Patrick J. O Brien

There’s no such thing as a ‘holy war’

The Knights transformed the island of Malta. Turning it into a formidable stronghold. With success they defended Malta against several Ottoman attacks (Image courtesy of author)
The Knights transformed the island of Malta. Turning it into a formidable stronghold. With success they defended Malta against several Ottoman attacks (Image courtesy of author)

If your idea of being “holy” is to kill innocent civilians, burn down churches, attack the vulnerable, tell people how to live, disturb peaceful assemblies, and force your idea of the law upon everyone else, regardless of which religion you adhere to, then you need to have your moral compass re-calibrated. 

One of the great lies that humanity has believed is that every war it engages in is a for the good, a war for a righteous cause. It’s the nature of propaganda, if you repeat something often enough, people start to believe it. It’s a meme or a trop one of those throwaway lines that “Religion causes wars”. For me, I believe religion is often used as a pretext for people who wage wars because it’s a great way of recruiting gullible people and for providing a noble pretext to camouflage the lust for money power and Greed. It’s claimed that all the major wars in history were caused by religions. But that’s totally false. The conquests of the Roman Empire weren’t caused by religions.

Simply, wars are caused by greed, passion and the desire for wealth. The 20th century was one of the bloodiest centuries in human history. There were two major world wars, which had nothing at all to do with religion, the Jewish Holocaust, Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands conflict, the Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf war, the Rwandan genocide and the Communist Revolutions in Russia, China, Southeast Asia and Cuba. Together these have accounted for 100 million. Yet none of these conflicts and genocides were caused by religion. Instead, they were caused by people’s ideology, desire for power/control/territory, greed, or sometimes even country leaders’ warped morals and ideals. So we could easily make the case that way more people have died throughout human history due to poor ideals, rather than religion. Mao claimed religion is poison and went on with “Cultural Revolution” and “Great Leap Forward” that claimed the lives of millions of Chinese. Genghis Khan and his mongol tribes tore through Asia and Europe and they had no religion. Millions died in Somalia and Rwanda without much to do with religions. People professing allegiance to a religion killed as many people as people professing no allegiance to a religion. So, religions don’t create wars. People do.

History simply does not support the hypothesis that religion is the major cause of conflict. The wars of the ancient world were rarely, if ever, based on religion. These wars were for territorial conquest, to control borders, secure trade routes, or respond to an internal challenge to political authority. In fact, the ancient conquerors, whether Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman, openly welcomed the religious beliefs of those they conquered, and often added the new gods to their own pantheon. 

Coming back, why did religions cause many wars? In the past, religions were often tied to power and power is delirious. It is a drug that makes people do extraordinary things. It is power that we have to fear of and as it is lust for power that creates wars. Religions can help build a power center, but, this power can come as easily from a lack of religion.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine is a confluence of political, legal and historical tensions, but the religious undercurrent that sowed the seeds of the entire struggle has always suffused what is, in essence, a territorial dispute. The Israel-Palestine crisis is often described in biblical terms: “war in the holy land;” “Muslim v Jew;” or “the new Crusades.” But while it has always had religious overtones, the ongoing conflict was originally about land: who had a right to it and who didn’t. It pitted Palestinian claims to the right of incumbency against Israeli assertions to the right of settlement and sovereignty. Sadly, that distinction, land over faith may no longer be valid.On the other side of the globe Putin’s war in Ukraine is manifestly an unjust war: immoral in intent and immoral in execution. For me the real cause of war is our selfishness. Religion, morals, alliances these things are all excuses for countries, regimes and extremists to wage war and take what they want and grow in power.

About the Author
Patrick J O Brien is an acclaimed journalist and Director of Exante who has been working in the media for almost 25 years. Patrick who hails from Ireland is based in Malta and a contributor to some of the world’s leading financial and political magazines. Recently he returned from Ukraine where he was reporting at ground level on the escalation of war and spent time documenting the work of the Red Cross and many human right organisations
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