This could be a totally false premise. But clearly when Christianity was starting (and even to this day) there were serious conflicts about ideology. You had the Arians, Monophysites, etc. all at each others' throats. I noticed that this was similar to the Jewish sects that fought against each other (more than they fought the Romans) in Josephus's The Jewish War. Additionally you can look at Islam and see the various sects (Shiites, Sunnis, etc.) that do not play very well with each other.

In all my time reading history I have never read of such doctrinal conflicts occurring in societies that were polytheistic.

What made monotheism so prone to intra-religion conflict as opposed to polytheism?

To document what I have researched so far is reading the Jewish War by Josephus, and the Byzantine Empire by Norwich, along with several various web pages. I have not been able to locate anything that talks about intra-religious conflicts among polytheistic religions.

This question was based on a quote from Freud saying,

"It was strict monotheism, the first attempt of its kind, as far as we know, in the history of the world, and along with the belief in a single god that religious intolerance was inevitably born, which had previously been alien to the ancient world."

Or this quote from Kirsch, which starts to maybe explain why, but never gives a fully satisfying answer,

"But, fatefully, monotheism turned out to inspire a ferocity and even a fanaticism that are mostly absent from polytheism. At the heart of polytheism is an open-minded and easygoing approach to religious belief and practice, a willingness to entertain the idea that there are many gods and many ways to worship them. At the heart of monotheism, by contrast, is the sure conviction that only a single god exists, a tendency to regard one's own rituals and practices as the only proper way to worship the one true god. The conflict between these two fundamental values is what I call the war of God against the gods-it is a war that has been fought with heart-shaking cruelty over the last thirty centuries, and it is a war that is still being fought today."

  • 4
    Any answer will be a result of a sociological theoretical position on the contents of the terms, not on the past "as it was:" this is not a history question. Oct 12, 2018 at 6:44
  • 2
    " noticed that this was similar to the Jewish sects that fought against each other (more than they fought the Romans) in Josephus's The Jewish War. " actually, the factions fighting each other in that war were not really based around religious dogma at all.
    – user31561
    Oct 12, 2018 at 10:53
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    Mandatory XKCDs: xkcd.com/1095 xkcd.com/915
    – jpmc26
    Oct 13, 2018 at 4:24
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    There's no difference between monotheistic and polytheistic dogmatic conflicts rather than our perception; all had different views in their own sects and fought between themselves; whether Norse, Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Hindu, Mesoamerican, or the countless paganistic tribal spirits, deities, and Animism. Religious ideologies evolve like philosophies (which Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism also relate to), between the "dominant" and "emergent ideologies". The difference that we witness with monotheism is the rapid fervor documented through media since the invention of the printing press. Oct 14, 2018 at 11:47
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    Just an observation, the three religions referenced here are all Middle-Eastern in origin, not Western. They spread to the West, and also the East (but mostly West). But they are not Western.
    – Kerry L
    Oct 16, 2018 at 1:24

15 Answers 15


A very astute observation.

If you compare linguistic maps to sectarian maps (McEvedy's Penguin Atlas series are great for this), you'll notice something else: they have a distinct tendency to align. After the Roman Empire split into Greek and Roman halves, the Empire's Christian religion split that way as well. When German tribes started converting en-masse, they tended to prefer Arianisim*. When Persians split from the (otherwise mostly Arab) Caliphate, they embraced Shia. When the Berber-speaking areas of western North Africa split from the Caliphate, they also (for a while) embraced Shia.

Really the best way to look at religious schisms is as a combination of cultural and political schisms. If one person embraces a non-orthodox belief, that's likely just randomly their personal conviction. However, if a coherent group of people does it, that's obviously no longer random. There's clearly a reason for that.

Schisms offer multiple benefits:

  • Secular rulers of the affected area can no longer be pressured by foreign clerics (who themselves may be controlled by, or actually be, foreign political rulers).
  • It's a good way to prevent your culture from getting completely wiped out by the orthodox culture. This includes things like language, dress, customs, etc.
  • It's a good way bind your subjects together more strongly.
  • There is still some cultural affiliation with the orthodox culture. Just no control.

Likewise, if you are so far away from the centers of orthodox power that political control is no issue, and cultural influence is actually weaker than you'd like, you'd be far better off sticking to the orthodox belief system to help increase your ties. This is why once the European Dark Ages set in Arianisim was quietly dropped, and places like South East Asia and Timbuktoo were never heavily Shia.

* - No, not Aryanism. Arianisim was a sect named after "Arius", who had a non-standard view of the Christian trinity.

  • 14
    Oh, man. Now you just filled my head with the possibility that doctrine may follow grammar or vocabulary - Arianism may appear more sensible under German grammar than Latin. Christianity would be particularly vulnerable to this, because the mystery of the Trinity - a source for so many problems - would naturally not be expressed the same in all languages.
    – tbrookside
    Oct 11, 2018 at 16:56
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    @tbrookside not so much the grammar as the vocabulary. There were contentions caused partly by translation issues and naming things, especially when the direct translation of a term used in one language like Greek conflicts with how that term is used in a different language like Latin
    – eques
    Oct 11, 2018 at 17:59
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    There were far more distinct schools of belief than could be explained by language boundaries. Arianism spread among the Goths because the primary mission work was performed Ulfilas, an Arian Goth. There were lots of non-Germanic Arians, and lots of non-Arian Germanic tribes.
    – chepner
    Oct 11, 2018 at 19:58
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    India and Southeast Asia have plenty of languages, but not this same schism thing. Oct 12, 2018 at 1:29
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    @MarkOlson - "that they lead to war less often than myth has it." - In fact, I'd posit that most supposed religious wars weren't about religion at all; they were cultural or ethnic, and religion is just the obvious easy handle to grab to talk about them with. For instance, the antagonists in "The Troubles" in N. Ireland were principally Irish vs. Ulster Scotts. You can tell how little religion really played into it by how little it was dealt with in the successful peace settlement.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 12, 2018 at 14:46

To expand on Kirsch's answer (see: quote in the question), a single god doesn't only remove the safety valve of multiplicity (where any doctrinal dispute about the intentions of one god can just be channeled into speculation about a new, additional god), it also dramatically raises the profile of the single remaining god.

Monotheistic systems tend to philosophically expand their deity from "sometimes helpful / sometimes vindictive supernatural being" to "alpha and omega of the whole universe". The deity portrayed in the Old Testament gradually transformed into an Anselmian "absolute maximum possible at everything" because philosophically, he has to fill every possible niche. He has to be the First Mover, he has to account for all existent phenomena, he has to embody all virtue, he has to judge all men. He can't share any of this with any other being, because that starts polytheism up again.

Once the deity figure has expanded to that scale, extremely minor disputes over doctrine become incredibly high stakes debates over eternity. The question raised in doctrinal disputes stops being, "If I use the wrong oath when passing through my front door threshold, will I have minor bad luck during my trip?" and starts being, "If I misidentify some element of the nature of my only god, will that doom me and my family to everlasting torment in the fires of hell?"

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    This is a good answer for why there's more room in monotheism to use tiny doctrinal details to justify conflict. The conflicts themselves, though, mostly seem to have the same initial causes as any other (Protestants/Catholics a challenge to an overbearing power, Sunni/Shia two factions disputing a monarchy's succession...). Huge doctrinal differences are tolerated (e.g. Mormanism) until there's something to be gained politically (e.g. Salafis increasingly persecuting Sufis) Oct 14, 2018 at 9:59
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    @user568458 You're very quick to deny the connection between the beliefs people hold and their actions. Oct 15, 2018 at 18:37
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    Heh...I prefer to believe that there's only one God and he's virtually powerless. Haven't had much luck converting people to my religion :trollface:
    – Andy
    Oct 16, 2018 at 5:43
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    @GregSchmit No idea what you're trying to imply, or how that relates to my comment, which said that people use beliefs to justify, intensify and sustain actions they already wanted to do for other reasons. But on the subject, there is a heap of evidence from psychological experiments that people tend to choose actions for social, emotional or selfish reasons, then tweak their interpretation of their beliefs to fit their actions, much more often than people change their behaviour or defy their peers to better fit their beliefs. Oct 16, 2018 at 8:55

I personally think that there might be something in the premise of "single god leads to wanting to have a single answer for everything, leading to sectarian violence".

Nevertheless, I'm a little skeptical of that premise as well, and I think it behoves us to try to consider the other side for a bit.

Were polytheistic religions actually less prone to religious conflict?

There are a number of stories in polytheistic mythologies that can be contended to have their origin in conquest of one people by another: think of the Aesir and the Vanir in Norse myth, or figures like Apollo in Greek myth, or any of several episodes in Japanese myth.

In all of these cases, the stories suggest one people with one god conquering another people with another god, and then adopting those new deities (in a subordinate position) into the pantheon. While it's easy to focus on the adoption part, remember that each of these stories means that there was first a conflict between two groups of people who worshipped different gods.

Given the general lack of records of polytheistic cultures compared to monotheistic cultures, we're left with hand-waving speculations like the one I just made. Still, I don't think we can safely ignore this side of the story. Maybe polytheistic cultures used religion to motivate violence more than it would appear...

How much does religious doctrine actually affect the amount of violence?

I'm thinking here of Buddhism, where I think labels like "polytheistic" and "monotheistic" just miss the point. At any rate I think it is fair to say that Buddhism, like polytheism, offers many ideological ways to integrate with other religions. And yet, we do have examples of Buddhist violence and sectarian infighting both today and in the past. Perhaps one could argue this trend is less severe in Buddhism than the monotheistic faiths of the western world... it's not immediately clear to me if that is true or not. At any rate, it's clear that even religions that clearly emphasize peace will be practised by those who do not.

At the end of the day, I suspect two things:

  1. Many "religious conflicts" are actually cultural conflicts with religious rhetoric being adopted as part of the arsenal.
  2. The aptitude for cultural conflict varies among people much less than we would like to think.
  • 4
    you definitely could be onto something with your 2 ideas. I think that would explain some of the christian conflict between the orthodox (roman/greek), arian (goths), and monophysites (syrians/egyptians) that this conflict was not entirely solely based on religions, rather it was a conflict between cultures that had different religions. anyway very good point, it makes sense to me.
    – ed.hank
    Oct 11, 2018 at 22:20
  • Good points, and it is true that often religious conflict veil other, more mundane conflicts. However, there is a truth in OPs question: religious intolerance was largely invented or tied to monotheism, as well as fanatic defence of a dogma. Religious martyrdom and heresy are dominantly monotheistic ideas. In polytheistic cultures, people generally do not get death sentence over cartoons or poems, especially not people who live continents away.
    – Greg
    Oct 16, 2018 at 5:06
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    You could also compare the per capita death rate among various societies and you'll see no pattern related to monotheism. -- Even had the Cold War gone hot the opposing sides were (nominally) Christian and atheist. -- Violent means is a factor of the human condition. -- Certain Buddhist secs and, for example, the Amish are strongly pacifistic; one non-theistic, the other monotheistic. -- Use these ideas to improve your answer or not, even so I think your answer is best among those proffered.
    – user23715
    Oct 16, 2018 at 20:17
  • @user23715 Now that is an interesting statistic. Do you know where to find statistics to back that up? I agree that would really make my point. Of course, there is still the issue that most polytheistic societies are far less documented than certain monotheistic ones, so I would have some questions about how these statistics are gathered for peoples like the Gauls or the Britons, but still super interesting.
    – stochastic
    Oct 16, 2018 at 21:20
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    @Greg: I see where you are coming from, but I have to question if we might have some subtle biases in thinking this way, since many polytheistic societies were destroyed or vastly altered long before they had cartoons or (written) poems. Think of Norse peoples in 500 AD, or even the Celts who built Stonehenge in England. I imagine if you insulted some of those polytheists in the proper religiously-motivated way they would do their best to take your head off... The exact way in which religious violence was expressed may be different, but that isn't the same as it not being there.
    – stochastic
    Oct 16, 2018 at 21:25

The question can be restated as:

Why do only religions that have doctrine fight doctrinal wars?

With no disrespect intended, I believe that OP's question relies on unstated assumptions. If I were to examine this further, I'd look for evidence of:

  • Doctrinal conflict in polytheistic religions. Most polytheistic (and henotheistic, and even, I believe pantheistic ) religions don't have a doctrine. (I'm using doctrine in the dictionary sense, and operationally defining it as some form of test by which one can define valid practice of the religion) My polytheistic friends cannot (as a general rule) agree on any single fact that characterizes their shared religion. Through most of history where there was no shared power among distant temples, there was no need for a doctrine.) @b.a correctly challenged my original assertion, citing Hinduism and ancient Greek philosophical cults. The first may be a very good case for analysis - I am woefully ignorant in Hindu history, but I'm unaware of any doctrinal conflict that resulted in violent or armed conflict. I'm aware of conflict between Hindu's and other religions, but I believe that is out of scope. I dimly recall doctrinal conflict between two sects of Pythagoreans, but neither side had the military force to escalate to armed conflict. I'd also note that OP asked that the question be confined to Western religions, but I agree with @b.a that Hinduism is an important enough case to merit study.

  • Monotheistic religions with doctrine where doctrinal conflict is resolved without armed conflict. (Judaism comes to mind. There is a doctrine, there is heated conflict about the doctrine. The redoubtable @LangLangC argues that Jewish doctrinal conflict has occasionally escalated to armed conflict, and cites Rehoboam, Hyrcanus destruction ofGarizim. I think those are excellent points, but I notice that all of them involve both ethnic and doctrinal issues. Two further notes - (1) Over the history of the Jews, this is a pretty small number of examples and (2) each of those examples is unusual it takes place in a context where the doctrinal conflict can be backed by military powers, reinforcing my rephrased question below. In any case, these are excellent examples that help to illustrate the problem. )

  • Polytheistic religions with doctrinal wars - It has been years since I've researched this, but my memory says that there was some spectacular infighting after the reign of Shepsakaf - although arguably that was not doctrinal, but I refuse to draw a bright line between doctrinal conflict and simple power conflict.

  • What are the triggers for doctrinal conflict in religions with doctrine? It would seem to me to be a gross oversimplification to conclude that Western monotheists fight doctrinal wars. There are times where the Church is unified, and there are times when it is schismatic, and the more interesting question would be can we identify conditions when doctrinal conflict are more or less likely. (My hypothesis is that it has to do with the proportion of the populace who are literate, and the degree of separation between church and state, but those are difficult to test. There were plenty of doctrinal conflicts before the invesiture controversy, but it might be fascinating to test how violently conflicts were resolved before and after the investiture conflict. Or perhaps to test the violence of doctrinal conflict in England prior to and after the invention of bookland.) Alternatively, it might be interesting to compare doctrinal conflict where the church is close to the state (Constantine) to doctrinal conflict where the state is not involved (Cathars)

    • Actually the Cathars may be an excellent case study since the doctrinal conflict was relatively peaceable until the Cathars started to recruit the nobility.

    • Another case study might be the dual papacy - One could argue that was not doctrinal controversy, but I'd argue that the doctrine of whether church or state was superior was involved. I don't recall lots of armed conflict in that case, because I believe there was no adversary to challenge the French superpower. (Again, not my period of history, I welcome corrections). If I'm right, it would go a distance to prove that the question is actually, "Why is it that only churches that have doctrine and armies fight wars over doctrines?" - I'd want to find more examples of monotheists without armies but with doctrinal conflicts and poly(pan,heno, hetero)theists with armies, etc.

    • A third case study would be conflict in the Protestant world immediately after the reformation. There was no Protestant doctrine (other than that the Catholics were wrong on all things), but Protestants fought religious wars against one another and recruited Catholics to fight on their behalf. This would address the case of "monotheist, no doctrine, with armies".

    • Early Christianity had multiple doctrinal conflicts (are converts required to keep Noahic law?) This covers the case of monotheist, no doctrine, no armies. These were vituperative, but not violent.

I suspect that the answer is that monotheism has nothing to do with it. When you've got an army, you can find a reason to fight; doctrine is merely one of the labels we paste over inevitable conflict.

I think ultimately, the question should be restated as

Why do only religions that have doctrines, and are deeply meshed with military powers, fight wars over doctrinal conflict.

That is almost a tautology, and is better examined in @ivan_pozdeev's answer.

  • 2
    Homer explains the origins and motivations for the Trojan War as coming from the gods, but that isn't a doctrinal dispute inside the religion. Oct 11, 2018 at 21:35
  • 1
    But that point isn't relevant to the question, even as you restated it.
    – Graham
    Oct 11, 2018 at 23:13
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    I do not disagree with your answer here, but I do with 1. bullet: The bible distorts the picture a bit: but 'Rehoboam' would be the first (also doctrinal) conflict that comes to mind, and then Hyrcanus clearly destroying the temple on Garizim because there is only one God with one place… The latter clearly an inner-Jewish war about who has the correct Torah etc. Oct 12, 2018 at 20:50
  • You noticed exactly right. Doctrine is – in my view – justification on of the level superstructure, and we forget the base. (Then some grunts pop up, all of them being real zealots and spiritually motivated at the purest). 30years-war France and Sweden being just the perfect blueprints with good documentation that "it's the economy…", or something else in the way how Marx used to look at things in the macro. Oct 12, 2018 at 21:43
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    Only monotheistic religions have doctrines? Do Hindus not have doctrines? Do Greek philosophical sects not have doctrines? This seems neither true nor necessary for your answer's point
    – b a
    Oct 13, 2018 at 16:50

Religions are essentially power networks, means of influence/indoctrination and community creators. Religious conflicts are disguised turf wars/power struggles.

Monotheistic religions are more effective at that task than polytheistic ones and create more powerful communities -- at the cost of being limited to one seat of power per religion.

A religion is basically a set of rules of how you should behave, what you should believe, who you should listen to. Effectively, a means to directly and/or indirectly influence your decisions. By declaring themselves the interpreters of the will of supernatural powers, the clergy effectively tell you what to do, disguising it as "God's will" because you will more readily follow it that way (it's just a tool, mind you, their intentions doing that could be most noble, and good advice and good advisors are genuinely good things to have). The advice doesn't come for free, either: offerings in exchange for the "favor of the gods" and/or a tax from ancillary territories give the clergy bread and butter for their services.

With polytheistic religions, there were no power networks. Each community worshipps their own gods, tells their own mythos etc. Even with shared pantheons, each community has their own "favorite gods", and listen to their own priests.

A monotheistic religion allows to spread your influence beyond a single community: now, there's only one God, so it can only have one will. Whatever those in the lead say the God wishes, all other priests have to repeat, or they will be contradicting them.

For the populace, this all is kinda-sorta worth it because religion is a part of one's identity, so a shared religion creates a shared identity -- making co-believers more willing to trust each other, do business and share knowledge with each other, less likely to go to war against "their brethen" etc, feeding on human's natural need to bond (same mechanism as relational bonds). Moreover, same beliefs mean same moral code, making co-believers more predictable and thus more reliable to deal with than "outsiders".

So, a monotheistic religion is almost a requirement to build a bonded community beyond a certain scale, one that is capable to all act towards the same goals thus have more power than those who can't.

Since each such community only has one general source of "God's will" (to achieve the aforementioned "everyone acts towards the same goals"), dissenters and other aspiring masters-of-minds have to resort to create other religions -- to create their own, competing identities with their own sources of "God's will". Cue turf wars over who is going to dictate people what to do and whom to pay.

  • 2
    It's worth pointing out that shared lack of religious belief also creates a shared identity and basis for mutual trust...though only in contrast with groups that do have beliefs.
    – Andy
    Oct 16, 2018 at 5:46
  • "at the cost of being limited to one seat of power per religion" - I think there's sufficient evidence to the contrary. There is not now a single seat for Judaism, or for Islam, or for any particular sect of either of those. There is no single head Protestant, and many denominations don't have a particular head. In many cases, you only get to a "seat of power per religion" by defining a "religion" down to that of a particular community, which would contradict that "A monotheistic religion allows to spread your influence beyond a single community." Oct 17, 2018 at 12:35
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    @JamesKingsbery A head is not necessarily a single person, it can e.g. be a council (like in Judaism) or a loose association (like in some Protestant denominations) -- which provides a weaker authority and thus a weaker unification and sense of unity (jews bond more by shared nationality rather than religion, a history of persecution by nationality regardless of religion helps a lot). There's no single Protestant religion, and no single Islam -- specifically because of a lack of a strong unifying body -- with the ensuing conflict. As others pointed out, Judaism wasn't without conflict, too. Oct 17, 2018 at 14:37
  • "There's no single Protestant religion, and no single Islam -- specifically because of a lack of a strong unifying body" seems to contradict "Monotheistic religions are more effective at that task than polytheistic ones and create more powerful communities -- at the cost of being limited to one seat of power per religion." Oct 22, 2018 at 17:40
  • @JamesKingsbery I consider different denominations of Islam and Protestantism different religions. Since for all intents and purposes they are separate, competing organizations. Oct 22, 2018 at 18:11

I think the premise is basically false. Buddhism is neither Western nor monotheistic. Yet there are enormous doctrinal differences between different schools. On the one hand, consistent with what you have said, in Christianity, you have the two major branches of monophysite and duophysite. The duophysites have the three major subbranches of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. Protestantism has continued to schism over the past 500 years until there are hundreds, if not thousands, of sects.

But Buddhism has an analogous development. You have the two major branches of Theravada (The Way of the Elders) and the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle). Look at the very name, "Greater Vehicle". They may rationalize, but the inherent doctrinal conflict there is clear.

The Mahayana has further schismed into the the four major subschools of Nichiren, Pure Land, Zen and Vajrayana, as well as many smaller schools. (The Vajrayanists like to characterize the three major Buddhist schools as Hinaya [Theravada, the "Lesser Vehicle"], Mahayana and Vajrayana in order to place themselves at the top, but this is merely clever marketing and has no logical developmental basis.) Each of the four major Mahayana sub-schools schismed into many sub-sub-schools. So, in sum, there are thousands of Mahayana subsects.

Each of the Buddhist schisms has had a doctrinal basis. According to the Buddha, however, causing a schism is a very bad thing. This may be why, after the initial Theravada (actually Sthiravada, but I digress) - Mahayana (Mahasanghika) split, the Theravada has never schismed again. The Mahayana, as illustrated above, has, of course, continued to schism and is still schisming to this day. For an illuminating and entertaining read, Google "the two Karmapas", and be sure to find accounts from both sides.

Whether Buddhism is polytheistic is a different question. Buddhism basically redefines devas (gods in Hinduism) to be long-lived but temporary and imperfect beings. In addition, they are not worshiped. So it is not clear where they fit in the categories created by Western monotheists.

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    Good, detailed answer, but I think OP was suggesting that conflicts over dogmatic in monotheistic religions often become serious brutal conflicts, war, unrest, and the core of the question is why these conflicts are so serious. While there are dogmatic differences e.g. between different Shinto sects, really large ones, these rarely lead to religious conflicts by themselves.
    – Greg
    Oct 16, 2018 at 5:14

This could be a totally false premise.

In all my time reading history I have never read of such doctrinal conflicts occurring in societies that were polytheistic.

I think your premise is false:

According to the German Wikipedia there was a crime named "asebeia" in ancient Greece. People saying some religious convictions that were not compatible with the official religion were punished. Wikipedia lists six famous people that have been accused. Two of them - one of them was Socrates - were executed. We don't know how many non-famous people were accused.

In ancient Rome you could get the death penalty when you refused to take part in the imperial cult. The persecution of Christians was sometimes justified with this. The imperial cult however is a religious matter.

According to a TV report about India a few years ago there are Hindu groups which attack other people if that people do not live (for example: dress) the way these groups think that the Hindu religion requires it.

In all three cases we talk about religiously motivated violence by polytheistic religions.

So my question is what made monotheism so prone to intra-religion conflict as opposed to polytheism?

It is hard to say if this premise is true:

Every religion has something like "dogmas": If you don't believe in them you are not believing in that religion. This is of course also true for polytheistic religions.

The crime named "asebeia" in ancient Greece is the best example that believing that some of these "dogmas" is not true is also not accepted by polytheistic religions.

You mentioned Arianism in your question. Both Christianity and Hinduism believe that (a) god became a human and lived as human on earth. Arianism is a flow of Christianity that denies exactly that.

Not knowing Hinduism from the inside it is very hard to say if a Hindu claiming that Chrishna was a regular human would lead to stronger or weaker conflicts in Hinduism than Arianism did in Christianity.

... the doctrinal violence of byzantine christianity

Let's compare the "violence level" of the Christianity before becoming the state religion of Rome to the "violence level" after this time:

Before this time there are nearly no reports about religiously motivated violence by Christians; after that Christianity became very violent.

Today you can see that in many countries where the governments (mis-)use religion to legitimate their reign.

Once again we would have to compare to a polytheistic religion being (mis-)used by a government to legitimate their reign. Otherwise we have no real comparison between polytheistic and monotheistic religions.

Again this is about christians fighting christians not about pagans fighting christians.

When governments legitimate their reign using religion it's typically not a question of "intra-religion" or "inter-religion". Anyone who doubts the government's understanding of the religion lives dangerously.


I'd like to address the second comment of ed.hank because I think that my answer was a bit misunderstood:

but it still disagree that the asebeia in ancient greece rose to the level of a violent schism

As far as I understood the question correctly, it is not about the extend of violence but about the roots and the reasons for it.

And if I understood correctly, the premise of the question was that conflicts arise from inside monotheistic religions; the premise was not that such conflicts come from outside.

As I already wrote, my knowledge (which may be wrong) is that Christian religion was not violent until it became the state religion of Rome. After that point in time doctrinal conflicts leading to violence became quite common in Christianity nearly immediately.

For me this is an indication that the phenomenon of serious doctrinal conflicts did not arise inside the Christian religion itself, but that it was brought into the Christian religion from the (polytheistic) Roman culture.

... which would be exactly the opposite of the premise.

  • 2
    I think this answer is basically correct, but could benefit from historical examples, rather than saying what would happen in a certain case. Socrates is a good example, but I think you should expand more on Rome and Egypt. (For Rome, you might be able to use the example of persecution of Christians. I'm not sure what cases you have in mind for Egypt.)
    – b a
    Oct 13, 2018 at 16:56
  • 1
    Again this is about christians fighting christians not about pagans fighting christians. The Sokrates may be an example, but the stoning of one man is far from the doctrinal violence of byzantine christianity.
    – ed.hank
    Oct 13, 2018 at 17:51
  • @LangLangC What is the difference to religiously motivated violence by Christians? People were not killed because they believed something different. They were killed because they did (more precisely: they said) something which was not allowed. Oct 13, 2018 at 21:38
  • 1
    @MartinRosenau - i agree with much of what you say and appreciate your well thought out argument. but it still disagree that the asebeia in ancient greece rose to the level of a violent schism. it seems more to me that that is just a handful of people that were handled, and for all we know the religious pretext could just be cover for any number of political reasons. do you have any more examples of this. Also the hindi angle could be a valid counterpoint, i would have to research it more to see if again it wasnt just regular caste/economic violence masked as religious strife again.
    – ed.hank
    Oct 14, 2018 at 16:24
  • 1
    @jean I'm not sure what is meant by the word "conflicts" but the OP is asking about the reasons for these "conflicts" inside the religion. However many (I even suspect: most) "religious" wars have non-religious reasons and supposed religious reasons are only used as an excuse. The Thirty Years War is one of the best examples for this. (Catholic France was supporting the Protestants!) In such cases the (real) reasons for a "conflict" are definitely not found inside the religion. Oct 16, 2018 at 14:38

In general, it's hard to have religious wars if the religions involved don't care what you believe. If you look at the Greek or Roman religions, for example, they didn't have a coherent body of beliefs, but they did have a set of rituals which they considered important. The Romans by and large didn't think the gods cared what they did or what they believed about them as long as they carried out all of the traditional rituals. The details of belief didn't matter; the details of rituals did. And since the purpose of the rituals was the good of the Roman State and the Roman People, they didn't care what foreigners did.

Judaism and Christianity believed that God was real and was in a special relationship with them and that it mattered that they understood what God was and what He wanted. So beliefs mattered and wrong beliefs were harmful.

Note that the Romans punished Christians not because they didn't believe in the Roman gods, but because they refused to take part in their rituals. It's much harder for failings in rituals to be used to justify large-scale conflict, since by definition other countries' rituals would be different.


What made monotheism so prone to intra-religion conflict as opposed to polytheism?

I don't believe the premise is valid.

Christianity's history is clearly full of strife, but what history are you reading if you are suggesting that polytheists religions from the Western perspective are more peaceful amongst themselves? Prior to Christianity, Western history was hardly one of peaceful utopia. Wars involving Greek, Macedonian, Roman, Hun, Celt, Thracian, Gaul etc.. all polytheists, most with the same Gods. After Christianity Vandals, Visigoths, Vikings and Mongol polytheist invaders were as warlike as any christian period of expansion you might name, if not more so; also amongst their fellow polytheists. An impartial interpretation of history would show polytheists are just as likely to fight wars as monotheists are, even amongst themselves.

History doesn't show monotheists are more likely to fight wars of aggression against their neighbors, regardless of their religion, what history shows perhaps is monotheists aren't less likely to wage such wars as polytheists. This makes perfect sense if you devalue religion all together in the behavior of states.

I would argue the common link of the warlike past wasn't religious, but governmental. Hereditary monarchies, tribalism and despotism are forms of government prone to wage expansionist wars on minor and major scales regardless of the doctrines of their religions. In the west you can throw in theocracy's and the Roman Catholic Church during it's accession as the super power of Europe into that mix, ultimately curbed to some extent by secular nationalism and the Reformation. In the Middle East this occurred in reverse and secular nationalists/tribalisms warlike tendencies were curbed by religious reformers such as Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Which explains why in the west secular governments are prized over theocratic ones traditionally and why in the Middle East that trend is reversed.

Christianity's early history was one which experienced oppression. Christians were hunted and persecuted by various religions and cults within Rome, forcing Christianity underground and to become secretive and stratified. Churches in different cities, in hundreds of years of persecution did not communicate and began to evolve apart. When the Roman Emperor Constantine first legalized and began to tolerate Christianity in 313AD, he did so as one of many such pursuits by Rome to try to unify the Empire through the use of religion. Before Constantine could use Christianity to unify the empire, Christians needed to be Unified because Christians their was no consensus among Christianity of what being Christian meant. Each city had their own bishop, and each bishop decided doctrine for his own church, and those bishops did not agree. So Constantine called the first Christian Church Council (325 AD) to form a unified creed of beliefs for all Christians. The Nicene Creed which is still used today for most Christians. This plunged Christianity into centuries of infighting as the Nicene Christians were in favor, out of favor, vied for the Roman Emperor's ear with various heretical christian groups.

Because Rome recognized, popularized, and endorsed Christianity to seek Unity inside the Empire, and because Christians were not originally unified; This is what lead to the internal religious persecutions within Christianity to get to that one Church.. One belief system as codified in the Nicene Creed. Forming unity was the entire motivation for Rome's significant promotion of the religion. That basic motivation stayed with the Church long after the Roman Empire was gone.

  • The question is what made monotheism so prone to intra-religion conflict as opposed to polytheism? I do not think polytheists were any less warlike than monotheists, but polytheists do appear to have less violent intra-religion schisms. Of course the Greeks fought many wars but these wars were not fought between other Greeks because they had slightly different religious beliefs, they were fought for the usual reasons, land, power, money, etc...
    – ed.hank
    Oct 15, 2018 at 14:48
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    @ed.hank If you agree polytheists were not any less warlike then it doesn't make any sense that you believe polytheists were less violent with regard to intra religious schisms, they weren't. The Greeks for example were very warlike and fought most of their wars amongst themselves. Greeces history shows inter Greek wars were common, more common than Greeks banding together to fight invaders, or conquering non greeks. As for Rome, from 135 BC - 476 AD Rome fought more than 130 internal civil wars. Claiming polytheists are less warlike is just unsupported by history.
    – user27618
    Oct 15, 2018 at 15:14
  • I think you are missing my point. I am not saying polytheists were more or less violent. I am saying as a religion it seems that polytheism is less prone to intra-religious strife as opposed to monotheism. I am not aware of too many example of Greeks starting wars with other Greeks because they believe a slightly different belief about Zeus. Whereas we have tons of examples of christians killing other christians because they disagree what the word substance means.
    – ed.hank
    Oct 15, 2018 at 15:34
  • You are not aware of too many example of Greeks starting wars with other Greeks? The Ionian Revolt? The first Persian War (Greeks fought on both sides). the Peloponnesian War, the Sicilian War, the Ionian or Decelean War. That's just the highlights... Inter Greek wars were common and is probable the primary reason why Greeks got so good at wars, fighting each other. All worshiping the same Gods, some city states being primarily aligned with Apollo, Artemis, Athena or Zeus. The city states fought under the sponsorship of different gods while all agreeing on basically the same religion.
    – user27618
    Oct 15, 2018 at 16:04
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    all of this is just friendly debate to me, so I dont think there is a reason to just say "Im out" I most definitely appreciate your time in answering this question (and other questions on the site) and look forward to a continued discussion on this topic.
    – ed.hank
    Oct 15, 2018 at 19:12

"Western monotheistic" is a misleading phrase because it implies that we have multiple religions that arose independently. The western monotheistic religions are basically one religion, the Abrahamic religion, which has evolved into varieties as varied as Islam and Mormonism. The Abrahamic religion is not really monotheistic. It started out polytheistic (hence all the stuff about "elohim" in the Hebrew bible), then became monotheistic, and eventually spun off flavors such as Christianity that can be analyzed in terms of a single godhead only if you're extremely creative with your theological word-splitting.

So if anything has remained constant in this religion, it's not monotheism. One thing that does seem to have remained locked in to its DNA is its tendency to glorify violence, which seems idiosyncratic and is not present in religions such as Buddhism and Jainism.

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    "its tendency to glorify violence" - what were you smoking while writing this? Yes, occasionally countries did fight wars for economic and political reasons, and sometimes their leaders uttered phrases about doing it in the name of God, but by this logic democracy itself also has a "tendency to glorify violence", because there were wars started in the name of it. (and even if your claim was true, it does nothing to actually answer the question)
    – vsz
    Oct 12, 2018 at 6:12
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    @vsz: what were you smoking while writing this? What I had in mind is what the bible actually says -- not the Sunday-school caricature of what it says. Have you read, e.g., the book of Esther?
    – user2848
    Oct 12, 2018 at 22:31
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    You might have missed the entire book called the New Testament, which would clear some thing up. But, as I said, even if all your allegations were objectively true, (including the ridiculous claim that Christianity is not really monotheistic), it still wouldn't answer the question at all, being just a simple rant not even attempting to provide any answer to what was really asked.
    – vsz
    Oct 13, 2018 at 7:12
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    I can't speak for @vsz, but I have read the book of Esther multiple times, and you've posted a top contender for the most offensive comment on the entire SE. The (polytheistic) Persians hatched a plot to exterminate the Jews, the Jews obtained permission from the king to defend themselves, and you interpret that as a glorification of violence by Jews that is unprecedented in any polytheistic religion. I guess you think they should have just marched into the gas chambers of their own accord.
    – Heshy
    Oct 14, 2018 at 22:17

If you believe that there is only 'One True God' then it becomes reasonable to believe that there can only be one true way to properly worship that god.

This is not only within that religion but also underlies conflicts with related religions, all because 'They're doing it wrong!'.

Between the fanaticism and the political power religion develops it is no great stretch to get to the point where 'Kill them all, God will recognize his own' seems reasonable to those involved.

  • 3
    Welcome to the site. I'm going to guess that the downvote is because you've provided an opinion (a reasoned opinion, but an opinion), rather than research and evidence. That would be entirely appropriate for many discussion sites, but H:SE has its own culture (most SE sites do). Can you provide evidence that monotheism leads to "one true way"? Are there counterexamples of tolerant monotheism? In any case, welcome and good luck.
    – MCW
    Oct 13, 2018 at 12:16

Since theology matters in the Abrahamic religions, allowing opposition to spread is hazardous to preserving the society's righteousness relative to the particular theology the select authorities (i.e., whoever is in charge at the time) is convinced is true.

If a particular faith is correct and makes people act correctly, then it would be bad and wrong to allow "incorrectness" to spread or become prevalent, so it is prevented, because they believe it will be detrimental to the society, though they may be laissez faire with what the individual chooses (this is the case in Islam and Judaism AFAIK).

Polytheists on the other hand have a more subjective view of the world, and they believe that even gods can be wrong and only act on their emotions. Monotheists believe in one creator who created everything other than itself. This means the creator's "emotions" are objectivity itself.


Because you're biased. Judaism--the great monotheistic religion that everyone ignores (except for Jews)--never really had what we call "holy wars." The closest we can get is the Maccabean revolt which was more about preventing another genocide at the hands of Antiochus Epiphanes. For two thousand years after the destruction of the second temple the Jews responsibly handled theological conflict without violence.

You have a sample of three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and noticed that two of them had some violent moments in their respective histories. But N=3 is not big enough sample size to start speculating conjectures on why monotheism is predisposed to violence.


The idea of holiness made it so that everyday life could not be separated from the heavenly or godly realm. This way, monotheism permeated every aspect of human activity and thought. In the preceding classical age, powerful people debated on philosophical premises, which were not neccesarily embedded in religion. Christianity monopolized on all forms of thought, so that within the Christian world, one could only speak in Christian terms.

The Christological controversy was a product of its particular time and place. Religion is path dependent. By the first few centuries, disputes in western religion were confined to being about the details of the deity, or religious laws. Of course, they were facades to great power struggles between the metropolitan sees, and the eastern emperor. The influence of the Roman Empire had spread the religion widely, but now, imperial influence had waned. The metropolitan sees took up their own causes in the unruly atmosphere.

Polytheism was a more archaic form of throught. It didn't have the same reflexive viewpoints that philosophy and later religions had. Monotheism could afterall be considered a rational or philosophical rejection of Polytheism. Polytheism existed alongside these newer forms of thought. It didn't have the same political expediency as monotheism, so it became disused.

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    Okay - but what;s your point? Oct 13, 2018 at 17:49
  • The first two sentences.
    – John Dee
    Oct 13, 2018 at 23:20
  • 1
    In a different context I would have liked this answer. However, it's not a direct answer to the question. With some adaptation it could be, though.
    – Chozang
    Oct 14, 2018 at 21:07
  • @Tharpa The second paragraph is some random tidbits that I think are useful to understand the christological debates. I tried hard to make a longer answer and fell flat on my face. I'm going to work on it.
    – John Dee
    Oct 15, 2018 at 3:56
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    Sources would improve this answer.
    – MCW
    Oct 24, 2018 at 22:30

Conflict of Dogma is a feature of monotheism.

It is a manifestation the key tenet of any self style monotheist religion: the contest for the of the ownership of god.

Every one of the religion stresses: Our god is the one true god.

More often than not it is, our god is real and yours isn't.

In fact it is often, our god is real, and if you are not a part of our religion, you are not a part of our family.

And there are so many words for the outsiders. infidel, heathen, goyim, heretic, apostate, unbeliever, disbeliever, nonbeliever, etc.

This central conflict of us vs. them is essential to the survival of every flavor of monotheism.

If there wasn't a need to own god, there wouldn't be a need to stress that there is but one true god.

And all the dogma are simply invented to maintain the faith sustaining conflicts

  • Every so called Monotheist religion has countless angels, prophets, and saints for people to pray to and to celebrate. That is no different that any other so called polytheism religion (which all have a hierarchy of rank). what citation is needed? It is common knowledge. Every monotheist religion says theirs is the only true god, everyone else has a golden ox, or a clay idol. That's also common knowledge. Every monotheist religion also has a parade of words for the outsiders. That's also common knowledge. And the very nature of us vs. them, requires conflicts and dogma. Oct 30, 2018 at 20:40

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