The religious wars were a series of military conflicts in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. While the wars of religion often began as conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, there were political, economic, civil, and national reasons behind the wars as well. The European religious wars were brutal, with the combined death toll ranging from 5.5 million to 18.5 million. Some areas of Europe had more than 30 percent of their population wiped out.
The wars of religion were a series of separate but related conflicts. The primary wars were the German Peasants’ War, the Eighty Years’ War, the French Wars of Religion, and the Thirty Years’ War.
The German Peasants’ War (1524–1525) was primarily an uprising of German peasants of the Anabaptist persuasion. The peasants protested against the extreme abuses of Germany’s feudal system and sought to establish a theocracy in which Christian ideals and the commonwealth of goods would be the governing rules. The peasant rebellion was crushed by Germany’s rulers. Between 100,000 and 200,000 people were killed.
The Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648), also known as the Dutch War of Independence, was primarily a conflict between the Netherlands, which was largely Protestant, and Spain, which was largely Catholic. The Dutch had grown exceedingly frustrated with the political rule of the Spanish Habsburgs, and the enforcement of Roman Catholicism did not sit well with a populace with many Lutheran, Anabaptist, and Reformed elements. The Eighty Years’ War was ended by the Peace of Münster in 1648, but by then between 200,000 and 2 million people had been killed.
The French Wars of Religion, also known as the Huguenot Wars, were a series of massacres and battles between Roman Catholics and Reformed Protestants (known as Huguenots) in France from 1562 to 1629. The French Wars of Religion were especially brutal, with both Catholics and Protestants committing horrible atrocities and betrayals with numerous broken treaties and assassinations. The conflicts were mostly ended at the Edict of Nantes in 1598 but not concluded until the Peace of Alais in 1629. Between 2 and 4 million people were killed in the French Wars of Religion.
The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) was one of the deadliest conflicts in the history of Europe. It occurred almost entirely in Germany. It began due to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II attempting to force Roman Catholicism as the exclusive religion of the territory he controlled. The Protestants, who had been enjoying relative freedom of religion, revolted and took up arms against the Holy Roman Empire. Sweden, Spain, and France joined the conflict, supporting the side that best fit their political goals. The Thirty Years’ War ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, but not before between 3 and 12 million people were killed in the warfare and its aftermath (disease and famine).
Atheists often point to the religious wars as an example of how religion is almost always the cause of war. But the wars of religion in Europe were due to far more than religious differences. Cultural, ethnic, and political issues likely would have eventually caused these wars even if religion was not involved. With that said, it cannot be denied that both Catholics and Protestants did some truly atrocious things to each other in that time period. Religion, though, cannot be blamed when its adherents do things that are diametrically opposed to its core teachings. Just like the “Christian” Crusades were absolutely in contradiction to the teachings of the Christian faith, so were the wars of religion in direct violation of the teachings of Scripture and Christian values.