Atheists abandon “religion causes war” argument

Scott Atran is the first atheist to publicly come out and admit the historical nonexistence of the oft-claimed connection between religion and war in Foreign Policy:

Moreover, the chief complaint against religion — that it is history’s prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny. Religious issues motivate only a small minority of recorded wars. The Encyclopedia of Wars surveyed 1,763 violent conflicts across history; only 123 (7 percent) were religious. A BBC-sponsored “God and War” audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internecine Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history’s most lethal century of international bloodshed.

Not only does Atran accept the argument I originally presented in a WND article before refining it in The Irrational Atheist, but his article is actually much less of a Fighting Withdrawal than the misleading subtitle – What we don’t understand about religion just might kill us – would lead the casual reader to believe.

Atran doesn’t mention either me or TIA, but TIA is clearly the source as not only is the argument the same as the one I first presented in 2004, but the war count of 123 also happens to be uniquely mine. The actual count from The Encylopedia of Wars index is not 123, but 121 – they made some errors, in my opinion, counting some non-religious wars such as the Fourth Crusade as religious and vice-versa – but the authors of the encylopedia actually failed to fully recognize the implications of their historical catalog concerning the historical irrelevance of religion to war. This can be seen in their Introduction:

“Wars have always arisen, and arise today, from territorial disputes, military rivalries, conflicts of ethnicity, and strivings for commercial and economic advantage, and they have always depended on, and depend on today, pride, prejudice, coercion, envy, cupidity, competitiveness, and a sense of injustice. But for much of the world before the 17 century, these “reasons” for war were explained and justified, at least for the participants, by religion. Then around the middle of the 17th century, Europeans began to conceive of war as a legitimate means of furthering the interests of individual sovereigns….

The [French] revolution increased the size of the armed forces for European states from small professional outfits to huge conscript armies, whose citizen-soldiers needed more than reasons of state to risk their lives and fortunes for their rulers. The objectives of warfare were broadened from the conquest of this or that sliver of a kingdom to the spread of revolutionary ideals, and through this ideological backdoor something like the fervor of religion slipped back into war along with the mass of conscripts. Once again wars needed to be in some sense “holy” or, in the more secular lexicon of the times, “just”.”

Now, it doesn’t bother me terribly when people actively seek to avoid giving me credit for my more original ideas. I’ve learned to expect it, which is why you’ll never find this argument on Wikipedia even when everyone eventually comes to accept it as the historical fact that it truly is. I only find it genuinely irksome when others subsequently try to take credit for them or to claim they were always part of the status quo. The important thing is that the ideas are getting out there and the memes are spreading, and removing that specific arrow from the atheist’s rhetorical arsenal was always my main polemical object in presenting the argument.

That being said, I do find it amusing that The Irrational Atheist appears to be one of the more influential books that no one of substance will publicly admit to reading. In addition to the Atran admission – to say nothing of the informatively abrupt silence of Dawkins and Harris on the subject of religion and war – let’s not forget the Boston University study that offers initial confirmation of my hypothesis of a link between atheism and Asperger’s Syndrome.