Honorable mention: Graduate student college essay contest (Two) by Sara Rose

Religion as a primary cause of war

FFRF awarded Sara $200.

By Sara Rose

Religion has taken on two major roles in war and terrorism since the beginning of civilization. Religion acts as a motivation for violence. One group may see the actions of another as an affront to their god, decency and morality. They may wish to defend their god and their morals with swords or bombs. Religion can also act as justification for violence, and this role has become more common as globalization has increased. In these instances, we see a group of people who are after the resources of another. Instead of coming off as criminals, they claim religious rights over said resource, and rush into battle feeling self-righteous. Political scientists have found that not only is religion one of the most prominent reasons for violence, but the very nature of religion changes the human mind in such a way as to make violence against other people easier to commit and justify.

Those who deny the role of religion in war are choosing to ignore solid data that proves otherwise. The numbers on the subject point very decidedly to organized religion as a major cause or excuse for death and destruction. Matthew White, librarian, historian and writer, has compiled vast statistics on the subject of death and war. In his book, The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, he estimates that 10% of the most deadly wars in human history were caused directly by religious conflict, with the death toll of these wars being 53.5 million people. Of these, the majority were fought between groups of Christians. Tying for second place were Christians versus Muslims, versus Jews, and versus various Eastern religions. Another study, called, “God and War: Audit and Exploration,” by the BBC, found that religion was a major factor in starting 21% of wars in recorded history. Even more disturbing, Oxford political scientist Monica Duffy Toft found that the instances of religion-based civil wars are actually increasing. According to her research, the percentage of civil wars that are based on religion has increased from 22% in the 1960s to 50% in the past decade. She notes that religiously-based civil wars “tend to last longer than secular civil wars (about two years longer), are more deadly to noncombatants, are less amenable to settlement by negotiation, and are more likely to recur than nonreligious wars.” In just three examples we can see what an outlandish statement it is that religion is anything short of a major cause of war and violence.

When looking over these statistics it is easy to see where someone might grab onto the idea that few of these percentages are above 30. However, it is imperative to understand that analyses are being made based on the stated reasons for wars. These numbers do not take into account the myriad times when religion has not been cited as the cause of a war, but was employed by political leaders as a justification for it. On top of that, we must keep in mind that religion can also be utilized to make it easier for soldiers to kill people.

Religion creates an “us versus them” mentality, which can lead to increased willingness toward violence. There are many who feel that their actions and fate are out of their control and in the hands of god(s). This absolves them of personal responsibility. Additionally, the idea of life after death may lead people to believe that killing others is not a way of ending their existence, but merely moving them from this plane of existence to some other, where they will no longer pose a threat. They do not remotely comprehend the permanence and absoluteness of their actions. Without such influence, many soldiers would have difficulty killing another man without hesitation. Furthermore, there is a connection between the perceived authority a deity has over a believer’s body and the actions that person can be expected to take on behalf of their god. If a person believes that their religion has a say in what they do to their body, and there is a significant affront to their religious beliefs, that person could be driven to the most extreme acts of religious violence: suicide terrorism.

The function and scale of religion relating to violence is staggering. Religion is meant to provide morals, alleviate fear of death, and attempt to explain the complex. It is outrageous that something which should bring order to a person’s life can be twisted into the driving force of destruction. A few modern leaders do have some ideas for peace that may help to quell such violence in the future, though. Marc Gopin, director of the Center for World Religions, asserts that Jewish peacemaking in the Middle East may need to begin with mourning, which is a large part of Jewish tradition. The Quran states, “If God had so willed, he would have made you one community but he wanted to test you . . . ” which should act as a call for peace.

Amid the religious turbulence of Nigeria, two men have found a way to turn their religious animosity into a positive force for their community. Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye began their journey as bitter enemies, but have since come together, and encouraged their followers to put an end to the extreme religious terrorism of Kaduna. These men serve as an example for the kind of change the world’s religious leaders need to take, and does provide the tiniest glimmer of hope. Unfortunately, the nature of religion, combined with a growing global population, and an unwillingness to change among many groups, still leaves the world at the mercy of religious war.

Sara is 26 and grew up in rural Massachusetts. She has lived in 17 homes in nine cities in four states. She is now residing in Bend, Ore., and attends Oregon State University. She is majoring in natural resources and minoring in sustainability with a planned graduation in June 2017.

Freedom From Religion Foundation