Over the last few years I have noticed a relatively common online tactic in refuting the argument that “religion is the cause of most wars or violence” is to cite Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod Encyclopedia of Wars, a monumental three volume encyclopedia of ancient, medieval, and modern wars published in 2005. Online, one will find memes like the one below, that shows only a relatively small number of the 1,763 wars cataloged by Phillips and Axelrod, 123 to be precise, were considered “religious wars.”
The information provided in the meme above, floating around online, offers a powerful rebuttal to those claiming that religion is the cause of most wars (e.g. Sam Harris, Charles Kimball, etc…). If such a small percentage of wars were “religious,” then what is the basis for the claim that religion, even more so than political or socio-economic issues, is the cause of most wars? Those who make such an argument, after all, never seem to offer any hard data to support their claims. On the other hand, those who reject the notion that religion is the cause of most wars can quite handily point to the Encyclopedia of Wars (assuming one accepts the categorization of scholars Phillips and Axelrod) as statistical evidence that such critics of religious warfare are wrong.
It seems unlikely that Phillips and Axelrod, or the other scholars involved in the production of their encyclopedia, intended for their work to be used in quite this way. They only list their categorization of “religious wars” in the index of the third volume on pages 1484-1485, where one can find 121 entries listed under the topic. The issue does not otherwise seem to be remarked upon elsewhere. Moreover, if one were only to read the introduction or look through the various entries, each with a helpful outline of key facts at the start of each entry, they would not find any effort to categorize wars as religious or otherwise, and so one might be confused by the claims found online that Phillips and Axelrod “categorize” 123 wars as religious when, unless you refer to the index, you will not find such an effort. This seems to have caught at least one academic blogger unaware, as they falsely claim in a “Fact Check” that “There is no section of the book where Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod explicitly “categorize” wars as religious or non-religious.” In this case, the “Fact Checker” is wrong, as one only needs to check the index for the category.
I provide (unfortunately blurry) photographic evidence from page 1484-85 below for any doubters.
I hope the reader will forgive my crude penciled-in numbering of the various wars. I did this only because when I counted the wars listed under “religious wars” in the index I came up with a total of only 121, rather than the more commonly repeated figure of 123 (see the meme provided above). As a result, I worried I was miscounting and wanted to be as precise as possible, but my efforts still resulted in only 121 entries listed under “religious wars.” Wondering about the discrepancy, I traced the 123 figure back to the science fiction author and social commentator Theodore Beale, more commonly known as Vox Day, who seems to have been the first to make this argument based on his analysis of the Encyclopedia of Wars (see page 105 of his 2008 book The Irrational Atheist). He later noted in a blog post that the actual count from the Encyclopedia of Wars was 121, but that he felt the editors “made some errors,” resulting in his slightly revised figure of 123. Several others appear to have seized on Vox Day’s figure, including a rabbi writing for the Huffington Post and Bruce Sheiman, the author of An Atheist Defends Religion (2009), as neither author cites their source, but both use Vox Day’s unique figure of 123 “religious wars” (rather than Phillips and Axelrod’s figure of 121) out of 1,763 total wars.
*I might add that of the 121 entries listed under “religious wars” in the Encyclopedia of Wars, one of the entries deals with two wars, so a revised figure would be 122 wars, or only 6.9% of the wars considered by Phillips and Axelrod.
** See also Religion and the 100 Worst Atrocities in History