Monday, April 18, 2005

the role of religion

A recent quote made me want to pontificate again:

On the subject of religion, it was calmly and confidently stated that "No other cause in human history has resulted in as many killings."

To which I say, ballocks. I hear this all the time, and I've yet to see any statistics to back it up. It's like all the other things that float around in the national consciousness, unquestioned because we hear it so much. A couple hundred yrs ago a lot of white people were sure you couldn't hurt a black man by hitting him on the head -- it didn't matter that it was a phenominally ignorant idea -- stupid people just repeated it and believed it.

My point is this:
Yes, religion has been behind many killings -- I'm guessing millions of people have died in religious wars. But the claim that it is the biggest cause of killings requires some evidence, and I haven't seen it yet.

Stalin killed somewhere between 20-60 million. Pol Pot killed a million or two. Hitler killed 7 million (over 50 million died in WW2, 8 million in WW1, etc). Consider all the European wars, civil wars, the blatantly political wars of the last 1000 yrs. Consider race wars/tribal wars throughout human history. Consider all the killings done for the purposes of solidifying political power, for gaining territory, for the personal glory of some leader. Consider how many killings stem from simple greed, lust, anger, hunger, jealousy, simple cruelty, etc.

When you consider the above, the role of religion -- while not insignificant -- seems relatively small. And even when religion has been invoked, half the time it was just a wrapping around a quest for power, territory, or glory anyway.

I agree that religion is often used as a way to say "I'm good, you're bad." I agree that it is often divisive. But to blithely state that it's responsible for more killings than anything else is irresponsible and wrong.


At Mon Apr 18, 02:08:00 PM PDT, Blogger blogball said...

Bryan, this is an interesting post. I too have heard this blanket statistical statement from many people that I consider knowledgeable about things. I think this is reinforced when they hear stories about mothers killing their children because god told them to or people drinking poison cool aid because there religious leader told them to. Some have told me that society would be much better off without religion. The lyrics to John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine” talks about how we could all “be as one” if there were no religion.

When I hear people talk about the evils of religion and how dangerous religion is I sometimes ask this question: If you were in a dark alley and you saw several large men heading toward you, would you be a little relieved to know that they were just leaving from their weekly bible study? I think this puts things in perspective. Most religions teach peace and look to improve the world in positive ways. Mans belief in his religion has been the inspiration of so many wonderful things that we may not even notice these things in our day to day living or we just take these things for granted. (Many times we hear only of the bad stuff)

In my humble opinion without religion most of the horror we see today and man has seen through out history would be unchanged. We have to take in consideration the sinful nature and imperfection of man himself and not blame it all on religion.

At Tue Apr 19, 07:17:00 AM PDT, Blogger unca said...

Absolutely to blogball and bryan. I'm so glad you mentioned that John Lennon song. I always cringe when I hear that line. I've also heard that ridiculous statistic (hey, I'm on a college campus) many times. It's a result of no one questioning certain assumptions. Good recent quote: "a university campus is an island of repression in a sea of freedom."

At Wed Apr 20, 05:42:00 PM PDT, Blogger rebecca said...

It's not really a statistic until someone puts forth some numbers. The World Christian Encyclopedia puts the number of religious martyrs at over 200 million. That number is, of course, way too high. Undoubtedly, religion is behind millions upon millions of death. (Granted, so are power-hungry dictators/tyrants).

I guess the argument is that the reasons for all the other deaths you talked about can't all be traced back to the same entity, whereas the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition (which no one expects!), etc. were all in the name of God. Killing in the name of Mother Russia or keeping slaves or because you want the natural resources that a population is curently camped out on are different. But if you group them into "Killing for power or greed," or "Killing to eradicate another race," the numbers begin to shift quite a bit.

So, is it true that "no other cause in human history has resulted in as many killings?" Seems like that depends on how you lump all the other killings together.

Anyhow, stats and some interesting analysis of them can be found here:

At Thu Apr 21, 10:34:00 PM PDT, Blogger bryan torre said...

thx for your comments.

rebecca, god told me it's just your kind of heresy which must be stamped out.

yours in fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, and an almost fanatical devotion to the pope,

At Thu Apr 21, 10:47:00 PM PDT, Blogger mamacita said...

I agree with Bryan's premise and the comments, except for part of rebecca's. The 200 million martyrs (which were probably much less than that number, as she conceded) should not be lumped in with killings "in the name of religion", as these martyrs were victims, not warriors. Not sure I'm expressing this very well, but that's my comment.


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