by Jay Johansen | May 27, 2009
Religion has been responsible for more suffering and death than any other force in human history. Between persecution of non-believers and religious wars, religion has caused hundreds of millions of deaths.
Ever hear that argument? I've heard it plenty of times. And a brief examination of history will show that it is somewhere between "extremely unlikely" and "absurd".
This reasoning is routinely used as an argument against Christianity in general, or more specifically against Christianity having political influence.
People who make such statements will routinely point to the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem witch trials as examples of the horrors of religious extremism.
I might make the preliminary objection that it is absurd to lump all religions together, and then blame one for the crimes of another. This is a classic propaganda technique: You say, "Senator Jones must not be elected because he is a dangerous menace to freedom. My proof? Senator Jones has a mustache. Adolf Hitler had a mustache. Therefore Senator Jones is just like Hitler." That example is obviously ridiculous and silly, I hope no one would fall for any "analysis" that dumb.
But is that really all that much dumber than saying that modern American Fundamenalist Christians should be viewed with suspicion because of the actions of the Inquisition? Fundamentalists are mostly Protestants. The Inquisition was a group of Catholics who hunted down, tortured, and killed Protestants. Their stated goal was to wipe out Protestants and thus defend the Catholic Church. It is difficult to see how modern Catholics can fairly be held responsible for the actions of people who lived hundreds of years ago just because those people also called themselves Catholics. But it strains imagination to see how you can blame modern Protestants for the crimes that were committed by people who were dedicated to fighting Protestantism. To blame Protestants for the crimes of the Inquisition is like blaming Jews for the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.
But for the sake of argument, let's lump all Christians together, and say that all modern Christians must accept responsibility for the worst actions of Christians 300 years ago. Then by the same reasoning, surely all modern atheists must accept responsibility for the worst actions of atheists within the past century.
Mao Tse-Tung made very clear that he was an atheist. Stamping out Christianity in China was high on his list of priorities. Christianity was declared illegal, churches were closed, and priests, ministers, and anyone else who admitted he was a Christain faced arrest, imprisionment, and execution.
Mao instituted a system of slave labor camps. At least 10 million people were worked to death in these camps. Many millions more suffered incredible hardships.
Under Mao the government took over control of all food production in China. The resulting famine caused 30 million deaths. It is not entirely clear whether Mao deliberately caused these deaths to starve the peasants into submission to his policies, or if they were the unintentional result of incompetence. At best, Mao placed increasing his own political power over the welfare of his people. Surely after a few million starved death he must have realized that his policies were not working for the good of the people, but he went ahead anyway.
Mao had at least 10 million people executed for opposing his government, being religious believers, or simply for being well-educated and thus a dangerous threat.
Total death toll caused by Chairman Mao: at least 50 million.
Stalin also made very clear that he was an atheist, and hated Christianity almost as much as Mao.
Stalin's slave labor camps killed at least 10 million. Some say as high as 30 million. Stalin had many members of the Communist Party and the secret police arrested in periodic "purges". In an ironic twist, or perhaps poetic justice, most of the people who created the slave labor camps to begin with ended up dying there as inmates themselves.
While scholars debate whether famines under Mao were deliberate or accidental, there is no question that Stalin deliberately caused mass starvation to punish sections of the country that opposed him. Stalin deliberately starved at least 7 million people to death.
Stalin had 5 million people executed.
Total death toll by Josef Stalin: at least 22 million.
I'm tempted to throw in Hitler, but let's be fair: Hitler's religious beliefs are not entirely clear. Hitler certainly hated Christianity. He once said that "“the heaviest blow that ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity". It is a little-known fact of World War II that the Nazis sent more Christians than Jews to concentration camps -- 7 million compared to 5 million. The Nazis in general held a curious mix of mysticism and atheism, with some even advocating paganism. But while Hitler hated Christianity he also made statements indicating he believed in some sort of vague God or god.
If we're couning "anti-Christian" people, Hitler should certainly be included. But if we're counting only "atheists", he should not.
Pol Pot and his "Khymer Rouge" took over Cambodia in 1975. Their stated goal was to create a "peasant's utopia" by establishing a communist state and eliminating capitalism, Western influence, and religion. Pol Pot was a devout atheist: He hated Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.
His first step in bringing on this utopia was to forcibly evacuate all the cities at gunpoint. The people were all forced into the countrysize where they were set to farming rice for 18 hours a day. A few thousand people were tortured into confessing to various crimes, but for the most part he simply had anyone who disobeyed any order shot on the spot.
The executions, hard labor, and starvation killed 2 million people. This may not sound impressive compared to the totals for Stalin and Mao, but remember that those two had the entire populations of large countries to supply their pool of victims. The population of Cambodia before Pol Pot arrived was only about 8 million. In his short four-year reign, Pol Pot killed a quarter of the population of his own country.
Now let's compare these atheists crimes to the worst offenses of Christians.
The Spanish Inquisition began in 1478 and continued into the early 1800s. The Inquisition's original purpose was to hunt down Jews who had falsely claimed to have converted to Christianity. Jews in Spain at that time were treated as second-class citizens, but they were not tortured or killed. Some Jews converted to Christianity to escape this persecution. The church authorities feared that many of these conversions were shams. Somehow they went from "people shouldn't lie about changing their religion" to torturing and killing people for doing this. The Inquisition killed about 2,000 such Jews. Then the Protestant Reformation came along, and the Inquisition switched from hunting fake Jewish converts to hunting Protestants. One source I checked while writing this article says that most of the people arrested by the Inquisition for being Protestants weren't really Protestants, but anyone who was considered insufficiently sincere in his Catholicism. In any case, they killed 1,000 to 2,000 people for being Protestants. They also killed a relatively small number of Muslims, perhaps a hundred or so.
Total killed by the Spanish Inquisition: about 4,000.
The Salem witch trials are a poor example of religious extremism. The witch trials were conducted, not by churches or religious authorities, but by secular courts. The churches at the time generally opposed the trials. A group of ministers wrote a letter to the judges entitled, "Return of the Several Ministers", in which they criticized the superstition and lax standards of evidence at these trials. This was followed by a book, "Cases of Conscience", that expanded on these criticisms. Admittedly, the ministers' objections were often muted: in "Cases of Conscience" the author (Increase Mather) condemned the trials as unjust but tacked on a final chapter praising the honesty and goodwill of the judges. Another minister who condemned the trials added equivocating statements that some of those accused might in fact be guilty. Some historians say these mixed messages were because the ministers compromised under heavy political pressure to support the government. Others say it is was because they believed that there really were witches with supernatural powers and were trying to make a distinction between finding the guilty and persecuting the innocent -- a distinction largely lost on the witch-hunters. (No historian doubts that these men really did believe in supernatural witchcraft. The question is how it affected what they said about the trials.) Personally I wonder if they hoped that by praising the judges while condemning the trials they might win the judges over.
Total killed in the Salem witch trials: 19
Atheists often point to the "religious wars" of Europe as the prime example of suffering caused by religion. The Thirty Years War was by far the worst in this category, with 7 million deaths. The various wars in France and the Netherlands may have totalled another 3 million.
Total for religious wars: 10 million.
But I have objections to including this number in the count. To the extent that these wars were about religion, they were mostly about the Catholics in power trying to crush the new Protestant religion. As a Protestant, I refuse to accept the blame for crimes committed by my enemies. And I really don't believe that most of the Catholics involved were really pious Catholics who went over the edge of extremism trying to defend the purity of the faith. Rather, I think most of them were people who had used the power and prestige of the Catholic church to further their own ambitions, and now saw it threatened by this upstart sect.
Atheists are always talking about the horrors of the Inquisition and the Salem with trials. Yes, the Salem witch trials were a great injustice. But they resulted in 19 deaths. Any self-respecting serial killer today could do better than that! The Spanish Inquisition killed 4,000 people over the course of 350 years. Yes, that was 4,000 tragedies, a horror and a great injustice. But Stalin or Mao would have been embarassed to admit that a day had gone by in which they had not managed to kill 4,000 of their enemies. America today kills over 4,000 babies every day by abortion.
Atheists have been responsible for far more deliberate killings than any Christian extremist ever dreamed of.
All of the facts cited in this article are readily available from many sources. You can easily confirm them with Internet searches. But if you want a starting point:
© 2009 by Jay Johansen
Sam Feb 22, 2013
I came across this commentary and liked it a lot. It is just what I was looking for to start building the knowledge I need to defend religion generally, and Christianity specifically, against the hostile and ignorant "religion kills" attacks that seem to be growing all around us so quickly. Keep the faith.
Alex Jul 23, 2014
Many Chinese do not know about all the wrongdoings of Mao. They only know the prpangaoda version. If they learned the truth, they would not think that Mao was the cherry on top . If the Chinese lose faith in Mao, the foundation for the Chinese Communist Party would be seriously eroded. A very thorough biography, titled Mao: The Unknown Story , was published last year, written by British and Chinese authors. China, of course, banned the book. A good review of the book can be found on . As for the quote about God, it's a twist on agnosticism. No one can know God's existence for certain. That's why faith is required of believers.
Keith Dec 19, 2014
Mao and Pol Pot were both Buddhist. Atheism is a lack of a believe in ANY god.. not just a lack of belief in YOUR god...
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