Religious Wars and Nationalism

Over at HuffPo Religion, Matt Rossano has written a thought provoking piece — which some may find surprising — on the relationship between war and religion.   In Why Religion Does Not Equal War, Rossano begins with the common knowledge that religious differences often lead to war, or that religious differences are often used to justify war.  To evaluate these assertions, Rossano turns to what may be the only attempt to examine historical wars and rate them on a scale of religiosity.

In God & War: An Audit & An Exploration, Greg Austin, Todd Kranock and Thom Oommen explain the goal of their study and conclusions:

One organising feature of this article is what it calls the ‘Religious War Audit’. BBC asked us to see how many wars had been caused by religion. After reviewing historical analyses by a diverse array of specialists, we concluded that there have been few genuinely religious wars in the last 100 years. The Israel/Arab wars from 1948 to now, often painted in the media and other places as wars over religion, or wars arising from religious differences, have in fact been wars of nationalism, liberation of territory or self-defense.

This article concludes that at a philosophical level, the main religious traditions have little truck with war or violence. All advocate peace as the norm and see genuine spirituality as involving a disavowal of violence. It is mainly when organised religious institutions become involved with state institutions or when a political opposition is trying to take power that people begin advocating religious justifications for war.

It is not hard to identify the difficulties which afflict any study of this kind.  Disentangling religion from nationalism is a nearly impossible task.  The rise of organized religions coincides with the rise of city-states; religion has been married to power from the beginning.  The problem with the religious war audit (found on pages 13-14 of the study) is that it does not recognize this marriage, and thus seriously underestimates the role of religion in many of the wars that are listed.

The first war listed in the chart, the First Battle of Megiddo (1469 BCE), was undertaken by an Egyptian pharaoh, who was a self-proclaimed god-king.  The soldiers in his army were not fighting on behalf of a secular Egyptian empire; they were fighting because their god-king commanded it.  Despite this fact, the war audit authors rate this battle as a “zero,” which means that religion played no role in the conflict.  This is absurd.  There are several additional examples.

Take, for instance, the Greek-Persian Wars (499-488 BCE) which are also rated as a zero (i.e., religion supposedly played no role in these conflicts).  These wars actually started much earlier, given that Cyrus the Great conquered Ionia in 547 BCE and successor Persian kings (Darius the Great and Xerxes the Great) — all of whom proclaimed themselves to be deities and were worshiped by their peoples as such — continued fighting the Greeks until 451 BCE.  These were  not simple wars of empire — in each case, the Persians were commanded by god-kings and the Greeks knew that if they were conquered, they would be forced to give up their gods and worship Persian deities.

I could go on with similar examples, but the point is clear: we should treat this religious war audit with considerable skepticism.  Rossano, however, largely accepts the war audit findings:

Brace yourselves, those for whom religion equals war. The majority of all wars (44/73 or 60 percent) had no religious motivation whatsoever — a zero rating. Only three wars — the Arab conquests of 632-732, the much ballyhooed Crusades, and the Reformation Wars of the 16th and 17th centuries – earned a 5, and were thus considered to be truly religious wars. Only seven wars earned a rating of 3 or more — less than 10 percent. Thus, the vast majority of all wars involved either no religious motivation or only a modest one. The authors concluded by noting that “there have been few genuinely religious wars in the last 100 years. The Israel/Arab wars were wars of nationalism and liberation of territory” (p. 16).

There are many Jews and Muslims in the Middle East who surely would be surprised to learn that the Israeli/Arab wars rated a mere 2 on the religiosity scale, and that those wars were driven mostly by nationalism and territory.  I think if someone surveyed the participants, they would say something much different.

Rossano concludes his article with this observation: “Outside of kinship, nature has come up with nothing more effective for creating group cohesion than religion.”  He is right about kinship — for the vast majority of human history, it has served as the primary bond for group cohesion.  Nature did not, however, come up with religion — humans created organized religion to serve specific needs and goals.  One of these goals has been to organize people for war.

In more recent times (i.e., over the last 700 years or so) another factor has played a major (if not dominant) role in group cohesion.  That factor is nationalism, and it has much in common with religion.  In tomorrow’s post, I will detail the many ways in which nationalism is analogous to religion.

Did you like this? Share it:

2 thoughts on “Religious Wars and Nationalism

  1. Arkenaten

    I just did a post about this and what I find telling is the only 5’s on the list involve Christians and Muslims.

    I also find it amusing that Joshua’s conquest of Canaan is not even mentioned and we know for a fact that this one was actually orchestrated by God himself. Unless, of course, the compilers of the survey have finally accepted the findings of Israel Finkelstein, Ze’ev Herzog and company?

    Interesting post. Enjoyed it and it provided several historical aspects i had not considered. Thanks.

    I think will link this.

  2. Pingback: The God of War. | A Tale Unfolds

Leave a Reply