Volume > Issue > Religion: A Cause of War?

Religion: A Cause of War?

THE ROLE OF IRRELIGION

By Frederick W. Marks | December 2023
Frederick W. Marks, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is the author of 10 books, including Think and Believe and A Catholic Handbook for Engaged and Newly Married Couples.

With the resumption of armed hostilities between Palestine and Israel, we are sure to witness once more secularists taking delight in the notion that religion causes war. Yet this line of thinking is something of a puzzlement. The most irreligious of centuries, the 20th, gave us the most wars, while the greatest war-makers and mass murderers of all time — Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong — were anti-religious.

According to the three-volume Encyclopedia of Wars (2005), less than seven percent of conflicts can be credibly blamed on religion, and we may safely assume, on this basis, that the rest (93 percent) are due to a lack of religion because the Encyclopedia pegs them as products of passion, worldliness, and envy, which run counter to the religious ideal.

Karen Armstrong, in Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014), a book published by Alfred Knopf and favorably reviewed by The New York Times, argues that real religion does not lead to violence; it prevents violence. The New Testament Letter of St. James explains why: “Wisdom that is from above is…peaceable, moderate, docile, and…full of mercy…. The fruit of [divine] justice is sown in peace by those who make peace.” James goes on, “Whence do wars and quarrels come among you? Is it not from…your passions…? You covet and do not have; you kill and envy, and cannot obtain. You quarrel and wrangle” (Jas. 3:17-18; 4:1-2).

The Greek philosopher Plato, who was deeply religious, put it as succinctly as anyone when he narrowed down the cause of war to “desires” of the “body.” It is interesting, speaking of Greece, that sports festivals held at Olympia in honor of the gods were times of enforced truces between warring city states.

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