Does Religion Kill?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

There is no doubt that religious people throughout history have killed people, at least partly because of their religious beliefs.  Even Christians have been guilty.

But many prominent atheists accuse religion, and especially Christianity, of mass killings and argue that if the world could rid itself of religious belief and turn to atheism, we would create a true utopia.  If only we could escape the fairy tales of religion, society would vastly improve and the killing might stop, or at least greatly decrease.

But wait a second.  There have been atheist governments who believed in science and reason, and looked with scorn upon organized religion.  What was their track record?  Instead of guessing what the results might be, let’s look at history.  Following is a book excerpt from The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible by Robert J. Hutchinson, that I found at Truthbomb Apologetics:

Religion the greatest danger to world peace? Think again

Contrary to what anti-religious zealots such as [Sam] Harris assert, throughout history far more lives have been snuffed out by faith-hating fanatics than by religious believers.

Historical demographers estimate that, in the 350 years between 1478 and 1834, the Spanish Inquisition was responsible for the execution of between 2,000 (Encyclopedia Britannica) and 32,000 people (Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, 1987.)

That works out to about ninety-seven people a year- a ghastly number, to be sure, but a far cry from the “millions” routinely cited by secular fundamentalists.

As for the “witch hunts,” another example Harris and others give as irrational religious fanaticism, the British historian Norman Davies estimates 50,000 people, primarily women, were executed as witches over a four-hundred year period-an average of about 125 a year.

Yet as horrible as these examples of religious intolerance may be, they pale in comparison with the single-minded, bloodthirsty, satanic fury unleashed upon the innocent by secular fundamentalists-those militantly atheistic regimes that sought to expunge religious belief and “bourgeois” morality represented intolerable obstacles to social progress.

According to research conducted by the political scientist Rudolph Rummel at the University of Hawaii, the officially atheist states of the Communist bloc committed more acts of genocide than any societies in governments in the twentieth century-communist, socialist, fascist-equals about 170 million.

  • USSR: 61 million people murdered 1917-1987
  • Communist China: 35,2 million people murdered 1949-present
  • Mao’s army: 3.4 million people murdered 1923-1949
  • Nazi Germany: 20 million people murdered 1932-1945
  • Communist Poland: 1.6 million people murdered 1945-1948
  • Communist Cambodia: 2 million people murdered 1975-1979
  • Communist Vietnam: 1.6 million people murdered 1945-1975
  • Communist Yugoslavia: 1 million people murdered 1944-1987
  • Anti-Christian Mexican Revolution: 1.4 million people murdered 1900-1920
  • Turkey:1.8 million people murdered 1900-1918
  • Pakistan: 1.5 million people murdered 1958-1987
  • Japan: 5.9 million people murdered 1936-1945

…Rummel’s conclusion is as shocking as it is inescapable: War wasn’t the most deadly evil to afflict humanity in the twentieth century. Government was! And not just any government, but atheist government.

As a result, ordinary people-whether religious or not-might be forgiven their general skepticism when today’s secular fundamentalists talk about the “intolerance” and “violence” of biblical religion or the people who believe in it.

In terms of raw numbers-which is the only kind of evidence that rationalists such as Harris claim to accept-the evidence is incontrovertible: Freed of any moral restraint, believing that the ends justify the means, scoffing at the notion that they will ever answer to a power higher than themselves, the murderous dictators of atheistic regimes feel little hesitation in committing mass murder if they believe it will advance their more “rational,” more “scientific” social aims.

Now, I don’t believe that an atheistic government is always going to cause this kind of bloodshed, but I think it is time to drop the argument that Christians, in the name of religion, commit mass murder, when the evidence squarely rests on the other side.

  • kay

    very good and interesting. k

  • Great post. I think we could add the French Revolution to the list. We might, however, need to scratch Turkey and Pakistan, where there could have been a religious (Moslem) motivation. But the 3.3 million killed in those instances are a drop in the bucket compared to the butchering done by the atheist states.

  • “But many prominent atheists accuse religion, and especially Christianity, of mass killings and argue that if the world could rid itself of religious belief and turn to atheism, we would create a true utopia.”

    Really? I hear many advocating the first, but have never heard the second.

    I hope the world rids itself of religious belief. But I don’t imagine that will turn the world into a utopia.

    “twentieth century-communist, socialist, fascist-”

    Which tells us that fascist, totalitarian and authoritarian rule is the problem.

    And please, drop the old debunked idea that Hitler was an atheist.

  • As someone with an advanced degree in Soviet and Russian studies, I debunked the accusation that atheism was responsible for the murders Christian ascribe to it. The atrocities can be laid squarely at the door of communist ideology, which has many roots in Christianity. The first communists were Christian, for example, and one of the major influential thinkers on communism cited the Bible as the most important source for his ideas.

    I see Christians citing Rummel very frequently. Unfortunately, they ignore what Rummel also said:

    Q: Is atheism the principal factor in democide, such as that committed by the “Big Three,” Stalin, Mao, and Hitler?

    A: No. I find that religion or its lack – atheism – have hardly anything to do in general with wide-scale democide. The most important factor is totalitarian power. Whether a church, atheists, or agnostics have that power is incidental – it is having the power that is a condition of democide. Incidentally, some ideologies, such as communism, function psychologically and sociologically as though a religion. The only distinction is whether the subject is a god or a man, such as Marx, Lenin, Hirohito, Hitler, Mohammed, Kim Ill sung, Mao, etc.

    Who is Robert J. Hutchinson anyway? Is he an authority on communism? Why should we accept anything he has to say on this subject?

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Robert,
    Maybe you need to get on Wikipedia and add some of your expertise. Here is an extended quote from their article on “Religion in the Soviet Union“:

    Soviet policy toward religion was based on the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, which made atheism the official doctrine of the Communist Party, though, in theory, each successive Soviet constitution granted freedom of belief. As the founder of the Soviet state V. I. Lenin put it:

    Religion is the opium of the people: this saying of Marx is the cornerstone of the entire ideology of Marxism about religion. All modern religions and churches, all and of every kind of religious organizations are always considered by Marxism as the organs of bourgeois reaction, used for the protection of the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class.[6]

    Marxism-Leninism has consistently advocated for the suppression, and, ultimately, the disappearance of religious beliefs, due to their unscientific and superstitious character. In the 1920s and 1930s, such organizations as the League of the Militant Godless were active in anti-religious propaganda. Atheism was the norm in schools, communist organizations (such as the Young Pioneer Organization), and the media.

    The regime’s efforts to eradicate religion in the Soviet Union, however, varied over the years with respect to particular religions and have been affected by higher state interests. Official policies and practices not only varied with time but also differed in their application from one nationality to another and from one religion to another. Although all Soviet leaders had the same long-range goal of developing a cohesive Soviet people, they pursued different policies to achieve it. For the Soviet regime, the questions of nationality and religion were always closely linked. Not surprisingly, therefore, the attitude toward religion also varied from a total ban on some religions to official support of others.

    This quote doesn’t prove that atheism is the cause of Soviet mass murder, but it does give the reader a possible connection between a state which advocates atheism and the fact that this same state killed tens of millions of its own people.

    To the Soviets and other communist regimes, the ends have often justified the means. If some people have to be sacrificed for the greater good of the state, then so be it. With no moral absolutes, anything can be right. It just depends on who is in power.

  • Bill Pratt

    WK,
    You write a great blog post! I guess Robert is making his rounds around Christian sites. It’s funny, I checked with some friends of mine today, one of which has a PhD in Russian history, and they assured me that the leading lights of communist Russia were rabidly atheist, and that all of the Soviet premiers were officially atheist as well. Obviously all atheists do not commit mass murder, but certainly those in charge of China, Russia, and other communist nations have indeed committed mass murder. It seems like Robert is claiming this is mere coincidence. I find that extremely hard to believe. Communism and atheism seem to be a package deal. You don’t get one without the other.

    Thanks,
    BP

  • kay

    It is good that athiest visit this site. Maybe it will show them the truth one day. Right????

  • Robert

    Bill wrote,

    Maybe you need to get on Wikipedia and add some of your expertise.

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry after I link to my article rejecting the atheism/atrocity canard and Christians counter with arguments that are specifically addressed and repudiated in that article.

    Since no one seems to bother reading it, allow me to quote the relevant section:

    We saw above that communism as expressed by Marx and Engels included an anti-religious bent. Theistic apologists, in a sleight of hand, conflate this anti-religiosity with atheism, though the connection between the two is tenuous at best. To be sure, atheists are sometimes anti-religious, but their opposition is usually to the type of domineering religion which seeks to force non-believers to adhere to its metaphysical and theological claims. Atheism, which is merely the lack of belief in god(s), does not inevitably and logically lead to anti-religiosity. To buttress the point, consider deism, which has long disparaged organized religion. Today’s secular societies, which include significant numbers of atheists, are wholly tolerant of religious believers – as long as these believers keep their faith-based dogmas and conflicts out of the realm of public policy.

    No one denies communists were irreligious. The question instead is whether atheism is a necessary component of irreligion. The historical record demonstrates many times over that it’s not; deists were opposed to religion, sometimes even violently. Christians have acted the same, when the religion was not their own. In my articles, I cite the conditions which impelled Russia’s communists to turn violent toward (some) religious faiths. Contrary to the impression the Wikipedia article gave, the communist stance toward religion was not consistent. Consider Lenin’s words in 1909:

    We must not only admit workers who preserve their belief in God into the Social-Democratic Party, but must deliberately set out to recruit them; we are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their religious convictions, but we recruit them in order to educate them in the spirit of our programme, and not in order to permit an active struggle against it.

    The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion, V.I. Lenin, 1909.

    Before you reply, I would appreciate your reading at least my article I linked to above since it’s very likely I’ve already answered your objections.

  • Robert

    Wintery Knight feels that he’s answered me, yet he deletes my rebuttals where I point out his inaccurate and ignorant statements, such as the wholly laughable one where he says, “Communism is a system of economics built upon materialist atheism.” It seems Wintery Knight is more interested in polemic and propaganda than debate. In this, unfortunately, he’s merely following a regrettable Christian tradition.

    Bill wrote,

    I find that extremely hard to believe. Communism and atheism seem to be a package deal. You don’t get one without the other.

    Again, if you read my article, you’d know this is simply not true. Communism has far deeper roots into Christianity than it does atheism. Even today, the connection remains. Ever heard of liberation theology?

  • Bill Pratt

    Robert,
    I did read your article, in full, before posting my response. I appreciate your expertise on Russian studies, but your article does not just report objective history. You do an incredible amount of interpretation of history which seems unbelievable to me.

    For example, you state that atheism and anti-religiosity are not the same thing. This is extremely hard for theists on the internet to swallow. Virtually every single atheist I have ever corresponded with (and there have been many) have been anti-religious, and often violently anti-religious. I have seen Christianity called every degrading name one can imagine. In fact, in the very comments section under your blog article, you refer to religion in the following way:

    Eyes shut, ears closed – this is how the religious believer maintains faith. In any case, suppose I really did believe in nothing? In my opinion, believing in nothing is superior to believing in a maniacal, genocidal sky tyrant whose self-esteem is apparently is so poor, it created billions and billions of beings for the sole purpose of worshiping it – forever. And if you fail at this task, which the vast majority of these beings will, then this tyrant will consign you to torture – forever.

    If these statements are not anti-religious, then what, pray tell, are? Until atheists stop using these sorts of polemics, your argument that atheists aren’t automatically anti-religious will fall on deaf ears. And, the very atheists who were the fathers of communism were very anti-religious, as you admit. So, the communist atheists were anti-religious and virtually every atheist on the internet is anti-religious. Where are the atheists who are not anti-religious?

  • Bill Pratt

    Robert,
    All of the evidence of history suggests that the fathers of communism were all atheist. Again, I checked with a friend of mine who has a PhD in Russian history, and she corroborated this fact. I don’t understand why you keep running from this fact when it is obviously true.

    Now, I will grant you that the extent to which their atheism contributed to the mass murders is up for debate. I do not believe that atheism was the sole reason for the mass murders. There were many other factors. However, I think atheism was a contributing factor, and certainly their lack of belief in moral absolutes grounded in God would have allowed them far more “flexibility” in controlling their people. They were unconstrained by the moral teachings of Christianity, a religion which they disdained. When nothing is absolutely wrong, it’s pretty hard to do anything wrong.

  • Robert

    Bill wrote,

    For example, you state that atheism and anti-religiosity are not the same thing. This is extremely hard for theists on the internet to swallow.

    Bill, is deism and anti-religiosity the same thing? If not, then how do you explain periods like the French Terror? If so, then it’s clear mere disbelief in a god is insufficient to be anti-religious.

    If atheism and anti-religiousity go hand-in-hand, then how to you explain the peaceful co-existence between believers and non-believers in many countries of the world where non-believers predominate?

    Are Christians automatically anti-atheists? I can literally quote hundreds of Christians to suggest they are, but I don’t believe it. My opposition to religion, as I’ve made clear in many of my writings, comes to the fore when it attempts to forces its dogmas onto non-believers. Yes, I believe the world would be a better place if there was less religion in it (particularly in places like the Middle East…), but I also acknowledge that religion gives some people community, comfort and hope.

    In any case, the question of atheism’s alleged connection to irreligion is but a sideshow to the real question whether atheism drove atrocity, which is what you suggest in your next post. Here, as my article demonstrated, you’re on far shakier ground.

  • Robert

    Bill wrote,

    All of the evidence of history suggests that the fathers of communism were all atheist.

    The fathers of Marxism-Leninism (the variant of communism which was dominant in most of the world following the Russian revolution) were atheist, but not of communism. Since you’re fond of Wikipedia, here’s what it has to say on the subject:

    At the time when Marxism first emerged on the political scene, the concept of secular or atheistic communism did not yet exist. All communism was rooted in religious principles. During the mid-to-late 1840s, the largest organization espousing communist ideas in Europe was the League of the Just, whose motto was “All Men are Brothers” and whose aim was to establish a new society “based on the ideals of love of one’s neighbor, equality and justice”.

    Ask your PhD friend about Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. If she asks, “who?” she’s not very versant in the history of communist ideology. I would also ask your friend to educate you on the role of the Orthodox Church in upholding the corrupt and authoritarian tsarist regime, as well as its role in the bitter Russian civil war.

    However, I think atheism was a contributing factor, and certainly their lack of belief in moral absolutes grounded in God would have allowed them far more “flexibility” in controlling their people. They were unconstrained by the moral teachings of Christianity, a religion which they disdained. When nothing is absolutely wrong, it’s pretty hard to do anything wrong.

    A belief in moral absolutes has never been a barrier to atrocity. In fact, sometimes such belief opens the door wide open to it. Do you really believe the Muslims who flew the planes into the World Trade Towers were moral relativists?

    So then, is the problem an absence of Christian morality? Again, history is littered with the corpses of those who were on the wrong end of it. Who was it that justified the death penalty for heresy? Who wrote the world’s earliest and most vile anti-semitic tracts? Hint: they were not lowly, ignorant Christian theologians.

    Finally, does atheism somehow rescind the natural law alleged to be written on our hearts?

    Again, I dealt with your argument in my main article.

  • James Rountree

    Robert,

    There are two simple facts that have eluded this posting and the associated comments:

    1) Christians that turn from the word of Jesus Christ and begin to create an alternative law of how to behave are no longer Christians. History is riddled with people that called themselves Christians, but their actions betray them.

    2) It is the lack of Christian faith that leads to corruption, no matter if it is atheism or some other form of thought or action. Billy was not saying that atheism is the cause of killing; he was refuting the idea that true faith in Jesus Christ was the cause of killing.

    Please make us aware of any historic event that resulted in killing that can be linked to a faithful fulfillment of the teachings of Jesus Christ.

    While it is clear, Robert, that you wish to defend atheism, it is also clear that you are unwilling to accept the reality that atheism is only disbelief and does not provide any other benefit. If you are an atheist, you should understand that you are only saying what you don’t believe in, not what you do believe in. So after you confirm that you are an atheist, you would also need to explain what you do believe in. Is there a believe system other than Christianity, that when followed faithfully, leads to peace or happiness?

    God Bless,
    James

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Robert,
    You said, “If atheism and anti-religiousity go hand-in-hand, then how to you explain the peaceful co-existence between believers and non-believers in many countries of the world where non-believers predominate?”

    I define an atheist as a person who makes the assertion that there is no God. In other words, atheists believe that religious believers are completely mistaken in their beliefs in a god. Those people who merely don’t know whether God exists or don’t spend much time thinking about it, I would call agnostics. It seems that you are trying to sweep agnostics into the atheist camp with your statement. I have known many Europeans (through my job) who live in post-Christian nations, but none of them have been atheists. When we discuss religion, they basically fall in the camp of not knowing or not caring.

    But let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that true atheists do live in peace and harmony with Christians in some places of the world. It still does not change the fact that there are many anti-religious atheists who write books and post on blog sites. On your very blog site, you mention approvingly several militant atheists who have written books blasting away at religion. Again, your arguments fail to persuade any religious folks because you do not embody the very “live and let live” attitude that you claim atheists embody. Maybe if you cleaned up your act and persuaded your atheist colleagues to lay down the verbal grenades, your arguments might become more persuasive.

  • Bill Pratt

    Robert,
    You said, “Finally, does atheism somehow rescind the natural law alleged to be written on our hearts?”

    No, it does not. But the natural law can be suppressed and is suppressed. All of us know the basics of right and wrong, but we choose to suppress that knowledge in order to live our lives in the manner we prefer. I don’t think this is a difficult concept to understand.

    “So then, is the problem an absence of Christian morality? Again, history is littered with the corpses of those who were on the wrong end of it. Who was it that justified the death penalty for heresy? Who wrote the world’s earliest and most vile anti-semitic tracts? Hint: they were not lowly, ignorant Christian theologians.”

    So what? Christians sin and do bad things. That is not the point. The point is that Christians who do evil are violating the clear teachings of Christ. When atheists do “evil,” they are merely acting out the logical entailments of their philosophical system. Under atheism, there is no basis or source for morality, so when atheists commit mass murder, it fits perfectly within their system. There is nothing wrong with mass murder, because there is nothing wrong with anything! There are no moral absolutes, just subjective moral opinions. Many atheists may believe murder is wrong, but that is only because they are inconsistent and do not follow their worldview to its conclusion. Thankfully, full suppression of natural law is relatively rare…

  • James Rountree

    Steve,
    While I agree it is never easy to resolve the types of questions, we must strive to avoid wickedness and sin. It is difficult to be involved in torture and not be affected in a ngative way. I don’t suggest no action or no attempts to get information, I just feel that waterboarding can not be viewed as pleasing to God. we must defeat evil without becoming evil.

    God Bless,
    James

  • Robert

    James wrote,

    1) Christians that turn from the word of Jesus Christ and begin to create an alternative law of how to behave are no longer Christians. History is riddled with people that called themselves Christians, but their actions betray them.

    Two objections:

    1) If you read the works of Augustine and Martin Luther, the two theologians to whom I was referring above, you’ll find ample evidence they based their views on “the word of Jesus Christ”.

    2) At what point does one’s actions disqualify them from being Christian? Are we not all sinners, falling short of the glory of God, according to your theology? Even more difficult is the often post hoc nature of the accusation. For example, Christians owned slaves for hundreds of years before the practice was prohibited. Would you say that those Christian slave-owners were not Chrisian? One wonders what Christians a hundred years from now will say about today’s Christians. Perhaps you’re not a Christian yourself, but simply don’t know it yet!

    2) It is the lack of Christian faith that leads to corruption, no matter if it is atheism or some other form of thought or action. Billy was not saying that atheism is the cause of killing; he was refuting the idea that true faith in Jesus Christ was the cause of killing.

    This is a perfect example of the no true Scotsman fallacy.

    Please make us aware of any historic event that resulted in killing that can be linked to a faithful fulfillment of the teachings of Jesus Christ.

    That’s easy. Exodus 22:18 (NASB), which reads “You shall not allow a sorceress to live.”

    While it is clear, Robert, that you wish to defend atheism, it is also clear that you are unwilling to accept the reality that atheism is only disbelief and does not provide any other benefit. If you are an atheist, you should understand that you are only saying what you don’t believe in, not what you do believe in. So after you confirm that you are an atheist, you would also need to explain what you do believe in. Is there a believe system other than Christianity, that when followed faithfully, leads to peace or happiness?

    Actually, I agree with you completely. Atheism is only a disbelief. Christians typically mistake it for a worldview. I believe that each person needs to decide for herself which beliefs lead them to peace and happiness. Many atheists I know regard skepticism and the ethic of reciprocity (aka, the golden rule) as starting points. From there, some delve into Buddhism, or other spiritual philosophies. Or none at all, but simply live their lives to the best of their abilities. It’s a Christian conceit that the religion has a monopoly on achieving peace or happiness.

  • Robert

    Bill wrote,

    All of us know the basics of right and wrong, but we choose to suppress that knowledge in order to live our lives in the manner we prefer. I don’t think this is a difficult concept to understand.

    As a theological belief, I cannot dispute you. But as a metaphysical claim, there is nothing to substantiate it, and much to contradict it.

    So what? Christians sin and do bad things. That is not the point. The point is that Christians who do evil are violating the clear teachings of Christ.

    It’s curious how these “clear teachings of Christ” have ended up behind so much bloodshed, just counting among Christians. Nevertheless, it’s indisputable that many who committed what was later decried as evil sincerely and faithfully believed they were carrying God’s will. This is what makes many religions frightful.

    When atheists do “evil,” they are merely acting out the logical entailments of their philosophical system. Under atheism, there is no basis or source for morality, so when atheists commit mass murder, it fits perfectly within their system.

    I invite you to read your colleague James’s words that “atheism is only disbelief and does not provide any other benefit.” There is no basis or source of morality under a-leprecaunism too, so are we to believe that when a-leprecaunist Christians commit mass murder, it fits perfectly within that system? Do you see how ridiculous your argument is? You decry non-Christian morality as “subjective opinion,” and yet that perfectly describes Christian morality, as history more than proves. Simply compare what Christians regarded as immoral 200 or even 100 years ago, with what they regard as immoral today. For all the vaunted claims of an objective morality, Christians cannot even agree among themselves what constitutes it!

  • Robert

    Bill wrote,

    I define an atheist as a person who makes the assertion that there is no God.

    Again, you may wish to consult with your colleague James who correctly identifies atheism as only disbelief. If you define atheism in the manner above, no wonder you don’t run into many atheists in Europe. If an a-leprechaunist is a person who makes the assertion that there are no leprechauns (anywhere), there are probably not a lot of those either.

    Again, your arguments fail to persuade any religious folks because you do not embody the very “live and let live” attitude that you claim atheists embody.

    My argument is not that atheists should take a neutral, “live and let live” position with regards to religion; rather, I denied that atheism and irreligion go hand-in-hand. Does Christianity and anti-atheism go hand-in-hand? The fact that both sides lob verbal grenades at one another does not mean it’s destined to be that way. In fact, Christians have far more to fear from their co-religionists than they do skeptics.

  • Mark

    Love the No true Scotsman fallacy.
    Thanks Robert for clearly proving your point.
    And thanks bill for making it so easy for him.
    Lots of love
    Mr. atheist.
    .