Religion often becomes involved when people are in conflict. Many religious traditions provide points of identity around which people can rally when they feel threatened or can offer reassurance and justification to those about to enter combat. Extreme circumstances, like war, have often led people to embrace their own religious traditions (or new ones) more firmly. All of this is undeniably true. Popular history, however, often makes a further claim: that religious differences cause violent conflicts. A careful look at history shows us a different picture. Religious differences have rarely, if ever, caused wars on their own, and where they have been involved in starting hostilities, they have played only a partial role alongside many other forces.
When we look at history, it is easy to find conflicts between people of different faiths, but these are unusual interruptions in a world history that is mostly about people of different faiths getting along reasonably well. Religious differences on their own don’t drive people into conflict. Protestant and Catholic Christians, for example, have been engaged in a bitter conflict in Northern Ireland for most of the past century, but during that time Northern Ireland has been pretty much the only place in the world where Protestants and Catholics have fought a sustained violent conflict. Nor is religion the only thing that separates the sides in Northern Ireland: differences in religion, language, political inclinations, popular culture, and social life are all wrapped up in the thousand-year history of English colonialism in Ireland. Catholic and Protestant denominations in Northern Ireland have provided a structure in which people can organize to pursue their causes and have been markers of identity around which people rally in difficult times, but if all the people of the territory were of the same religion, the conflict there would still have happened. Blaming religious differences for the Northern Irish Troubles is like blaming the US Civil War on a disagreement over what color Army uniforms should be.
The existence of religious differences can create divisions within and between communities and conflicts tend to fall out along those fault lines. The lack of shared beliefs also takes away some of the common ground and trust that can be used to broker peace agreements. In these cases, though, it is still not the religious difference that actually causes conflict.
Another historical example can help us see the interplay of forces. The Crusades were a series of wars whose participants actively invoked religion as a cause. We should not doubt that many of the participants sincerely believed in the religious terms in which the conflicts were framed, but it would be a mistake to say to that religion caused the wars.
Europe in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, the main time period of crusading wars, was experiencing gradual sustained population growth. This population growth put pressure on resources, both economic (not enough jobs for the poor) and social (not enough family land for younger children to inherit). The distressed and disaffected became a persistent source of agitation and the those who were economically and socially better off began looking for opportunities to get the troublemakers away from home to go make trouble for someone else.
This sort of bleeding off of unwanted population as a safety valve has happened in many times and places throughout history. In the past five-hundred years, European nations were able to do it by sending people to colonies abroad. In the United States, it happened with the push into the west. Europeans in the middle ages didn’t have those options. Instead, they organized their unwanted population to go off, fight wars, and settle down in foreign lands. Most crusades were directed against majority Muslim regions in the eastern Mediterranean, but similar wars were also fought in eastern Europe and Scandinavia where people were mostly following traditional “pagan” religions. The reconquest of Islamic Spain and regional wars against heretical sects in Europe fit the same pattern.
Religious differences provided a justification for these wars and comfort to those who fought in them, but religion did not cause them. Peoples of different religions have lived together more or less peacefully in most parts of the world for most of human history. Sometimes it has been a tense and troubled peace, but peace nonetheless. It takes an unusual combination of other circumstances to actually start a war between people of different religions.
Thoughts for writers
As fiction writers, conflict is our bread and butter. For all the reasons discussed above, when conflicts happen between people of different religious traditions, those religions are likely to get dragged into the fight to justify the hostilities and provide a sense of cohesion and moral purpose to each side. When we write about people at war, we should certainly think about how their faith effects how they explain the conflict and how the feel about what they are doing. The cause of the war, though, is very unlikely to come down to “Those other guys believe in something we don’t believe in, so we have to kill them.” Of all the Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and people of every other religious tradition who have ever lived in the history of the world, only a vanishingly small number have gone off to fight against people of a different faith.
There is some hope for the world in that fact, but it does mean that, as writers, we need to think a little harder about what actually puts the people of our imagined worlds into conflict.
Other entries in Fantasy Religions:
- The Divine Presence
- Interacting with the Divine
- Religious Sites
- Sacrilege, Blasphemy, and Heresy
- Religious Experts
Image: A battle of the Reconquista via Wikimedia (13th c.; paint on vellum)
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.
Religions become involved? Or religions cause the conflict? Any dogmatic worldview will naturally create conflict. When the formula is “I’m right, you’re wrong” what else can you expect?
History doesn’t agree. Most people in most places and times have managed to live peacefully beside those who didn’t share their religion. Violent conflict is the exception, not the rule. If the conviction that other people are wrong in their beliefs led directly and simplistically to war, the history of the world would be vastly more bloodsoaked than it already is.
Mmm, history doesn’t agree? Given that now is the least violent time in history, I’d say you have that flipped. As long as the judeo-christian religions have flourished, so has violence. The waning violence is due to the slow, painfully slow, drift away from those dogmatic forms
An interesting thesis. Let’s see how it compares with the evidence.
Violence and religiosity are difficult to measure, but if we get more specific we can discern downward trends in both. The percentage of people in western nations who die as a result of organized violent conflict has been declining since the early 1700s. The percentage of people in western nations who explicitly identify as religious and/or regularly attend religious gatherings has been declining since the late 1800s. So, yes, we can verify two correlated historical trends, but that’s a long way from concluding that one caused the other.
First, since the decline in violence began almost two centuries before the decline in religiosity and we know that effect cannot precede cause, the argument that declining religiosity caused declining violence will not stand.
Second, many other changes have happened in western society during that time, including the industrial revolution and the attendant de-agrarianization of society; the spread of democratic forms of government and the expansion of the franchise to include women, the poor, and ethnic minorities; the professionalization and mechanization of armies; the end of legal serfdom, slavery, and other forms of unfree labor; developments in medical technology and practice; and the development of more regular and robust international diplomacy. Any of these changes could plausibly have had an effect on how many wars were fought, how long they lasted, and how many people they killed. If we want to sustain the thesis that a decline in religiosity is responsible for a decline in violent conflict, we have to evaluate the effects of these and other factors as well.
All of which still leaves us with the elephant in the corner: the long and deep history of people of different religious traditions who, in the absence of other political, economic, and social stresses, lived in peace with one another.