Myth of the Modern Religious War
While religion is a popular motif for describing national or international strife, a closer look suggests that’s really just a veneer for less spiritual issues.
Not long ago, a church leader at the Protestant sect I belong to gave a sermon criticizing the role of religion in today’s conflicts. He cited the Crusades, clashes between Catholics and Protestants, and other “religious wars” of the Middle East and throughout Asia. It made me wonder how prevalent these are, given that many of these conflicts cited either occurred a long time ago or are predominantly fought over other reasons.
The political science literature on the subject is overshadowed by Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, frequently cited by the mainstream media and numerous editorials — especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 upon us, expect to hear sound-bite versions of Huntington’s thesis trotted out repeatedly.
Huntington contends that wars come from differences between “civilizations” whose defining features include their belief systems, particularly their religious doctrine. Because these faiths have incompatible doctrines and a mission to spread their influence, violence ensues. This is only likely to accelerate after the conclusion of the ideological battles of the world wars and the Cold War. In a 2004 article in the International Political Science Review, Jonathan Fox finds most ethnic conflicts to be religious clashes.
But is it so simple? In their American Sociological Review article from August of 2007, Brian J. Grim and Roger Frinke find little support for Huntington’s argument. A detailed analysis of countries with multiple religions, or borders between countries of different religious beliefs, finds that they are no more likely to be engaged in conflict than other countries or borders.
Even when there are two different religious groups fighting, it isn’t always about religion, per se. As Time magazine’s Lance Morrow wrote in 1976, “A Belfast pub is not blown up to assert ‘the Real Presence’ or ‘the Virgin Birth.’” Plus, religion could also serve as a force for peace, as Marc Gopin wrote in Peace & Change in 1997.
To determine whether any of these authors are on the right track, my students and I looked at Kalevi J. Holsti’s 1991 book Peace and War: Armed Conflicts and International Order, 1648-1989. Holsti analyzes all international conflicts over the last several centuries, classifying the issues of conflict.
In looking at religious wars in Holsti’s time frame, we coded all cases involving any religious component, from unification and irridenta to protecting religious confreres, and identified 16 religious wars.
More than half of them were between the Ottoman Empire and European nations (1600s-1800s) over protecting Christian pilgrims on the way to the sites in the Holy Land. These were one-way disputes, with the European Christian country pursuing claims while Turkey didn’t seem to have a problem with the status quo. For those since World War II (India-Pakistan, Israel-Arab, Biafra-Nigeria and Syria-Lebanon), none, according to Holsti, had religion as the primary rationale for fighting, even if the wars were advertised as such.
To establish a baseline for comparing religious conflicts with other reasons why countries fight, we gathered information on three additional issues where Holsti collects data: real estate (territorial disputes), riches (battles over resources), and regimes (where one country attempts to replace another country’s government with one it prefers). Like the religion analysis, this involved bundling several of Holsti’s issues under a broader category for each issue of conflict, since many if not most wars have multiple issues. The results are listed below:
As you can see, in no time period since the Peace of Westphalia did religious wars ever constitute the dominant issue for why countries fight. In no case did religion ever consist of more than half the number of the next-lowest category of conflict.
But there’s still the matter of Huntington’s argument that we may be entering into some new age of religious wars. So far, the data doesn’t necessarily reflect that.
We also looked at the new Correlates of War dataset on conflicts since 1990. The Correlates of War project is perhaps the most respected scholarly endeavor to collect data on conflict and the factors associated with it. Some of these conflicts are territorial disputes (Ecuador-Peru over the Cenepa Valley, Ethiopia-Eritrea over the Badme border town, India-Pakistan over Kargil). Others involve conflict between Iraq and other countries, which are fought for a host of issues, none of which seems to have a religious component.
Even in the Balkan wars, the international component to these (NATO versus Bosnian Serbs or Serbia over Kosovo) did not directly involve religion, even if the groups on the ground battled under the banners of differing faiths. Here, the literature splits on whether religion was the genuine cause or merely an easily cited rationale hyped by Western media and armchair diplomats. The same might be said of the fight between Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Only the Afghanistan conflict seems to have a clear religious element, but like the religious disputes of old, only Afghan Taliban ally Osama bin Laden claimed it as such.
Of course, while countries with different religions go to war, religion does not have to drive the dispute. Japan did not try to convert the United States to its religious beliefs by bombing Pearl Harbor, any more than the American response was an attempt to Christianize the Japanese islands.
In a future research project, I intend to look at the internal conflicts to see if the findings are similar to the results from the study of international wars.
There’s also the matter of the year 1648, which may seem like an arbitrary point for delineation. But that was the year of the Peace of Westphalia. Holsti’s book discusses the bloody Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, when religion was front-and-center casus belli, like so many other conflicts before this time. The Peace of Westphalia was designed to do more than just halt this particular war, or establish the doctrine of sovereignty. It may have generally put a damper on many European-derived religious wars after 1648, our numbers suggest.
When I noted our findings to the religious figure I mentioned at the beginning, he seemed to dismiss the relatively good news that wars between religions are vastly overstated. “But every time I turn on the television, I see some religious war going on,” he responded.
And that’s the point. Many wars are falsely framed as religious by a media either ignorant of the reasons for fighting, or seeking a simpler, quicker explanation than a detailed history, a complicated border or an ethnic component too difficult to untangle in 45 seconds.
And when there is a religious component, it receives a disproportionate amount of coverage, compared to other issues from that war, or other fights that do not have a religious bent, because religious wars have a narrative we all understand — the perceived clash between good and evil.
An earlier version of this was presented at the annual meeting of the Alabama Political Science Association, at Samford Universty in Birmingham. The author would like to thank Ashbi Alford, Ryan Bergman, Derecius Cheaves, Andrew Gawler, Katie Hearn, Jatara King, Emmie Trull, and Isaiah Whitfield, LaGrange College undergraduates who contributed to the research on this paper.