The History of the Culture of War
12. Religion and the culture of war 5,000 years of increasing monopolization of the culture of war by the state

The History of the Culture of War

What is culture and how does it evolve?

Warfare in prehistory and its usefulness

The culture of war in prehistory

Data from prehistory before the Neolithic

Enemy images: culture or biology

War and the culture of war at the dawn of history

--Ancient Mesopotamia

--Ancient Egypt

--Ancient China

--Ancient Greece and Rome

--Ancient Crete

--Ancient Indus civilizations

--Ancient Hebrew civilization

--Ancient Central American civilization

Warfare and the origin of the State

Religion and the origin of the State

A summary of the culture of war at the dawn of history

The internal culture of war: a taboo topic

The evolution of the culture of war over the past 5,000 years: its increasing monopolization by the state

--1.Armies and armaments

--2.External conquest and exploitation: Colonialism and Neocolonialism

--3.The internal culture of war and economies based on exploitation of workers and the environment

--4.Prisons and penal systems

--5.The military-industrial complex

--6.The drugs-for-guns trade

--7.Authoritarian control

--8.Control of information

--9.Identification of an "enemy"

--10.Education for the culture of war

--11.Male domination

--12.Religion and the culture of war

--13.The arts and the culture of war



Summary of the history of the culture of war


Throughout history, warfare has been carried out in the name of religion, for example during the crusades of the Middle Ages, and most recently in the justifications given for warfare by Al Qaeda (Islam) and George Bush (Christianity) with the war policies of Israel (Judaism) as a major issue of contention.

At the beginning of history, religion was an integral aspect of the culture of war. As summarized by Leslie A. White (1959) in The Evolution of Culture, all warring cultures enlisted religious institutions in their cause:

"It may safely be said that no war can be fought without recourse to the supernatural. In civil society it is the business of the clergy, as it was of the medicine man in tribal cultures, to mobilize the population for military purposes. The principal god of the Aztecs was Uitzilopochtli, the god of war, and his priest was one of the two heads of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Military expeditions were led by priests and the idols of gods. And one of the chief functions of war among the Aztecs was to obtain captives for the temple sacrifices. In Egypt and other ancient cultures of the Old World, victory in war was a gift of the gods: 'Amon has given to me his victory,' declared Rameses II after the battle of Kadesh. And consequently, the gods must be rewarded by gifts to, or a division of the spoils of war with, the priesthoods."

Religious institutions have traditionally played an important role in supporting the internal culture of war by masking its force with elaborate rituals and teachings. As described by White (1959) in an earlier quotation from The Evolution of Culture, they have used theology and ritual to install obedience, docility and loyalty to the established order.

The relationship between war and religious institutions was so close at the dawn of civilization that White speaks not of the "state" but of the "state-church" as the ruling institution of society, and he provides numerous examples to make the point (see the earlier section on religion and the origin of the state).

On the other hand, most of today's major religions are based on the teachings of prophets who called for non-violence. As mentioned earlier, the teaching of non-violence goes back to a period in early history which has been called by one major philosopher, the Axial Age, at which time most of today's major religions originated.

As a general rule, when religion and state are linked, the religion tends to justify the state's culture of war. With a few exceptions such as the one mentioned earlier (King Ashoka of ancient India) the opposite tends not to be true, that the state adopts the religion's belief in non-violence. Addressing this problem, a major issue in recent centuries has been the demand for separation of church and state. But this is not always achieved, and in some cases there are state religions which are used to justify a culture of war. Examples today include the state of Iran (Islam) and the state of Israel (Judaism). In the United States with its strident militarism, President George W. Bush made frequent reference to his Christian faith (he claims to be a "born-again" Christian) and there is a strong political influence of the so-called "Religious Right".

The relation of religion to the culture of war has always been complex, with a struggle inside each religion between the support of state violence, on the one hand, and insistence on non-violence, on the other hand. An overview is provided by Elise Boulding (2000), in her book Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History:

"Every religion then contains two cultures: the culture of violence and war and the culture of peaceableness. The holy war culture calls for mobilization against evil and is easily politicized. The culture of the peaceable garden relies on a sense of the oneness of humankind, often taking the form of intentional communities based on peaceful and cooperative lifeways, sanctuaries for the nonviolent . ."

"The Holy War Culture

The holy war culture is a male warrior culture headed by a patriarchal warrior-god. It demands the subjection of women and other aliens to men, the proto-patriarchs, and to God (or the gods). We see it in the ancient Babylonian epics, in the Iliad, in the Bhagavad Gita, in the Hebrew scriptures used by Jews and Christians, and in the Koran . . "

"The Peaceable Garden Culture . .

Judaism. Practical utopian-pacifist activism is well-exemplified in that form of Zionism represented by Martin Buber. He saw a Jewish national community in Palestine as a opportunity to create a model political community embodying the highest spiritual values of Judaism while practicing a nonviolent reconciling relationship with Arab brothers and sisters as co-tillers of the same soil . . "

"Islam. Sufism is the best-known pacifist tradition in Islam, and while the special service of the Sufi is to be a silent witness to God, the Sufi play a special role within the polity, standing over against bureaucracy and formalism . . "

"Christianity. Mystical and contemplative traditions in Christianity, as in Islam are themselves a source of peace witness, with monks and nuns considered role models for peace in the larger community and prayer interpreted as a form of social action. Turning to the Christian activist tradition, we find the Anabaptists and a strong social action wing of Catholicism . . Their later descendents include Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren, now known as the historic peace churches."

To take part in a discussion about this page, click below on the Culture of Peace Dialogues:

discussion board
World Peace through the Town Hall


1) The difference between "peace" and "culture of peace" and a brief history of the culture of war

2) The role of the individual in culture of war and culture of peace

3) Why the state cannot create a culture of peace

4) The important role of civil society in creating a culture of peace

--Peace and disarmament movements

--Ecology movement

--Movements for human rights

--Democracy movements

--Women's movement

--International understanding, tolerance and solidarity

--Movements for free flow of information

--The strengths and weaknesses of civil society

5) The basic and essential role of local government in culture of peace

--Sustainable development

--Human rights

--Democratic participation

--Women's equality


--Transparency and the free flow of information

--Education for a culture of peace

--Security and public safety

--Some ongoing initiatives

6) Assessing progress toward a culture of peace at the local level

--Culture of peace measurement at the level of the state

7) Going global: networking of city culture of peace commissions

8) The future transition of the United Nations from control by states to popular control through local governmental representatives

9) What would a culture of peace be like?