Fact Check: Religious Wars: Only 123 of 1763?

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A friend shared the image above from a Facebook page called WHY?Outreach. I thought the statistic was interesting, so I followed the links they cited for their claim in the caption text.

In one of them, an article at CARM, which I despise and link under protest, Robin Schumacher makes the following claim, which is cited verbatim in the meme:

An interesting source of truth on the matter is Philip and Axelrod’s three-volume Encyclopedia of Wars, which chronicles some 1,763 wars that have been waged over the course of human history. Of those wars, the authors categorize 123 as being religious in nature,2 which is an astonishingly low 6.98% of all wars. However, when one subtracts out those waged in the name of Islam (66), the percentage is cut by more than half to 3.23%.

Footnote 2 is a broken link, but it’s supposed to take readers to a Google Books preview of a book called The Irrational Atheist in which author Vox Day adds up “all the wars that the authors of the Encyclopedia of Wars saw fit to categorize as religious wars for one reason or another.” Day includes several caveats, like some wars being lumped together, but is generally satisfied with his work. At the risk of another dead link like the one suffered by CARM, I include a link to the book preview here.

The claims that (1) there have been 1,763 wars in human history, and (2) only 123 of them are a result of religious causes, appear explicitly nowhere in Encyclopedia of Wars. Those numbers were tallied up by Vox Day using data from Encyclopedia of Wars. Sort of.

Wikipedia’s article on religious war previously included the number as well, citing 3 sources: a Huffington Post article which made the claim but failed to support it, a book called An Atheist Defends Religion which also made the claim but failed to support it or even footnote Vox Day’s work, and finally, Vox Day’s book, pages 104-106. Vox Day’s book, as best I can tell, appears to be the original source of the number (allegedly derived from Encyclopedia of Wars.

While I was tracking down the original source, I learned something about the Encyclopedia of Wars: It’s freakishly expensive. Like $400 expensive. So how the heck did Vox Day get hold of a copy?

Answer: He probably didn’t.

PDF copies of everything seem to live on the internet, however, and an expensive reference book like Encyclopedia of Wars is apparently a prime target. I found a PDF. (The link may have stopped working by the time you get to it; there’s another one on Scribd. If those don’t work, Google is amazing and there may still be a copy floating around.

In case there isn’t, I have a few observations:

1. The Encyclopedia of Wars doesn’t categorize wars as religious or non-religious. I searched the PDF for “religion.” It appeared 201 times. “Religious” appeared 216 times. There is no section of the book where Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod explicitly “categorize” wars as religious or non-religious.

I suspect Vox Day did a word search of a PDF copy of Encyclopedia of Wars, noting which of the entries mentioned religion, and counting up all the other wars. In any event, Robin Schumacher’s claim that “the authors categorize 123 as being religious in nature” and Vox Day’s claim that “the authors of the Encyclopedia of Wars saw fit to categorize as religious” any wars at all are both false. Some entries mention religion, some don’t. The catch here is that to make this claim, Vox Day ignores something critically important:

2. In the introduction to Encyclopedia of Wars on page xxii, the authors note the following:

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 17th 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. (Emphasis mine).

So. Have most of our wars been about religion? According to the authors of Encyclopedia of Religion, for the people who started them, mostly not. For the people fighting them, they mostly have been.

My friend, who was researching with me, un-shared the image when we realized most of the sources… weren’t.


I’m a seminary student seeking ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Why am I sharing this if it makes religion look bad?

Because I don’t think it does. First, as a person invested in a particular religion with a particular truth claim, I think the truth matters. It does Christianity no favors to claim to be in possession of truth while dealing in lies. Lies are not appropriate in support of truth.

Second, I don’t believe religion alone makes people violent. I think people are already violent, and they use religion as an excuse. I think it’s dangerous when people outsource their moral reasoning to their faith communities. I think there is indeed a grave danger of allowing God to be prejudiced on our behalf.

Are atheists also violent? Of course. Is religion, as Phillips and Axelrod suggest, often used as an excuse for violence? Absolutely. Shall we then do away with religion? Certainly not! We shall do away with violence, which has been propped up by religion and atheism alike, and caused by the reasons Phillips and Axelrod cite.

I suspect more than a few unkind religious people would have the proverbial wind taken out of their sails if they were deprived of their religion – just as more than a few unkind atheists would if they were deprived of their atheism.

The point of all this: The claim the meme is responding to, that religion is solely responsible for wars, is overly simplistic rubbish. Also, the counter-claim put forth in the meme, that “The #1 cause of war, death, and suffering is atheistic communism” is also rubbish.

So what is “The #1 cause of wars?”

As I’m confident my Church History II Professor Dr. Heather Vacek would say of the #1 cause of wars… “It’s complicated.”

David M Schell About David M Schell
David M. Schell is a doubter, a believer, and a skeptic. He writes about God and stuff. He is happily married to Kristen, and that's why his posts don't come out as often or as angry.

  • Chris Develing

    Hi,

    I read your article on religion and war where you debunk the claims by Vox Day.

    Interesting article. Thank you for your hard work. I have looked for the encyclopedia myself and must admit you are the better man in the world of google. I thought it was simply not online. But it is.

    I have one thing to remark though. There is another encyclopedia, one that is newer, which is also being cited. And in this case it’s even said that only 6% of the wars were religious in nature. This is the encyclopedia by Gordon Martel.

    So this is interesting because if this was independent research it may confirm what Vox Day probably found.

    Don’t worry, my source is not carm. org. Article down below. If you happen to find that new encyclopedia as well, I would be very happy to hear about it 🙂

    Greetings

    https://www.str.org/blog/is-religion-the-cause-of-most-wars#.WHKfjlPhCM9

    • Thanks for the heads-up. I couldn’t find the book by Gordon Martel, but since Stand to Reason didn’t mention a page number, I suspect it’s much the same scenario, where somebody crunched numbers on an inaccessible book and then made the claim. Either that or they just made it up wholesale, or stole it from someone who did, because they seem to be the earliest source for the claim, and don’t provide a page number.

      The Institute for Economics and Peace report doesn’t debunk the claim either; it says this:

      Religion is not the main cause of conflicts today. Whilst
      religion has evidently been a cause of many conflicts
      throughout history it is by no means the only reason for
      conflict. Surveying the state of 35 armed conflicts from 2013,
      religious elements did not play a role in 14, or 40 per cent.

      It says little about the historic role of religion in wars, particularly for the participants, because that’s not the focus of the study.

      Gosh; it’s like whack-a-mole. Put down one bit of false information and another one comes along to take its place. The Christian “apologists” don’t seem to have any taste for nuance these days, or for evidence. It seems like it’s just a matter of when an atheist says something, they have to find (or invent) evidence to “debunk” it. It’s knee-jerk, and it’s not doing us any good.

      • Chris Develing

        You make valid points.

        But honestly what do you think of the method used by Vox Day? I’m still open to the idea that he didn’t just search “religion” but actually went over every single war to interpret for himself if religion played a role.

        If this is the case (and I plan on doing the same research myself thanks to you finding the online encyclopedia) would you say his research has some validity?

        Because even if religion is mentioned in the description of the war, that doesn’t mean the war had a religious motive.

        One example of this I saw in the book, is a war between the newly founded Indonesian government and a muslim region they wanted to annex. The book describes how the muslim region wanted to remain autonomous and protect its religious law-system. Religion is mentioned but the motives were obviousely government centered.

        I’d love to hear your opinion on this before I start my research which will be an attempt to lay down a decicive article on this very issue of what the mentioned encyclopedia says.

        I’m a Christian so I’m pleased to read about your efforts to be honest about our own back yard. I agree wholeheartedly.

        By the way, if my English contains grammatical mistakes, please understand that I’m not a native speaker but a Dutchman from Europe.

        Greetings

        Chris

        • I’m open to the possibility that he used different methodology than I assumed he did as well, but what he says is still disingenuous – that the authors of the encyclopedia he read saw fit to classify some wars as religious and others as not religious – in contradiction to the authors’ own preface.

          The preface said, “…for much of the world before the 17th century, these “reasons” for war were explained and justified, at least for the participants, by religion.”

          I didn’t notice any particular issues with your English. My Christology professor, Dr. Edwin Chr. van Driel, is also a Dutchman. You both have excellent written English. (I can’t say anything about your spoken English because I haven’t heard you speak, but I assume something similar).

          • Chris Develing

            Yes, I was thinking about the preface. I suppose what could save Day’s argument to figure out if everything after the 17th century is much less about religion and if so, how many wars are they in number.

            I can imagine how they would have every single war documented since then (with the benefit of the printing press) but not before then. What I mean is, perhaps the number of wars after the 17th century in their book is much higher than the number of wars before, making his statement nog that inaccurate. Because if that’s the case, then the preface is the one which lacks proper context (the numbers).

            I guess this means that – apart from going through all of the records – I have to keep track of the number of wars before and after the 17th century. I may as well cancel my day job, lol.

            I’ve just looked at Vox Day’s book again. He says that the authors “categorized” those 123 wars as religious “for one reason or another”. I think he does slightly give the impression that the authors made categories but personally I’m fine with the fact they mention religion in their descriptions where as they did not for the overwhelming majority of wars.

            Thanks for the compliment. My spoken English is almost at the level of a native speaker from America. I’ve even fooled an American once. I thank subtitled movies for that mostly. I work for an apologetic organisation and I’ve narrated and written some English video’s including a sort of spoken word thing on the issue of abortion.

            Nice to hear you have a Dutch professor. I’d ask you to say hello to him but we Dutch are way to down to earth for that kind of stuf 😀

            Greetings from The Hague