One of the forums I visit online recently got into a debate about the role of religion in clinical psychology. One of the people in the discussion made the claim that “Religion is responsible for more death than anything else in the world.” The way this was phrased triggered a critical response in me. I’ve heard statements similar to this one in the past and generally accepted them without giving it any real thought. This time I began to disassemble the statement and break it down, and think I may have completely destroyed a belief that I’ve held mistakenly since at least high school.
If I asked everyone reading this to tell me what was wrong with the statement, “Religion is responsible for more death than anything else in the world,” most of you would be able to find something wrong with it. The thing that struck me is that it doesn’t differentiate between plants, animals, or people, so it could easily be shown that more death is caused in the name of dinner than of religion. It also occurred to me that throughout the course of this planet, disease, famine, or natural disasters could each account for more deaths than religion.
Rather than get into a semantic argument about this particular iteration of this phrase, I began to question the idea behind it. Specifically, that more bloodshed has been carried out in the name of religion, than any other cause. To start with I began looking for figures on death tolls for the greatest atrocities in human history. Not surprisingly, the 20th Century was probably the bloodiest century ever in terms of deaths from genocide, mass murder, and war. The worst atrocities during this 100 year period include World Wars I and II, The Russian Revolution, the Regimes of Stalin and Mao Zedong. All totaled these account for nearly 150 Million deaths, nearly 75% of which comes from Communist Russia and China, whose leaders as communists were atheists and not killing in the name of religion. One could argue that the Jews exterminated by Hitler during WWII were killed because of their ethnicity, and not specifically their religion, but even if you exclude the six million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis, the non-religious death toll for the century is still nearly 144 Million.
Now consider two events that most people think of when they here about atrocities carried out in the name of religion: The Crusades, and the Inquisition. During the 200 years of the Christian Crusades anywhere from 1 to 5 Million people were killed. While the 400 years of Spanish Inquisition resulted in the deaths of anywhere from 10,000 to 350,000. The ranges of these figures is rather extreme, but even if you accept the high estimates for both, arguably the bloodiest episodes in religious history represent a fraction of those killed for reasons other than religion in the 20th Century.
I could go on with the numbers, but they are quite boring. If you are interested, I have posted links to a couple of sources at the bottom of the post with figures for some of the greatest atrocities in human history. If you look at the sources, you will find that religion has been a relatively insignificant factor in these events. Land acquisition, territorial expansion, and religious ideologies have all played a far more significant impact in mass killing than any other cause including religion.
Ultimately, we can never really know how many deaths have been caused by people acting in the name of religion. Humans have been killing each other since our earliest ancestors began walking upright. For almost as long the humans have held some kind of religious belief. It would impossible to determine how many times, throughout human history, one man has taken the life of another because of some religious conviction. As such, the statement that “religion is responsible for more deaths than anything else” can be nothing more than rhetoric, with no basis in fact.
Lastly, I hope that my readers do not feel I am in any way trying to diminish the significance of the deaths caused by people acting in the name of religion. I am appalled by anyone who professes peace yet bombs abortion clinics, or coerces followers to drink the poisoned kool-aid, or flies jets full of passengers into buildings full of office workers. I disdain politicians for whom religion is just another badge they must wear to further their vain ambitions. Yet, in spite of these radicals, I have hope that religion can and will change the world for the better. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 78 years old yesterday. He managed to effect change through his practice of non-violent resistance. A policy he adopted based on his readings of Mahatma Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, and Jesus Christ. Evil people use religion for evil purposes, righteous people use it for righteous purposes. My hope is that the righteous will prevail.