In recent years, many atheist books have hit the bestseller lists. Christopher Hitchens’ god is Not Great (no, “god” is not supposed to be capitalized), Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Sam Harris’ The End of Faith have all been recent bestsellers. Generally, reaction in the press has been quite favorable, and even religious believers have generally treated these books with respect.
One the key points that these authors make is the assertion that religion is the root cause of most of history’s wars and persecutions. Christopher Hitchens has written that “fascism is practically another word for Catholicism.” Richard Dawkins believes that religion is “lethally dangerous nonsense.” It is very common to see the accusation leveled that organized religion is responsible for most of history’s wars and persecutions; that the number of people killed because of religion dwarfs any other cause.
That charge is totally absurd. Religious conflict accounts for only a tiny percentage of history’s atrocities. Consider this Wikipedia list of wars and massacres throughout the course of human history. Being Wikipedia, the list is probably not exhaustive, but it should give a rough estimate of the damage caused by religion.
Adding up the lower estimates of the people killed in humanity’s more recent wars (the list seems to begin around the thirteenth century), the rough total comes out at around 190 million. Religious wars account for 28 million of those dead. (Although I used a pretty liberal interpretation of “religious war,” so the number is probably higher than it should be). That comes out to around 15%. This means that around fifteen percent of the world’s historical strife can be traced (however tenuously) back to religion—and 85% can’t.
But many atheists claim that religion’s greatest evil lies in its ability to make ordinary, day-to-day life miserable for those unlucky enough to fall into its power. So perhaps a list of genocides would be the place to look for the true measure of religions depravity.
The list mentioned above also has a (incomplete, as before) list of notable genocides. This list climbs to 75 million. Eight million were religiously motivated, which means that in this case, about ten percent of genocides can be traced back to religion. This number is tiny—barely statistically significant.
It may be possible to tack on a few more deaths to religion (medieval witch hunts were not mentioned), but not many more. Religious belief is simply not to blame for many mass murders.
Most atheists dodge this fact by attempting to blame religion for the deaths caused by the mostly atheistic totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, such as Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia, or Hitler’s Germany. The reasoning behind this line of thought is that since all these ideologies rested on a theory that could not be questioned or disobeyed, they all count as religion, which atheists see as sharing the same characteristic. (Even though religious believers—even those of the same faith—rarely agree on philosophical matters). This argument is valid, up to a point: most totalitarianism does rest on a set of beliefs that, by virtue of their presumed infallibility, do become a secular religion. (This can be seen clearly in the global warming movement).
But totalitarianism is a secular religion. It places its faith in man, not God, and sets its sights on building a Heaven on Earth rather than during the afterlife, as theistic religions do. The mental processes required to profess both totalitarianism and religion are much the same—but the beliefs themselves are literally linear opposites.
Clearly, religion bears absolutely no responsibility for the vast majority of human suffering. It’s not hard to realize this—a quick look at history should suffice to prove it to any fair-minded person. Atheists consider themselves slaves to the scientific method, but the scientific method involves accepting all the information available, not just that which is favorable to your preferred side. This attack is either the product of bad faith or inexcusable ignorance—and atheists should stop using it.