Peter Kearney: Blaming religion for wars simply doesn't add up

Atheists say Faith is behind the vast majority of conflicts throughout history, but it's just not true, says Peter Kearney

28th October 1914: British soldiers lined up in a narrow trench during World War I. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It is often during the “Christmas Season” that humanists inflamed by the obvious bonhomie and goodwill which celebrations of the birth of Christ engender, vent their most intemperate fulminations.

For many of them, the notion that Christ’s birth brought peace and goodwill to all of humanity is just so infuriating that they respond with the most spluttering calumny they can

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It isn’t, but as Mark Twain probably didn’t say: “a lie will fly around the whole world while the truth is getting its boots on”. Sadly, as Adolf Hitler surmised in his poisonous tome, Mein Kampf, people “more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

In other words, if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. This depressing observation has served the enemies of religion very well, allowing the “religion is the cause of most violence” trope to grow arms and legs. Like most big lies however, it is easily punctured. 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, over 177 years. Somewhere between 1 to 2 million died, many through starvation or disease en route to the Holy Land.

The Inquisition lasted from 1231 for several centuries across Europe and around 500,000 people were interrogated or questioned, of which some 2 per cent, 10,000 people, were tortured or killed. If we add in The Thirty Years War between 1618-48, 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 20th century the consensus amongst historians suggests around 60,000 people 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”.

Attacking and supressing religion leads to a well-worn and bloody path. The violence and bloodshed caused by the ruthless enforcement of state-sponsored atheism is truly chilling in its scale. Societies which have abandoned or banned religion in the modern era have all descended into tyranny, bloodshed and slaughter on an industrial scale.

A study by the University of Bradford’s Department for Peace Studies of the 32 wars of the 20th century found that just three conflicts had a significant religious dimension. The world wars, the Russian civil war which led to Stalin and the Chinese civil war which led to Mao, led between them to the deaths of 150m people. In other words, 75 per cent of all the deaths from war in the last century had nothing to do with religion, while tens of millions occurred in societies where atheism was brutally enforced.

As the Bradford University study suggests: if you think religion is violent – try atheism.

Peter Kearney is the press relations officer for the Scottish Catholic Media Office