Religion has caused more wars than anything else. Right? Judging by the talk floating around much of the internet, you’d think so. Of course, religious people- mostly Chrisitans, from what I’ve seen- deny this. On the other hand, I’ve heard it said that atheism is responsible for more deaths in the 20th century alone than religion caused in its whole history. Of course, atheists deny this. So what exactly is the truth, and does it matter?

I decided to do a little digging on this very interesting topic, and I’m forming a few ideas here. Granted, I’m not an expert on history, much less enough history to be able to give a comprehensive analysis of exactly how many deaths were caused by each group and why throughout all of human history. But I’m a pretty good closet philosopher, so here goes…

The first problem I see is that there is no distinction between what a religion’s holy books teach and what the followers themselves do. This is an important distinction, since the two are not always the same. For example, I came across a site that argued that contrary to what some argue, Hitler was not that much influenced by atheism, but his atrocities were due to his Christian upbringing. Why? Because a lot of Christians, including Luther, whom apparently was influential in Hitler’s thinking, were anti-Semitic. Of course, the Bible itself is hardly anti-Semitic- heck, the Jews are God’s chosen people, for the love of Mike. True Christianity is therefore not anti-Semitic, though some Christians can be, generally due to misinformation or cultural influences. Thus, while Hitler may have been influenced by Christians, he was not influenced by Christianity. Perhaps some Christians encouraged him to hate Jews, but that belief is against Biblical teachings.

For atheism, this is a little harder to peg,  because unlike most religions, atheists can believe pretty much whatever they want and there’s no real guidelines to compare it to. You can tell if a Christian is living up to the Bible’s teachings, and the same goes for most other religions, but with atheists, there aren’t really any accepted teachings to serve as a standard.  Because of that, one person’s atheism may lead them to just not care or be involved with religious discussions, another might be a total nihilist, another becomes a militant atheist trying to rid the world of religion, etc. Still, though, while a person’s atheism may not necessarily lead them to do bad things, it certainly doesn’t preclude them from doing so. A large number of people seem to think that because atheism is just a lack of belief in the supernatural or deities, that nothing can truly be done in the name of atheism, but this is not true. An individual’s atheism can mean to them whatever they want it to mean, and if they decide it means that the best way to rid the world of destructive, irrational “religion” is to kill every religious person, that’s totally legit according to their own beliefs. Not that I’m saying that’s happened necessarily, just it’s not as impossible as many people seem to think it is.


The second problem is simply that of blaming the majority of the world’s strife on religion. For one, not all religions are the same. “Religion” encompasses a large number of highly varying belief systems, so to say that “religion” is responsible for anything is ridiculous, especially in conjunction with the previous point. It seems that in most discussions, “religion” refers to Christianity, or occasionally Islam; it’s rarely used to refer to Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, etc. Also, it ignores the fact that many, many problems are caused by greedy, self-serving governments, militias that want power and prestige, poor economic and social policy decisions and the resulting fighting over resources, and just plain hate of various kinds of people. Honestly, do people really think that if there was no religion, that these problems would just disappear? Do they really think that religious differences are the only thing that can cause one group to hate or hurt another? Do they really think that other ideologies and agendas can’t divide people?

Also, the people debating this point tend to separate political institutions from ideological beliefs for their own group, but not for others. The easiest way to say it is that religious and atheist people have been responsible for atrocities, but not necessarily due to their religion or atheism. True,  Stalin was an atheist, and yes, he killed jillions of people. Mao, Pol Pot, and others are the same. Did they kill people in the name of atheism? Not really; though their atheism was certainly an important part of their political ideologies, it’s true that it’s mostly cos religion posed a threat to the total power of the state, more than that they were eradicating religion in favour of their atheism. The same is true for many of the “religious atrocities” people like to list. They forget that the Catholic Church was as much a political as a religious entity in the Middle Ages. The Crusades? They were taking the land back from the Muslims who had recently conquered it. The Inquisitions? Totally about solidifying the Church’s power; I mean, the first Inquisition was against Christians who wanted to read the Bible themselves. Just as there’s more than atheism behind the actions of Stalin or Mao, there’s more than Christianity behind the actions of the Medieval Catholic Church.

I think the best solution is to say that anyone is capable of atrocities, and that ANY ideology can be used- even warped- to further the agenda of those in power.  Blaming war on atheists or theists is pointless and only serves to distract us from real issues and make us feel comfortable that our way is superior, when really it’s unrealistic and increases feelings of hostility between different groups of people. I’m all for thinking through your beliefs and knowing your history. But we should be realistic as well.