Atheism, Religion

This Thing about Atheists and Genocide

In this post I’m going to try to construct a rather nuanced point, that requires more than two steps of logical reasoning to get from the premises to the conclusion.

I’m told that people have a hard time following such reasoning, but I have a lot of faith in Rogue Priest readers so I’m going to try it anyway.

The Problem

As the the current atheist movement has grown—which is a good thing, bully for them—it has experienced the same growing pains as any movement.

One of which is a few loudmouthed assholes talking like they lead the whole darn parade.

These assholes have made it increasingly common for atheist books, blogs and discussion boards to say things like:

Religion causes wars and genocide.

I’ll never know why a smart atheist would try arguments like this. Atheists have a shiny, beautiful win button they can use any time. If you’re an atheist and you’re reading this, repeat after me:

There is absolutely no evidence for any gods of any kind.

That’s your gold standard. That is solid, rocket-fueled victory in a single sentence. No theist can argue against that; if they try, just stand back and watch them sputter.

Since you guys have a win button, it’s a little, well, dumb to say things like, “If there’s a God he’s a bastard” or “Religion causes genocide.” These are philosophic arguments with arguable evidence and subjective outcomes. You’ll never demonstrate you’re right. Instead your opponents just reinforce their own views as they whack away at you.

Nonetheless this whole religion-genocide thing has seen a real uptick. For many of the hostile atheists I’ve met, it’s their favorite indictment of religion.

Which is alarming, because it’s poor thinking.

The Facts

In the real world where non-ideologues live, genocide and war are caused by a matrix of social, economic and political factors. The slogan on the campaign poster seldom bears any relation to the actual benefit being reaped by those who advocate or instigate aggression. In other words, the Crusades, the slave trade and the colonization of India (for example) had a whole lot of Rah-Rah-Christianity-Rah in their ad campaigns but were motivated by non-religious factors.

At least, that was my hypothesis.

I thought that if my hypothesis were true, then history would show equally atrocious events perpetrated by atheists. So a couple years back I decided to bone up on my history.

It turns out that equally horrible crimes against humanity have been committed by strictly atheist regimes including the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. China is a particularly strong example, because their (re)conquest of Tibet had an explicitly atheist objective. The Tibetans were “superstitious” and that apparently justified execution without trial of monks, destruction of cultural centers and artwork, and the wholesale massacre of human beings.

I admit my examples of atheist atrocities are limited to communist regimes, which could be called a weakness of my argument. I view it as a statistical necessity. There just haven’t been any strong pro-atheist regimes except communists—yet. As time goes on and the strength of atheism grows, I have every confidence (shudder) that we’ll see equal horrors at the hands of atheist ideologues of other stripes.

The Objection

For the past year or so I’ve used this fact repeatedly when talking about religion and atheism. I’ve cited the atrocities of the Soviets and Chinese as an example of atheist atrocities, and I could probably add the acts of Vietnamese and Korean regimes as well.

In the last two months something interesting started to happen.

Almost echoing each other, multiple atheists have taken deep offense at my analysis. Their reaction is something like:

Those are the actions of government regimes that have nothing to do with mainstream atheism. Most atheists would never support anything like that, and fuck you for saying otherwise.

Except I never said otherwise.

I use these examples to show that atheist idealogues (and religious ideologues) are equally likely to commit atrocities: atheists (and religious folks) as a whole are completely innocent of such horrors, because it’s a perversion and misuse of atheism (and religion).

That’s the whole point.

The Jab

In a way It’s almost amusing that atheists get offended by this, because they’ve been making the same fallacy toward religions for some time now. The typical religious person doesn’t support the Crusades or the Jihad any more than the typical atheist supports the Holodomor. And the theocrats who organize(d) the Crusades/Jihad are lying bastards with their own agenda, just like Mao.

But the total innocence of religion-overall never stopped Dawkins and other lauded atheist leaders from slandering faith as the root of genocide.

And dear atheists, if it hurts a little to receive the same unfair treatment, honestly I’m not a bit sympathetic.


But here’s where it gets nuanced. I could end the blog post with that “not sympathetic” line: it’d get scores of huzzahs from angry religious folks, a touch of trolling from angry atheists, and go viral from all the discussion. Pretty much a win if I rolled that way. But I want to go a step further.

The point I want to make—and always have tried to make with this topic—is not see how you like it, atheist bastard. And it certainly isn’t atheism causes war and genocide, the opposite fallacy.

It’s this:

War and genocide are endemic to humanity. War is waged for economic and political gain; genocide is waged when fear is the easiest way to control the masses.

In rare cases these real causes show through. The Holocaust is a blatant example, and I won’t say more. The genocide in Rwanda was mounted on racism and class inequality. The root cause of mass abuse of human beings is always money and control; personal beliefs are frosting.

The Crusades, Holodomor and conquest of Tibet are best interpreted along the same lines. We can hang any rhetoric or propaganda on it that we want. In a medieval Christian kingdom, that’s Jesus. In China, that’s ending superstition.

But it’s a cheap way to control a lot of people and as long as you credit it as the real motivation, you’re falling for that same cheap trick yourself.

I’d like to think most of us are smarter than an 11th century pope. War and genocide aren’t caused by religion, and they’re not caused by atheism. But atheists and the pious will equally cheer for it if it fills the right bank accounts.

So maybe just use a little goddamn discretion, huh?


82 thoughts on “This Thing about Atheists and Genocide

  1. And the recent slaughter in the Darfur region was committed by Arabic Muslims against black African Muslims.

    I don’t remember, did the Pol Pot regime use religion in their ideology? Or were they claiming “anti-superstition” in their reasoning?

  2. “The typical religious person doesn’t support the Crusades or the Jihad any more than the typical atheist supports the Holodomor.”


    But the average atheist doesn’t say he holds to the lessons of a book that DOES support things like Crusades or Jihads.

    It’s great that religious people have evolved beyond their own scripture. But as long as that scripture is given respect, it will assist in justifying the acts of extremists.

    • Religions and their scripture are much like the people that created them and wrote the scripture. It is fallible. With all of it’s contradictions and redundancies, it provides a very convenient and readily available excuse for many “wrong” choices made my humanity.

      That is just it though, it is convenient. Remove scripture and humanity would have found another excuse for their actions. Or (conspiracy alert!) we would create an excuse.

      Removing scripture and religions would not solve anything and putting the “blame” on it is misplaced.

        • Untrue. Just because something is used as an excuse does not mean that it is responsible for the atrocities committed in it’s name. The choice to use was made by a human being (or group of).

          To say that something with no consciousness or sentience of it’s own is responsible for the actions of humanity has no basis in any logical thought.

          Religion (and it’s corresponding scripture) is only a tool. Like any other tool it can be used for many possible ends, either good or bad. The choice is made by those wielding the tool. To place any portion of the blame on the tool is to give excuse to the person using the tool.

          “The gun made me do it.”
          “The knife made me do it.”
          “The candle stick made me do it.” Col. Mustard, in the Study.
          . . .
          “God made me do it.”

          • “Just because something is used as an excuse does not mean that it is responsible for the atrocities committed in it’s name.”

            Completely responsible? No.

            But if a book says ‘kill all witches’, it isn’t without blame if people go around killing witches.

            If the book didn’t say to kill anyone, then it has no responsibility. But it does, and therefore is at least in part to blame.

            • *sigh* I have stared at this screen trying to decide whether to respond or just leave it . . . I usually keep my mouth shut when it comes to theological discussions that could possibly bleed into religion. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good discussion/debate. I actually enjoy them. I just usually keep my mouth shut. I also don’t care to re-argue an issue such as this that has been argued for centuries before we all were born and still has no resolution.

              . . . damn bloggers that make you think! (Yeah, I’m looking at you Drew!) LOL!

              You bring up a very “sticky” argument in my opinion. Were I in your position and arguing your point, I would not have used this.

              Let me first state that I am not a christian and I do not particularly care for the religion. I do know people who actively call themselves “christians” and respect them for the way they live their lives. They believe that to be a christian you must attempt to be like Jesus. Whether or not he was the son of a high being, he was one hell of a guy. Buddha was also one hell of a guy as well (he just never had to claim divinity).

              As for the scripture that people love to quote when discussing witches, neo-pagans and the like. . . you using that piece of scripture is about as bad as the christians who use it to justify the killing of innocent people.

              The original text is written in Hebrew. Of which there are two possible translations of the script. One possible translation is that one should not allow to live someone who casts evil spell intended to harm others. The other translation is that someone who casts evil spells intended to harm others has no power over your life (ie: their magic can’t harm a believer).

              There are many that shun the modern/well known translation. There are also many that disregard the old testament as “out dated”. Yet there are many that still cling to that popular translation as a way to justify their hate, greed, jealousy, rage. . . etc.

              I do not believe that the religion itself can be blamed for that.

              The people that mistranslated it (long dead) and the people that continue to perpetuate the incorrect interpretation can be blamed. But those that call themselves christians and reject that which others would adhere . . . they cannot be blamed. To lay the blame on the religion/text is to blame them as well.

              • “Yet there are many that still cling to that popular translation as a way to justify their hate, greed, jealousy, rage. . . etc. ”


                And my point is, if the book didn’t exist, or wasn’t given a high place by others, then they wouldn’t have that book to use as justification.

                Certainly, they could have used something else. Just as a murderer who doesn’t have a gun can use a knife. But you can kill more people with a gun than a knife, and you can convince more people to follow you based on a respected book than on one that is looked at critically.

                “But those that call themselves christians and reject that which others would adhere . . . they cannot be blamed.”

                I never said ‘blame the Christians’. I said blame the religion. They are not the same thing.

            • In the case I assume you are referring to – the Bible – the book says to kill witches, but it also says not to kill anyone at all and to forgive all your enemies.

              Since the scripture has almost no substantive consistency, reading it as an injunction to commit genocide is misreading it.

              Your selective reading of its message is rather disturbing, as is the selective reading of fundamentalist Christians.

              • Paul Hartzer says:

                When you say the Bible says not to kill anyone at all, to what verse are you referring? If it’s Exodus 20:13 (Deuteronomy 5:17), that’s not what it says. Actually, Exodus 20:13 is vacuous, because it says not to kill someone in a way that’s forbidden (i.e., to murder them), which is silly because it’s already a forbidden act.

                If there’s another verse or passage you’re thinking of, though, I’m curious.

                • Actually Paul that is indeed the passage I had in mind. Now that you mention it I recall my (Jewish) philosophy of religion professor saying the same thing, that it specifically prohibits murder rather than all killing. Points to you my friend.

                  With that said, I still maintain that the Bible lacks a consistent substantive message, at least when the New Testament is included. Many of Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness and peace simply do not jive with “stone this person, kill that person and conquer nonbelievers.”

                  • Paul Hartzer says:

                    I agree that there are plenty of places where the message is either muddied or downright contradictory; as well, there are plenty of places where some Christians go to great pains to cherry pick for their own agenda, such as those who pull out Romans 1:27 when writing anti-gay screeds but can’t read down a few verses to Romans 1:29-31.

                    Christianity has largely retained its popularity, I think, because it can be so easily molded to particular individual’s needs. People who want a moral compass founded in compassion, understanding, and charity can easily find it; people who want a God who “did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34), he’s there, too.

  3. Great post Drew. I have always felt much the same way about the subject myself.

    The one thing the whole humanity seems to have in common, despite what banner we chose to fly above our heads, is that we always think we are right. We are right and that automatically means that the other person is wrong, and we can’t stand the thought that someone else thinks we are wrong.

    I know a great many of people who do not think this way and have broken out of the mold, but it seems that the whole still keeps this way of thinking. People may think what they wish, but it is my opinion that this is the cause of a lot of the horrors we have committed throughout time.

    • Thanks Sean. I completely agree.

      And I don’t see the atheist movement doing anything to try to overcome that common human failing. In fact, regretfully I’d say it’s fanning the flames in the other direction.

  4. FeRDNYC says:

    You’ve been talking to some surprising people, it seems to me.

    First off, I don’t know many people who would say “religion causes wars and genocide”. That’s naive and simplistic, it just sounds silly.

    There are people (myself included) who have been known to point to the many wars and other atrocities that have been committed in the name of religion; over the course of human history they really add up.

    Was religion “just an excuse”? Probably, at least some of the time. Without religion as convenient justification, would they simply have found another reason? That’s less clear. For many acts of national aggression, absolutely — no question. But for something like the Spanish Inquisition? Can we really let religion off the hook as “just an excuse”, there?

    I’m not an Atheist Crusader™ like the ones you’re addressing in this post. So, I don’t particularly care whether or not there’s a god, and I certainly don’t care about trying to argue that point. As you say, there’s simply no evidence, and that’s the end of that debate. But like I said, god isn’t the issue for me.

    I find myself, more and more as I get older, having a problem with organized religion. Itself. God or no god. God is irrelevant in most discussions about religion, honestly, which is why I found your first argument so surprising. But it’s religion that’s the real problem.

    I have a problem with organizations that hold themselves up as having the only map to supposed eternal salvation. I have a problem with “join us or burn in hell” as a recruitment tactic. I have a problem with religions that claim the storybook-of-dubious-authorage they’ve adopted as their manual represents the “word of god” (you know, the conspicuously evidence-lacking one), or that claim they have some sort of direct line to know the mind, will, or intentions of this supposed almighty. I have an immense problem with organizations that elevate this storybook so high, they think (or lead others to think) that the things in that book still apply, directly, to their lives today, despite being thousands of years out of context. I have problems with any organization that’s in the business of telling people what to believe, honestly. And I have a problem with the fact that they’ve made that a BIG business, one which has managed to keep those organizations rather comfortably well-off for a very long time.

    Not all of these things apply to all churches, or all religions, of course! Heck, maybe there’s a religion to which none of them apply to. And even when they do apply, it’s often not universal. Sometimes, the faithful are led astray by a corrupt religious leader, one who abuses the power and the influence of the church to further their own agenda. Religions are run by fallible humans, of course. (Oops! Catholicism excepted — sorry, your Popeulence! Forgot about your hall pass.)

    But that’s sort of the point. A religion is run by men (overwhelmingly; that should piss people off, too, the whole sausage-fest problem) — generally old, generally out-of-touch, generally white men. And that fogey brigade is given far too much influence over people’s lives, based on a completely unfounded claim: That they have an “in” with god.

    It’s just plain dangerous, and damaging to society, that people eschew critical thinking and open-mindedness in favor of, “Let me read this 2000 year old book, follow it literally (except when it’s inconvenient), and go to this old, celibate drag queen for advice if I still have any questions. Life plan!”

    A more enlightened religion, that didn’t fall into the traps I listed, I could maybe get behind. One that set the tone for the relationship, by making very clear right from the beginning: “We can’t tell you anything about god, and we have no more knowledge than anyone else does regarding anything beyond our everyday existence here, in this life, in this physical reality. But we’ve thought about it a lot, and maybe come up with some good ideas.” I’d love to see a religion built on that sort of principle. I’d love even more if it attracted more than 10 people, but I’m not gonna get my hopes up there.

    Religions market themselves as possessing secrets about our existence because that’s what people want out of a religion, of course. Giving the people what they want is the first rule of marketing, and the church is VERY good at marketing. Why would they walk away from a trump card like that? Gotta fill the pews!

    As you write above, “it’s a cheap way to control a lot of scared people”. As accurate a description of religion as any I’ve seen. So… somebody help me out. How is this not a problem?

    • jenincanada says:

      Maybe you should read about Paganism a bit (if you haven’t already-it has many branches). It doesn’t fall into any of the ‘traps’ you mention; no overarching organization, no salvation, no 1 true path, no singular work of literature, no big business attitude, and certainly no problems with science and open-mindedness.

    • But for something like the Spanish Inquisition? Can we really let religion off the hook as “just an excuse”, there?

      Hmm. Good question. I’ve been doing a little thought exercise to try to answer it. I’m trying to picture a different extra-governmental, international body in medieval Europe, with its own paramilitary and judicial powers and the ability to influence rulers, just like the Church of Rome, except not religious. Flavor it any way you want: an international security group or a powerful merchant organization.

      if such a non-religous organization had existed, and saw its power and financial basis slipping as the middle ages drew to a close, would it too have used torture, execution and fear to get its way?

      I’m just guessing, but probably.

      I find myself, more and more as I get older, having a problem with organized religion. Itself. God or no god.

      I’ve never seen the utility of condemning organized religion. I draw a distinction between good organization and bad organization. Organizing brings many benefits especially on the local level.

      A more enlightened religion, that didn’t fall into the traps I listed, I could maybe get behind. One that set the tone for the relationship, by making very clear right from the beginning: “We can’t tell you anything about god, and we have no more knowledge than anyone else does regarding anything beyond our everyday existence here, in this life, in this physical reality. But we’ve thought about it a lot, and maybe come up with some good ideas.” I’d love to see a religion built on that sort of principle.

      I’m glad that there are, in fact, many religions set up that way. I’m proud to say the Old Belief is one of them, but Vodou and many flavors of polytheist and animist religions also fit the bill. Someone else below mentioned Neopaganism and that does it, too.

      As you write above, “it’s a cheap way to control a lot of scared people”. As accurate a description of religion as any I’ve seen. So… somebody help me out. How is this not a problem?

      It is a problem, and it is not a description of religion. It’s a description of propaganda.

      Thanks for your measured reply, Ferd. Many good points and well taken.

  5. Really awesome post! I’ve had fleeting similar thoughts, but definitely not as in-depth or tie-together as this.

    The problem is many people are lazy (myself included.) Creating and supporting and argument takes a lot of thought and effort.

    And some people are a lot smarter or have more influence than others.

    You know what causes wind? One large factor is the unequal heating of the Earth. Whenever balance is disturbed, there will be turbulence.

  6. jenincanada says:

    I am so sick and fucking tired of the ‘all religions are bad because religion is bad’ argument from atheists, the ‘anyone who believes in a god/s or has faith is a moron’ stance, the smug superiority of those I’ve spoken with, and ESPECIALLY the lumping together of ALL people’s of faith, all faiths, and all of history, as one giant hegemonic pile. Direct your ire towards those who actually deserve it and make specific arguments if you must. Quit lumping me, a Pagan, in with the pedeophile priests and Crusaders, the Muslim men who beat their wives and disfigure their daughters, etc etc etc. There are bad apples in every barrel, and some barrels have more bad apples than others, but it’s not the barrel that’s the problem, it’s the apples.

  7. Jonathan Figdor says:

    Interesting article, but I think you have to take seriously the damage done using the Bible, Qu’ran, and other religious texts as justification. True, humans would commit acts of violence even without these religious texts. But these texts don’t make our situation any easier. And the deeper problem is that many believers see these books as perfect, without error. This is not a claim made by secular authors about their books. The problem isn’t truly religion, but something that lies at the core of religious belief: accepting truth claims without sufficient evidence.

    • Thanks for your reply Jonathon. I do actually agree that having scripture that is treated as divine revelation is a drawback and causes more problems than it’s worth. I’m proud to belong to a religion that has no scripture and treats all of its traditional myths as metaphors rather than truth.

      With that said, I think we also need to take seriously how committed strong atheists are to the idea that they are Right and others are Wrong. I could try to go down the “atheists don’t have sufficient evidence for all their beliefs either” path but I think that’s more trouble than it’s worth: the fact is that once you believe you have the only acceptable interpretation of the universe and that other viewpoints have no value, you’re at a huge risk to mistreat your fellow human beings.

      By the way I spotted your tweet and would love to talk further sometime to get a better sense of what it was that put you off.

      • Jonathan Figdor says:

        Hey Drew, after I cleaned up after I threw up in my mouth a little, the first time I read about “the heroic life,” I read the section, and I think you’ve got a pretty smart perspective. I can see how you’ve borrowed from Greek antiquity and maybe from the Stoics as well to develop this heroic life philosophy. I think that a life based on ” answer[ing] my own prayers” and “liv[ing] a life so exciting and worthwhile that I’ll have no regrets” is quite laudable. I think it might help to develop another way of talking about it, because calling it the Heroic Life makes it sound a little to much like you’re declaring yourself a hero. And let’s be honest, calling oneself a hero is a pretty arrogant thing to say. I get that that isn’t your message, but that’s the impression it gives at first glance.

  8. Jonathan Figdor says:

    Oh, also, the problem with the examples of evil Atheist states is not that they are Communistic. It is that they are TOTALITARIAN. Stalin and KJI (North Korea) cultivated the myth of their supernatural power. In North Korea, Kim Il Sung and the rest of the North Koreans continue to venerate Kim Jong Il as a god. I’m not that familiar with Chinese history, so a Mao scholar would be helpful, but I vaguely recollect from history classes that Mao also attained an almost god-like power in his regime.

    • Point well taken, but I would say the majority of the nations who started religious wars were also totalitarian, or perhaps better described as proto-totalitarian (mostly feudal monarchies). A horrible system of government and an unquestioned leader only underscore the fact that atheism and religion may not be the real problem.

  9. Urban Haas says:

    Ha ha ha ha ha! Oh Drew, I love you!

    As a priest, I object. Whilst many may first think of today’s mainstream religions, I’m sure Ishtar’s got your number and is now gunning for you (or riding in on a chariot to claim your head as a trophy).

    While I cannot claim to live in times gone by and can only know them by their stories, there was a time where the high priest or priestess — and many times the king — was the word of God. Or at least the word went from God, to them, to the people. I have to assume that war in the name of religion has a long and glorious past. (Now imagine Vicini saying this.)

    While that may or may not be true, for religions to stay relevant, they must change. People change, society changes. People fear others. Fear is related to suspicion, suspicion causes unfortunate 17 year olds to get shot in gated communities, or Jews gassed by Nazis, or insert bad thing here.

    But I love your second part, because it’s equally compelling. My better half does inter-faith and non-faith outreach and dialogue. The hardest people to reach: atheists. They don’t want to dialogue with those of less than little faith. They are suspicious, close-minded (in terms of religious belief), nasty, mean (not all of them mind you). They refuse to join discussion. They are suspicious. They are fearful: those religious ideas will corrupt their youth. This path will cause history to repeat itself — again. Atheists can also lead to heated hatred, name calling and I’m sure that road will lead to violence. Yes, I agree with your stance on communism: it has.

    Some will say they are ideologues of a different nature: a political one. But there are some closer to home that are just as virulent.

    These things being said, some atheists are real thinkers and genuine communicators. I respect anyone that will have a decent argument and be open enough to partake in one. These same flaws and virtues can also be found among the religious. They can be rare or plentiful. They can be educated or based in faith or belief. The quality that makes it meaningful is an openness to discuss, debate, listen and talk — all without proselytizing. Many have trouble listening.

    People can be horribly violent creatures. Religions that have any age to them have made mistakes, been corrupt (in whole or in part) and hopefully evolve (meaning change, not progress).

    Have the Gods caused war? Well the epics say so. Have people caused war in the name of God? I think so. Have atheists killed in the name of atheism, I believe so. Should killing stop — mostly yes. For the most part I’m against war, unless it’s necessary to stop oppression. I have come to the conclusion there are some valid reasons for war. (Or we’d live in England, or Rome or communism or whatever would lay flag on this spot.)

    @FeRDNYC: “’We can’t tell you anything about god, and we have no more knowledge than anyone else does regarding anything beyond our everyday existence here, in this life, in this physical reality. But we’ve thought about it a lot, and maybe come up with some good ideas.’ I’d love to see a religion built on that sort of principle.”

    These religions exist — and have drawn more than 10 people. In some cases, millions, others hundreds of millions. Find them if you’re interested, they’re out there.

    As for me, I’ve been around the block a few times. I’ve followed 5 religions at different times, if you count my period of agnosticism, before coming to where I am today. For me the golden rule of a following a religion: question everything! Only in critical questioning of what you’re being told, critical reasoning of your own beliefs, can you start to understand what you actually believe, and just as importantly what you don’t. I hope atheists can do that as well. Question religion, question science, question atheism. Question it all — push through the darkness — and see if there’s anything on the other side.

    I found something, maybe you won’t. They are all still valid ways of living if you ask me. I’ll respect you, all I ask is you respect me back.

    Great post Drew, it raised good comments.

    • Thanks for your great insights Urban.

      I have to assume that war in the name of religion has a long and glorious past.

      I can’t disagree. My point is that all those wars were mostly about money, land and political power. The same wars or similar would have happened if Sumeria never had a Temple of Ishtar and instead had a Dawkins Reading Room.

        • Because there is a one-way transparency between religious and politico-economic motivations for war.

          Usually if a war claims a religious motive, you can at a glance identify additional economic or political benefits. The First Crusade is a good example of this.

          However, when a war claims an economic or political motive, there may be no clear additional religious grounds. Genghis Khan is a good example of this.

          This leads me to believe that a politico-economic motivation is a sufficient and necessary cause of a war, whereas religion can only be a contributing cause.

          I’m open to your thoughts on this.

      • Drew, I hear what you’re saying: that the major factor for war wasn’t really about religion, but actually it was just the mantra to sell it to the masses. It’s like saying the civil war was about slavery — while there is truth to it, there were other issues.

        However, that’s from the leader’s point of view — the package they sold to the masses may have been simply religion. From their perspective — that’s all it was about.

        • Hmm. I think this is a really good point. But don’t you think that if the masses hadn’t been religious, the leaders would have just used something else to sell it?

  10. MercyFire says:

    Dear Drew,
    Thank you for the ample food for thought. As a new reader I look forward to more from you and your readership.
    And as I’m here I may as well add my two cents by saying I have found it personally very easy to sympathize with an individual, and with equal ease judge and condemn his society.

    • Welcome to Rogue Priest, Mercy! And thank you for your comment. That’s a really potent way to look at it.

      I think I’ve fallen into that trap many times myself. Or perhaps it isn’t a trap… maybe it is a good way to separate a political issue from our humanity. How do you look at it?

  11. deeleigh says:

    Okay, so I read this post and thought “Well, obviously. Doesn’t everyone realize that?” I’m pretty much an athiest. At least, I don’t know what else I’d call myself. However, I was surprised to see that the comment thread is indeed full of people blaming religion for the nastiness that’s endemic in human nature. It’s true that having some kind of ideology as an excuse helps, but Nationalism or Communism will suit people just as well as religion. I should think would be obvious after the twentieth century.

    • Thanks Deeleigh. I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before, so welcome to Rogue Priest!

      Your comment really made me smile. In general I don’t like to write posts like this one. I’ve heard people making the religion-causes-wars argument more and more ever since 9/11. I kept thinking it was such a silly argument that surely it would just die out after a bit, surely I don’t have to explain to people why it’s not that simple.

      Nationalism is another great example. We could try to wipe that out too along with religion. I wonder what -isms would rise up to replace them as the new justification…

      • Jonathan Figdor says:

        Are you seriously arguing that religion is NOT a cause of wars? I’m with you that it isn’t the only cause of wars. But it would be ridiculous to claim that the Crusades didn’t have a religious motivation, or the Inquisition wasn’t religiously motivated.

        • I guess I would say that religion is a cause of wars only and exactly in the same way that an ink cartridge is a cause of printed documents. You can take out the ink cartridge and destroy it but as long as someone has other cartridges to choose from it won’t stop documents from getting printed.

  12. Oh, I wish I had more time today to leave a nice, long and thoughtful comment like I normally do, but right now too overwhelmed with responsibilities of my own. I just want to add that I agree, religion has often been the cover, or “frosting” as you put it, to mask the true intentions of why a government is going to war. However, I also agree with Urban, in more ancient times I believe that orders from God coming from an Oracle or Priest set in motion the tides of war.

    For example, from my studies on the Morrigan, that goddess was also a prophetess of the outcomes of battles. She knew which side would win and I’m sure those armies who had Her on their side were confident with all kinds of battle-frenzy because of that. Kinda nice to have a goddess like that when you’re off to war, right?

    I actually like the mainstream atheists who are very ethical. But even among them there is expressed a hatred for religion. If they are truly ethical, you would think they would use the more rational route to present their philosophy. However, using foul language and shock and talking with lots of sour attitude makes me lose any respect I would like to foster with them. We should also remember to not to the same with them. Let’s not antagonize the rabble! Just some gentle advice.

  13. Hallo! I haven’t read all your comments but I wanted to praise your post. I admit, I’m a religious person. I don’t know why I feel the need to say that, but I do. But I’m tired of my beliefs being blamed for so many atrocities, especially being Pagan.

    The fact of the matter is, people are dicks and power corrupts. But I’d like to think that as this gets discussed more and more, solutions will be found. I have hope for the evolution of the human species, though sometimes I suspect war and genocide are our species’ method of population control.

    • Thanks Fae. I have hope for us too. I think that the more we focus on providing all people with ample access to vital resources, the less outright war we’ll see. Of course that leaves many other societal problems…

  14. Many thanks to all readers, both those who agree and disagree with me, for keeping this conversation all in all very reasonable and level headed. I love having a place to discuss these things and have my own ideas tested and sometimes broken, where it all happens respectfully.

  15. Pingback: NonProphet Status » Blog Archive » Good > Without God

  16. Some good comments here Drew, I’m new to your blog via @mloigeret.

    If you haven’t already, I’d check out Alain de Botton’s book: Religion for Atheists.

    On Atheists repeating after you: “There is absolutely no evidence for any gods of any kind.” I’m not too sure about this, I’m more inclined to lean on fact and science, but wouldn’t rule out any holy gods as I travel through India.

    On religion not having a hand in war & genocide, I’d raise the issue of Zionist Jews muscling in and reclaiming their religious state of Palestine?

    I agree that religion is the first flag raised by a lot of people, blaming war & genocide, when really humans and humans, and are ultimately the problem.

    Thanks for writing this.

    • Hi Andrew, and welcome to Rogue Priest!

      You wrote:

      I’m more inclined to lean on fact and science, but wouldn’t rule out any holy gods as I travel through India.

      That’s fair, but that doesn’t mean there’s evidence for them. I should clarify that when I say “there is no evidence for any gods” I mean observable, testable evidence. Many people have powerful personal experiences but those serve in no way as evidence for the existence of the gods. It’s worth noting that I personally worship and offer to my gods despite not knowing if they’re objectively real: lack of evidence does not have to be a reason for lack of spiritual practice.

      About Israel, I’m not well educated about current events there but I would direct you to the one-way transparency theory that I gave Jonathon above. In short: when people claim a religious motive for war you can also find a politico-economic motive underneath it; but the reverse is not always true. So it makes the most sense to view religion as, at most, a contributing cause and not the primary one.

      I’m definitely open to other views on that, though.

      • Jonathan Figdor says:

        It’s Jonathan, just for the record. And I’m not sure this is true. What was the secular underlying reason of the Witch Burnings in Salem, Mass? What was the secular reason underlying the killing of Jews in the Holocaust? Hitler was a Christian. His soldiers wore belts with “Gott mit uns” or “God is with us,” and most of the German churches embraced Nazism (heck the Pope even said a special mass for Hitler’s b-day). So no, I don’t think it is well established at all that there is always a secular reason underlying religious conflicts. I think that some conflicts are religious in nature, such as the ridiculous and competing claims to the holy land by Jews and Muslims in Israel.

        • Paul Hartzer says:

          Historians are divided on the Salem witch trials. While some agree that it was religious fervor at its worst, medical explanations include ergot poisoning and conversion disorder coupled with mass psychogenic illness (google “conversion disorder LeRoy” for another possible case). Also, as a technical point, the Salem victims were hanged, not burned.

          Hitler was only nominally a Christian; he used that as the leverage to convince many people to join him, but he severed ties with the Church fairly early on. His philosophy treated Judaism as a race more than as a religion. After Jews, Poles and Romani (“Gypsies”) were the most heavily targeted for the camps, and most of them were Christian. The predominant cause behind Hitler’s mercurial rise were the same sort of economic concerns (tied with xenophobia) that drive the English First/anti-Latino immigration hostilities today in the US.

          I agree that there are some conflicts that are predominantly based on different religions, just as there are some conflicts that are based on different group membership of a variety of types, but I also think it’s simplistic to think that both Salem and Nazism were simply about religion.

        • Paul Hartzer says:

          Thinking about it some more, I think an argument could be made that a significant portion of the modern Middle East conflicts that predate the oil economy are about fighting over limited resources and ethnic identification that happens to align with religious identification. I don’t know enough about the Crusades to comment definitively, but I do think a key difference that makes the Crusades more religious in nature is that it was a case of people who didn’t live anywhere near the Fertile Crescent going there for the specific purpose of driving out the people who did, because those people happened to be of the wrong religion. To the extant that that’s a fair characterization, I’d say that’s a conflict based fairly solely on religion. In contrast, a group of Jews and a group of Muslims who are fighting over a plot of land that they both want to live on is partly a religious conflict, but is much more a conflict over limited resources.

          • I’d go a step further and say that the Crusades, even the first one, had a strong economic motive. The many lords and soldiers who responded to the call were well aware that conquering new lands meant creating new fiefs and earning land, wealth and titles – there was no illusion on this point.

            I heard from a friend who is a medievalist today. In the interest of disclosure he told me that whether the First Crusade had a sincere religious motive is still contentious among historians, but most of them generally accept that religion was indeed a cause of it.

            With that said, the presence of the strong financial incentive is not, I believe, controversial and served as a major motivation as well. I’ve asked him if he agrees with that and will pass the word on if I hear back.

        • Sorry Jonathan, I’ll be sure to spell it right from here on.

          Paul pretty much said it; you’re over-reducing very complex situations to a single causal factor which is in my opinion not a very accurate way to look at historical events.

          The only thing I’ll add is that I have absolutely no doubt you can find a handful of counter-examples. I should have written it more carefully as I did the first time: “Usually if a war claims a religious motive, you can at a glance identify additional economic or political benefits.” It’s a trend, not an absolute, but a pervasive one nonetheless.

          • Jonathan Figdor says:

            But this does entirely undermine your argument that therefore religion cannot be the root cause of human conflict. It absolutely is in certain cases, and it is fuel on the fire in many others.

            PS: Thanks for keeping engaged with the argument despite some pretty, let’s call it “trenchant” criticism from me at first.

            • If I was being Manichean then yes, it would undermine it. But I can accept that it’s a root cause in “in certain cases” (in theory, I have yet to see convincing examples) and still call atheists out for portraying it as categorical.

              The burden of proof here is on the subset of atheists who make this argument. If you want to tell people that religion is a major cause of wars, or that religion inherently causes war, show me the math. To support an argument like that you’d need to demonstrate that religion can commonly be a cause of war at the exclusion of other causes. Both of the italicized phrases are vital to supporting this particular atheist argument.

              When I bring this up people usually either cite cases where religion was one of a number of motivations for a war, indicating the war would have happened anyway; or try to find “purely religious” cases that end up looking pretty shaky (cf. Crusades, Middle East and Holocaust above). There just aren’t many to pick from that lack additional, much more practical motivations.

              When atheists try to use these examples to prove that religion causes wars, I have to assume they are at best not well informed about the historical context of said events, or in many cases they are simply bigoted.

              Re. the PS: Definitely. Actually I’m really enjoying this conversation. I’ve found you to be very respectful overall, which makes your arguments helpful to me. And the issue of coming off as claiming heroism is one that has only come up a few times – three people out of the thousands who have read my work – but I do worry about it. If you don’t mind, it’s something I might email you about.

              New PS: Based on your Harvard affiliation I assume you’re on the east coast. If that’s correct then based on your comment’s timestamp you must be a fellow night owl.

  17. Paul Hartzer says:

    In my opinion, the problem is dogmatism.

    I do not personally currently believe any sort of gods exist, but I’ve had other beliefs in the past. I might have other beliefs in the future. What beliefs others hold regarding the existence of gods is not particularly relevant to me. What’s relevant to me is how people treat each other, particularly how I treat others and how others treat me.

    If someone wants to believe in gods because it gives them comfort to do so and helps them have a sound moral compass, I say, wonderful. Go for it. Have at it. If someone uses belief in gods as a bludgeon or as a way to bilk others out of money or free will, shame on them.

    If someone wants to believe there is no god, or be indifferent to their existence, and they nonetheless behave in a moral way, huzzah. If they use their atheism or agnosticism in order to mock others, to be superior, to claim some sort of high ground, then they’re not the sort of person I care to be around myself, or to identify with. I have far more respect for the Dalai Lama than for Dawkins and Hitchens, not because of what they believe but because of how they treat others.

    I’ve presented arguments similar to yours to self-identifying atheists*, with regards to Stalin and Mao, and I was told in no uncertain terms that Stalin and Mao were religious, because they were dogmatic. They had created cults of personality with themselves as godheads. That is one way they choose to dodge the argument. It is, in my opinion, nonsense.

    What Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Torquemada, bin Laden, and so many others is dogmatism: Somehow, they managed to convince a large enough group of people to use an obscene amount of violence to defend a philosophy which happened to be rooted in scripture in some cases but happened to be rooted in some other nonsense in other cases. Dogmatism, not religion.

    * I tend to call myself a humanist because “atheist” has been so soundly claimed by the areligious bigots.

    • Paul Hartzer says:

      “What Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Torquemada, bin Laden, and so many others is dogmatism” should have had the word “share” in it, that is, “What Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Torquemada, bin Laden, and so many others share is dogmatism”.

    • I can’t disagree in any particular Paul. I think this sums it up beautifully well, and thank you for taking the time to write it.

      I find this especially interesting:

      I was told [by atheists] that Stalin and Mao were religious, because they were dogmatic.

      This strikes me as inconsistent with other arguments of atheists. Specifically, most strong atheists rankle at the idea that their strong atheism makes them religious, regardless of how it is organized or how doctrinal it can be. By stating that other secular philosophies/figures are religious because of dogmatism, they are taking an (inadvertent, presumably) step toward identifying atheism itself as religious.

      I haven’t encountered that argument from atheists myself. Fascinating.

  18. Rua Lupa says:

    This really pleased me to read this because I’ve been thinking the same thing for sometime. I first came across the religion=genocide argument when in college from a peer who had taught me everything I know in drumming, especially the subtle things that I had no idea I was doing that has a strong impact on the circle. I gained much from those lessons, and to see such vile thought from them was a bit shocking. Having been raised in a fundamental household and then found myself to believe otherwise, I know what its like on either end, and never thought of those atrocities to be so simply summarized like that. I always viewed as more complex, usually economically driven in some way or another. So it is good to read the thoughts of another who feels similar – that it has been over simplified and unjustifiably vilifying. It is best to step back and avoid seeing things as black and white, as most things are in the grey and rarely are so clear cut.

  19. Pingback: Atheist and their Communist beliefs | sonnynomo

  20. As an Atheist, this is a interesting post. Unlike other of my… simplistic friends(Atheists and Christians alike), this puts up a valid argument over whether religion causes war. I wouldn’t agree less, it isn’t the religion, though religion is often used as a scapegoat for the things they have done.

    • True. Thanks for the comment Bubb. Some of the discussion I had with my historian friend after writing this makes me think I overstated my case here, but in general I think the point is still more or less right – tyranny will use any powerful structure to get its way. In a world without religion, it will just use something else.

      • I want to jump back in here again, because I feel like this point (while completely valid) is still being wielded as some sort of absolution of religion, as though the fact that it’s not the sole excuse humanity has ever come up with for aggression and conflict somehow divorces it from those flames it has been used to fan. Except… IMHO that’s not a given; in fact, it’s something of a leap.

        You’re absolutely correct, religion is in no way required for people to find reasons to be awful to each other. Absent religion, there will be other motivators/scapegoats/excuses. In fact, several of the 20th Century alternatives have already been mentioned: Nazism. Fascism. Hard-Line “Red” Communism. All of these have played the “religion role”, in bringing about wars & atrocities.

        But, here’s the thing: Those are things that WE CONSIDER BAD. They’re generally seen as “not OK” things — not exclusively because of the conflict that’s been created at their behest, granted, but I think it would be hard to argue that’s not a factor.

        We don’t look at Nazism and just go, “Oh, well, they would have found another excuse for the Holocaust.” …So why does religion get a free pass?

        • A religious group or person shouldn’t get a free pass for anything – if indeed that religious group or person, for religious reasons or otherwise, commits an atrocity.

          But that’s the important part: if they do.

          Treating religions as monolithically responsible for atrocities is inaccurate. Your Nazi example is perfect: the Nazis should be (and were) held accountable for their actions, but it would be wildly speculative to say “Political regimes cause genocide” as if it’s a tendency of all of them. The same goes for treating it as a tendency of religion-as-a-whole.

          • You have something of a point, but socialism (as opposed to communism) isn’t intrinsically bad. Under the Soviet Regime, communism and socialism was mixed up about as much as religion and dogmatism typically are. Religious dogmatism, as with any dogmatism, is intrinsically bad, and I think religion : dogmatism :: socialism : Soviet communism is a fairer analogy than the one you’re making.

  21. Criswell Weatherman says:

    OMG! why would an atheist fall back on the classic “No True Scotsman” fallacy that they accuse theists of all the time?

  22. Criswell Weatherman says:

    I see the history of mankind as being mostly “You’re different. I must kill you now. Then came religion and it all changed to “You’re different. God says I must kill you now.” i see Communism as just a way to get back to that old time pre-religion.

  23. Dustin says:

    King Leopold I in the 1800’s over course of 15 years had 10 million Congo natives killed over rubber.
    The Napoleonic wars had nothing to do with religion.
    Conquests of Alexander the Great had nothing to do with religion.
    Ghengas Kahn killed what is believed to be 40 million people, without religious cause. He in fact was tolerant of religious views, but believed himself was a god. So unless you consider Ghengas Kahn a religion…
    The Punic wars, the peloponnesian war, the Persian wars ( Persians were tolerant of religions too). And the list goes on and on

    • A few instances of religious rooted Wars. Yellow turban war, American civil war( had religious ideology backing it), 30 years war. There are more but I see much more non religious motivated wars. Revolutionary war was about the Benjamin’s xD

  24. Kavod says:

    I have to point out that your “gold standard for a win”, while a conversation stopper, is actually a logical fallacy known as “argument from ignorance”. Or, as has been pointed out, “absence of evidence for a thing is not evidence of its absence”. Any theist of intelligence would not bother to argue the point. If god could be produced out of one’s pocket and subjected to scrutiny at will, it would not be god, but something belonging to the physical universe. One either believes or doesn’t, but the entire idea of “proving” the existence or non-existence of something deemed immeasurable and utterly alien to the material world is a bit ludicrous.

    Otherwise this is well argued. I would add to it though, that during at least one Crusade, the Pope at the time tried very hard to stop or divert it but the people, incited by a rogue priest (no pun intended, it really happened like that) would not be turned aside. It was not always “religious elites” deluding the poor, helpless, ignorant masses…some of the worse violence was done by mobs who were out of control and refusing to listen to, or obey, their own religious leaders. Sorry I can’t immediately find the information on which Crusade that was. I keep getting the Peace of God movement (middle ages) which is not quite what I wanted.

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