Old myths die slowly. Such is the case with the notion that religion is the primary cause of violence and oppression. Atheistic like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are well-known for promoting this myth.
After 9/11, a British reporter echoed the myth stating that, “The real axis of evil is Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” In A Devil’s Chaplin, Dawkins wrote,
“Only the willfully blind fail to implicate the divisive force of religion in most, if not all, of the violent enmities of the world today.”
The old myth gained momentum on September 11 when Islamic extremists inflicted terror in the name of Allah. But is religion to blame for the worst atrocities of history? The fact is that anti-religious tyranny has been the most frightening source of evil in the world.
In Unspeakable: Facing up to Evil in an Age of Genocide and Terror,” Os Guinness noted that,
“It is a widely held and largely unquestioned belief in educated circles today that religion is the main cause of repression and violence in our world and an essentially divisive and explosive force in public life that we would be wise to exclude from the public square altogether. For example, one New York Times reporter argued after September 11 that our main problem is not terrorism but ‘religious totalitarianism’ and that the danger of religious totalitarianism was represented not just by Islam but by Judaism and the Christian faith as well—in fact, by all faiths that have ‘absolute’ or ‘exclusive’ claims.”
This is simply wrong. Guinness demonstrates that, “The worst modern atrocities were perpetrated by secularist regimes, led by secularist intellectuals, and in the name of secularist beliefs.”
Those who believe that more wars have been waged and more people killed in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history are factually wrong. And Guinness is rightly concerned that the lazy repetition of this myth, “seriously distorts public debate and endangers democratic freedom.”
Contrary to widespread opinion, he notes that, “September 11 was a break with the worst twentieth-century massacres because the atrocity was done in the name of Allah” (Emphasis mine).
This is not to deny the horrific massacres in the name of religion. Yet the fact remains,
“More people were killed by secularist regimes in the twentieth century than in all the religious persecutions in Western history, and perhaps in all history. More than one hundred million human beings were killed by secularist regimes and ideologies in the last century” (Guinness).
The examples are staggering, the Ottoman massacre of more than a million Armenians, the slaughtered of nearly two million people by Cambodia’s communist leader Pol Pot, the murder of an estimated thirty million Russians by Stalin and Mao ZeDong’s unimaginable destruction of sixty-five million Chinese. Add to this Hitler and the extermination of millions of Jews. Guinness rightly notes,
“Hitler and the Nazis are something of a special case. Hitler was implacably hostile to the Christian faith, but not an advocate of atheism. Almost to a person, as the history of Nazism and the record of the Nuremberg trials attest, the Nazi leaders were ex-Christians and ex-Catholics. Those, including Hitler, who had Christian backgrounds vehemently rejected them. Hitler said, “Our epoch will certainly see the end of the disease of Christianity.”
The point must not be missed. The dictators behind the most horrific carnage of human history were not motivated by religion. These atrocities were inflicted by secular regimes for secular reasons. “The full story of the evils of Stalin and Mao is yet to be unearthed and told with anything like the completeness accorded to Hitler and the Nazis, but the secularist commitments are clear beyond dispute” (Guinness).
Don’t be misguided,
“Secularist philosophies such as atheism are just as ‘totalitarian’ as the three ‘religions of the Book.’ What secularists believe is so total, or all-encompassing, that it excludes what the religious believer believes.” The most notable recent example of this was Communism. Guinness correctly identifies Communism as, “…the most dangerous delusion in history so far.” The era of Communism has been accurately described as “an atheistic millennialism.”
The persistent inclination to blame religion is rooted in
“…an unexamined Enlightenment prejudice that simultaneously reduces faith to its functions and recognizes only the worst contributions of faith, not the best—such as the rise of the universities, the development of modern science, the abolition of slavery, and the promotion of human rights” (Guinness).
“In his magisterial moral history of the twentieth century, Humanity, Jonathan Glover points out that even those who do not believe in a religious moral law should be troubled by its fading. ‘It’s striking how many protest against and acts of resistance to atrocity have also come from principled religious commitment.’”
“Contrary to what is commonly argued,” Guinness concludes, “our problem in the public square is not ‘religious totalitarianism,’ and the solution is not a ‘multilingual relativism’ that bans all absolute and exclusive claims. In a day of exploding diversity, the real question is: how do we live with our deepest differences when many of those differences are absolute, including those of secularism?”
Steven W. Cornell