‘Religion is the cause of more wars than anything else’
This is so confidently asserted so often that we just accept it.
As we mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1, its worth asking what role religion played in causing that terrible war. Its nearly 25 years since I studied the causes, but I can’t seem to remember anything about religion being a factor. European nationalism, empire building, an arms race and simmering historical vendettas, but religion never gets a mention. And what about the Second World War? Resentments left over from WW1, German, Italian and Japanese nationalism, but as far as I can tell, nothing to do with religion. And did religion somehow contribute to the even greater bloodshed that Stalin and Mao carried out on their own people? No.
Of course not all wars are like this. Sometimes religion is a significant factor. But often we quickly assume that religion is a cause of the conflict, simply because those on the opposing sides have different religions; but the reality is that the war is really about nationalism, land and revenge (e.g. Israel-Hamas in Gaza). When the BBC commissioned the University of Bradford to investigate this issue, they found that in 73 major wars over 3000 years, only 10% had clear religions motivations, and most had no detectable religious motivations at all. (GOD AND WAR: AN AUDIT & AN EXPLORATION, cited at http://www.is-there-a-god.info/clues/war.shtml). In a world where religion has been such a significant factor in every human society, this is a surprisingly small percentage.
What then is the cause of almost all wars, if it is not religion? Who or what can we blame? This surely is a very simple question – the human heart, with all its pride and hatred and selfishness and greed and inability to forgive. Anyone who has lived with other people is not all surprised that human beings fight – why would we not expect the same on a larger scale? As GK Chesterton put it in response to the question ‘what is wrong with the world?’ – ‘I am’.