Editor’s note: Jimmy Akin’s new book A Daily Defense comprises 365 one-page defenses (plus one for leap year) of typical challenges to the Catholic Faith. These daily doses of apologetics are designed to arm the reader with short-form answers and tips for delving deeper into any particular subject. Through the end of the year, the Catholic Answers blog will run occasional excerpts.
Religion and War
“Religion is inherently violent, producing countless wars.”
This claim does not withstand scrutiny.
War is not unique to humanity. Other species—including ants, bees, and chimpanzees—wage war, understood as the organized, collective use of lethal violence against external enemies (such as for control of territory).
Yet these species do not have religion. War’s roots are thus non-religious.
Religion is a human universal, and historically there have been no atheist societies. It is thus impossible to argue that non-religious societies were less violent than religious ones. The officially atheist societies that arose in the Communist world in the twentieth century were not more peaceful than others. They warred, exported revolution, and killed tens of millions of people, including their own citizens.
If religion predisposed people to violence, we should see this on the small scale, yet violent criminals don’t usually seem to be devout churchgoers.
Like non-religious viewpoints, religions have differing attitudes toward violence, ranging from advocating violence for a variety of causes to advocating it only in self-defense to thoroughgoing pacifism. One cannot tar all religious viewpoints with the same brush. If religion can inspire people to kill, it can also inspire them to refrain from killing (“You shall not kill,” Exod. 20:13; “Love your enemies,” Matt. 5:44).
Similarly, if lack of religious zealotry deprives one non-religious person of a motive to kill, another non-religious person may go on to slay because he is not constrained by religious values against killing.
Ultimately, religions don’t go to war. Governments do, and they usually must convince an ambivalent populace of their decision to do so. In this, they may use religion as a motivating factor (whether or not the religion of the enemies is different), but that doesn’t make religion the cause of war.
Often wars are fought when there is no difference in religion. In the bloodiest war in U.S. history, the Civil War, the North and the South had the same religion.
Most wars are not fought over religious goals such as converting, subjugating, or killing people because they have a different religion. Instead, they are fought over secular goals such as control of territory and resources, self-determination, defending national prestige, or seeking revenge for perceived wrongs.
For more, see The Myth of Religious Violence by William Cavanaugh.