Posted by: dacalu | 26 September 2011

Religion and Violence

I have heard on numerous occasions that religion has been a leading cause of violence, historically.  If we just got rid of religion, the story goes, we’d be a dramatically less violent world.  I’ve always wondered whether this was true or not, so I decided to sit down and pull up some numbers.  I confess, this is not deep scholarship.  I tried to find reliable numbers, but mostly they are estimates.  After all, it can be hard to reconstruct the number of casualties from current wars, much less wars 500 to 1,000 years ago.  Nonetheless, a couple days of research yielded interesting results and I’d like to share them.

I limited myself to events that caused over a million deaths.  It seemed a reasonable and unbiased way to limit sample size.  There have been so many human wars over the centuries, that an exhaustive list would take years to compile.  I came up with a list of 39 human caused events – mostly wars, but a few exterminations, cultural realignments, and conquests as well.  The list can be found below.

After that, I classified them into one of three categories:  clearly religious in origin and goal, clearly anti-religious in origin and goal, and neither of the above.  Again, this can be a tremendously difficult assignment to make, but by and large the answers were obvious.  Protestants vs. Catholics means religious.  Civil wars without religious division means neutral.  Communists eliminating pre-communist culture means anti-religious.  Since my personal bias is to exonerate religion, wherever a judgement call was made, I erred against religion.  Let me be clear, I always erred in favor of reporting religious violence and in attributing violence to religious causes.

Numerous methodological challenges arose.  I do not claim this to be authoritative or academic, simply a scholar’s attempt to get a first approximation.  Here’s what I found.

I listed 39 conflicts, 8 with a clearly religious character, 6 anti-religious.  This represented roughly 331 million deaths between 755 and 2011 CE.

12% religiously motivated

24% anti-religious (pretty much all communist)

This does not stack up well for those who would advocate for the elimination of religion as a way to minimize violence.  A number of objections have been raised, so I crunched a few more numbers.  Some atheists want the 20th century to be off limits for some reason.  I’m not entirely sure why.  Maybe because of the population increase, maybe because of more efficient ways of killing.  It certainly eliminates the expressly anti-religious deaths.  Alas, it still only gives us 21% religiously motivated.  Certainly significant, but probably not stacking up to political, economic, or racial motivations.

There is, however, a more subtle objection, which I thought worthy of exploring.  What if we normalized all the conflicts by contemporary world population.  Maybe the anti-religionists just look bad because there are more people around these days and areas are more densely populated.  Controlling for world population, mega-deaths (millions of deaths) were

13% religiously motivated

10% anti-religious

This does sound more reasonable to me, by way of comparison.  The take home message, of course, is that at least 85% of the deaths were motivated by political or economic factors not closely tied to religion.  The claim that religions are responsible for most historical violence (in addition to being poorly defined) does not hold up to scrutiny.  Rebellions in China and conquests of Asia (Genghis Khan, Tamerlane) swamp out the religious violence of the crusades. While the elites may have changed religion (or may not) almost no attempt was made to convert the masses.  20th century communist slaughters exceed them in scope but not in number.

The claim that religions have been responsible for most of the world’s violence cannot stand in the face of the evidence.  I hope people will stop making this claim, read some Asian history, and learn perspective.

No doubt, religions do real harm in the world, but the more reasonable and defensible claim is that ideological institutions (religious, communist, national, or otherwise) present opportunities for large scale conflict.  We must work to see that ideologies of whatever sort don’t become more important to us than people.  Christianity does that for me and, I hope, for others as well.


Death Tolls

An Lushan Rebellion (China 755-763)                   Deaths:  10 M

Census records drop the population by 36 M but this might just be loss of ability to record

Crusades (1095-1291)                                                     
Deaths: 3 M (r)

Temujin’s Conquest (1207-1227)                   Deaths:  > 20 M

AKA Ghengis Khan.  Census records drop the population by 32 M in China.  10-15 M estimated dead in Iran alone. Some estimates as high as 40 M, Religiously open

Timur’s Conquest (1369-1405)                                     Deaths: >15 M

AKA Tamerlane

Colonization of NA (1492-1900)                   Deaths: 7 M

Note that while the Conquistadors had a religious agenda, the vast majority of these deaths came from disease.


French Religious Wars (1562-1598)                   Deaths: 3 M (r)

Thirty Years War (1618-1643)                                     Deaths: 8 M (r)

Started between Protestants and Catholics, but continued die to Hapsburg/Bourbon power stuggle.

Fall of the Ming Dynasty (1616-1662)                   Deaths: 25 M

Official documents say 600 M.  Hard to say, great famine in China at this time too.

Deluge (Poland 1655-1660)                                     Deaths: 3.5 M (r)

Swedish Protestants invading Catholic Poland


Napoleon’s Conquest (1803-1815)                   Deaths: 4 M

Shaka’s Conquest (1816-1828)                                     Deaths: 2 M

Taiping Rebellion (China 1850-1864)                   Deaths: 20 M

US Civil War (1861-1865)                                     Deaths: 1 M

Dungan Revolt (China 1862-1877)                   Deaths: 10 M (r)

Had elements of Muslim ethnic unrest, though there were clearly economic elements as well.


Congo (1885-1908)                                                      Deaths:  8 M

Mexican Revolution (1910-1920)                  Deaths:  1 M

World War I (1914-1918)                                    Deaths:  15 M

9 M military deaths, Russian Famine, Influenza

Russian Civil War (1917-1923)                                     Deaths: 7 M (ar)

Stalin’s Reign (USSR, 1924-1953)                  Deaths: >20 M (ar)

Chinese Civil Wars (1928-1949)                                    Deaths: 7.5 M (ar)

World War II (1939-1945)                                    Deaths:  66 M [6 M (r)]

22-25 M military deaths, 13-20 M disease and famine deaths, 5-6 M Jews executed, .5 M Roma.  While the majority of the war was politically motivated, it seems appropriate to say that the scapegoating of Jews allowed Germans to vent religiously oriented tendencies toward violence.  The near extinction of the Roma suggests that heavy scapegoating and eugenic issues were also involved.  Nonetheless, I’ve attributed all of the Holocaust to religious causes here.

Mao Zedong’s Reign (1949-1975)                  Deaths: 40 M (ar)

1 M executions. uUp to 40 M in famine, not counting the millions who died in the great leap forward. This includes, but is not limited to, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Korean War (1950-1953)                                    Deaths: 3.5 M

Vietnam War (1955-1975)                                    Deaths: 3 M

2nd Congo War (1998-2004)                                    Deaths: 4.5 M

Hutus and Tutsis are both predominantly Roman Catholic

Kim Il-Sung and Jong Il’s Reigns (North Korea 1948+)                  Deaths: 3 M (ar)

Hutu and Tutsi Massacres (1959-1995)                  Deaths: 1.5 M

Late 20th C. Africa                                                      Deaths: 9 M [3 M (r)]

Congo/Zaire 3.8 M, Nigeria 66-70 1 M (r), Ethiopia 2 M, Sudan 2 M (r)

Late 20th C. Asia                                                      Deaths: 5 M (1.5 M, 1.5 M, 2 M)

Afghanistan 2 M (r), Khmer Rouge 1.5 M (ar), Bangladeshi Independence 1971, 1.5 M



29 Conflicts, 38.5 M religious, 79 M anti-religious, 213 M generic, 330.5 M total

By Percentage 12% (r), 24% (ar), 64%


Before 1900

14 Conflicts, 27.5 M religious, 104 generic, 131.5 total

By Percentage 21% (r), 79%


To present, but correcting for world population, roughly

By Percentage 13% (r), 10% (ar), 77%





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: