On religion and war

Nigel Biggar says it’s hard to make generalisations about religion as a driver of conflict. 



Nigel Biggar says it’s hard to make generalisations about religion as a driver of conflict. 

The claim that religion is uniquely generative or productive of conflict and war is complete nonsense historically. The wars of the 20th century, the First World War, the Second World War, were not caused because of religious zealotry. And equally destructive of human life – Stalin’s purges, Hitler’s genocide, Pol Pot’s killing fields – these were not caused by devout people, religiously devout people, unless you adopt an impossibly broad understanding of what religion is.

So at least we can say religion is not the sole culprit. Has religion produced conflict and has it encouraged war? Yes, it certainly has. And we certainly see that in the case of Islamic State; there are some forms of Islam that encourage a hatred for non-Muslims or even Muslims who don’t toe the appropriate line. And in the 16th, 17th centuries in Europe, we had Catholics vs Protestants. So there’s no doubt that religion can be one of the motivating factors for war.

Although the question of to what extent religion is the motivating factor is … the extent to which religion as distinct from political or ethnic or other causes is a factor, it’s a difficult question to answer, to separate those things out. So in the 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland, it was between Catholic and Protestants, but they weren’t fighting over theology. It was much more cultural and in terms of political aspirations.

So there is a question about, even in wars that have a religious aspect, the question of just how culpable religion as such is. And then, of course, on the other side of the ledger there are, in most … well, in many longstanding religions, there are strong pacific, peacemaking impulses as well. So the fact is that the relationship between religion and violence is a pretty complex one and it’s quite hard to make generalisations.