Assertions that religion is the cause of all war may well be familiar, but the popularity of an opinion does not make it true. Believe it or not this assertion is as much a truth claim as many of the claims made by the religions it attempts to denounce. At best this claim does two things, both of which serve the agenda of the person or persons making it. Firstly, as a weak defence of Atheism it posits without evidence the notion that religion is an intrinsically bad thing that people would do better without, and, secondly, it reduces the complexity of the origins of human conflict to a simple aphorism designed to distract attention from the difficulties of seeking truth and peace.
We should be clear from the outset that ideas do not cause or fight wars – people do. It is true that religious people fight, but then so do music lovers. There is certainly no evidence to suggest that religious people are more likely to be combatants than Atheists, and neither is their evidence to suggest that religious ideas are any more likely to be a contributing factor in conflicts than non-religious ideas such as Capitalism, Socialism, or Democracy for example. Violence in human society is complex, but what is clear is that it is catalysed by human social activity and fought by human beings.
Here in Ireland we have overcome the violence of the Troubles (or so it is hoped), and this was a decades-long violent conflict all too often characterised as a sectarian dispute between Irish Catholics and Protestants. In Britain the media and the political establishment benefited from this reductionist definition of the conflict because it diverted attention from Britain’s history in Ireland of civil and human rights violations, and the reality of a foreign military occupation and an armed struggle for national self-determination. It so happened that the majority of the victims of British rule were Roman Catholics, and the political, social, and economic beneficiaries were British Loyalist communities of Irish Protestants. Religion was never a cause of or even a contributing factor to the Troubles. It was merely a social and cultural signifier between the conflicting parties; much in the same way that race was in Apartheid South Africa, but no one would suggest colour is the cause of all war.
When we look to the present conflicts in the Middle East, again we see a Western driven narrative of religious division, and yet this is little more than a smoke screen to hide the reality of US military invasions, Western occupations and human rights violations. Again what differentiates the invader/occupier from the invaded/occupied is the religious divide. In the main the Western invaders are Christian, and the occupied populations are Muslim. In this context it is easy to see how religion can become a tool of resistance in the face of foreign aggression, but it would be putting the horse before the cart to suggest that religion was the cause of the conflict.