The other night, I was watching George Carlin on TV. During a montage of Carlin bits, the late comedian made a remark about how more men have died in the name of God (i.e., religious wars) than for any other reason. Although this phrase has become something of a cliché, I don’t think it is true. Carlin, who had no use for organized religion, clearly was making the statement to mock those who believe in God. But on the whole, I think more people have died in the name of nationalism or the nation-state than for any other reason.
Atheists probably don’t want to hear this. I’m not saying atheists are more prone to violence than other people. But in the modern period, at least, nationalism has led to far more deaths than religious wars. I think we can agree that the World Wars, which accounted for more deaths than any previous conflicts, were not fought over any meaningful religious issue. Nor was the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or much of the genocide that occurred around the globe in the 20th century (even the Holocaust occurred more because of the Nazi belief in racial anti-Semitism rather than religious anti-Semitism).
Assuredly, religion and nationalism are strongly connected; and they have been since the middle ages. But people are far more likely to fight over property or a border or material resources than they are a religious belief. And this was not merely a 20th century phenomenon. The major wars of the 19th century, including the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, and the wars of unification in Europe in the 1860s and 1870s—were fought over land, not the Lord.
Even terrorism, which is so often linked to religious extremism, is more an exercise in national determination—or an extension of a nationalistic impulse—than it is in the interest of a religious faith. Most of the 9-11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, a nation with a strong national government, not Afghanistan, a nation with a very weak one. Bin Laden did not seem to be making war on the Christian world but rather American imperialism, which is more about economics and respecting international determination than religion.
I would grant that Israelis and Palestinians have been at war with one another over fundamental religious differences (maybe) that go beyond national boundaries. But even if we assume the Palestine/Israel conflict is over God, not geography, it is the exception rather than the rule in terms of human conflict.
Elsewhere in the world, violence seems to happen not between different religious faiths—Jew vs. Christian, Christian vs. Muslim—but rather between nations that share a belief (as was the case between the mostly Protestant North and South of 1861-65; Iran and Iraq in the 1980s). Even in Northern Ireland, the ongoing terrorism there is more about home rule than whether or not Catholics and Protestants can peaceably coexist (obviously they can in many other countries). Whether in the Americas, Africa, or Indonesia, people seem to fight more on what it says on their passport, not what holy book they subscribe to. If you think nationalism makes more sense than religious zealotry, you may need to reassess you beliefs.
George Carlin, in his defense, was no more likely to wave the flag than he was to thump a Bible. Even so, Mr. Carlin, while you may have been funny, you were no historian.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.