunters ultimately sought out threats to the community.

Civil War in Former Yugoslavia

When the communist government in Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s, the countries many ethnicity fell into civil war.  Today, the former Yugoslavia has been broken down into Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Kosovo.  Before those borders were agreed upon, however, Serbia tried very hard to keep control of much of the territory, and the resulting war included significant “ethnic cleansing,” a term coined during this time.

Ethnic, not religious.

Now, one of those ethnic groups were the Bosnian Muslims, but the war was in no way merely about them.

Moreover, Serbia has a long history violently of trying to form a “pan-Slavic” country with themselves in charge.  (Many of these ethnic groups are seen as part of a larger ethnic group called Slavs.)  Remember who shot the Austrian archduke which started World War I: Serbians who felt Bosnia belonged to them, not Austria.

The Troubles in Ireland

The conflict in Ireland is complicated to address because the two sides are commonly identified by religious affiliation: the Catholics and the Protestants.  However, here Catholicism is seen as inherently Irish, while Protestantism is identified with the British and pro-British policies.  Ireland was long held by force by England and then Britain.  The Troubles are primarily about political independence.

More Examples

In fact, if you named  major wars off the top of your head (not counting the ones above), your list would probably look something like this: Vietnam, Korea, WWI, and the American Revolution.  These are major conflicts of which every American knows, and there’s not even a religious component to them.

Here’s a few more, just off the top of my head: Napoleonic Wars, Haitian Revolution, Hundred Years’ War, The War of the Roses, the War of 1812.  Nope, no religion.

Wars Significantly Motivated by Religion

This is not to say there are no conflicts primarily motivated by religion.  They do exist.  But they aren’t the norm.

French Wars of Religion

The name pretty much gives this one away. Huguenots (as Calvinists in France were known) comprised about 10% of the population and were strongly persecuted by the Catholic government in the 16th century.  The conflict evolved into civil war ultimately resulting in the government granting limited self-rule to Huguenots in specific cities and  making religiously-motivated harassment illegal.

The Thirty Years’ War

The Thirty Years’ War is perhaps the deadliest of the religious conflicts, killing millions of people in the 17th century.  It began as a civil war within the Holy Roman Empire, but eventually much of Europe became involved.  The original motivation was significantly religious, as the Holy Roman Empire had been struggling with friction between Catholics and Lutherans for a century.

However, the war became increasingly about control of territory, political power, and ruling dynasties both inside and outside the Holy Roman Empire.  Catholic France, for example, sided with the Lutherans in order to limit the power of the ruling Catholic family.

Defenestration of Prague
The Thirty Years’ Wear started with the Second Defenestration of Prague, when local Protestants threw two Catholic imperial officials out a window. Their survival was credited by Catholics to divine intervention and by Protestants to a pile of hay and manure. I  love this is the second defenestration. Throwing people out windows is apparently a means of settling conflicts in Prague.

Trying Too Hard

Making a casual sweep of the Internet, I can quickly find examples of how people vastly exaggerate and misrepresent facts to “prove” the evils of religion. I found a whole argument about the American Civil War being religious. The justification for such a claim is that the South felt it was their God-given right to own slaves.  But that is a small fraction of the rhetoric.  Take out the sense of it being a God-given right, and the war would have still happened.

The war was about slavery in general, regardless how you justified it, and with that came serious economic and political issues:

  • Freeing slaves would be financially devastating to the south.
  • A variety of political moves all but guaranteed the U.S. would eventually have a clear majority of non-slaves states.
  • The act of the federal government making such a sweeping piece of legislation for the entire country inflames pro-state-rights people in the south.  There were substantial arguments the act was flat out illegal.

In addition, it should be noted that four slave states remained with the North.  Clearly, the war was about more than slaves, much less arguments about whether God gave humanity rights to slavery.

War is primarily about having stuff.  It’s about politics and economy.  To blame warfare on religion in general is only slightly more logical than blaming hurricanes on gay-marriage.


  1. “Either goods will cross borders, or armies will.” — Frederic Bastiat

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