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Religious Wars & Violence

Religious Wars & Violence

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson presents an abbreviated history of religious wars, as well as the theological, textual, and historical bases, motivations, and justifications for violence both within and among different religions.

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Religious Wars and Violence

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Hello, welcome. This is a tutorial on religious wars and violence. The history of warfare and the history of religion seem to often go hand-in-hand. Because religion and religious ideology are so emotionally charged, religion often gets blamed for the violence and the wars that we've seen throughout history.

And in a sense, there is such a thing legitimately called religious violence and religious wars. However, sometimes it's possible that nations use religious ideology in conjunction with the desire of the state, with political and economic motivations, to make violent military advances in the name of religion.

However, from within and from without, it's not always so easy to accurately assess motivations. But in any case, historically, religion and warfare and the associated violence have a very close relationship at times.

The Crusades were a period in history that spanned from 1096 to 1192. It was a period marked by incredible violence and religious fervor. The word "crusade" comes from the French, taking up the cross in the hopes of a quick journey to heaven after death. The idea was that if you went on this heroic and valiant journey to recover Jerusalem for the Christian world, that you would go to heaven very quickly after dying.

The spiritual if not emotional appeal of this promise was the sort of propaganda that was used to recruitment men to battle, to spearhead the project of recovering Jerusalem from Muslim control. Both sides, Christians and Muslims, wanted more territory.

Many Christians, perhaps, had a genuine desire to conquer the Holy Land in and around Jerusalem. As the location of New Testament events, it was of central importance to the identity and mission of Christianity.

And Muslims also desired expansion and wanted to move and expand beyond the Fertile Crescent. It was also largely motivated by religion and the appeal or the injunction that was communicated by tradition to convert others to the Islamic faith.

So it does seem possible to characterize the Crusades as having certain elements of genuine religious motivation at times and some way, to some degree, isolated from political will. Well, then it might also be possible to identify the absence of genuine religious motivations in a more contemporary context.

For example, the Bosnia-Herzegovina wars of the 1990s. This war was officially recognized by the International War Crimes Tribunal, a special department set up under the United Nations, as a response to the insane violence, the massacre of nearly 10,000 Bosnian Muslims. This falls under the term "ethnic cleansing." And of course, it's not a new idea in the history of politics, nations, and religions, and in the history of humanity.

And while land and religious ideology might be sloganized by the perpetrators as justification, it's almost unanimously regarded, indeed by the UN, as the targeting of ethnic or religious groups for elimination from a particular area, generally either by death or forced relocation. So religion then is the target, not the impetus or a source of incentive, not a motivation.

Another term we want to understand in this context is "terrorism." Terrorism often manifests as religious violence, but it's also possible that religion is a mask for other kinds of motivations. However, this term is very difficult to define and depends on perspective.

Now we can review and summarize a little bit. The topic of the tutorial has been religious wars and violence and how often they seem to go together in history. And we used the extreme example of the Crusades to show that sometimes there seems to be a genuine religious motivation behind the violence and the warfare.

And we contrasted that with the more contemporary situation from the 1990s of Bosnia-Herzegovina as an example of an absence of religious motivation. And we might have court systems to help expedite and indict. But that doesn't mean that making sense of these terms like "ethnic cleansing" and "terrorism," that doesn't mean that they're any easier to define or understand. I'll see you next time.

Notes on "Religious Wars and Violence"



Image of Crusaders Thirsting Near Jerusalem, Public Domain,,_Fracesco_-_Crusaders_Thirsting_near_Jerusalem_-_1836-50.jpg

Image of Map of First Crusade, Public Domain, {{PD-US-not renewed}} – published in the United States between 1923 and 1963, with its copyright not renewed.

Image of Crusaders Crossing Mount Taurus, Public Domain,

Image of Battle of Ager Saguinis, Public Domain, {{PD-US-not renewed}} – published in the United States between 1923 and 1963, with its copyright not renewed.

Image of The Fertile Crescent, Creative Commons,

Terms to Know
Ethnic Cleansing

The targeting of ethic or religious groups for elimination from a particular area, generally either by death or forced relocation.


The deliberate undertaking, or threatening, of violent actions against a civilian population designed to instill fear in that population in order to achieve desired social, political, or religious aims.

The Crusades

A series of wars between Muslim and Christian armies for control of Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Palestine.