Does religion cause wars?

November 14th, 2011 in clues. Tags: , , , , , ,

World War 1 troops
Photo courtesy of Photos of the Great War

You’ve probably heard it or read it on the internet – “religion is evil and causes wars, killing, terrorism, etc”. For example, this atheist is quite certain: “we see religion regularly used for war, mass murder, terrorism, and even genocide”

So I decided to see if there were any historical studies on the matter. Here is what I found.

Historical and modern studies

I found several books and internet reports on the causes of war, but one study stood out from the others in the depth of its analysis and the impartiality and expertise of the researchers – the Centre for Peace Studies at Bradford University in the UK. In 2003 the Centre was asked by the BBC to research this question, and the report, God and War: an Audit & an Exploration, can be downloaded.

Several other internet pages and textbooks gave a range of views that tended to reinforce the conclusions of the Bradford university study.

The conclusions

  • The claim that religion causes war is not supported by the historical or contemporary evidence. Very few wars (about 10% of the 70+ wars assessed) have a significant religious cause, and most have significant other causes.
  • Religion has been assciated with war in some time periods (e.g. in the Middle Ages) when it was allied with powerful governments, but both early and modern christianity have tended to be promotors of peace.
  • Atheism has been associated with more killing in war than religion, and is most dangerous when associated with a totalitarian state.
  • Thus religion, or non-religious ’causes’ such as atheism, communism, nationalism, etc, can be used to sanction violence and war, and are at their most dangerous when combined with authoritarian or aggressive governments.

Read more

Read a more detailed summary of the studies, and check out all the references, at Does religion cause wars?. Read about how experts have concluded that modern terrorism is also generally caused by factors other than religion, at Does religion cause terrorism?


  1. This part from “Does religion cause wars” in the Clues section surprised me:

    “◦The 20th century war with the greatest religious motivation (as stated by US president George W Bush) was the second Gulf War when the US and allies invaded Iraq.”

    I was under the impression that the war was about the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction?

  2. That was the assessment of the Uni of Bradford team that I was referencing, baased on their criteria and a number f quotes from George Bush.

    And I think I would agree. Bush was reported as saying God told him to invade Iraq, although this was later denied by the White House. But there were certainly still religious overtones to Bush’s rhetoric and many mentions of God.

    I don’t see why the war couldn’t have had both religious and secular justifications – a cynic might even say that Bush was selected as President because of his simple bonhomie and faith, which could be exploited by more devious people in the government.

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