In the Name of God

Religious wars in the name of God

In the name of God – Religious Wars

A religious war (Latin: bellum sacrum) is a war caused by, or justified by, religious differences. It can involve one state with an established religion against another state with a different religion or a different sect within the same religion, or a religiously motivated group attempting to spread its faith by violence, or to suppress another group because of its religious beliefs or practices. The Muslim conquests, the Crusades, the Reconquista, and the French Wars of Religion are frequently cited historical examples.

According to the Encyclopedia of Wars, out of a comprehensive listing of 1763 wars in history, 123 (7%) have been classified to involve a religious conflict. William T. Cavanaugh argues that what is termed “religious wars” is a largely Western dichotomy of different power configurations which serves a Western consumer audience.

Many wars that are considered religious wars have economic or political consequences, such as land grabbing, control of trade routes, government changes, that could call into question the true reasons behind the conflict. Furthermore, differences in religion can inflame a war being fought for other reasons. Historically, places of worship have been destroyed to weaken the morale of the opponent, even when the war itself is not being waged for religious reasons.

Violence committed by secular governments and people, including the anti-religious, have been documented, including some instances of violence or persecutions focused on religious believers. World War I, World War II, many civil wars (American, El Salvador, Russia, Sri Lanka, China etc.), revolutionary wars (American, French, Russian, etc.), and common conflicts such as gang and drug wars (e.g. Mexican Drug War) or even the War on Terrorism, have all been secular. In addition, the USSR anti-religious campaign, Albanian anti-religious campaign, among others have been conducted under atheist states.

Jack David Eller, an anthropologist of culture, violence, and religion who himself is an atheist, claims: “As we have insisted previously, religion is not inherently and irredeemably violent; it certainly is not the essence and source of all violence.” and “Religion and violence are clearly compatible, but they are not identical. Violence is one phenomenon in human (and natural existence), religion is another, and it is inevitable that the two would become intertwined. Religion is complex and modular, and violence is one of the modules – not universal, but recurring. As a conceptual and behavioral module, violence is by no means exclusive to religion. There are plenty of other groups, institutions, interests, and ideologies to promote violence. Violence is, therefore, neither essential to nor exclusive to religion. Nor is religious violence all alike… And virtually every form of religious violence has its nonreligious corollary.”

In terms of religion, ethnicity, wars, and conflicts, Jack David Eller states: “When a pure or hybrid religious group and/or its interests are threatened, or merely blocked from achieving its interests by another group, conflict and violence may ensue. In such cases, although religion is part of the issue and religious groups form the competitors, or combatants, it would be simplistic or wrong to assume the religion is the “cause” of the trouble or that the parties are “fighting about religion”. Religion in the circumstances may be more a marker of the groups than an actual point of contention between them.

Lowest estimate Highest estimate Event Location Dates Religions involved Percentage of the world population
3,000,000 11,500,000 Thirty Years’ War Holy Roman Empire 1618-1648 Protestants and Catholics 0.5%–2.1%
2,000,000 4,000,000 French Wars of Religion France 1562-1598 Protestants and Catholics 0.4%–0.8%
1,000,000 2,000,000 Second Sudanese Civil War Sudan 1983-2005 Islam and Christian 0.02%
1,000,000 3,000,000 Crusades Holy Land, Europe 1095-1291 Islam and Christian 0.3%–2.3%
130,000 250,000 Lebanese Civil War Lebanon 1975-1990 Sunni, Shiite and Christian

In terms of significant non-religious campaigns: the following statistics, from a table of the worst genocides in the 20-21st centuries:

Mao Ze-Dong (China, 1958-61 and 1966-69, Tibet 1949-50) 49-78,000,000
Adolf Hitler (Germany, 1939-1945) 12,000,000
Leopold II of Belgium (Congo, 1886-1908) 8,000,000
Jozef Stalin (USSR, 1932-39) 6,000,000
Pol Pot (Cambodia, 1975-79) 1,700,000
In the name of no God - Stalin Famine Victims

In the name of no God – Stalin Famine Victims

Further reading:

  • Eller, Jack David (2007).Introducing Anthropology of Religion. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-40896-7.
  • Religious War

(Religious war in the name of God)