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It is the most common comeback from atheists to people of faith: religion is the main cause of wars. Without faith, many say, there would have been no 9/11 attacks, no Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no Troubles in Northern Ireland, no violent disputes over words in holy texts - even no Islamic State.
Richard Dawkins, Britain’s best-known atheist, has argued that religion has been the main cause of violence and war throughout history. He wrote in his 2013 autobiography that “religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a ‘they’, as opposed to a 'we' can be identified."
Dawkins has said that if religion were somehow abolished, there would be "a much better chance of no more war".
There would also be "less hatred, because a lot of the hatred in the world is sectarian hatred," according to Dawkins. "For example, in Northern Ireland, India and Pakistan,” he told the website belief.net.
But academic studies consistently challenge the link between religion and war. Research published in October from the New York and Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace looked at all of the wars that took place in 2013. It found no 'general causal relationship' between religion and conflict.
In fact, religious elements played no role at all in 14 (40%) of the 35 armed conflicts in the research, and only five (14%) had religious elements as their main cause, the report showed. All of the wars had multiple causes, and the much more common motivation was opposition to a government, or to the economic, ideological, political or social systems of a state, which was named as a main factor in nearly two thirds of the cases studied.
The Encyclopedia of Wars, an extensive study published in 2008, chronicles 1,763 wars throughout human history. It names just 123 as 'religious in nature' – a little under 7%.
The Institute for Economics and Peace report also found that having less religion in a country doesn’t make it more peaceful. The proportion of atheists in a country had no bearing on levels of peace.
Countries with the highest levels of atheism – mainly communist or former communist states like Russia and the Czech Republic – were not necessarily the most peaceful. North Korea, which has one of the lowest rates of people practising religion, was one of ten 'least peaceful' countries in world last year, according to the report.
So why does religion so often rise to the surface in conflicts?
Religious elements of wars are often used to describe them succinctly, when the reality is more complex, says John Wolffe, a professor from The Open University. “Even if you go back to the so–called ‘wars of religion’ of the 16th and 17th century [following the Protestant Reformation in Western and Northern Europe], religion is an important factor, but if you dig beneath the surface, issues like dynastic influence, power, and economics are a factor.
"I suppose a statement I might agree with is that religion is implicated in most of the worst wars, but to say religion is responsible is a distortion of the evidence," he concludes.
Rachel Woodcock, a Muslim-Australian writer, believes that religious divides have become more pronounced in recent wars. “Religion has taken on extra significance today because globalisation is challenging and changing everything. Religious identity not only survives but can take on heightened significance when national and political alliances break apart, as happened in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, when Serbs, Croats and Bosniacs were divided along Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim fault lines," she writes in the book For God's Sense.
Woodcock points to Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein, who gassed and bombed the Kurdish people yet made a show of praying to Allah on television. “Religion, unfortunately, provides a useful cover and powerful motivator for the evil-hearted," she writes. "That religion can be so markedly different in the hands of the power-hungry, as opposed to the altruistic and virtuous, really says more about human psychology than it does about religion. That's why so many human conflicts unfortunately involve religion."
In the Troubles, religious rhetoric was often invoked on both sides, not least by the former Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley, a protestant minister who famously called The Pope "the Antichrist”.
But Wolffe from The Open University says that religious elements are overplayed in the Northern Ireland conflict. “The popular labels are Protestant and Catholic, rather than nationalist or unionist, and that can confuse the issues. There was a lot going on behind the scenes which made less headline-grabbing news, about reconciliation and so on. Paisley was such an influential and conspicuous figure on the Protestant side, and clearly somebody who rationalised his position in religious terms, but I think in the wider scheme of things he was not an entirely representative figure.”
Western societies may also be more likely to blame 'Eastern' wars squarely on religion because of cultural differences. Many academics have pointed out that faith means something completely different in the East compared to the West.
In her recent book Fields of Blood, former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong argues that the Western word “religion” cannot even be accurately translated into non-Western cultures. While the West sees faith as a personal matter, in the East – and in most of human history – it has been inseparable from politics.
Professor Peter Morey from the University of East London explains to me: “Religion is seen in other parts of the world as a way of life, whereas here, in the secular West, it’s been set aside from civil society. When we look at conflict in other parts of the world we think religion is the dynamo behind war, when in fact it’s not so easy to isolate the religious component.”
It seems hard to count out the influence of religion in this year’s most prominent and gruesome conflict, the rise of the Islamic State – a militant group which even has the word ‘Islamic’ in its name and rallies its followers to commit jihad.
But Morey says even in this case, the reality is not straightforward. “Islamic State’s big romantic call is to restore the caliphate, which was an empire: a political entity as much as a religious one,” he says. “The use of ‘Islamic’ in the name is a very evocative term and recalls a moment of Muslim world power, but the dynasties that operated around the caliphate, such as the Ottomans, were first and foremost political, and often nationalist entities.”
Mobilising the language and identity of religion is a beneficial tactic to Islamic State to further its own ends, he notes. “Particularly in the post-9/11 period, the West has come to identify itself as secular and modern, as against a homogenised Muslim ‘other’. Islamic State in a sense plays along with that to further their narrative of a clash of civilisations.”
So what is it about faith that can be called upon to fuel violence? When compared to other ideologies, it is naturally divisive, claims Professor Tom Sorell of Warwick University. “With religion, there must always be an idea of what the orthodoxy is," he explains. "Certain things then violate the orthodoxy, and then people get very angry. The sharper the orthodoxy, the easier it is to divide people. For example, there have been few conflicts connected with the Church of England because it is a relatively recent faith, with a more vague sense of orthodoxy.”
He adds that fundamentalism – the call to follow orthodox theologies strictly – can easily lead to violence because “fundamentalist views are ones for which people are prepared to die for”.
But religion’s positive role in maintaining peace is often overlooked in the media, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace. It found that taking part in any social group - a religion or a sports team, for example - can strengthen the bonds between citizens in a country, and corresponds with slightly higher levels of peace. Indeed, some of the most iconic advocates for peace are, or were, deeply religious: Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi and Bishop Desmond Tutu.
“One needs to look at examples where religious people are working hard on the peace-building front, which I think seldom gets reported as much as the other side of the coin," Professor John Wolffe of the Open University tells me.
Indeed, some of the biggest conflicts in the past 100 years - the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War, and Vietnam War - highlight how non-religious motives can be seen as being equally destructive as religious ones, raising the question of whether militant atheism has just as much to answer for as religion.
As Rachel Woodcock points out in her book: "It's not just religious ideology that causes problems – state-imposed atheism was a defining feature of brutal 20th century regimes led by Stalin, Tito, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot among others, which resulted in the suffering and murder of millions. Tens of thousands of Russian Christians alone were executed for their beliefs by atheists intent on purging religion from the Soviet Union."
Communism has been expressively atheist, and many view Nazism as the same - but Australian social commentator Jane Caro believes atheism alone isn't a compelling enough reason to kill people. “Atheists are no more or less capable of evil than anyone else, but it seems that murder, particularly mass murder and war, is a sin of commission.
“In other words, human beings are generally only prepared to fight and kill in the name of something. It can be a god, but it can also be a political philosophy – like Nazism or communism. Many fight for patriotism: for country, tribe or race. Some kill because they're psychologically disturbed, but none – so far – in the name of atheism.
"So, while I don't agree that only religion causes conflict, I'd argue that all mass murder and war are fought in the name of a bigger-than-self philosophy or idea. Atheism, simply lack of belief in a god, has not yet proved compelling enough to motivate murder. So far no one has gone into a crowded public space and blown themselves up while shouting, "No god is great!"
It seems movements without a faith behind them come down to the same complex array of factors as religious wars. Morey from the University of East London says: “The common denominator with movements that call themselves atheist is that wherever those movements take hold, they are usually addressing a set of political problems which also have questions of economic issues and inequality."
Could an army one day be galvanised around atheism - even calling for an Athiest State? Sorell of Warwick University thinks it's unlikely. “Atheism is not organised as a kind of faith group, except in opposition to religion. It’s more an assertion of certain principles of rationality, rather than a set of distinct beliefs comparable to religious beliefs.
"There are lots of atheists who don’t agree with how they might be organised."
Hypothetically, an army championing atheism could materialise if there was a “sudden, major threat to atheists from a religious dictatorial power” - but that won't be happening any time in the foreseeable future in the UK.
Ultimately, wars, like people, are complex. Religious, political and economic factors are intertwined and depend on the context they are found in. Religion certainly 'causes' some wars, but as Woodcock points out: "Humans also fight over small bits of compressed carbon, tracts of dirt, addictive mind-altering substances and soccer matches."
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