Truly, the history of humanity is a history of violence. As one writer puts it, man is “the most dangerous animal” (Smith). One needs look no further than war. In this post, the term “war” will be used broadly, including not only paradigm cases of war, but also genocide, suicide terrorism, and ethnic cleansing. Though the phenomenon of war is undeniable, especially to those not currently in comas, the cause(s) might not be as clear. To find clarity, we will first look at two popular causes of war people like to bandy about—religion and irreligion—and declare a pox on both houses. Next, we will speculate that the causes of war are multiple. Finally, we will note that war is basic to human nature, and thus as complex as any human phenomenon. It is also not the purpose of this post to argue that all of the possible causes offered below are all right, but they probably have kernels have truth. One up-shot of this post is that the cries of the new atheists grow shriller and shriller by the minute. Extremism, whether religious or irreligious, is becoming more and more irrelevant as ways forward are sought that are congenial to a life in Babylon.
John Lennon did not find war groovy. Even though all Lennon was saying was give peace a chance, he was imagining much more. He asked us to imagine a world with no countries and no religion. It is supposed to be easy if you try. Once you imagine his world, you will see that there is nothing to kill or die for and everyone lives in peace. The sober-minded rightly said Lennon was dreaming. He quickly pointed out that he was not the only one. Apparently, Lennon did not understand that the force of the premise he dreamt up does not increase by adding more dreamers. That would be like trying to increase a product by multiplying by more zeros.
Lennon is not the only one who speculated that religion causes war. Take the remarks Bill Maher made in his recent movie, Religulous. Maher claimed that, “religion must die in order for mankind to live” while pictures of religious fanatics gearing up for war flashed in the background. The implication was not subtle, nor did Maher intend it to be. Similarly, Richard Dawkins, though more educated than Maher, nevertheless confidently asserted that, “To fill the world with religion or religions of the Abrahamic kind is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used” (Dawkins). These two authors are representative of how modern village atheists wage culture wars against religion. For as one of their rhetorical pugilists has contended: “Religion poisons everything” (Hitchens 14).
On the other hand, one historian educated at Oxford tells us that, “the secularist establishment’s accusations against religion as the primary cause of war are simplistic and ill-motivated; they have some important superficial validity but are far from the whole truth” (Pearse 15). So perhaps religion is not the only, or even the main cause of war. Can we find answers on the irreligious side of the coin?
After a blistering survey of “the bloodiest century of all,” Meic Pearse could claim that irreligion “has proved more lethal than religion ever was” (41). Now, if religion is one’s bête noire, then even communism’s reign of terror will be seen as the expression of “little more than a political religion” (Harris 79). But, given this level of wordsmithing, the idea that “religion” is to blame for the majority of violence becomes an uninteresting, and unfalsifiable dogma. Words, however, do not belong on a Procrustean bed.
Though finger pointing and culture warring seem to be all the rage today, it would be simplistic and naive to think that war follows necessarily from either religion or irreligion.
Since we see both religion and irreligion having a hand in causing war, it would seem that there might be some deeper causes. In fact, most “social phenomena are sufficiently complex—with data on many variables being either unavailable or inherently unquantifiable” (Sowell 37). That is why even after a massive study on genocide and mass killing; James Waller could not confidently assert that he fully understands the causes (297). Gathering scientific data on the causes of war is labyrinthine because the scientific study of war is a recent phenomenon. A survey of leading sociological journals between 1986 and 2000 reveal that “fewer than 1% deal with war, and none of them considered the causes of war” (Smith 35). Thankfully, especially for bloggers speculating about the causes of war, there has been tremendous effort to fill this void.
A survey of recent literature shows the causes of war to be bounteous. David Livingstone Smith points out that we can look at the causes of war from multiple angles, such as from the “standpoint of economics, politics, history, ideology, ethics, and various other disciplines” (xiii). To complicate matters even more, Smith finds that greedy multinational corporations eager to acquire resources often cook up genocides (219). Pearse also agrees with the greed factor, but “where that is too harsh a judgment,” wars arise from “the need for security” (118).
Other causes on offer make Tocqueville appear prescient for lauding “the great experiment.” For example, after studying government-sponsored killings for sixty years, University of Hawaii political scientist, R.J. Rummel, locates the cause for “democide” (i.e., government-sponsored killings) in various forms of government, e.g., totalitarian, monarchic, oligarchic, and democratic; with democratic being the least violent (Rummel). Rummel's position is of course more sophisticated than how it is laid out above, but this brief survey is not the time for detailed inspections of these various possible causes on offer. In line with the political, Thomas Farr finds that it is the degree to which a country allows religious freedom to flourish that plays a major role in expressions of civility antithetical to warmongering (Farr; so also Guinness).
Many would consider suicide terrorism a paradigmatic case of religiously motivated warfare. However, the world’s leading expert on suicide terrorism, Robert Pape, has drawn different conclusions. He amassed the first database of every suicide terrorist attack in the world from 1980 until 2005, noting that: “there is little connection between suicide terrorism” and “any one of the world’s religions.” Rather, it is the “strategic logic” of terrorists “to compel modern democracies” to withdraw their forces from what the terrorists “consider to be their homeland” (Pape 4). Pape points out that his data “casts strong doubt” on the claim that suicide attacks are the brainchild of misogynistic “religious fanatics.” The “demographic characteristics” show that most were “well beyond adolescence, most were secular, and many—the overwhelming majority in some groups—were women.” The “uncomfortable fact” is that “suicide terrorists are far more normal than any of us would like to believe” (Pape 241).
The last point—the normalcy of the killers—is the one that finds the most agreement in the current literature (cf. Guinness; Overy; Pearse; Rummel; Smith; Waller). Says Smith: “Purveyors of violence, terrorists, and merchants of genocidal destruction are, more often than not, people who fit the profile that Primo Levi painted of his Nazi jailers at Auschwitz: ‘average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked … they had our faces’” (4). That puts a damper on the currently fashionable Pollyanna view of humankind in a hurry. It might be, then, that although the above disparate causes are important, “there is one dimension that underpins them all: the bedrock of human nature. To understand war, we must understand ourselves” (Smith xiii).
Unfortunately, we must end our speculating here. Psychologizing about man’s charcoaled nature is beyond the purview of this blog post (Christians already have the answers from the back of the book). We are here to speculate about the causes of war (and later I will post some thoughts on a way forward). We have seen that war has many causes; unfortunately, our list may not be exhaustive. The closest we came to finding an underlying cause was in human nature. Peering into the mirror, then, may reveal ugliness no cosmetic can cover. “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”
Dawkins, Richard. “Religion’s Misguided Missiles.” The Guardian 15 September 2001
Farr, Thomas. World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty Is Vital To American National Security. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Guinness, Os. The Case For Civility And Why Our Future Depends on It. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.
Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: Norton, 2005.
Hitchens, Christopher. God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve Hatchet Book Group, 2007.
Religulous. Dir. Larry Charles. Perf. Bill Maher, Tal Bachman, and Larry Charles. 2008. DVD. Lions Gate Entertainment, 2009.
Overy, Richard. The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia. New York: Norton, 2006.
Pape, Richard. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House, 2006.
Pearse, Meic. The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict? Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2007.
Rummel, R.J. Power Kills: Democracy as a Method of Nonviolence. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2008.
Smith, David Livingstone. The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.
Sowell, Thomas. The Vision of the Annointed: Self-congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy.New York: Basic Books, 1995.
Waller, James. Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.