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 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, 27 Nov 2007. Web. 2 Sep 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4076>


10 most recent comments | Show all 479 comments

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

This is the most ill-informed article I've ever read. The greatest killer of all time is ISLAM, hands down, no contest. 14 centuries of Jihad; Koranic demands to kill the unbeliever; Muhammad's example, the genocide of the Banu Qurayza.

Some historians [supposedly quoting Islamic sources] estimate a minimum of 270 million over those 1400 years- and it continues today. The majority of people seem unaware that Islam is a political-social-religious supremacist ideology that governs every aspect of the devout Muslim's life, right down to how to wipe his ass. Few have the time or desire to read the Koran, much less the thousands of hadith; then there is sharia'ah and other stuff like 'Reliance of the Traveller'.

The supreme example of brainwashing, endless repetition of their mantras in the FIVE daily prayers, the ritual washing, memorising the Koran in Arabic, a language only 10% of Muslims understand, the hypnotic nodding whilst doing it...
The ONLY religion founded on warfare and murder, lies and deceit, blind faith and denial of the obvious. The ultimate 'good cop, bad cop' routine with the bad cop utterly dominant.

No, ALL religions are NOT the same. There is only ONE Islam.

August 4, 2015 11:54am

On the contrary the religions all stem from the same sources but the religious view adapts according to region. Common features include post mortem judgement and some form of resurrection (reincarnation being one such form). In addition a common feature is reliance on entirely invented pseudo history largely derived from Bardic mythology

The religious concept evolved and spread via trade routes. At the core of all of the versions of it is land claim, which is the source of the inbuilt violence in all of them

Islam developed out of both internal and external conflict with the surrounding religions, notably Christianity - a religion evolved out of a Judaic Temple and Synagogue sect, and Judaism which from time to time was a religion that sought converts.

Religions divide people because that is their purpose - They seek to create an elite power group which concurrently holds the chosen land and strengthens its hold on it through conversion and the encouragement of breeding

The religious view has always been anti-progressive and dangerous. At the core of all of the different versions is fallacy - the most poignant being the invention of the Jewish people which has created groups subject to persecution based on an entirely imaginary Genealogy created to support an equally imaginary history. The web of descent is not linear but interwoven - We are all of mixed descent that includes ancestors from the Middle East - just as "Jews" are largely descendants of converts.

Phil, Sydney
August 4, 2015 4:21pm

This comments section is poorly designed- not seeing other comments means reliance on memory which in my case is defective.

That said, I stand by my statement that Islam is unique, and not just another religion. So please read some of its texts before making assumptions.
Here is an easy intro--

August 4, 2015 10:42pm

Who Kills More, Religion or Atheism?

So much for critical thought! PLEASE, name anyone killed in the NAME of atheism; NOT 'by atheists' but in the cause of the ideology.

August 4, 2015 10:44pm

You are missing the point. If a religion is used to kill people unjustly that is called a religion responsible for a war. Let's say that a leader of a powerful religion declared that a country was of a devil(which i don't believe in but others will). The people would have a violent view towards them.
Characters such as god and devil are nothing more than characters in a book that has uncontrollably been seeded in the human mind. If these things can be used to take advantage of our mind and used to cause violence we cannot let them exist for our world and our the future world of our children. A force that is doing that is the force created by become an atheist in this world. Let's say that we live in a world that atheism is wrong (which is not), then atheism is the one that has to be gotten rid of. That is not the case but the opposite. Religion has to be ridden because it is acting as a power that may harm the world because of it's faults that lie within them like power corruption.

Specific knowledge model I follow: (agnostic atheism) meaning that I am an agnostic but i prefer atheism for this world because it is the best for our evolving world.

Someone Smart, Canada
August 5, 2015 3:52pm

Except for the mentally ill most people kill for money or power, or they kill for somebody who wants money and power. Greed is usually the motivator.

Behind ISIS are guys who want money and power.

There are some instance where people actually kill for their own freedom or self-preservation, I'm not denying that.

"Religion has to be ridden because it is acting as a power that may harm the world because of it's faults that lie within them like power corruption."

Atheists haven't given the world much. What universities, hospitals, orphanages, health organizations or any good charity were founded by atheists or do not have their roots in Christianity? Atheists want Christians out of the way in America after Christians and Christian values have made it great. Their sense of history is limited and their propensity to be manipulated is no different than any religious zealots.

A Christian, Clinton, TN
August 6, 2015 4:16am

Do you think you have to believe in a god. To know and to live by a strong moral compass ?.. ..also if a civilized race lives on a planet in another galaxy. If they dont believe in god or have a concept of relgion. What does that make them? Does it make them wrong? Does it make them sinners? Does it make them right .Does it make them any different thsn us?

Dave Festa, Florida
August 6, 2015 12:08pm

One big difference is that religions have written directives from their Gods to murder and Atheist do not.

Rock, Mustang, OK
August 12, 2015 1:43pm

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