What are religious wars really about?

I’ve been posting recently about the relationship between war and religious history, chiefly in the context of how warfare can shape religious change. Sooner or later, though, we encounter the familiar argument about what motivated a given cause, what drove a particular side in a war that they claimed as religious in nature.

Modern observers are deeply skeptical about such claims, even in conflicts that contemporaries had absolutely no doubt were matters of faith, where each side labeled itself with a religious or denominational label. When Christians and Muslims fought each other in the Crusades, when Protestants and Catholics were slaughtering each other in sixteenth century France or the Netherlands, when Anglicans and Puritans struggled in England’s Civil Wars – even when Protestant and Catholic militias were at daggers drawn in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.

That war? It certainly wasn’t religious, we hear: governments just used religion cynically to disguise their vested interests. Religion (Christianity) had nothing to do with that war: it was really about natural resources/oil/land hunger/surging nationalism/racial hatred…. Add whatever explanation you like. We reach the point where it seems hard to describe any war as genuinely the outcome of religious motivation. The same point applies to internal campaigns against minorities, whether Jews or heretics, or to witch-hunts. However starkly religious the rhetoric, moderns are tough to convince.

Partly, I suppose, that skepticism has a rhetorical function, in rebutting secularist claims that religious passions drive war, conflict and persecution.

But I am skeptical about the skepticism.

I would actually turn the question on its head. Prior to the modern era at least, I find it difficult to imagine any war that is genuinely secular in nature. Nor can I say with any confidence whether any particular individual or regime acted from religious motivations – if such a phrase makes any sense. And those comments apply across the faith spectrum. Note that I am not saying the Christianity or Islam or Judaism had any particular tendency to stir conflicts, rather that people operated from a religious mindset that is very difficult to reconstruct today.

Suppose we are looking at the era of the Crusades, or the sixteenth century Wars of Religion. The vast majority of people at those times, educated and ignorant alike, believed in providential views of the world.  They believed firmly that wrong conduct or heretical belief stirred God to anger, and that such anger would be expressed in highly material terms, in earthquake and fire, invasion and military defeat, famine and pestilence.

Unless evil-doers or wrong-believers were suppressed, society might perish altogether. In order to destroy those malevolent groups, activists took steps that look worldly, political and cynical, but we can never truly separate those political steps from their compelling underlying motivation, which was supernatural. Hence the steps taken by regimes in (say) Europe in 1570 to stamp out their dissidents by fire and sword. Hence, also, the fanatical urge to purge the insult to God’s honor created by the Muslim occupation of the Holy Places in Jerusalem.

However historians may use the term, no “secular world” existed independent of church and religion, and the state never was, or could be, secular in any recognizable modern sense. There never was any such thing as “just politics.”

We can debate about when and how secular politics first became possible, and with them secular concepts of warfare. At some point during the eighteenth century, perhaps? Even so, still in the 1850s, Great Britain ordained special days of fasting and prayer, to support the national cause in the struggle with Russia. Various European states retained national days of prayer through the First World War.

Generally, then, I tend to accept claims of “wars of religion” at face value.

On the other side of the argument, I’d also note that over the past century or so, militantly secular and anti-religious regimes have caused far more bloodshed and carnage than all the crusades, jihads, and wars of religion combined.




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  • KentonS

    Is there room for synthesis here?

    I think what the modern observers may be saying is that the issue wasn’t religion per se. The issue was that they hated the “other”. In the examples you bring up, the opposing side was “other” in religion, but in other instances they were ethnic or geographic. With any difference comes threat, and with threat eventually comes conflict. Now you have to ask your countrymen/neighbors/peers to risk their lives to destroy the “other.” Well if you’re going to issue a call like that, you’re going to need God to be on your side side over and against the other side. (When there are two sides, God is truly (and conveniently) on the side of the believer over and against the one who is “other.” God is never on the “other” side. 🙂 )

    What I hear you saying is that, no, these people who went to war were true believers. You’re right. I don’t think anyone would disagree. Comrades are reluctant to risk their lives for the cause without religious reasons. There needs to be reward beyond death, and that means there needs to be some religion in the mix. They won’t motivated otherwise without it. Even the ones calling for war must be true believers.

    So were these conflicts truly religiously motivated or is religion just a tool of the sides declaring war? I’d say both.

    It’s almost like to stop this craziness you would need a religion that teaches you to love your enemy, and do good to those who do evil to you. 🙂

  • philipjenkins

    All good thoughts, and I certainly take your point about both views being true. You might be surprised though how often that perspective gets lost in historical accounts, which regularly dismiss the chance of any authentic religious sentiment in such cases. Oh no, this had nothing to do with religion!It was all a matter of [fill in the blank].
    Obviously too, a lot depends on how we define religion. If we extend it to a whole cosmic world view, then it becomes easier to see the religious/supernatural justifications at work.

  • Charles Cosimano

    The statement that modern wars have caused more carnage for secular reasons than the wars of religion did is a masterpiece of purblind ignorance. You cannot compare wars fought with swords and matchlocks with wars fought with machine guns and bombers. If the 30 Years War had been fought with the weapons of 1944, there would have been no one left alive in Central Europe.

  • philipjenkins

    No war fought for religious reasons ever sought or achieved the annihilation of whole populations accomplished by (for instance) Mao or Stalin, using good old fashioned weapons like mass famine.

  • Grad Student

    If in the pre-modern world there was no “secular,” does it still make sense to call them wars of religion? It seems to me that in undifferentiated societies – societies where various aspects of life, e.g., religion, politics, law, custom, culture, etc, aren’t seen as neatly separated from each other as in ours – it would be a big mistake to attribute the causes of war to religion alone when the agents themselves would’ve made no such distinction. Their battles could be just as much about politics and economics as about religion. I’m not arguing that what we today call “religion” didn’t play a motivating role in pre-modern wars, but I’m merely suggesting that these wars had multiple motivating components – religious, political, economic, etc. – that shouldn’t be so easily divorced from each other in our historical reconstructions because we think we’ve been able to divorce them in our society and time.

  • philipjenkins

    Hmm, but what if the people fighting the wars explicitly defined them as religious, eg the Crusades? Should we not be prepared to accept those labels on their own terms?

  • Grad Student

    Sure, we should accept them. However, though I’m no expert in this area, it seems to me that the Crusades should be considered more battles of civilizations than wars of religion. Muslim forces were taking over much of the world as European Christians knew it and were fighting to reclaim it, but these were undifferentiated, pre-modern societies with little to no separation between church and state, religion and government, or political theology and political philosophy; it was all of a piece for them. In other words, these were Muslims and Christians fighting for political-theological reasons that according to some modern scholars should count as religious reasons and for others political reasons, when in fact the two aren’t always so easy to disaggregate. I find it odd that I’ve never heard anyone refer to the various clashes in the Old Testament between the Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Persians as wars of religion though to some scholars that’s how they ought to be classified. This also raises the issue for me as to what the point of such classifications is. What is gained by referring to certain wars as wars of religion as opposed to something else like clashes of civilizations? Perhaps the concept of civilization is just as problematic, but at least it avoids the possibility of labeling every war waged by pre-modern societies a “religious” war.

  • Shannon Menkveld

    You might want to ask an Amalekite about that…

  • Stephen Ede

    People also need to keep in mind the 2 separate threads of “why we are fighting”. There is the reason a government wants to fight a war, and the reason inspiring the actual people doing the fighting. When a single person or handful of persons have the power to start a war it’s more likely that the reason will be religion IMO. The pogroms against various sects are probably well described as religous on both accounts. But if we are talking about the Crusades then the term “war of religion” is something of a stretch. Some of the main players did it for religous beliefs, as did some of the fighters, but if you follow the politics involved in the governmental decisions and the behaviour of the soldiers then it all becomes rather seedy if not downright nasty.

  • AugustineThomas

    And yet the fact remains, unblemished: Atheistic regimes have murdered more innocent human beings in several different decade stretches than religious did in thousands of years.
    Do you have any examples of modern orthodox Christians killing anyone ever to reeducate them?? They’re busy doing several times more charity–for religious and non religious charities–than their secularist counterparts.

    It’s also interesting that the Protestant heresy led to the 30 Years War and to the modern atheistic regimes that murdered hundreds of millions.

    I’m definitely eager to hear which group of Christians has murdered anywhere near the number several different atheistic regimes have (despite there not having been many atheistic regimes in power–as people have wisely learned that they don’t like to die in atheistic death camps)!

  • AugustineThomas

    (You can also see the real world evidence of the slow loss of faith in how Protestant North America looks exactly like the Protestants who cleared the territory, while Catholic South America looks a lot more like the natives.)

  • AugustineThomas

    The Amalekites attacked the Hebrews first! That was a war of DEFENSE sister, not for religious reasons!

  • Nemo

    The Communists killed millions of people for political reasons. Many of the most notable communist leaders were atheists. However, communism is not solely an atheist thing. Does liberation theology ring a bell? And don’t pull the No True Scotchristian Fallacy on me. I notice you don’t even answer Charles comment that the communists were so deadly because they had modern weapons. They also were presiding over larger, modern sized populations. Finally, Europe is pretty secular at the moment, and their problems aren’t coming from atheist leaders mass murdering everyone. Oddly enough, it’s because the secularists there are too nice and are allowing Islamists to burn their cities. Try fitting that into your schema.

  • Nemo

    Christians don’t kill people any more (well, in some 3rd World countries they do, but the Muslims are far worse), but the church of today is a defanged, castrated lion. Before the Age of Enlightenment, publishing material speaking against the Bible could get you killed. Now, I snark on the Internet without fear of reprisal.
    Define “atheistic regime”. Do you mean a government in which the officials tend to be atheists? Because the secular countries of the world are the ones who, overwhelmingly, have the higher standard of living. Even America, the only nation aside from Israel that Yahweh apparently blesses, has become increasingly secular, in both its culture and population. Most identify as Christians, but few can drag themselves to church or even know anything about their religion.

  • philipjenkins

    You are of course correct. I dropped out a phrase about “on the scale of” what Mao and Stalin achieved.