Is Religion to Blame? Part 2

In Part 2 of this series for Table Talk Rick Pimentel considers whether religion should be blamed as the primary cause of war both historically and in the present.

The last installment of Table Talk examined the popular notion that religion has been the cause of more wars and conflicts than any other factor. The conclusion included a statement by Dinesh D’ Souza, Christian apologist and author. D’Souza argued that atheists have "greatly exaggerated the crimes that have been committed by religious fanatics while neglecting or rationalizing the vastly greater crimes committed by secular and atheist fanatics."

Many atheists and secularists have presented arguments that attempt to demonstrate that “religion has been the cause of more wars and conflicts than any other factor.” Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Denett, and Sam Harris have led the modern resurgence of these types of arguments. These “four horsemen” have argued that religion is evil and its effects have been felt in history particularly through its role in global conflicts. Dawkins has stated that religion (particularly monotheism) is a bad thing which is described as “the great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture….Religion causes wars by generating certainty” and “…such absolutism nearly always results from strong religious faith and it constitutes a major reason for suggesting that religion can be a force for evil in the world.” Sam Harris contends that “faith inspires violence in at least two ways. First, people often kill other human beings because they believe that the creator of the universe wants them to do it. Second, far greater numbers of people fall into conflict with one another because they define their moral community on the basis of religious affiliation…The conflicts are not always explicitly religious. But the hatred that divides one community from another are often the products of their religious identities.”

As mentioned in the last installment of Table Talk, these statements have been accepted as truisms not only in academia but are starting to be repeated in popular treatments. Are Dawkins and Harris’s arguments sound? Dawkins’ point that monotheism is “the great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture” stems from his perspective about the causes of war and religion’s role in them. But consider the following.

History, specifically 20th century history, shows that numerous anti-religious regimes have caused much bloodshed. RJ Rummell, professor of political science from the University of Hawaii, created the term “democide” which means the murder of any people or person by a government. He has done extensive research in the area of democide and he has concluded that there were more deaths by democide in the 20th century than deaths by war. This means that more people died in the 20th century as a result of recognized governments who unjustly incarcerated people in camps where they died of malnutrition and forced labor or deported people into lands where they would die of exposure and disease. Many of those 20th century governments who committed democide were regimes that committed massacres in the name of anti-religious ideologies such as communism. These regimes included the Stalin regime of the former Soviet Union which killed an estimated 20 million people, the Mao Zedong regime of China which killed an estimated 65 million people, the Pol Pot regime of Cambodia which killed an estimated 2 million people, and other communist regimes in Latin America, North Korea, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique.

In addition to Rummell, other sources such as Jonathan Glover’s powerful book, Humanity, and The Black Book of Communism compiled by a group of French scholars attest to these numbers and atrocities. The 20th century has been considered the bloodiest century mankind has ever known and anti-religious regimes have been the most significant perpetrators in this century. This does not mean that religion played no part in these atrocities as can be seen by recent events in Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran, Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria, Israel, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Despite this, much destruction has been caused by anti-religious and militant atheistic governments. Which provides at least prima facie evidence that religion may play a secondary role when it plays a role at all.

From these historical facts, is it justified for one to conclude that all anti-religious ideologies and anti-religionists are corrupt and violent? No, this is not justified and the facts do not permit this conclusion. These anti-religious regimes do not represent all anti-religionists out there and someone who judges all anti-religionists and their ideologies in this fashion is wrong. But why do men such as Dawkins and Harris conclude that religion is evil from the premise that there have been conflicts influenced by religion? They do not draw the same conclusion from the non-religious conflicts that have occurred. They do not conclude that anti-religionists and their ideologies are forces of evil in this world. Dawkins and some of his fellow atheists are guilty of special pleading because they utilize different standards when assessing wars and conflicts with anti-religious elements and when assessing wars and conflicts with religious elements-religion is to blame but anti-religion (e.g. atheism) is not to blame. Why? Dawkins and company have argued that regimes such as the Stalinist, Mao, and Pol Pot regimes were misrepresentations of atheism, but they have not extended this same charity to religion.

If they did, perhaps the current conversation would move in a more productive direction.

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