In recent months, a spate of atheist books have argued that religion represents, as End of Faith author Sam Harris puts it, â€œthe most potent source of human conflict, past and present.â€
Columnist Robert Kuttner gives the familiar litany. â€œThe crusades slaughtered millions in the name of Jesus. The inquisition brought the torture and murder of millions more. After Martin Luther, Christians did bloody battle with other Christians for another three centuries.â€ In his bestseller The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins contends that most of the worldâ€™s recent conflicts â€” in the Middle East, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Kashmir, and Sri Lanka â€” show the vitality of religionâ€™s murderous impulse.
The problem with this critique is that it exaggerates the crimes attributed to religion, while ignoring the greater crimes of secular fanaticism. The best example of religious persecution in America is the Salem witch trials. How many people were killed in those trials? Fewer than 25. Yet the event still haunts the liberal imagination. It is strange to witness the passion with which some secular figures rail against the misdeeds of the crusaders and inquisitors more than 500 years ago.
The number sentenced to death by the Spanish inquisition appears to be about 10,000. Some historians contend that an additional 100,000 died in jail due to malnutrition or illness. These figures are minuscule compared with the death tolls produced by the atheist despotisms of the 20th century. In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people.
Moreover, many of the conflicts that are counted as â€œreligious warsâ€ were not fought over religion. They were mainly fought over rival claims to territory and power. Can the wars between England and France be called religious wars because the English were Protestants and the French were Catholics? Hardly. The same is true today. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not, at its core, a religious one. It arises out of a dispute over self-determination and land. Hamas and the extreme orthodox parties in Israel may advance theological claims â€” â€œGod gave us this landâ€ and so forth â€” but the conflict would remain essentially the same even without these religious motives. The atheists confirm the truth of Fyodor Dostoyevskyâ€™s dictum, â€œIf God is not, everything is permitted.â€
Whatever the motives for atheist bloodthirstiness, the indisputable fact is that all the religions of the world put together have in 2,000 years not managed to kill as many people as have been killed in the name of atheism in the past few decades.
Itâ€™s time to abandon the mindlessly repeated mantra that religious belief has been the greatest source of human conflict and violence. Atheism, not religion, is the real force behind the mass murders of history. â€” The Christian Science Monitor