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War and Religion: Is Religion to Blame?

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Maj. John P. Conway

Combat Studies Institute Commendable Papers

Maj. John P. Conway was a student at the Command & General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

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War and Religion: Is Religion to Blame?

It has often been commonly stated, "People have been killing each other in the name of religion for centuries." There is more than enough superficial evidence to support this assertion. After all, personal values, culture and belief systems are great motivators for an individual and a group. A key aspect of waging war is "justification" in the mind of the population.1 Religion is often introduced to justify actions and motivate the masses. While this may be truly endemic of a misguided worldview of one's religion, it is never the less a true statement regarding the human condition. Justifiable or not, religion motivates. Religion, as a motivator and catalyst to garner popular support for waging war, may or may not be rooted in justifiable purpose. Most times, it can be argued that religion may play a key and significant role in the conduct of warfare on a psychological and cultural level, but is it the cause of warfare? Do nations, states and kingdoms wage war over religion? Is religion a primary cause of conflict between governments? Many have argued that it is. Another popular statement is, "Religion has been the cause of more wars than any other factor throughout history." This is commonly accompanied by "people have been killing each other in the name of God for centuries." Upon closer examination, these statements exude an element of mythology versus fact. The point of this essay is not to announce that religion has never been the cause of war, but rather to highlight the necessity for close study and thorough scrutiny when assigning religion as the actual cause. A fundamental analysis of past wars commonly attributed to "religion," as the causal factor, may reveal an uninformed and reactionary misjudgment. Throughout the course of history, the cause of warfare between sovereign states, kingdoms, and governments is attributable to many factors, but can rarely be attributed to "religion" as is so often the assertion.

It is safe to preclude that warfare among men and between tribes, kingdoms, states and nations is a common trend throughout the course of human history. Warfare and conflict are a constant in the human endeavor.2 Given this constant, attributable causes for conflict are certainly varied and numerous. However, the intrigue here is that while specific wars and conflict may have attributable and identifiable causes given the specific circumstances of the time, to what do we attribute the overall, inescapable trend of warfare in general? Why do nations wage war? This is the fundamental question at hand. Understanding beyond this crucial question only answers a second order derivative of the fundamental question. If we suppose that warfare is a constant in history, further supposition will suggest that man has and does fight regardless of religion or many other factors we commonly attribute warfare to. For example, history proclaims that the Crusades and the modern day conflict in Ireland are two aggressions clearly caused by religion.3 The Crusades will be specifically addressed, as a case in point, later in this essay. We attribute this as the cause because of the identifiable and ever present religious overtones that make up the cultures in these conflicts. The argument is usually expressed as the Christians against the Muslims and the Catholics against the Protestants, respectively. Interestingly, when nations apparently void of religion display the antithesis of religion, such as the Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia, the cause is never framed as attributable to the devil or atheism. Shouldn't atheism, agnostics or evil be the cause, logic not withstanding? What is the causal root of war? Stanton A. Coblentz writes, "The greed of gain has been the incentive of fighting among peoples who are not warlike by nature and do not love war for it's own sake."4 By extension, if one side is fighting for gain, then another is fighting to prevent loss: self-preservation. The concept of "gain" implicitly denotes a measure of economics that may be translated to property, wealth, trade, influence, or power. Religion most probably fits into the influence category. This is an important distinction regarding religion as the causal factor for war.

Perhaps no other series of conflict has been so commonly attributed to religion, as have the Crusades. Conversion by the sword in the name of Christianity is a prevalent mantra of popular history. Clearly, religion is a central theme during this time of conflict, but it is not necessarily the cause of conflict. In fact, prior to the Crusades, first initiated around 1095 AD, Christians, Muslims and Jews lived in relative peace with one another in and around Palestine and Jerusalem, the Holy Land.5 The still feudalistic kingdoms of Central Europe shared a relatively common bond of religion, Christianity. The common power base exercising the only degree of authority throughout Europe was based in Rome through the Catholic Church and to a large extent within Byzantium.6 With the three major religions living in relative peace, why did the crusades occur? What was the essential cause of the conflict? In 1095, a Muslim army of Saracens began a progressive and effective military campaign that essentially began in Turkey and conquered lands all the way to Egypt and even into Western Europe and part of the Byzantine Empire. Trade and pilgrimage routes to the Holy Land were now cut off.7 The feudal kingdoms in Europe, and with them the survival of Christianity, were threatened. With this event, we clearly see the clash of cultures, societies, regional power and influence: the Western Christians versus the Eastern Muslims. The western power structure, regardless of religion, is now clearly being threatened. With the eastern Saracens now imposing Jihad, the west responds with the Crusades. Diametrically opposed, holy war between two nations is the cause, right? No. Remove the ever-prevalent religion factor and this war arguably unfolds regardless. Two opposing societies and civilizations clash. One trying to "gain" the other trying to "retain." How can such a fundamental historical misrepresentation be possible? Almost all historical references attribute this war to religion. Religion played the essential role amongst the individual combatants and was the essential fabric of the two warring cultures. Economics, power, influence and trade are the true causes. Causes that hold firm regardless of the religion factor.

Religion does however, play a significant role in the conduct of war. Carl Von Clausewitz writes about the trinity of war being a composite of three dominate tendencies; violence and passion; uncertainty, chance and probability; and political purpose and effect.8 The passion Clausewitz speaks of refers to the emotions of the masses and the willingness to wage war. The passions may be pre-existing to a large degree or may need kindling or a combination of the two. Religion can be fundamental to the passion. It strikes a resounding note within the essential fabric of the culture. Clausewitz further argues that the passion is an instrument government uses to achieve the "political purpose and effect."9 In this manner, the feudalistic kingdoms of Europe were united in a common effort to wage war as a means to achieve a political objective, retention through self-preservation. POPE Urban II stirred the masses and kindled the embers of passion with his address preceding the first Crusade.

"On November 25th, 1095, at the council of Clermont, Pope Urban II summoned the first Crusade. For Western Europe it was a crucial and formative event and it's having repercussions today in the Middle East. Addressing a vast crowd of priest, knights and poor people, Urban called for a holy war against Islam. The Seljul Turks, he explained, a barbarian race from central Asia who had recently become Muslims, had swept into Anatolia in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and had seized these lands from the Christian empire of Byzantium. The Pope urged the Knights to stop fighting each other and to make a common cause against the enemies of God."10

Here we see the implements of Clausewitz theory in action. Reviewing the circumstances; the west is threatened by the encroachment of the Muslims. The west loses land, power, influence and access to trade. The Pope, the only real coalescing denominator for the European Kingdoms, rallies the forces using the common thread of passion, religion.11 This motivates and unites the forces and they subsequently march off to do battle. It is important to note that the standard bearer for Christendom, at the time, was Rome and their source of economy, influence and power is derived through the allegiance of the multiple kingdoms through a shared faith.12 The Muslims wage war for "gain" and are reaping the economic and political spoils of war. Similarly, in order to justify the conflict and stir passion amongst the people, the Muslims proclaim Jihad. The fact remains that the actual cause of this conflict revolves around, trade, power, economics, influence, and self-preservation. It just so happens that the culture of each side is sewn with religion.

Today's war on terrorism brings forth an interesting analogy regarding the previous discussion. The west (United States) is attacked by the east under Islamic "justification." Just as "Christendom's" symbol of being was destroyed during the Crusades (the Holy sepulchral and Jerusalem), the United States symbol of power (The World Trade Center) is destroyed. President Bush invokes speech that overwhelming resounds a common cord of unity to wage war. An address similar in world scope and effect, if not words, to that of Pope Urban II. Justification and purpose are outlined to motivate and assure the American people and the world. The president invokes images of Evil, Biblical Christian scripture, a struggle for the survival of our very way of life, freedom, and the flag.

"We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail...... The course of this conflict is not known, yet it's outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them...... Fellow citizens, we'll meet violence with patient justice -- assured of the rightness of our cause, and confident of the victories to come. In all that lies before us, may God grant us wisdom, and may He watch over the United States of America."13

Faced with the unthinkable atrocities and destruction, the American people respond with brimming church attendance, and an previously unheard of outcry for justice as the multitudes fly banners of unity; "One Nation under God." "United We Stand" and "God Bless America." Patriotism, prayer and religion have overcome the nation or rather, the nation is exuding its true colors. Signs of this are everywhere and clear to see. As a nation returns to its foundations in the time of crisis, its true cultural essence and moorings bloom. Clausewitz was right and evoking the passion is not a bad endeavor when done for the right reasons. As tomorrow becomes yesterday and historians not yet known write of this war a thousand years from now, will they attribute this conflict to Religion? Christianity and the West versus Muslims and the East. Clearly in this war, as in many others that have previously been blamed on religion; religion is not the cause.

Concluding this essay, it becomes apparent that those who make the claim "religion has been the cause of more wars than any other factor in history" may speak from ignorance or have ulterior motives for the assertion. Further, this type of assertion seems rooted in anti-religion posturing. Research bears what I believe to be the truths concerning the nature of conflict and as prescribed by Stanton A. Coblentz's Marching Men. Men and nations have a history of warfare and the root of conflict is power and gain. The clash of societies as illustrated by Andrew Bard Schmookler's, The Parable of the Tribes reinforces this position. Clausewitz further prescribes, in his trinity theory, the fuel and willingness to engage the enemy as the passion. It seems that the passions can and often times are patriotism and religion. Individuals and societies turn to the foundations of belief systems for comfort, purpose and justification. Flaming the passion, as Clausewitz would suggest, is one method to introduce religion as the supreme motivator in order to compel the population to fight. God is on our side. The clear distinction and premise of this essay is that, while religion may motivate, and in fact may become the essential ingredient for the sustainment of war, it is seldom the cause. Perhaps this is where the misjudgment and the false assertion of religious blame takes root. It is the failure to scrutinize the distinction between the reaction and the initial cause of conflict. The cause is the "gain principle" in conflict with the "retain principle." It is the collision of societies, not the societal reaction and justification to wage war when faced with immanent conflict. Occasionally war is fought over religion, as is perhaps the case during the reformation period in Europe. More often than not however, the cause of war can't be laid at the door of religion.

1. Schmookler, Andrew Bard, "Justice as the Antidote for Power," The parable of the Tribes. University of California Press, 1984. Pages 238-244

2. Coblentz, Stanton A., "Conflict in Nature," Marching Men. Unicorn Press, 1927. Page 3.

3. Chandler, Davis G., ""the English civil wars, "Islam vs Christianity," Atlas of Military Strategy. Sterling Publishing Company, 1996. Pages 30-33 and pages 54-55.

4. Coblentz, Stanton A., "The Greed of Gain," Marching Men. Unicorn Press, 1927. Page 24.

5. Armstrong, Karen, "Peace in Palestine," Holy War. Doubleday, 1991 page 4.

6. Payne, Robert, The Dream and the Tomb. Stein and Day Publishers, 1984. page 31

7. Payne, Robert, The Dream and the Tomb. Stein and Day Publishers, 1984. page

8. Clausewitz, Carl Von, "What is War?" On War (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), 75-89; excerpt reprinted in US Army Command and General Staff College, C610 Syllabus/Book of Readings. 205-11. Fort Leavenworth: USACGSC,,July 1992

9. Clausewitz, Carl Von, "What is War?" On War (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), 75-89; excerpt reprinted in US Army Command and General Staff College, C610 Syllabus/Book of Readings. 205-11. Fort Leavenworth: USACGSC,,July 1992.

10. Armstrong, Karen, Holy War. Doubleday, 1991 page 3

11. Payne, Robert, The Dream and the Tomb. Stein and Day Publishers, 1984. page 31

12. Payne, Robert, The Dream and the Tomb. Stein and Day Publishers, 1984. page 31-46

13. President George W. Bush. "Address to the Nation and Joint Session of Congress" ONLINE available


Armstrong, Karen, Holy War DoubleDay, 1999

Bradford, Ernle, The Sword and the Scimitar, GP Putnam's Son, 1974

Chandler, David G., Atlas of Military Strategy, Sterling Publishing CO, 1996

Clausewitz, Carl Von, "What is War?" On War (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), 75-89; excerpt reprinted in US Army Command and General Staff College, C610 Syllabus/Book of Readings. 205-11. Fort leaveworth:USACGSC,,July 1992.

Coblentz, Stanton A., Marching Men, The Unicorn Press, 1927

Oldenbourg, Zoe, The Crusades, Pantheon books, 1965

Payne, Robert, The Dream and the Tomb, Stein and Day, 1984

Schmookler, Andrew Bard, The Parable of the Tribes, University of California Press, 1984

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