Engaging Culture

Has Religion Really Caused More Violence Throughout History?

If you’ve ever shared your faith with a non-believer, chances are you’ve been hit with the line: “But religion has caused more violence and killed more people throughout history than anything else.” Is it true? It’s certainly been regularly touted in books by the “New Atheists” of late. The daily email devotional The Park Forum highlighted a short piece from Karen Armstrong’s 2015 book “Fields of Blood” that answers that statement very well. It may give you some context in your conversations with non-Christians – especially atheists:

Excerpt of Fields of Blood: By Karen Armstrong:

I believe modern society has made a scapegoat of faith. In the West the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident. As one who speaks on religion, I constantly hear how cruel and aggressive it has been, a view that, eerily, is expressed in the same way almost every time: “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.”

It is an odd remark. Obviously the two world wars were not fought on account of religion. Experts on political violence or terrorism also insist that people commit atrocities for a complex range of reasons. Yet so indelible is the aggressive image of religious faith in our secular consciousness that we routinely load the violent sins of the twentieth century onto the back of “religion” and drive it out into the political wilderness.  Since all premodern state ideology was inseparable from religion, warfare inevitably acquired a sacred element. But to what degree did religion contribute to the violence of the states with which it was inextricably linked? How much blame for the history of human violence can we ascribe to religion itself? The answer is not as simple as much of our popular discourse would suggest.

People rarely go to war for one reason only; rather, they are driven by interlocking motivations—material, social, and ideological. Until the modern period, religion permeated all aspects of life, including politics and warfare, not because ambitious churchmen had “mixed up” two essentially distinct activities but because people wanted to endow everything they did with significance. Every state ideology was religious.  It was not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that religion was ejected from political life in the West. When, therefore, people claim that religion has been responsible for more war, oppression, and suffering than any other institution, one has to ask, “More than what?”

Until the American and French Revolutions, there were no “secular” societies. So ingrained is our impulse to “sanctify” our political activities that no sooner had the French revolutionaries successfully marginalized the Catholic Church than they created a new national religion. In the United States, the first secular republic, the state has always had a religious aura, a manifest destiny, and a divinely sanctioned mission.

If we are to meet the challenge of our time and create a global society where all peoples can live together in peace and mutual respect, we need to assess our situation accurately. We cannot afford oversimplified assumptions about the nature of religion or its role in the world.

*Excerpt from The Park Forum. It’s a great daily email devotional, and I highly recommend you give it a try.

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2 Comments

  1. The idea that most wars are caused by religion is a modern myth. Most wars are caused by one or more of the following: greed, pride, lust for power, adventure, misunderstanding, recklessness, empire building, control, insanity, politics, and/or blind obedience to a leader’s command to go kill other human beings. I thought about war and why we humans do it so much all day on Memorial Day. Then the next day I “randomly” picked up a book that I had never read before. As I began to read it, I came across a chapter that was a Christian call for pacifism. Instead of causing wars, I believe that the true Christian faith has prevented many wars! (If you would like to read excerpts from the chapter in the book I referred to, here’s the link: https://stevesimms.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/a-surprising-perhaps-miraculous-confirmation-of-nonviolence/)

  2. The modern history of learning and teaching History is purposely skewed…To say-in effect-that “every society before 1791 was non-secular” is not strong enough. Check Ravi Zacharias’s view on this: Don’t judge the Philosophy by the actions of those who abuse it. The founder and Author of Christian Philosophy isn’t allowed to be taught in History classes. Mankind perpetrates violence.

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