Who Kills More, Religion or Atheism?

Has religion or atheism been responsible for the greater death toll throughout human history?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Religion

Skeptoid #76
November 27, 2007
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

Religion vs Atheism
Artwork: Nathan Bebb

Hide that Bible in your pocket as the guard hustles you down the snowy road on your way to eventual death in Stalin's Gulag, for today's subject is the debate over whether more people throughout history have been killed in the name of religion, or in the name of atheism.

Atheist authors like Christopher Hitchens, Michael Shermer, and Sam Harris are always debating religious authors like Dinesh D'Souza, William Dembski, and Alister McGrath about whether or not God exists, or whether or not religion is good for the world. And, as predictably as the sun rises, these debates nearly always devolve into the argument of which side is responsible for the greatest death toll throughout history. Which is a more terrible killer: religious fundamentalism, or the lack of religion?

Christians charge that the most killing in history has come from modern atheist regimes. Adolf Hitler led Germany during World War II when he executed six million Jews in the Holocaust, three million Poles, three million Russian prisoners of war, and as many as eight million others throughout Europe. Joseph Stalin was the General Secretary of the Soviet Union following the Russian Revolution until his death after World War II. Between 10 and 20 million Soviets and German prisoners of war died under his regime, depending on how many famine victims you count, from Gulags, execution, and forced resettlement. Mao Zedong, who led China for more than a quarter of a century following World War II, created the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution programs which collectively killed unknown tens of millions of Chinese, most of them in public executions and violent clashes. Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the 1970's, when as many as 2 million Cambodians, or as much as 20% of the population, died from execution, disease and starvation.

History is full of uncounted massacres by armies carrying a religious banner, though most such episodes were in ancient times with much less efficient killing technology and microscopically smaller populations. The number of religious exterminations of entire villages throughout history is innumerable, though most had body counts only in the hundreds or thousands. Alexander the Great is estimated to have executed a million. 11th century Crusades killed half a million Jews and Muslims. Genghis Khan's massacres of entire populations of cities probably totaled a million. The Aztecs once slaughtered 100,000 prisoners over four days. An unknown number, probably in the millions, died in the Devil's Wind action in Colonial India. Up to four million Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims died in post-Colonial India. The Ottoman Empire massacred two million Armenians over the years. Franco's Spanish Civil War killed a hundred thousand. A million have died in Rwanda, half a million in Darfur. And Christian vs. Muslim violence has obviously dominated our headlines for a decade, totaling somewhere in seven figures.

So who has been the worst throughout history: atheist regimes or religious regimes? Obviously the big numbers come from the 20th century superpowers (China, Russia, Germany) so the answer depends on how you classify those. And this is where the meat of these debates is usually found, splitting hairs on which regime is atheist, which is merely secular, which is non-Christian and thus fair game to be called atheist. Hitchens points out that Stalin's government had all the trappings of religion, including Orwell's totalitarian theocracy, and thus it's merely a play on words to say that it was not religious. Pol Pot was raised a Buddhist monk who grew up to execute Buddhist monks, along with anyone else he could lay his hands on. Whole books have been written on the occult underpinnings of Nazi Germany, the symbology of the Norse gods, to say nothing of the claims that Hitler was a Christian, Hitler was a Jew, and his own writings expressing the kinship he felt with the Muslims. A favorite counterpoint raised by Christian debaters is that these despots practiced Social Darwinism and were thus atheists by definition. In summary, the winner of these debates is the one who can convince the other that the big 20th century genocidal maniacs were motivated either by religion or by a desire to destroy religion. The entire debate is the logical fallacy of the excluded middle.

Here's the thing. If you write a book called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, you sell a lot of books. If you write a book called What's So Great About Christianity on the evils of atheism, you also sell a lot of books. If you say that neither extremist viewpoint makes any sense, you end up doing a podcast and working as a greeter at Wal-Mart directing customers to the section where they sell Hitchens and D'Souza books. The truth is less incisive, it's less inflammatory, it raises no ire, and it draws no audience.

And that truth, as I've said time and time again, is that people are people. No matter what segment of society you look at, you'll find good people and you'll find bad people. You'll even find, as has been said, that the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart. Certainly there are people in the news who kill in the name of religion, but just because they kill in the name of religion doesn't really mean they kill because of religion. The Islamic militants who cut off Nick Berg's head are not nice men who would have otherwise been his best friend, if it weren't for their religious convictions forcing them into this grievous act. They are base murderers, and they should be punished accordingly, I don't care whether they go to church or not. Killers don't really kill because of their religion. Neither does a lack of religious convictions cause one to run wild in the streets with a bloody axe and a torch. Religion is a convenient banner for many to carry, but there are plenty of other banners available as well, and if it wasn't religion, they'd do their deeds under some other justification, if they care to even have one. The real reason they do their evil deeds is that they're human. Humans are very smart, very capable; and when we want something, we generally find some way to get it, even if that means killing someone or committing genocide.

By doing this episode, I'm going to be called an apologist for atheist genocide. My dismissal of the entire argument as pointless and fallacious will be interpreted as a dodge from advocating a weak position. So go ahead and post that as a comment on Skeptoid.com, if you're still convinced that this is argument that can ever have a useful conclusion. I'm convinced that arguing either side is merely an opportunistic way to tingle sensitive nerves and sell a lot of books. And, I'm convinced that any discussion of the religious causes of genocide is a divisive distraction from the more worthwhile investigation into the true cultural and psychological causes. We are human beings, and we need to understand our human motivations.

So I am no longer going to participate in the childish debate of what religion has killed more people in history, because it doesn't matter. The way I see it, you might as well debate what color underpants are worn by the largest number of killers, and try to draw a causal relationship there as well. Religion does not cause you to kill people, and it certainly doesn't prevent you from killing people. Let's stop pretending that it does either.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Becker, J. Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1998.

D'Souza, Dinesh. The Catholic Classics. Huntington, Indiana: Huntington : Our Sunday Visitor, 1986. 166.

Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. 336.

Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve Books, 2007. 307.

Nicholson, H. J. The Crusades. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997. 306.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Who Kills More, Religion or Atheism?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 27 Nov 2007. Web. 3 Aug 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4076>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 471 comments

I enjoyed this piece and fully agree with what is said.
Most people tend to forget that the majority of wars is not caused by religion or a lack of it, but for land, ressources, expansion, power, wealth...
Of course, these stories do not sell, even though they depict a broader and sometimes more complex picture of what was happening...
Better to dumb down history in saying that religion causes wars...

missbabounette, france
December 12, 2014 6:38am

The American gun lobby is fond of saying that guns don't kill people, people do. This is fatuous, as people use guns to kill others when they would not kill if no gun was available. It does however have a grain of truth - a gun in a show case is harmless as long as it stays there. Similarly, religion, atheism or some other ideology does not, of itself, kill people.
The medieval popes who instigated the Crusades in the name of religion have much to answer for. Hitler, Himmler et al sent millions to the gas chambers in pursuit of their perverted Nazi ideology. Stalin likewise caused millions of innocent deaths - not exactly in the cause of atheism but in pursuit of his twisted version of atheistic communism.
Let's get real. Leaving aside natural disasters, plagues etc., it is people (nations, other groupings and individuals) who kill people - whether it is done in the name of this or that ideology is of secondary importance, if not plain irrelevant.

Alvo, Canberra
December 14, 2014 10:37pm

"The American gun lobby is fond of saying that guns don't kill people, people do. This is fatuous, as people use guns to kill others when they would not kill if no gun was available"

This is a false argument. We do not know that the murderers would not have used another weapon to kill if a gun was not available. And people are murdered with things besides guns all the time. Murders occurred well before guns were even invented. So the statement that "People do" is factually correct.

The #1 killer of humans is neither religion, or atheism. The #1 killer of people is Government, and Politics. They have killed more people in the history of humankind than all other factors combined, including disease.

gigmaster, Chatsworth, Ga.
December 16, 2014 12:28pm

"So I am no longer going to participate in the childish debate of what religion has killed more people in history, because it doesn't matter. "

Why not simply accept the fact that anti-theism has a very ugly history, and that we must learn from it?

As an atheist it really dissappoints me the way my fellow non-belivers cower from the reality of all this. You really think you can fool the other side? They're not *that* stupid.

The fact is that large groups of people of atheistic persuasion deliberately killed millions of reilgious people because they were believers. The anti-theistic purges are there on the historical record. If you can't hack it, then shut up about being a skeptic, because you're nothing but a weak-minded denialist who can't handle the truth.

John, Sydney
December 16, 2014 12:53pm

Perhaps the bigger view of this topic is that wars are a result of intolerance of another group - be it religion, culture, race. Quite simply, wars want to eliminate another group of people, so their own people can flourish (by taking land, resources, etc.).

Throughout history, humans have had beliefs that help them understand the world, and when those beliefs are not in sync with another groups beliefs, what often happens is there is a degree of intolerance towards the other group.

I'd suspect this is a product of natural selection for our desire to survive, coupled with our intellectual ability to form thoughts and beliefs.

My hope is that our intellect can continue to evolve to be more tolerant, to seek to understand and learn, to question our own beliefs, to observe the quest and discoveries in the field of science and embrace the known vs. guessing and surmising of the unknown...

lcfgypsy, Pasadena
January 1, 2015 9:23pm

I agree with the author, there is more involved than just faith and atheist. I'm coming from an atheist viewpoint, and want to understand why these killing happen. I think religion isn't a black/white or on/off phenomenon. Stalin was educated to be a priest, Hitler was raised Catholic, what affect did that have on their moral foundation. Russia went from the thumb of Czars to the thumb of communist and now the thumb of religion (seems to be a pattern there.) Were they ever really not religious?
I have a strong sense of empathy and reason that makes it hard for me to comprehend these atrocities. Other atheist friends feel the same way. My "foundation" is reason empathy, reason by itself would be dangerous, reason, without empathy gets you a sociopath. I've often wondered how a sociopath views religion. Maybe he would see it only as a tool, to manipulate and control people. Would he chose faith/atheist only based on need or effort? Don't want to go to church, be an atheist, want to control people, be religious. Would sociopaths be a third category, not religious or atheist, but instead opportunist. If that is the case, who were the people following Stalin's orders? where they really atheist killing for "atheist" reasons? or were they religous people on a bandwagon? I believe religious teachings diminish empathy; excepting a burning hell without flinching, teaches people to turn off empathy. That gives you a deathly relationship, a sociopath and religion.

bayhuntr, San Francsico
January 8, 2015 12:02am

I agree with the author, there is more involved than just faith and atheist. I'm coming from an atheist viewpoint, and want to understand why these killing happen. I think religion isn't a black/white or on/off phenomenon. Stalin was educated to be a priest, Hitler was raised Catholic, what affect did that have on their moral foundation. Russia went from the thumb of Czars to the thumb of communist and now the thumb of religion (seems to be a pattern there.) Were they ever really not religious?
I have a strong sense of empathy and reason that makes it hard for me to comprehend these atrocities. Other atheist friends feel the same way. My "foundation" is reason empathy, reason by itself would be dangerous, reason, without empathy gets you a sociopath. I've often wondered how a sociopath views religion. Maybe he would see it only as a tool, to manipulate and control people. Would he chose faith/atheist only based on need or effort? Don't want to go to church, be an atheist, want to control people, be religious. Would sociopaths be a third category, not religious or atheist, but instead opportunist. If that is the case, who were the people following Stalin's orders? where they really atheist killing for "atheist" reasons? or were they religious people on a bandwagon? I believe religious teachings diminish empathy; excepting a burning hell without flinching, teaches people to turn off empathy. That gives you a deathly relationship, a sociopath and religion.

bayhuntr, San Francsico
January 8, 2015 12:06am

Ever since we lived in caves, humans formed groups for survival. With this came inter-group and intra-group dynamics and the rules that govern them. Good rules, bad rules, religious or man-made.... it doesn't matter because humans will do what they want to do if they feel they can do it and they will bend, interpret, or change the rules to suite them.

It doesn't matter what religion, race, color, sect, tribe, geographic location. Certain humans will kill based on their DNA, circumstance, and experiences.

When the rules we live by evolve to a degree that human circumstances and experiences no longer have the "killing factor" and when we fully understand human DNA and and address "bad" traits before they become a problem, then we are fully evolved and wars will end. At that point, we will hate our lives and tear everything down and start all over again from our caves.

Jihad, Beirut
May 9, 2015 1:01am

I only disagree with the statement that "humans are very smart". Of course the term is relative, so if we compare ourselves to other primates, we are very smart. But if we raise the bar a little I would argue that most people are actually pretty goddamn stupid. I'm sure that most of the readers here know about cognitive biases and other neuroscience related phenomena, but the more your read about it the more you realise how almost everyone around you is ruled by primitive instincts and biology. Honestly it amazes me that learning how your brain works and how to think it the last thing you do at the very end of a academic career in a very narrow discipline. It's not like it's reasonable to teach people about the tools before you show them what to do with those tools...
Even in the so called scientific world most people don't bother with analyzing how they think and fail at being strict about following scientific method. 92% assume that they are above average in their respective fields and 68% think that they are in the top 25%. The scary thing is that if you're not good at something, you're also unable to recognize if others in that field are good or not.

Pawel, Poland
June 5, 2015 12:25am

Religion teaches us that life is temporary.
Therefore we 'sin' or it's alright to do nothing or make mistakes because, another place is waiting for us.

Atheism makes you realize the life is here and now, no second chances. With this in mind, you want to preserve you and the people around you (yes we are social beings).

Caring is hardwired (look at all the mammals, they survived (without religion) because they care for their own)

Religion divides and kills people. Stalin/Hitler/etc. were under the influence of 'genocidal god' them being 'the god' themselves, so go figure.

An Atheist, NY
July 22, 2015 8:20pm

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