It slips so easily off the tongue. In fact, it’s a modern mantra. ‘Religion causes all the wars.’ Karen Armstrong claims to have heard it tossed off by American psychiatrists, London taxi-drivers and pretty much everyone else. Yet it’s an odd thing to say. For a start, which wars are we talking about? Among the many causes advanced for the Great War, ranging from the train timetables on the continent to the Kaiser’s withered left arm, I have never heard religion mentioned. Same with the second world war. The worst genocides of the last century — Hitler’s murder of the Jews and Atatürk’s massacre of the Armenians (not to mention his expulsion and massacre of the Greeks in Asia Minor too) — were perpetrated by secular nationalists who hated the religion they were born into. The long British wars of the 18th and 19th centuries — the Napoleonic wars and the Seven Years’ War — were cheerfully fought by what Wellington called ‘the scum of the earth’ for land and empire, not for the faiths to which they only nominally belonged.
We have to go back to the 17th century and the Wars of Religion to find a plausible candidate. Hobbes certainly believed that the preachers had been ‘the cause of all our late mischiefs’. But modern historians are more inclined to describe the English civil war as the War of Three Kingdoms and/or as a struggle against the autocracy of Charles I. The Wars of Religion on the continent do look like a fall-out from the cataclysmic split of the Reformation, though Armstrong points out that there too dynastic rivalry came to predominate. Pope Paul IV went to war against the devout Catholic Philip II of Spain. The Catholic Kings of France allied with the Ottoman Turks against the Catholic Habsburgs and fought for 30 years on the same side as half the Protestant princes of Germany.