You ask whether religion has been the primary motivating factor in humankind’s history of wars. I would argue that claims to resources (land, water, food, minerals, energy) have caused vastly more strife than religion. However, there is no denying that misguided religious differences have caused innumerable conflicts throughout history, and that religion has also often been used as a façade and rallying point covering underlying resource issues.
But there is a more necessary and popular debate implied in this month’s question: Has religion as a whole been beneficial or detrimental? Isn’t this the true question being asked? I’ve noticed some cynical secularists are quick to cite religion as a source for the world’s wars and write off the concept of spirituality as only a cause of pain and suffering. I believe there are fallacies inherent in this.
The benefits of religion are greater but less quantifiable than a list of religious conflicts. It is far easier to cite specific instances of the bad than subtle, but more important and far-reaching, effects of the good. Exacerbating matters are education systems that tend to emphasize rote memorization of small events over a deeper understanding of big-picture advances in learning, philosophy, ethics and the arts that would be improbable if not for the ideas and unifying forces ignited by religious prophets around the world. Secular schools wary to cross the church-state divide often steer clear of mentioning the benefits of spirituality throughout history, though they are still obliged to teach of wars, revolutions and conflicts also started by religion.
With the ability to see the entire world and the awareness of diverse views expanding daily, we are slowly reaching a new era in history in which religion could finally fulfill its role as the ultimate uplifting inspiration of humanity. Even now, the horrible religious conflicts that rage worldwide are becoming more isolated and tentative, and for the first time in history, global religious leaders are calling for interfaith forums and cooperation on a planetwide scale. Unfortunately, it’s just hard to see the forest for the trees.