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Is Religion Responsible for the Most Wars and Deaths in History?

"Religion has been the cause of the most wars." Have you ever heard this line?

George Carlin once said to rapturous applause, “More people have been killed in the name of God than for any other reason.” Is he right?

This is one of history's greatest misconceptions. Nevertheless, it's held as an historical fact - even Gospel! 

"When I hear someone state that religion has caused most wars," Rabbi Alan Lurie said in a Huffington Post article, "I will often and ask the person to name these wars. The response is typically, 'Come on! The Crusades, The Inquisition, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, 9/11. Need I name more?'"

How would you respond to this? That's a lot of wars, come to think of it. Right? Not really. That's just where the magician wants us to look.

What about the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc.?

An objective look at history shows a very different picture. Wars in the name of religion have been only a tiny fraction of the history of warfare. 

Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod in their 3-volume Encyclopedia of Wars identify 1,763 separate wars as forming the entire history of recorded warfare.[1] Of these, only 123 were classified has having a religious cause. That's not much at all. 

That's only 7% of all wars in recorded history! 7% isn't even close to a majority. In fact, you know what that's called? A minority.

Aren't the Wars of Religion the bloodiest of all wars?

That 7% of wars represents the bloodiest of all wars, right? The ones with the highest body counts, right? Let's see ... 

Here are the bloodiest wars in history:
  1. World War II (1939-1945) - 70-118 million people died 
  2. Mongol Conquests (13th century) - 60-70 million, according to legend around one million Chinese people committed mass suicide just to avoid the Mongolian conquest
  3. World War I (1914-1918) - 40 million 
  4. Three Kingdoms (184-280 AD) - 30-40 million, the division of China into the Kingdoms of Wei, Shu, and Wu, following the end of the Han dynasty and the Yellow Turban Rebellion, a Taoist uprising
  5. The Manchu Conquest of China (17th century) - 25 million

None of these were religious wars.

What do you think was the bloodiest "religious" war in history? The Crusades, right? 

No. The first one on the list that could be construed as "religious" was the Taiping Rebellion. 

An estimated 20-30 million died in this Chinese uprising. The uprising was led by Hong Xiuquan, who called himself the Son of God and the brother of Jesus. Hong sought to convert the Chinese people to his religious movement, The God Worshiping Society. Ultimately, the goal of the Taipings was the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty. 

It is difficult to classify the Taiping Rebellion as a religious conflict, much less a Christian one. Hong's appeal was not his Christian message, but his economic one. He advocated an early version of communism, which, as we know, would eventually take root in China. 

So in the history of warfare, what percent of people who died in religious conflicts? 

Less than 2 percent of all people killed in warfare. While, for example, it is estimated that approximately one to three million people were tragically killed in the Crusades, and perhaps 3,000 in the Inquisition, nearly 35 million soldiers and civilians died in the senseless, and secular, slaughter of World War 1 alone.

Where do the Crusades rank among the deadliest wars in history?

Top ten, right? Nope. 

According to this list of the top 100 wars and armed conflicts with highest estimated death tolls, the Crusades rank at No. 24. 

Also, remember, the Crusades were a defensive maneuver against the ongoing Muslim conquest of Europe: 

Bloodiest Christian conflict in history?

The Reconquista. This was the nearly 800-year period of Spanish history following the Muslim conquest of Spain and Portugal, the Iberian Peninsula. Like the Crusades above, this was a defensive effort. I have included the video above to describe this period in detail. 

The Reconquista was, more of less, the precipitating event which led to the ...

The Spanish Inquisition killed millions, right?

How bloody was the Inquisition?

There are some wild claims about the Inquisition floating around. One such claim is that 95 million people died during the Inquisition. If this were true, virtually the entire population of Europe would have been wiped out. The Black Plague killed only 25 million, for example. 

In fact, it is estimated that only 6,000-8,000 people were executed during the 350 years of the Inquisition. Not the Spanish Inquisition alone, but the entire Inquisition throughout all of Europe. 

According to Professor Agostino Borromeo, a historian at Sapienza University in Rome, only 1% of the 125,000 people tried by church tribunals as suspected heretics in Spain were actually executed.

Many of the thousands of executions conventionally attributed to the Church were in fact carried out by non-church tribunals

Edward Peters, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Inquisition, states the following: “The best estimate is that around 3,000 death sentences were carried out in Spain by Inquisitorial verdict between 1550 and 1800, a far smaller number than that in comparable secular courts.”[2]

Henry Kamen, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison, wrote the following: [3]

Taking into account all the tribunals of Spain up to about 1530, it is unlikely that more than two thousand people were executed for heresy by the Inquisition. [...] 

It is clear that for most of its existence that Inquisition was far from being a juggernaut of death either in intention or in capability. [...] It would seem that during the 16th and 17th centuries fewer than three people a year were executed in the whole of the Spanish monarchy from Sicily to Peru, certainly a lower rate than in any provincial court of justice in Spain or anywhere else in Europe. 

No matter the death toll, the Inquisition is still a black mark on the Church

Don't get me wrong, this was not a proud moment in the history of the Church. It's a black mark, for sure. Pope John Paul II publicly apologized the Inquisition in 2000. 

Summary: Is Religion the cause of the most wars?

No, absolutely not. Religion has been the cause of 7% of all wars, accounting for 2% of the deaths caused by war. The same cannot be said of atheist communist or nationalist governments in just the last century. 

Even so, the Crusades and the Reconquista were both the result of Muslim aggression. 

Can it be said that Christianity is a Religion of Peace?

Absolutely. Islam, not so much. This begs the question, then. Is it even fair to lump Christianity in with Islam when accounting for the bloodiest wars in history? 

There is one glaring omission in all this discussion of warfare: Jihad. 

Total Death Toll of Muslim Jihad

Professor Bill Warner, author of several books on Islam, estimates the total number killed in Muslim jihad to be 270 million. Warner is a somewhat controversial figure, however. In today's political climate, it is difficult to find sources providing the historical death toll of Islamic Jihad. Post 9/11, we find many forcing a narrative of Islam being essentially peaceful in nature. 

Nevertheless, here are some more sources on the topic of Jihad, including Robert Spencer's and Raymond Ibrahim's new books on the subject:



[1] Charles Phillips, Alan Axelrod, editors, Encyclopedia of Wars (2004), New York, NY
[2] Edward Peters, Inquisition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 87
[3] Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pages 60, 203.

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  1. so religions did not cause, but Islam did. And I've read sources who say that the Taiping rebellion caused 100 million deaths, while the Mongol invasions did 40 millions at most. Which numbers are we going to take? What about German soldiers in WW2 going to battle with Gott mit uns on their belt buckle? How do you quantify the deaths related to the institutionalised slave trade which was perpetrated with the benediction of the church as negroes don't have souls? The holy inquisition? The forced conversions of the Americas, Australia, Africa and pagan European nations? Why was Genghis Khan more brutal against Muslim territories rather than against other religions? How do you define the Roman empires wars, who were according to Cicero, "gods' will"? How do you define the european kingdoms, who'se reign was the will of god and under whom all wars from 476 to 1796 were fought? How do you define the USA going to war with god at their side? The Japanese emperor being a deity? The Chinese emperors being gods? The deification of rulers from Egyptian pharaohs to Tokugawa and all the wars waged in their names or under their influence?

    1. Do you think there's a difference between a religious war and religious elements being appended to political wars? How many belt buckles does it take to make a religious war?

  2. @Scott Smith: It takes just one belt buckle for the person wearing it to believe the war he's fighting is justifiable in front of his god.

    1. Then it should surprise you that religion is responsible for such a small share of history's wars.

  3. I don't see a difference between a war waged because of two opposing religions and a war waged within the same religion and with god's permission

    1. Did the article make such a distinction? Or are you trying to count two-religion wars as double?