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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. 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?

  4. You ask questions and then give answers to deaths for other wars/conflicts....A very backhanded and capricious way to pen an article. Also, it seems like a good and powerful god wouldn't allow such murder, rape and torture in his name, but then again the bible calls for all 3, but that doesn't make it right.

  5. The dissolution of the catholic center party allowed the Nazi's to take hold in Germany. His birthday was celebrated from the pulpit until his death. The church didn't apologize until well after the leaders of the Nazi's were tried in secular courts in Nuremburg. I guess that's morality for the religious.

  6. I kept seeing theists supposedly debunking the claim about religious wars based on Axelrod's volume - and it was clear that they hadnt read it - SO I DID.

    Guess what ? The encyclopedia that theists cite , lists OVER 25% OF WARS AS BEING RELIGIOUS.

    For the 7% claim to be true you would need to exclude (inter alia), Arab Israeli Wars, Sultanate Wars, Holy Roman Empire Wars, Jewish Revolts , Muslim Wars and Sikh Wars – names given by the authors of the encyclopedia. Guess what ?
    1) These wars are not mentioned in the index under "Religious Wars" - how convenient for theists !!
    2) The authors make it emphatically clear in the body that they are religious wars.

    You cant make a list of religious wars that only has 7% of them - ignoring 19% - then claim that there are only 7% !!

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. 1) How do you plan to “prove” something when historically we have little idea of numbers of people killed in wars ? You cite Axelrod and Phillips as the source of your claim - so lets use that (HINT I HAVE READ IT FROM COVER TO COVER - ALL 1500 PAGES TWICE).

    2) You claim that Only about 7% of all wars in history have been waged for religious causes - but your source is A&P Axelrod & Phillips. However A&P MAKE NO SUCH CLAIM ! Anyone who has read the introduction to A&P which REPEATEDLY EMPHAISES THE RELIGIOUS CAUSES OF WARS would immediately wonder how that can be reconciled with the 7% claim.
    How is it “reconciled” ? You rely on a heading in the index “Religious Wars”. Correct - the wars under that heading are religious BUT IT DOES NOT LIST ALL THE RELIGIOUS WARS CITED !!

    The index heading OMITS (JUST for example) :
    Arab Israeli Wars
    Sultanate Wars
    Holy Roman Empire Wars
    Jewish Revolts
    Muslim Wars
    Sikh Wars

    And the body of the encyclopedia goes into great detail about the religious aspects of those wars. So how many wars are religious BASED ON THE CITED VOLUME ? 617 !! That is 35% !!
    BASED ON THE VOLUME CITED BY THEISTS - 35% of wars are religious.

    3) So how many died in religious wars ? For a start, A&P list UNKNOWN CASUALTIES against 350 of the 617 religious wars. Of the KNOWN RELIGIOUS wars - the total is around 55 - 60 M. Apply “pro rata” gives around 130M.

    4) Is the total number of deaths meaningful ? This method equates 1M dying when the population was 10M (10% of the planet) as being the “same” as 1M dying when the population was 1Bn (0.1%). So what PERCENTAGE of the planet died in religious wars ? Answer (applying pro rata for unknown deaths) AROUND 16.5%. IN TODAYS POPULATION TERMS RELIGIOUS WARS HAVE KILLED 1.3BILLION PEOPLE.

    5) How do religious war deaths (from (4)) break down by religion ?
    - Christianity 720 Million
    - Jewish 150 Million
    - Muslim 328 Million

    6) You state "That's only 7% of all wars in recorded history! 7% isn't even close to a majority. " - Leaving aside that it isnt 7% but 35% - THAT WASNT THE QUESTION !! Your question was "Is Religion Responsible for the Most Wars and Deaths in History" - based on my reading - AND THE COMMENTS FROM THE AUTHORS THESEMLVES - yes it is. You are confusing "which is the most common cause of wars" (of all the causes which cause has resulted in the most wars / deaths , i.e. Religion) with "Has religion cause the MAJORITY of wars / death" (i.e. more than 50%). BASED ON THE SOURCE YOU CITED (!) YES RELIGION IS Responsible for the Most Wars and Deaths in History"

    So please - if you are going to cite sources - I SUGGEST THAT YOU READ THEM FIRST - THEY MIGHT JUST CONTRADICT YOUR CLAIM !

    1. Re:1
      You first question whether we can determine the numbers of people killed in wars, saying we have "little idea" of such historically. Then you argue that your calculations are more accurate than mine. That's a contradiction, not "critical thinking."

      Re: 2-6
      In your previous comment above, you calculated 25%. Now you're saying 35%. Which is it? You seem to be all over the map. Why don't you settle on a number (or at least a methodology), then we can discuss? A closer reading of my arguments and sources may also help you unravel your misunderstandings.

  9. A war of any kind for any religion, in my opinion is intolerable and unacceptable. A war by definition “a state of competition, conflict, or hostility between different people or groups.”. The action or definition should never be associated with a religion as that is in direct conflict with what is proclaimed by sermon or scripture. For example, just the Ten Commandments alone should have prevented any war from ever being initiated. I find both historically and currently, religion is used as the method to force other groups to submit to one specific belief. If religion was and is truly a “holy” entity, it would stand for the freedom of people and not the suppression. Further, allowing priest to commit crimes and hiding them within the Church is even more disgusting. I find the following of any religion with such history to be appalling to say the least. Anyone who believes in God and agrees with a religion that supports violence against others of any kind to me is only deceiving themselves. How can anyone support such a misguided group of leaders who would condone any act that violates any one human being.

  10. The continued discussion on which number is correct is missing the point all together. The fact there was ever any war to begin with or a death in the name religion should be the question. WHY would there ever be a war for something presumed to be non-violent? Argue the numbers all day, no one focuses on why it was allowed! Religious leaders justify to themselves to say, ‘God said….’. God didn’t say anything! Religion is only about power and money over the “flock”. If this wasn’t true, there would have never been religious wars.

    1. Not true at all. Just because someone used something doesn’t mean it’s what it’s intended for. Do you think all banks are stupid if you get defrauded? People suck, and PEOPLE use whatever they want to justify it, religion included,

  11. The question we are debating 'is religion the primary contributing factor for more deaths than anything else known to man', then yes.

    If you were to add up every person that died constructing pyramids or other religious monuments, every tribesmen that died for their various beliefs... Every sacrifice, every slave. Then yes, religion has killed more than anything else known to man.

  12. Your grasp of history is laughable, the fact that you cherry pick things that go aginst your points is evidence enough