Oxford University Press book: is religion responsible for wars and violence in history?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

J.W. Wartick posted a review of a book called “The Myth of Religious Violence”, and written by Dr. William T. Cavanaugh.

Let’s take a look at some of the review.

Here, J.W. quotes from the book:

The story goes that, after the Protestant Reformation divided Christendom along religious lines, Catholics and Protestants began killing each other for holding to different doctrines. The wars of religion… demonstrated to the West the inherent danger of public religion. The solution to the problem lay in the rise of the modern state, in which religious loyalties were marginalized and the state secured a monopoly on the means of violence…

This story is more than just a prominent example of the myth of religious violence. It has a foundational importance for the secular West, because it explains the origin of its way of life and its system of governance. It is a creation myth for modernity (123).

Then writes this:

Following the lines of thinking of Voltaire, John Locke, and others, Cavanaugh argues that the myth of religious violence is perpetuated in order to marginalize that which is considered religious and give rise to the nation-state. According to this myth, “All theological religions are to be tolerated, provided they do not interfere with the obligations of citizens to the state…” (129). The myth is that religion is divisive and that they “fight over doctrines or ‘religious creeds’” so that “the state steps in to make peace” (130).

Cavanaugh shows that this myth is indeed false. The “wars of religion” had any number of motivating factors. The use of this story is not so much to tell a truth as it is a means by which to legitimize the nation-state. He argues towards these conclusions by showing that many “wars of religion” were in fact wars of economy, wars of power structures, and the like. He notes four primary factors for this myth to work: that combatants were motivated by religious difference, that the primary cause of war was religion, that religious causes are analytically separable from political, economic, and social causes at the time of the wars, and that the rise of the modern state was not a cause of the wars (141-142). He then analyzes each of these in turn based upon the historical record and shows that these all fail to account for the actual history of the “wars of religion.” In fact, the opposite is true in each case (142-177).

“We must conclude that the myth of the wars of religion is finally incredible, which is to say, false” (177).

[…]Perhaps the most challenging and paradigm-shifting portion of the book is that which focuses upon the uses of the myth of religious violence. Cavanaugh argues that the myth is so perpetuated because of its usefulness.

Cavanaugh has his BA from the University of Notre Dame, his MA from Cambridge University, and his PhD from Duke University.

Regarding religion and wars, consider this post from Well Spent Journey:

The Claim: “Religion has been the primary cause of war and oppression throughout the history of mankind.”

The Truth: In their comprehensive Encyclopedia of Wars, Phillips and Axelrod document the recorded history of warfare. Of the 1,763 wars presented, a mere 7% involved a religious cause. When Islam is subtracted from the equation, that number drops to 3.2%.

In terms of casualties, religious wars account for only 2% of all people killed by warfare. This pales in comparison to the number of people who have been killed by secular dictators in the 20th century alone.

So let’s take a look at those secular dictators.

According to the The Black Book of Communism, published by Harvard University Press, over 100 million innocent people were killed in atheistic, communist regimes in the last century. In the past, consistent atheists like Stalin who had power enough to ignore objective morality caused millions of innocent deaths. And you can even see atheism killing lots and lots of people in countries like North Korea today – where the official state religion is atheism. Why is that? It’s because the worldview of atheism teaches that the universe, and human beings, are here by accident. We are all just molecules in motion, and there is no inherent dignity or purpose to any of our lives that would obligate others to treat us a certain way.

On the Christian view, every single person has dignity because they are made in the image of God, and made to know him. Christians can never treat another person (of any religion or no religion) in any way that would discourage them from knowing God and experiencing his love for us. We could never hurt anyone in a way that causes them to turn against God. We are careful with people, because we want to act towards them in a way that helps them to accomplish this purpose.

Of course there are lots of atheists in the Judeo-Christian West who live more peacefully, because they are living in a background of objective morality and human rights provided by Western religions. But in countries like North Korea, with a state religion that cannot ground free will or objective morality or human rights or judgment after death, there are fewer restraints.

Even here, we have already seen over 50 million unborn children killed since abortion became legal. And I can guarantee you that it’s not authentic, Bible-believing Christians who are having these abortions. People who think they are going to face God when they die do not treat their fellow humans like machines made out of meat. As a group, atheists tend to be among the most radical in favor of abortion rights. The Secular Census of 2012 found that 97% of atheists vote for abortion. And of course today in the news we got the second video of Planned Parenthood top brass explaining how they sell the body parts of unborn babies to the highest bidder. I wrote about the first video here.

The idea of the strong killing the weak for their own advantage is the law of the jungle, and it’s not surprising to me that those who think that humans are just animals would act this way with vulnerable children. If you only have 80 years to be happy in an accidental universe, then anything goes. No one is there to hold you accountable when you die. If the weak get in your way, kill them all. Just don’t get caught. That’s what atheist morality teaches.

Here’s famous atheist Richard Dawkins explaining why infanticide is OK:

And here’s what he thinks of objective moral values and duties:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.

–Richard Dawkins, (River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995))

You can read more about the morality of atheists likeRichard Dawkins here.

In a previous post, I looked at an article by an atheist who explained what it meant to live consistently with atheism. I really recommend reading that in order to understand what is rational within that worldview.

7 thoughts on “Oxford University Press book: is religion responsible for wars and violence in history?”

  1. Great Article! I just read a few pages of the book on Amazon. I will definitely be adding it to my library.

  2. That 7% of wars being religiously motivated ins’t quite from “Encyclopedia of Wars,” but was tabulated by author Vox Day in this “The Irrational Atheist” from EoW. Indeed, the authors of EoW came to the opposite conclusion: that religion does cause lots of wars despite the evidence they themselves present.

    1. Vox Day was the first person to come up with the 7% figure in The Irrational Atheist. Everyone else who uses that figure is quoting Vox Day.

    2. jgecik,

      Of course, history has shown that people will fight for their faith (I am also trying to see where the actual figures come from, as well. I am not going to download the Wiley encyclopedia on wars for a 14 day free trial either.). However, there are stats that will give you a better understanding of (or support for) Cavanaugh’s book.

      Please go to this site, and read 169,198,000 murdered: summary and conclusion section (However, feel free to read more on the site. Governments, bent on power not religion, have murdered millions of people):


      R. J. Rummel’s work Lethal Politics and Death by Government:

      Non-Religious Dictator Lives Lost
      •Joseph Stalin – 42,672,000
      •Mao Zedong – 37,828,000
      •Adolf Hitler – 20,946,000
      •Chiang Kai-shek – 10,214,000
      •Vladimir Lenin – 4,017,000
      •Hideki Tojo – 3,990,000
      •Pol Pot – 2,397,0003

      Rummel says: “Almost 170 million men, women and children have been shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hung, bombed or killed in any other of a myriad of ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners. The dead could conceivably be nearly 360 million people. It is though our species has been devastated by a modern Black Plague. And indeed it has, but a plague of Power, not germs.”

      ‘The historical evidence is quite clear: Religion is not the #1 cause of war’

      1. Okay, I agree. Why was this post addressed to me, though? All I was pointing out is that the 7% figure was first established by Day using the Encyclopedia of War as the reference document which doesn’t make the 7% reference itself.

        Credit where it’s due and all that.

          1. Gotcha, gotcha. I should have made it more clear in my initial post what I thought about the issue.

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