Saturday, June 13, 2015

History 101: Is Religion the Cause for The World's Worst Wars?

Some would say that being a Christian today is to paint a target on your back.  I think it might be more accurate to say that religion, on the whole, is under attack.  Is that an over-statement?  Maybe, it really depends on your perspective.  We live in a time when Christians are attacked and persecuted in the Middle East, when Jews in Europe feel unsafe because of the approaching threat from ISIS and people are fleeing the out-of-touch church by droves.  Recently, Dr. Ruth Westheimer was on the Howard Stern show and said, “I thought that after 1948 everything was going to be alright.  The war was over, Israel was our new land – everything was fine.  I was so naïve.”  And she was.  There has never truly been peace in the Middle East – not since 1948, and not before that.  Many people point to a number of reasons why peace has never been achieved in that region – and by extension, throughout the world.  And a growing number of people point the finger squarely at religion and religious extreme groups as the core cause of war, death and tragedy throughout history.


This is patently ridiculous.  There is no disputing that millions of people throughout history have been persecuted, tortured and murdered in the name of Allah, God or whoever’s glory the people claimed to be fighting for at the time.  Most people will point to the Crusades as the big example of Christians murdering, pillaging and looting their way to a greater glory under God.  And while the Crusades are not a well-defined set of wars, instead they are a series of wars fought by people who wanted to preserve Christianity and did so for a variety of reasons.  Not the least of which was power over Europe, but I will give on the Crusades and say they were a religious set of wars.  The best estimates put the death toll of all the Crusades at roughly 3,000,000.  That is surely a great number of dead.  And the number of tortured, raped and pillaged simply cannot be estimated considering the Crusades stretched for roughly 500 years.  So that puts us at 3,000,000 dead in the name of God.


Another lesser known war that was fought in the name of religion was the Huguenot Wars (aka The French Wars of Religion).  These wars lasted from 1562 through 1598, and were principally fought between the French Catholics and the French Protestants.  The conflict arose because of a disagreement based in theology and how it related to the rights of the Huguenots (Protestants) to worship.  Although there is some debate as to the exact end of the wars, and some scholars are inclined to include the rebellion in 1629 with the French Wars of Religion, by 1598 the Huguenots were afforded the right to worship as they wished.  While the death toll here is also difficult to estimate, most put it at 2,000,000 to 4,000,000.  Let’s err on the high side and say 4,000,000 for the Protestant God.  That brings us to 7,000,000 dead in the name of God.  For you history buffs out there, it is worth noting that England fought on the side of the Huguenots – further complicating the historical fighting between England and France.

But surely there were more than 7,000,000 killed in the name of religion – right?  Of course there were.  History records The German Peasant’s War (1524-1525), The Battle of Kappel in Switzerland (1531), The Schmalkaldic War of the Holy Roman Empire (1546-1547), The Eighty Years War (1568-1648), The Thirty Years War of the Holy Roman Empire (1618-1648), the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (England, Scotland, Ireland) (1639-1651) as The European Wars of Religion.  And you can include the Scottish Reformation, the English Reformation, the Irish Confederate Wars plus even the Nine Years War (1688-1697) as religious wars if you want to cast a wide net of causality.  All of these wars combined are responsible for roughly 8,000,000 deaths.  It is worth noting that the bulk of these are attributed to the Thirty Years War, and that I could not find any accurate accounting for the death toll in the Schmalkaldic War – either way, our Religious Death Toll is now at 15,000,000.


But these are just the wars… certainly there have been many killed because one religion is attacking another?  What about the bombings in the Middle East?  What about the Inquisition?  And what about events such as the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971?  It is estimated that 3,000,000 Hindus were killed during that conflict.  And what of the Holocaust from 1937-1945?  Six million Jews were persecuted and murdered.  What of that?

You cannot argue that these were not terrible events.  The continuing bombing in the Middle East is a tragedy and a travesty of humanity.  Wars such as Bangladesh and World War II are scars upon the world’s history that will never truly heal.  No one will argue that is not fact.  However the only thing that I mentioned in the previous paragraph that was religious in nature was the Spanish Inquisition.  During the Inquisition, approximately 45,000 people were tortured because of their religious beliefs – and only 826 are noted as resulting in executions.  You might wonder why I’m not discussing anything that occurred in the United States as religious persecution and murder.  Surely the Salem Witch Trials count, right?  Only a hand full of women were actually put to death during the Salem Witch Trials.  And these other events were not about religion. They were about power, greed, land and – in the end – human nature.


Someone with an eye on history will note that I have not yet discussed the death toll of World War I, World War II (yes, I mentioned The Holocaust but World War II was not about the Holocaust – remember, the Allies did not even know it was happening, and the Holocaust was not about religion), the American Civil War – no conflicts in Asia or anywhere outside of Europe and the Middle East for that matter.  No discussion about the ancient Roman Empire (whom we know persecuted Christians), or any other ancient civilization.  That is because there is no major religious undertone to any of these conflicts throughout history.  In fact, if we took the total deaths caused by the previously defined religious wars (15,000,000) and ranked it as one war it would rank as the 8th largest death toll tallied up in one war throughout history.  I will discuss the top 3 and their major causes – but here is a list of the top ten conflicts in history based on the total number of deaths.



  1. World War II - 1939-1945 - 60,000,000 dead (including Holocaust Victims, but not Second Sino-Chinese war)
  2. Mongol Conquests – 1206-1324 - 40,000,000 dead
  3. Three Kingdoms War – 184-280 – 38,000,000 dead
  4. Qing Dynasty’ Conquest of Ming Dynasty – 1616-1662 – 25,000,000
  5. Taipeng Rebellion – 1850-1864 – 20,000,000
  6. Second Sino-Chinese War – 1937-1945 – 20,000,000
  7. World War I – 1914-1918 – 17,000,000
  8. Religious Wars Throughout History – 15,000,000
  9. Lushan Rebellion – 755-763 – 13,000,000
  10. Russian Civil War – 1917-1922 – 9,000,000


So at 15,000,000 dead, it is obvious where the Religious Wars of History sit.  But if these other wars aren’t about religion, what are they about?  It is simple – power.  Looking at World War II, where it began and how it played out it is all about power.  Taking into account the amount of land conquered, and how the Mongols used the local resources -- their conquests were all about gaining land and resources.  And the Thirty Years War was about filling a power vacuum left by a crumbling dynasty.




The roots of the cause of World War II lie directly within the end of World War I.  World War I was fought primarily because Great Britain was not very accepting of its diminished role as a world power, and continued to flex its muscles into the 20th century throughout Europe.  Germany was (and still is) a landlocked country with a limited amount of natural resources.  The Germans wanted to reach out and have access to the natural resources to the east and south.  Great Britain stepped in and limited Germany’s access to key avenues and ports essentially forcing their hand.  Germany felt that Great Britain had no right to stop Germany from building the southern railway, and using the ports on the Mediterranean.  And by the time Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, Germany was already prepared to wage war.  It may be a common thing to blame Germany for World War I, but Great Britain pushed them into it.  And when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, Germany was taken to task.  Germany’s military power was destroyed, and they were forced to pay monetary reparations to every country in Europe that was destroyed during the war.  A young and angry Adolf Hitler thought that Europe had put Germany on the path to long term poverty and an unfairly diminished role in the world’s eye.  Hitler wanted to avenge the lost pride of Germany and return the Reich to its former glory and power.  Hitler felt that Germans were a superior race of people, so much so that he (in conjunction with others) created a backstory of Arians that linked to present day Germans to help justify their superiority.  By the time German tanks tolled through Poland in 1939, all of Germany was behind him and Hitler wanted to conquer all of Europe to make them pay.  The conquest of Europe itself, however, was not the primary reason for war.  Just as in 1917, Germany was a landlocked country.  In order for Germany to become the primary world power that Hitler envisioned, Germany needed more natural resources.  And those resources were east and south, in Russia and Africa.  In fact, before Hitler invaded Poland he signed a non-aggression pact with Russia to ensure that Russia would not intervene in Poland – which then set Russia up for Germany’s sneak attack in 1941 during Operation Barbarossa.  You will notice there is no mention of the Jews in the causality of World War II.  That is because the persecution and murder of millions of Jews had nothing to do with the war itself.  Hitler and “The Final Solution” were an after-thought, and add-on to the war effort.  In fact, it is thought by many scholars today that if Hitler has not concentrated so many resources on the extermination of the Jews as a side-project, World War II might have gone very differently.




The second largest group of deaths in an armed conflict belongs to the Mongol Conquests.  These conquests lasts for 121 years and resulted in the Mongols conquering from the east coast of Asia all the way west to the Mediterranean Sea over this time period.  Throughout this time period, a number of leaders and war mongers killed, murdered and maimed millions of different types of people.  But in the end it was all about power, conquest and land.  The Mongols did not care who you prayed to, or if you prayed at all.  In fact, as they conquered, they unified with the likes of the Turks, Merkits and Tartars along the way.  They did not simply pillage and move on, they ruled and worked with locals in many cases.


The Three Kingdoms War that occurred in 184 through 280 took approximately 40,000,000 lives.  This conflict resulted from the tripartite division between the Wei, Shu and Wu states after the Han Dynasty dissolved in China.  This period is one of the bloodiest in the history of China, and marked by chaotic infighting between various warlords throughout China.    There was a period of military cooperation between the three states from 220-263, but that fell apart when the Wei conquered the Shu and then in 280 the Jin conquered the Wu and united the three kingdoms under his power.  The bloodshed is marked during this period by a great deal of technological advances in warfare including the repeating crossbow and wheel barrow.  This is a very fascinating time period to study in-depth, and I cannot do it justice here.  But no matter how you look at it, it has nothing to do with religion.  It is about control, power and real estate.

While there have been millions of deaths caused by religious beliefs that are misconstrued, bastardized or otherwise used to justify taking lives – there is little evidence here that religion is the cause of all or even a large portion of the wars and misery throughout history.  Folks who read my BLOG with some regularity know that I primarily post about American History, not World History.  I posted this World History post because I felt that a discussion on the causality of war and death throughout history was worth starting, and even though my treatment of it is cursory at best, it proves the point.  By discussing four of the top ten most deadly conflicts in history, plus just about every major religious war -- we've seen that war, death and misery is not caused by religion any more than it is caused by vegetarians.  In fact, there is more evidence here that Asians are the cause for the majority of the worlds death and misery than religion -- and no one would make that claim.  People will take the most powerful thing they can think of at the time and use it as a weapon or justification in order to achieve their goals.  Just as in October of 2001, the United States government used the tragedy at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 in order to pass the Patriot Act.  In one fell swoop of the pen, the rights and liberties of the average American were denigrated and made inconsequential to the government if the government wanted to persecute an individual.  But rest assured, I will BLOG in detail about the Patriot Act one day.


Disagree? Have another point of view on this subject?  I’m always happy to interact!  Know an atheist who wants to put the world's evils in God's lap?  Share this post with them!  Need to respond to an uneducated God-hater on Facebook?  Share this BLOG!


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Bruce holds a degrees in Computer Science, Biblical History and American History from Temple University, Liberty University and American Public University.  He is a member of the Historical Studies Honor Society and the Saber and Scroll Society.  He has worked in educational technology for over 20 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  


Be on the lookout for Towering Pines Volume Two: The Sound and the Fury which is currently a work in progress.



Some of the Resources Used Writing This Article