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Religion, Atheism and Bloodshed

In the following article, Peter Kearney, Director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office rejects the view that religion is the main cause of distress, pain and bloodshed in our troubled world.

Watching the late night review of the papers on TV recently I was struck by a comment made by one of the reviewers. Amid news of another violent atrocity by ISIS in Syria or Iraq, the reviewer, a respectable journalist and fully paid up member of the metropolitan, secular chatterati said something like: “we know how religion tends to be responsible for most of the violence in the world, but with ISIS it really is extreme.”

I laughed. Out loud. Suggesting that the slaughter carried out by ISIS is done in the name of religion is delusional - almost all of their victims have been Muslims, killed not for their religious beliefs, or lack of them, but because they refused to conform to the wishes of this brutal dictatorship. ISIS has used a twisted representation of religion as a fig leaf to justify repression, territorial aggrandisement, rapacious greed and base criminality.

A recent study of the ISIS finances revealed that the terror group earns at least $2billion per year, the bulk coming from oil sales, organ harvesting, ransom and extortion payments, the looting and selling of ancient antiquities and drug dealing. Around $1billion comes from the sale of heroin while huge profits are generated by an extensive organ trafficking system run from a hospital in Mosul. Earlier this year, the UN’s ambassador to Iraq, claimed that dozens of bodies with surgical incisions and missing body parts were found in shallow mass graves near Mosul.

Whatever the motivation or inspiration for these brutal atrocities may be it is categorically not religious. Yet Western commentators fall straight into the trap of assuming it is. More wearying was the repetition of the age-old myth that religion, is of itself, violent and bloodthirsty. The unspoken corollary of course being that atheism, somehow, is not.

What is surprising is the extent to which Christians in general and Catholics in particular believe this complete myth. Many in fact adopt a tone of conciliatory and contrite repentance when identifying themselves as believers, almost pre-emptively apologising for the sins of religion. In reality such mortifications aren’t really necessary. I don’t imagine any SCO readers have ever conducted a crusade or a religious pogrom, so I expect we can all agree that violence in the name of religion is completely unjustifiable.

Sadly, over the course of human history not all the faithful have been so peaceable, although the resulting deaths are a fraction of the number who’ve died in the name of atheism or under systems which have rejected or outlawed religion.

A quick look at the facts is sobering. No self-respecting atheist ever fails to mention the Crusades or the Inquisition, when alleging religious responsibility for most human suffering.

There were nine Crusades, between 1095 and 1271AD a total of 177 years. Somewhere between 1 to 2 million died, including vast numbers who died through starvation or disease en route to the Holy Land.

The Inquisition, lasted from 1231 for several centuries across Europe around 500,000 people were interrogated or questioned of which some 2%, 10,000 people were tortured or killed. If we add in The Thirty Years War between1618-48, which was religious, estimates vary but tend to coalesce around a figure of 7 million deaths.

Witchcraft too, was usually persecuted by religion, so should be added to any total. In the 700 years prior to the end of the twentieth century the consensus amongst historians suggests around 60,000 were killed, though superstition is likely to have played as important a part in this phenomena as religion, if not more so.

These figures give a grand, and shameful, total of around 9 million deaths, which can, mostly, be attributed to religious zeal and fervour. Needless to say that’s about 9 million deaths too many, but when compared with the 115,000,000 million deaths attributable to atheism or systems of government, which have rejected or outlawed religion, it makes the “religion is violent” claim look ridiculous.

The violence which engulfs societies when they reject or proscribe religion is stratospherically higher than anything which happens in societies where religion is embraced.

To take the 20th century only, between 1928 and 1935 under Stalin’s brutal atheistic regime in the Soviet Union, at least 30 million citizens were killed or died in labour camps.

The Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler was responsible for at least 11m deaths, mostly of Jews, not to mention the tens of millions who died throughout the Second World War. Hitler detested and rejected religion in general and Christianity in particular, describing it as a “disease”.

Under Mao’s communist dictatorship in China at least 70 million died, in North Korea the brutally atheist Kim dynasty has been responsible for between 2m to 3m deaths, while under the dictatorship of Pol Pot in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 up to 2m died in the “Killing Fields”.

Societies, which have abandoned or banned religion in the modern era have all descended into tyranny, bloodshed and slaughter on an industrial scale.

Next time you meet someone who is against religion or trots out the tired old clich that it is responsible for more bloodshed and loss of life than anything else, it might be worth asking them why atheist societies tend to end up knee deep in blood.

November 2015

Peter Kearney