Not long ago, a church leader at the Protestant sect I belong to gave a sermon criticizing the role of religion in today’s conflicts. He cited the Crusades, clashes between Catholics and Protestants, and other “religious wars” of the Middle East and throughout Asia. It made me wonder how prevalent these are, given that many of these conflicts cited either occurred a long time ago or are predominantly fought over other reasons.
The political science literature on the subject is overshadowed by Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, frequently cited by the mainstream media and numerous editorials — especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 upon us, expect to hear sound-bite versions of Huntington’s thesis trotted out repeatedly.
Huntington contends that wars come from differences between “civilizations” whose defining features include their belief systems, particularly their religious doctrine. Because these faiths have incompatible doctrines and a mission to spread their influence, violence ensues. This is only likely to accelerate after the conclusion of the ideological battles of the world wars and the Cold War. In a 2004 article in the International Political Science Review, Jonathan Fox finds most ethnic conflicts to be religious clashes.
But is it so simple? In their American Sociological Review article from August of 2007, Brian J. Grim and Roger Frinke find little support for Huntington’s argument. A detailed analysis of countries with multiple religions, or borders between countries of different religious beliefs, finds that they are no more likely to be engaged in conflict than other countries or borders.
Even when there are two different religious groups fighting, it isn’t always about religion, per se. As Time magazine’s Lance Morrow wrote in 1976, “A Belfast pub is not blown up to assert ‘the Real Presence’ or ‘the Virgin Birth.’” Plus, religion could also serve as a force for peace, as Marc Gopin wrote in Peace & Change in 1997.
To determine whether any of these authors are on the right track, my students and I looked at Kalevi J. Holsti’s 1991 book Peace and War: Armed Conflicts and International Order, 1648-1989. Holsti analyzes all international conflicts over the last several centuries, classifying the issues of conflict.
In looking at religious wars in Holsti’s time frame, we coded all cases involving any religious component, from unification and irridenta to protecting religious confreres, and identified 16 religious wars.
More than half of them were between the Ottoman Empire and European nations (1600s-1800s) over protecting Christian pilgrims on the way to the sites in the Holy Land. These were one-way disputes, with the European Christian country pursuing claims while Turkey didn’t seem to have a problem with the status quo. For those since World War II (India-Pakistan, Israel-Arab, Biafra-Nigeria and Syria-Lebanon), none, according to Holsti, had religion as the primary rationale for fighting, even if the wars were advertised as such.
To establish a baseline for comparing religious conflicts with other reasons why countries fight, we gathered information on three additional issues where Holsti collects data: real estate (territorial disputes), riches (battles over resources), and regimes (where one country attempts to replace another country’s government with one it prefers). Like the religion analysis, this involved bundling several of Holsti’s issues under a broader category for each issue of conflict, since many if not most wars have multiple issues.