Tag Archives: Religion and Warfare

The Myth of Religion as the Cause of Most Wars

The following essay, by Andrew Holt, is republished from John D. Hosler‘s edited volume, Seven Myths of Military History (Hackett, 2022). It is provided here with both the permission of Professor Hosler and Hackett Publishing. Thoughtful feedback and comments are welcome and can be emailed directly to the author at aholt@fscj.edu.


Chapter 1. War and the Divine: Is Religion the Cause of Most Wars?

Andrew Holt

“It is somewhat trite, but nevertheless sadly true, to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.”

—Richard Kimball[1]

To uproarious laughter, the late comedian and social critic George Carlin once condemned God as the cause of the “bloodiest and most brutal wars” ever fought, which were “all based on religious hatred.” He stated that millions have died simply because “God told” Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians it would be a “good idea” for them to kill each other. Carlin’s comedy routine, entitled “Kill for God!” has received rave reviews by its viewers for being “brilliant” and “spot on,” with one anonymous fan confirming that religion is “by far the single biggest cause of human deaths.”[2]

To be clear, it is not modern military historians who claim religion is the cause of most wars, but rather many prominent intellectuals, scientists, academics, and politicians, often with far greater influence over popular cultural assumptions than professional historians, who have popularized such claims. In a 2006 interview, the neuroscientist and cultural commentator Sam Harris stated, “If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology.”[3] The Oxford University evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins claimed in 2003 that religion is the “principal label, and the most dangerous one,” by which human divisions occur, contributing to “wars, murders and terrorist attacks.”[4]

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Samuel Huntington’s “Bloody Borders” Revisited

In 1993, in a controversial essay written for Foreign Affairs titled “The Clash of Civilizations,” the influential Harvard University political scientist Samuel P. Huntington (d. 2008) wrote:

“In Eurasia the great historic fault lines between civilizations are once more aflame. This is particularly true along the boundaries of the crescent-shaped Islamic bloc of nations, from the bulge of Africa to central Asia. Violence also occurs between Muslims, on the one hand, and Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans, Jews in Israel, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Burma and Catholics in the Philippines. Islam has bloody borders.”

Samuel Huntington

Samuel Huntington, Harvard University’s Albert J. Weatherhead University Professor. Staff Photo Jon Chase/Harvard University News Office

Critics responded swiftly. They argued that Huntington’s claim represented an unfair attack on Islam and refused to take into account other factors (such as economics, for example) beyond simple religious differences. Others rejected his particular definitions of “civilizations.” Nevertheless, a few years later, Huntington defended and stood firmly by his original comments in his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. In it (pages 256-258), he laid out evidence that he argued “was overwhelming” in support of his thesis. He noted that while Muslims make up about one-fifth of the world’s population, “they have been far more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other civilization.”

For his evidence, he list three primary points. Continue reading