Has there ever been a way that hasn't had religion at its heart?
November 25, 2006 2:45 PM   Subscribe

Has there ever been a war that hasn't had religion or religious persecution at its heart?

After watching Robin Hood tonight and looking at Richard Dawkins writing lately, there's been a debate here about whether there's ever been a war that hasn't had religious belief as a cause. The opposition is saying that there must have been some battle over land somewhere along the line, but being very shaky on history and geography we're sort of at an empass. Any ideas? I hope this isn't a hot potato.
posted by feelinglistless to Religion & Philosophy (35 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The American Civil War?
posted by greatgefilte at 2:47 PM on November 25, 2006

World War II, The War of Jenkin's Ear, World War I, The Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, The Soviet-Polish War, the Napoleonic Wars.

I got a masters in European History, focus on military history. Dawkins is full of it on this part. There really wasn't a religious dimension to these modern wars.

However, religious wars include, the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War, the persecution of the Hugenots, the Reconquista, the Crusades, the Yellow Turban Rebellion.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:51 PM on November 25, 2006

The American Revolution. It was all about the Benjamins.
posted by Gungho at 2:52 PM on November 25, 2006

How about both of the world wars, American fiddling in Korea and Vietnam, any campaign started by Napoleon, or the Roman conquest of most of Europe? Each of these had a complex set of causes and motivations, but none were solely or even primarily about religion. Of course, religious fears and prejudices were exploited in propaganda in many cases, but that doesn't mean it underlied the conflict.

Seriously. I guess I'm a fan of Dawkins in a lot of ways, but the contention that religion is the only motivation for war is kind of ridiculous.
posted by rkent at 2:55 PM on November 25, 2006

The Mongol invasians. The Russo-Japanese war.

(Indeed, most was in Asia, I think.)
posted by kickingtheground at 2:56 PM on November 25, 2006

I'm not terribly strong on my Roman history, but I was under the impression that the Punic wars weren't really about religion. They were mostly about trading supremacy, and eventually led to Carthage's total destruction. Several hundred thousand soldiers died, and I don't think religion was involved much at all.

I have the general idea that wars are usually about resources, and that religion is just a proxy that the leadership uses to bestir the proletariat, rather than actually being the actual thing that's being fought over.

From what I've seen, Dawkins seems rather one-noteish. I suspect that if two armies took time to pray before a battle, he'd see that battle as being 'about religion'.
posted by Malor at 2:56 PM on November 25, 2006

A lot depends on what you mean by "at its heart." Even so obvious an example of religious persecution as the Nazi regime in the run-up to WWII was not, I think, "at heart" about religion. Rather, it was about energizing the German political base through fear and hatred of a non-German group, setting up an us vs. them mentality.

Religion is seen as a reason for war because religion is so basic and obvious a part of human culture. But it's the fear and loathing of otherness that's the reason for conflict, not the religion per se.
posted by La Cieca at 2:57 PM on November 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

posted by kickingtheground at 2:57 PM on November 25, 2006

Another example: the Spanish-American war had nothing to do with religion at all.
posted by Malor at 2:59 PM on November 25, 2006

Both Gulf Wars, the Falklands War, the Iran-Iraq War, the Seven Years' War, the Hundred Years' War, the Congolese Civil War (or whatever the term is for that hellhole), the Kosovo War (NATO's intervention, more precisely).

Even the Arab-Israeli wars, while religion is a root cause of the conflict, have been sparked by factors that are entirely rationally explicable - domestic politics, the need for security through control of land, etc.

Keep in mind, too, that ethnicity doesn't necessarily involve religious differences.
posted by Dasein at 3:01 PM on November 25, 2006

Well, some would say that wars are ultimately about territory, resources and economics, and that most other supposed reasons are mere propaganda.
posted by randomstriker at 3:02 PM on November 25, 2006

Best answer: There have been many, many wars which had nothing to do with religion. The Punic wars, for instance. The Mongol wars. Sundry invasions in Europe, especially during the Viking century. The 1066 war in England didn't have anything to do with religion.

In a lot of those wars you can find partisans who claim that "God(s) are on our side" but that doesn't mean religion was the reason for the war.

Pretty much none of America's wars have been about religion. (Though perhaps it could be argued that Japan's involvement in WWII was to some extent religious.)

I would say that wars which are at their heart religious are only a minority. Far more common is wars which are motivated by other things, but where leaders cite religion as a way of motivating the masses to fight. However, if those demagogues didn't have religion, they'd have found something else for their speeches.

Speaking as an atheist, I think Dawkins is wrong about a lot of what he says. Being atheist doesn't mean you have to be anti-theist, and I don't understand why some atheists feel they must hate theism and heap abuse on it. Dawkins anti-theistic writings feel a hell of a lot like Chomsky's anti-American writings. America isn't the source of all that's evil and awful in the world, and neither is theism.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:04 PM on November 25, 2006 [3 favorites]

America isn't the source of all that's evil and awful in the world, and neither is theism.

Exactly. Religion has caused a lot of persecution, conflict and suffering, but it's plainly wrong and frankly moronic to try to blame it for all war. Anyone who's read a history book should know better.
posted by Dasein at 3:06 PM on November 25, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. That's given me a lot to think about.
posted by feelinglistless at 3:19 PM on November 25, 2006

U.S. Civil War
French & Indian War (or whatever they call it in Canada)
War of 1812
Vietnam War
Korean War
French Revolution
Italian Revolution
Desert Storm
Operation Iraqui Freedom (Hey, I didn't name it - don't blame me)
Most of WWII had nothing to do with religion, though some did.
Mexican-American war
And many, many others.
posted by JekPorkins at 3:29 PM on November 25, 2006

It seems to me that these wars are all about power, often economic power or land control.

The Thirty Years War, though, was about power and religion - same with the French Wars of Religion or the British Civil Wars.
posted by jb at 3:45 PM on November 25, 2006

Tread lightly here... as some have mentioned up thread religion is often used as a wrapper for wars which are really about economics (or some other useful nation-state power grab like land, resources, trade routes, slaves, etc.)

My own reading of history (pol-sci undergrad talking here, take with a grain of salt) is that very few wars are fought for ideological reasons. More likely it's about increasing power (power being the ability to influence others) at the nation-state level. Religion is a great motivator for recruiting troops but at the end of the day you can often find an economic motivation at the king-leader level.

I suppose the best example would be the Crusades which ostensibly are religious wars in the classic sense, but most historians would agree that religion is only a component or rationale for the peasants whereas the real motivator was taking back valuable land, freeing up trade routes, etc.
posted by wfrgms at 4:16 PM on November 25, 2006

Most civil wars in Africa are purely for political power although every now and then religion becomes part of it (the Lords Resistance Army in Uganda, Muslim/Animists in Sudan).
posted by PenDevil at 4:42 PM on November 25, 2006

The Peloponnesian War. Alcibiades did get framed for castrating Athens' statues of Hermes (which happened while Al was fighting for Athens anyway) but there was really no religious component to the casus belli.
posted by nicwolff at 5:11 PM on November 25, 2006

More wars fought for reasons other than religion:
Pelloponesian Wars, War of Spanish Succession, Paraguayan War, Wars of South American Independence, Whiskey Rebellion, Russian invasions of Poland and Finland in WWII, Spartacus Slave Rebellion, Nat Turner's Rebellion, Russo-Japanese War, Sino Japanese Wars, War of the Roses, Conquests of Alexander the Great, Tartar Invasions, Barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire, Messenean War (Sparta), Macedonian Wars (Greece v. Rome), Congo Crises (1960-61), U.S. invasions of Genada and Panama, Opium Wars. If Prof. Dawkins claims all wars (or even most wars) are caused by religion, it speaks more of his lack of objectivity about religion than his knowledge of history.
posted by ハッカー at 5:22 PM on November 25, 2006

Vietnam and all of the Cold War proxy battles had a serious religious element. It was "Christian America" fighting against "atheistic communism." Sure, there was an economic element, but religion really was what this country tried to use to booster support for those "interventions."
posted by HotPatatta at 5:37 PM on November 25, 2006

Sorry, I lived through most of the Cold War, and it did not have a "serious" religious element. It's true that there were religious differences between the sides, but that was not a significant reason for the conflict.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:45 PM on November 25, 2006

"Has there ever been a war that hasn't had religion or religious persecution at its heart?"
Yes, pretty much all of them. greed, the haves-verses-the-have-not's, That's where most start in my opinion. Yes, I really think it's that simple. Religion is often used to categorize the warring people because it's often the only difference between the two.
posted by BillsR100 at 6:15 PM on November 25, 2006

There was a religious aspect to the American Civil War. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as the North's unofficial theme song. Most of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address addresses the war in religious terms.

"Under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance as a Cold War litmus test.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:54 PM on November 25, 2006

kirkaracha, of course religious people will turn to religion in times of war for strength, comfort, and to rally troops to the cause by portraying the fight as righteous, or reminding the public about the enemy's irreligion. That emphatically does not mean that the war is being fought for religious reasons.
posted by Dasein at 8:06 PM on November 25, 2006

I agree with most of this thread except the part about the Vietnam War.

From the Vietnamese persepective, part of the motivation for the war was that a small Catholic minority formed a disproportionate part of the civil service and were evolving into an elite.

I cannot currently recall names but one of the major Catholic (staunchly anti-communist) archbishops of Vietnam was also strongly connected to Kennedy family. Some speculate this extended the American involvement in the war.
posted by Deep Dish at 9:03 PM on November 25, 2006

Jek Porkins

French and Indian War (USA) = Seven Years War (Canada, Britain, France)
posted by Deep Dish at 9:07 PM on November 25, 2006

I think a tendency to see the world through a perspective of bearing ridicule for any given thing (Muslims, religion in general, Christians, Americans, whatever), just about everything will seem to have some "root" cause associated with whatever it is you're grumpy about. But at the same time, anything you're blindly supportive of may also take an equally blind role in being the hero of such problems. (The Americans started the whole Middle East conflict vs. The Americans will resolve the whole Middle East conflict)..
posted by vanoakenfold at 9:07 PM on November 25, 2006

The problem with conflicts is that they are unresolvable when they involve absolute beliefs. I think it can be argued that the American Civil War and WW2 were very much rooted in a such a religious conflict. Southerners justified slavery with religious reasons and many Northerners were organized in opposition through their churches. In WW2 it was more obvious. Hitler made a religious scapegoat out of the Jews and his Aryan beliefs were deeply seated in the occult (often blatantly argued in terms of fate or destiny, but with a Christian veneer whenever possible). There are other reasons of course, but few that a common soldier would fight for.
posted by Brian B. at 10:42 PM on November 25, 2006

While most wars might now have religion as a first cause, I suspect that some of them couldn't have been possible without convincing the canon fodder that there exists an afterlife that is at least as good as the present life.
posted by cmiller at 6:25 AM on November 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

In all the wars I've read about in any detail, the cause was something other than religion. This includes every single war the US has ever been involved in and a lot of non-US wars as well.

People form large, cohesive groups (i.e. city states, nations, tribes, etc.) based on cultural ties such as reilgion. And you have to have one of these large groups if you're going to go to war. So sure, you'll see a large group of Muslims get attacked by a large group of Christians, for example. But you have to ask... there are plenty of groups of Muslims in the world; why attack this particular group? And of course you discover that there are lots of reasons to attack that particular group, reasons that have nothing to do with religion.

Now, religious differences are often used as an excuse for war, but so is everything else. If we listened to such excuses, we'd believe that Germany invaded Poland in self defense, Tibet has always been a part of China, the US has no interest in controlling Iraqi oil, and the French were only in southeast Asia to help the Vietnamese grow rubber trees.

And yeah, once there's a beef, religious tensions will become an aggravating factor. When military conflicts are brewing, all manner of human ugliness comes to the fore. Think of the anti-Japanese racism we saw here in the US during World War II. It's just fear, mistrust, and loathing of the outsider. There's always some of that hanging about for political leaders to exploit. But only as a means to an end.

And the end is usually something pretty tangible. In the Isreali Palestine conflict, it's land and water access. In the US/Iraq war, it's oil. The Crusades? Good old fashioned looting and conquest of territory.

Remeber, war costs lots of money and lots of lives. It's a massive undertaking in every possible way and the political consequences are about as serious as they can get. Wars can lead to toppled governments, military occupation, and even public revolt. You'd have to look long and hard through history to find a leader so stupid that he was willing to risk all that because the people on the other side of the river were worshipping the wrong god.

Tell you what; try it this way. Look through the history books for a war in which neither army had anything material to gain; winning the war wouldn't net them land that they wanted, rescouces, slaves, control of strategic waterways, or anything else of that nature. Also, the war should involve represenatives of two or more religions; one side predominantly one religion and the other side predominantly the other. If you can find such a war, then it's possible it was caused by a religious difference. But I don't think you'll ever find one.
posted by Clay201 at 7:24 AM on November 26, 2006

You might check out Jared Diamond's chapter on Rwanda in "Collapse." He argues that the violence between the Hutu and Tutsi had more to do with competition for resources in the overpopulated country than religion or race.

Actually, check out any of Diamond's work - his central thesis is that most history (who fights whom, who wins wars, which societies fail or succeed) arises from the availability of natural resources of the societies involved.
posted by david1230 at 11:39 AM on November 26, 2006

I agree David, but if we assume a set of two groups in competition for whatever reason, the root cause is therefore whatever separates the groups.
posted by Brian B. at 12:09 PM on November 26, 2006

Brian B.

That's precisely the logic I was arguing against. Wherever you go in the world, people are seperated into groups (races, religions, tribes, countries, whatever). But not all of those groups are at war all the time. So there must be some other key factor.
posted by Clay201 at 2:41 PM on November 26, 2006

There was the "Soccer War" between El Salvador and Honduras back in 1969.

That one was mainly about resentment towards El Salvadoran illegal immigrants in Honduras and the resulting economic strain caused by them in Honduras.

As for the Cold War, I never really considered it a conventional war, as such. When I think of wars, I think more of direct engagements, military action, and direct loss of life as a result of the first two factors.

Not to say that the people who think the Cold War is a war are incorrect.
posted by reenum at 1:28 PM on November 28, 2006

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