Why Study the Military History of Religion?

A couple of Sundays ago I was at a friend’s house-warming party. Somewhere between eating the delicious meatball and chicken hor d’euvres and petting the cat, I met new people. And I got to test about my new focus in life when the people I met asked that inevitable question: so, what do you do? 

I study the military history of religion.

Oh, like the Crusades.

Yeah, like the Crusades. But not just the Crusades, there’s plenty of other religious conflicts out there which go above the military horizon. You know, like the Zealots fighting the Romans, the early expansion of Islam, the 30 Years’ War, The English Civil War, Nazi-SS racial-religious dogma, and the Cold War.

I’m glad nobody asked any further questions because 1) I’m not good at small talk and 2) I’m not good at big talk because once you get me going because I tend to blab and 3) I felt like a bit of a hypocrite since a) I declared my new calling only a few days before and b) I’ve never been in the military. I strongly considered it, but health reasons would have kept me out.

Also, it was a house-warming party. Discussion of religion wasn’t verboten, but if you start talking about religion you’ll end up in politics and from there you’re either in an echo chamber or getting mad. And there was a nice cat who probably would have left the room if a bunch of humans started griping about religion and politics.

In retrospect, I should have said something more.

The Jewish Zealots failed. The Romans destroyed their Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., and laid siege to their last stronghold at Masada where 960 Zealots committed suicide in 74 CE. The Romans built a temple to Jupiter where the Temple once stood.

While the early military expansion of Islam was a rousing success, the Caliphate split over who would succeed Muhammad, and that’s one reason there’s different groups of Muslims to this day. Umayyads built the Dome on the Rock where the Second Temple and Temple to Jupiter once stood.

The Crusades were, in the end, a failure, but the word Crusade is in Western vocabulary. The First Crusade was the most successful, and from its history we get the phrase Deus Vult, which is now a slogan of certain Fascist movements in the United States.

The 30 Years’ War devastated the Holy Roman Empire, as Catholics and Protestants killed, plundered, and persecuted each other. By extension, the English Civil War threatened to do the same to England. In the historical shadow of these wars, certain Philosophes of the Enlightenment wondered if Church and State should be separate.

Nazi Dogma was religious dogma which promulgated master race theory as truth and the divine right for the master race to dominate lesser races. While there has been historical debate over the extent of German civilian and Wehrmacht belief in this dogma, its influence in upper echelons of the Third Reich is unquestioned. Heinrich Himmler turned the Schutzstaffel into a religious order, similar to a knighthood, complete with rituals and pseudo-history.

In turn, this impacted how Germany fought the war; while German soldiers froze to death on the Eastern Front in the winter of 1942/43, the government ordered furnaces for Auschwitz from a heating equipment manufacturer. Vital logistics were diverted from the war effort toward The Holocaust.

And, in turn, the aftermath of The Holocaust led to the creation of Israel, which in turn became the focal point of religious conflict in the Middle East. The Cold War may have been about capitalism and democratic-republicanism versus totalitarian communism, religious and political groups in the United States began to see the conflict between a Christian nation opposing Godless Communism, and later through the lens of millenarianism and end-time prophecy, especially in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

We haven’t even mentioned yet how religion is interlaced with the War on Terror, which has been rhetorically called a Crusade, a war between good and evil.

And that’s why the military history of religion is important: throughout history, military decisions have been based on religious doctrine. To what extent depends on the context.

At least, that’s what I would have set if somebody allowed me to corner them and talk their ear off. But the other house-warming kept switching topics, or finding an excuse to get another drink.

So I spoke to the cat.

The cat listened to me patiently until I was done talking. Then she spouted some Hegelian doggerel about zeitgeist, not religion, driving history forward through conflict, before she bit my hand and told me to get her another chicken hor d’euvre like a good hoo-man should.



  1. As a veteran who studies Western philosophy, which is inextricably intertwined with religion, feel free to contact me to discuss this topic.

    Liked by 1 person

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