Doesn’t religion cause most of the conflict in the world?

The sooner all religions are gone, the sooner the world will be a peaceful place”

was how one angry caller responded to a phone-in on Radio 5 Live last week about the proportion of religious and non-religious people in our country.

We only have to think of ISIS in Syria, or to the sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland, to recognize that religion has some blood on its hands. But is the caller’s idea true more broadly? Eminent atheist Richard Dawkins certainly thinks so:

There’s no doubt that throughout history, religious faith has been a major motivator for war and for destruction.”[1]

Atheist author Sam Harris goes even further by calling religion,

the most prolific source of violence in our history”[2]

Now in their books, Dawkins and Harris are always very keen for us to only believe things for which there is sound evidence, so let’s examine the evidence to see if what Harris says is true: is religion really is the most prolific source of violence in our history?

In 2014 The Institute for Economics and Peace published “Peace and Religion” exploring the causes of the 35 armed conflicts that occurred during 2013. It concluded that

Religion did not stand as a single cause in any conflict”

and that religion played no role at all in 40% of the conflicts. Whilst religion was identified as the main cause of conflict in 14% of cases, something else was far more likely to be the main cause: opposition to a particular government or its economic, ideological, political or social system (65%).

But that was just 2013, surely the picture is different if we take a longer-term study? In 2004 Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod published a book every nerdy schoolboy would want on his shelf: the Encyclopaedia of Wars. It covers every major war, rebellion and revolution from the last 5,500 years.  Of the 1,763 wars analysed, just 7% (123) were categorized as having religion as their main cause. Interestingly more than half of the 7% were related to just one religion: Islam.

You might think therefore that with the rise of Al-Qaeda and Isis since 2004, the proportion of conflicts having religion as their main cause is on the rise. However Gordon Martel’s 2012 The Encyclopaedia of War, which covers similar ground to Phillip and Axelrod but also includes the period up to 2011, identifies religion as the cause in only 6% of wars.[4]

In his book River out of Eden, Richard Dawkins said[5],

Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not.”

And the evidence tells us that the claim religion is “the most prolific source of violence in our history” is a myth!

But if it isn’t religion that causes war, what does? All the evidence suggests that the main cause of conflict is what American political scientist Randolph Rummel called “Death by government” – a phrase he coined  to describe the biggest single cause of death in the 20th century – the 170 million men, women and children “shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hung, bombed or killed in any other of a myriad of ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners.”[6]

When you break down Rummel’s numbers it’s easy to see who lies behind most of the deaths in the 20th century, but it’s impossible to tell how much religion (or its absence, in the majority of these cases) contributed to this death toll.

 Religious beliefDeaths
Stalin (Russia)Atheist42,672,000
Lenin (Russia)Atheist4,017,000
Mao Zedong (China)Atheist37.828,000
Chian Kai-Shek (China)Confuscianism (mixed with Christianity)10,214,000
Hideki Tojo (Japan)Emperor Worship3,990,000
Pol Pot (Cambodia)Atheist (mixed with Buddhism)2,397,000
Adolf Hitler (Germany)Most likely a pantheist, though his religious statements are so contradictory that it is hard to pin him down.20,946,000


Perhaps we should blame Communism instead? Certainly a lot of the 20th Century’s “Death by Government” can be linked to Communism. But what of the millions who died in the 19th century before Marx and Lenin appeared on the scene? We can’t hang their deaths on Communism.

The fact is, every century, every period of history, has an -ism: Imperialism, Communism, Capitalism, Atheism, Islamism, Christianism – and it isn’t the -ism that causes the conflict in that period. Conflict is caused by giving unchecked access to power to leaders willing to kill to impose their -ism. As Theologian David Bentley Hart puts it,

-isms are variables, but killing is a human constant.”[7]

Which brings us to the heart of the problem – which is the problem of the human heart. If my Radio 5 Live caller really cares about making the world a more peaceful place, it’s not religion that needs eliminating, but the problems of the human heart.  As Jesus said,

it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”” (Mark 7:21-23)

And what offers the best solution to the problem of the human heart? Atheism or Religion? Well my money is on Jesus!

First published in the Bridge Magazine, October 2017



[2] Harris, Sam, The End of Faith, page 27



[6] Rummel, RJ, Death by Government, p9

[7] Bentley Hard, David, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies


Got a big question about God?