“History is full of religious wars; but, we must take care to observe, it was not the multiplicity of religions that produced these wars, it was the intolerating spirit which animated that one which thought she had the power of governing.” — Baron de Montesquieu
Keith Ward and Alister McGrath, two well-known British theistic philosophers, have tackled the problem of religion and violence. McGrath in response to Richard Dawkins’ negative views on religion has stated that, “Religious people can do disturbing things, so can anti-religious people. Religion and anti-religion can inspire people to good in some and inspire senseless acts of violence in others.” Ward seems to concur when he states in his book, Is Religion Dangerous?, “The lesson is that anti-religious corruptions and religious corruptions are both possible. There is no magic system or belief, not even belief in liberal democracy, which can be guaranteed to prevent it.”
The point here is that war and conflict are not unique to religion as they are not unique to atheism. The problem is not religion or anti-religion, the problem is human nature itself. Equally important is the central message of the ideology in question. Does religion promote war and conflict? Major religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism do not promote war and conflict insofar as their doctrine is concerned. When these religions are used as the reason for aggression and violence, this is a distortion and abuse of the central messages put forth by these religions. Surely, some will object with this last statement particularly how it relates to Islamism. Islamism, also known as militant Islam, is a matter of fierce theological debate. For some, Islamism reflects pure and true Islam, whereas others argue that the violent elements embraced by Islamism is a distortion of the Koran and other Islamic holy writings such as the Hadith.
With the exception of heterodox sects such as Al Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf, RSS of India, the Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda, the Ku Klux Klan, the Army of God, and others who have utilized violence to promote their religious agenda, religions do not necessarily promote war and conflict. The problem is that most religions contain an inherent element which leaves it susceptible to abuse and corruption. The transcendental and divine element contained in most religions offers valuable meaning to countless lives but has also been utilized to abuse and manipulate others. This transcendental and divine element is normally typified by a divine being whether it be Yahweh of Judaism, the triune God of Christianity, Allah of Islam, Brahman of Hinduism, etc. This indispensable aspect of religion is important to the lives of its adherents. Yet, as many have argued, the concept of a divine being provides philosophical grounding for morality, establishes meaning in life, provokes good works, develops spirituality, and nourishes the soul. However, not everyone has employed beliefs about a divine being properly.
A distorted form of providentialism has hijacked religion by using appeals to providence to promote any means necessary to advance a religious agenda. Thomas Kidd, an associate professor of History at Baylor University, illustrated this problem in his fantastic and informative book, God of Liberty. In his book, Kidd concentrates on the religious history of colonial America until the United States of the early 1800’s. A good portion of the book deals with the Revolutionary War and the role of religion in the war and the birth of the nation. Kidd presents a well-balanced view of the religious views of the colonists, particularly the Founding Fathers. He elaborates on the appeals to God’s providence that was commonplace during the Revolution. This common belief provided the colonists with a sense of purpose and confidence in their struggle against Great Britain.
However, this providentialism had a dark side also. Unfortunately, these appeals to providence were abused by some to commit injustices . Some colonists thought that if God were on their side, how could they do wrong? The colonists who viciously treated Native Americans justified it with the rhetoric of divine providence as well the colonists who believed in slavery . Kidd makes it clear that appeals to providence played an important role in the formation of our country but he was also honest about the abuses that occurred when providentialism was employed to advance God’s alleged will at the expense of incurring great harm upon certain people. When writing about the injustices suffered by Native Americans during the war, Kidd stated, “…using God’s might and right to justify one’s cause can easily obscure the complexity or injustice of war.” Moreover, Kidd, a Christian himself, fires a warning in the closing chapter of the book, “Despite the prominence of providentialism in the founding era, religious believers should remain very careful about claiming that a position or policy is God’s preference. Few issues possess the moral and religious clarity to warrant such claims.” (It’s worth mentioning that a healthy understanding of the the philosophical discipline of epistemology (the study of knowledge and belief) is essential to these topics as the above illustrates.)
For all of the goods that religion possesses, religion seems (some may argue otherwise) to contain an epistemic liability. If a particular religious group claims to know that God wills a something particular and only that group possess the requisite knowledge to act on that command without any evidence that others outside that group can evaluate or come to believe in a reasonable way, this potentially can turn into something undesirable and harmful (emotionally, spiritually, and/or physically). Epistemic claims based on divine will or revelation that are intended to apply to others who may not believe them must be handled carefully. Divine claims to which only a select few have epistemic access are fit for abuse.
Does that mean that passionately holding onto a religious doctrine or concept is wrong? Clearly not. A secure understanding that our finite knowledge and finite grasp of religious issues is limited should keep one from affirming total confidence and using this confidence to improperly manipulate others in to believing the same thing (like any claim, there are good ways to convince another that something is true and there are poor ways). Grievously, the divine and transcendental element of religion can be and have been used to uphold defective epistemic claims. But the same can be said for dogmatic “secular” claims.
Although the notion that “religion has been the cause of more wars and conflicts than any other factor” is simplistic and inadequate, religion does possess an inherent characteristic, in the form of epistemic claims of the divine, that makes it vulnerable to this accusation. Nonetheless, the root causes of wars and conflicts lie in human nature and the ugly consequences it produces when humans are unrestrained. Yes, history has shown that if religion can be utilized as an excuse to dehumanize others, some people will use it to do so but this also applies to atheism. Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, etc. utilized their atheistic worldviews to build communistic utopias and dehumanize their enemies.  Stephen Asma succinctly stated in his article, The New Atheists’ Narrow Worldview, ”Religion is not the only ideology with blood on its hands.” Despite the role that religion and non-religion has played in conflicts, it is safe to conclude that the root cause is not a primarily religious one.