Tactics and Tools

Debunking the Religious Wars Myth

Author Brett Kunkle Published on 03/08/2016

“Religion is the cause of most wars,” declared our atheist guest. A few students shot nervous glances at me, hoping I would jump in. I sat there silently, not responding, instead waiting for the students’ training to kick in. We were in Berkeley, on a mission trip with more than 60 high schoolers and staff from Upland Christian Academy. Our atheist speaker, Victor, was outlining various objections to religion. He continued, “And Christianity can be blamed for many of those wars.”

The claim that religion is the source of most wars throughout human history has become a cultural mantra, uttered so often and with so much force, it has come to be accepted as an undeniable declaration. Prominent atheists like Sam Harris contribute to the chorus of voices, arguing religion is “the most prolific source of violence in our history.” Richard Dawkins claims, “There’s no doubt that throughout history religious faith has been a major motivator for war and for destruction.”

As we trained students for this Berkeley mission trip, we equipped them with a simple question to expose such claims: How did you come to that conclusion? When someone makes a claim, put the burden of proof on them by asking for their supporting reasons. When our atheist presenter was challenged to provide justification, he could only offer up the Crusades, 9-11, and the Spanish Inquisition. Certainly we recognize religion’s role in these specific cases, but three examples are inadequate to support the claim that most wars are caused by religion.

With a simple question students were able to demonstrate the paucity of evidence for this claim. In addition, we helped students turn the tables by appealing to the facts of history to show the exact opposite is true: Religion is the cause of a very small minority of wars. Phillips and Axelrod’s three-volume Encyclopedia of Wars lays out the simple facts. In 5 millennia worth of wars—1,763 total—only 123 (or about 7%) were religious in nature. Furthermore, if you remove the 66 wars waged in the name of Islam, that number is cut down to a little more than 3%. A second scholarly source, The Encyclopedia of War edited by Gordon Martel, confirms this data, concluding that only 6% of the wars listed in its pages can be labeled religious wars. Finally, a 2014 report from the Institute for Economics and Peace further debunks this myth.

We didn’t stop there. We showed students it actually gets worse for the atheists’ claim. A strong case can be made that atheism, not religion, and certainly not Christianity, is responsible for a far greater degree of bloodshed. Indeed, R.J. Rummel’s work in his books, Lethal Politics and Death by Government has the secular body count at more than 100 million in the 20th century alone. Millions have died at the hands of atheist regimes like Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Vladmir Lenin, and others.

These students were able to see that a simple examination of the facts relieves religion from blame for most of the world’s wars. In addition, we were able to help cultivate in students a healthy skepticism of atheistic claims. If the skeptic will shout such an unsubstantiated claim so loudly and with so much force, what other skeptical claims might quickly fall apart under rational scrutiny? After debriefing students with the facts, their nervous glances were transformed into confident smiles. As we got students “off the sidelines and into the game,” they discovered that Christian truth holds firm in the face of atheistic objections.