There may be no touchier subject when discussing religion than the idea of death. It gets even more personal when discussing not what happens after we die, but what actually killed people.
Technically, religion hasn’t killed anyone. Religion is just a set of stories, after all. Unless you believe God struck someone dead, you can’t really blame religion. Even if a crate of Bibles fell on someone, crushing them to death, I’m still more inclined to blame the publishing industry than religion. What critics of religion really mean when they discuss this matter is that religious people have killed in the name of religion.
But how many?
Well, let’s back up a bit. Most atheists get bombarded with claims that all sorts of Communist leaders have killed people, primarily Stalin and Mao. Atheists for some reason have no problem writing this off as “political,” even given very little research into the matter. Even though Red Army forces in many countries have marched clergy out of their churches and summarily executed them… it was all political, clearly, because atheism could never be blamed.
Atheism is sacred to some atheists… but the problem is, if you use this same method of interpretation, very few people have died due to religion.
I’ll buy into the idea that Communists had political reasons for killing all those religious people. That’s fine, I can understand and accept that as a valid argument, though I disagree. By this logic, the Crusades were a series of land grabs by powerful European monarchs, the Spanish Inquisition was a racist purge of North Africans and Middle Easterners who had conquered the Iberian peninsula in previous centuries, and the Salem witch trials were just good old-fashioned misogyny.
See what I did there? I took some other factor and decided to showcase it as the primary reason. In fact, there are no large-scale acts of religious violence which cannot be explained in secular terms borrowed from sociology and economics. And it’s no surprise why this is.
Let’s get real. Religion was a means of motivating some people to act a certain way, but the real reason for leaders conducting large-scale atrocities have always been and probably will always be the same: power, wealth, fame, and insanity. Religion only plays a part in the last one.
The best I can tell, the only people who died because of religion are counted as individual victims, not as vast statistics. If two people are arguing over religion and one kills the other, it might be fair to claim that the deceased was a victim of religious violence. I stress “might,” because I bet if you look into it, the killer was probably nuts independent of religion. Still, it’s bound to happen from time to time.
On the other hand, if you look at a guy like Hitler, it’s hard to actually argue that religion had much to do with anything. “But he killed all those Jews!” Okay, but he also killed gypsies. Why? Hitler wasn’t killing Jews because it says to do that in the Bible, he did it because scapegoating is a very successful tactic for rallying a people. He chose minority groups that people already suspected or hated.
Saying Hitler perpetrated the Holocaust because he was Christian makes about as much sense to me as saying he did it because he was a vegetarian.
I don’t see this so much as “defending religion,” either. Rather, I find the hyperbolic charges leveled against religion by some dramatic atheists to be rather embarrassing, and I thought I might point out that if someone makes emotionally charged and baseless accusations (like insinuating that religion somehow has anything to do with mass-murder), that person does a great disservice to skepticism.