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.

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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. 27 Nov 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4076>


10 most recent comments | Show all 458 comments

Who killed more, coke or pepsi?

June 25, 2014 1:05pm

I wouldn't say the lack of religion of a leader in control of mass killings is attributable to atheism. The killings were not done for the advancement of atheism. In the same way Bush being Christian doesn't add the body counts of his wars to the tally of religious killings. The countable totals should come from events where the goal of the war was to advance the idea.

Bastille, Orange
July 25, 2014 8:07am

The author clearly hasn't read the books he quotes! Very poor article and a disgrace to an otherwise well argued website.

Nick, UK
July 27, 2014 1:19pm

By setting up a false comparison (religion / atheism) you will have a false results. The question isn't religion or atheism. Rather, one should ask what are the results of a belief system, honestly and faithfully followed. Atheism, whose only precept is the denial of the existence of God, provides no prohibitions against unjust treatment of humanity or any reason for the need of justice. It just so happens that most or all of the heinous dictators in history were atheists (Mao, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler plus others). These dictators did nothing to violate their atheism, so they could be said to be honest and faithful followers of their belief system and yet the toll of deaths for which they are responsible exceed hundreds of millions.
Islam's precepts include the instruction to spread their belief system across the world, and those who resist are to be killed. Islam, honestly and faithfully followed results in death to those who resist.
Christianity, honestly and faithfully followed, will not result in murder and injustice. The historical examples that indicate otherwise (the Crusades, the Inquisition, Salem Witch hysteria, etc) are not examples of honest and faithful devotion to the precepts ascribed by Christian beliefs, they are examples of people or groups who violate a variety of those beliefs, erroneously in the name of Christianity.
(By the way, atheism is a (non)belief system that requires one to believe more fanciful ideas than most religions)

David, Oklahoma
July 28, 2014 3:52pm

I agree with many of the points here, but I think it is false to say religion is only ever used as an excuse to kill. You can argue that in many of the examples brought up here, but when it comes to Sunni and Shia muslims in the mid east, or muslims and hindus in India in the 1940s. These are/were people that in many cases were from the same area and of the same race. With almost no identifiable difference other than religion, they were killing each other in mass.

Jeff, Baltimore
August 6, 2014 6:11pm

Obviously, an element of Islam has lost their way. Same goes for Christianity. Buy a gun and get ready for the big showdown as, in my point of view, religion is by far the biggest bullshit story of all time!

lee, lone pine ca
August 12, 2014 9:54pm

Religion/Non-Religion doesn't kill people.

People kill people (often wielding guns and using Religion/Non-Religion as their excuse.)

Swampwitch7, Gainesville Fl
August 14, 2014 10:24am

"Who Kills More, Organized Philatelism with Prescribed Dogmatic Mandates about People's Behaviors and Preconceived Notions About Converting Others to Stamp Collecting or Aphilatelism?"

The answer will surprise you!

Justin, California
October 2, 2014 6:57am

By definition, religion has killed more people because atheism has no positive beliefs or centralized organization. Fascism or Stalinism *can* provide a motivation just as much as religion can, but atheism cannot. (By the way, Hitler was also formally a Catholic.)

A lot of Christians support Israel because it fulfills specific prophecies. Jews committed genocide against ethnic Serbs because they're the chosen people of God destined to inherited a promised land.

Likewise, religious lobbies consistently vote on very particular issues very regularly and actively attempt to spread anti-intellectualism or impede the sciences over doctrinal issues.

Religion provides a systematic and comprehensive set of world views that demands tithes, tacitly assumes your immorality if you fail to obey and proclaims itself to be the absolute bearer of the truth then excuse its watered-down cousins. And sorry, but it is far more comprehensive than fascism or Leninism tries to be.

Reformist and moderate religious movements are reactions to the authoritarianism of religion because they're so unappetizing in their purist forms to begin with. Religion claims to have a complete view of cosmology, a complete and objective code of ethics and morality and demands tithes and obedience; tacitly claiming that nonbelievers are *less* moral if not outright damned and evil.

I hardly need to cite examples of extremism to make my case of why religion is the relevant cause of human ills today.

Chris, Saint Louis, MO
October 31, 2014 3:27pm

Dear Christians: Please stop claiming that Hitler was an atheist. He certainly didn't think he was:

"I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator. By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord's work."

- Adolf Hitler, Speech, Reichstag, 1936

"We don't ask the Almighty, 'Lord, make us free!" We want to be active, to work, to work together, so that when the hour comes that we appear before the Lord we can say to him: 'Lord, you see that we have changed.' The German people is no longer a people of dishonor and shame, of self-destructiveness and cowardice. No, Lord, the German people is once more strong in spirit, strong in determination, strong in the willingness to bear every sacrifice. Lord, now bless our battle and our freedom, and therefore our German people and fatherland."

- Adolf Hitler, Prayer, May 1, 1933

Even if Hitler wasn't a Christian, the Germans who elected him and gave him power were overwhelmingly Catholic or Protestant.

If you must accuse others of misdeeds, then please acknowledge the misdeeds of those who share your faith. After all, doesn't you very own god admonish against "bearing false witness"?

tallulah13, portland
November 1, 2014 7:05pm

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