Guns Don’t Kill People. Religions Don’t Either.

Perusing blogs I came upon a comment that someone posted to the blog titled “Why I am not an Agnostic.” While I can’t vouch for the validity of any of the examples this commenter used (and I also don’t own the material or the statement), he/she certainly seems well-informed. The part of one response to which the commenter is responding is in italic quotes below. The comment is all of the text that follows.

“… it is a historical fact that religion is dangerous and has killed more people than any other cause in nature combined.”

This is a fairly strong statement, and a common theme in the modern atheist movement. However, what is the basis of this claim? For example, what constitutes ‘death by religion’? As an abstract concept it is incapable of directly damaging a living being, so the definition must be ‘death motivated by religion’. But even this is fairly nebulous. Using the early Catholic Church as an example, some of the more conniving Popes (and some were surprisingly conniving! see The Corpse Synod) may not have been religious in the least. There was a period wherein the role of Pope was a political position sought after by politicians and used for political means. During their reign, some of these Popes murdered, engaged in warfare, etc. This was facilitated by the infrastructure in place within the church – but could those caught up in the crossfire be called casualties of religion?

The common factor in most deaths attributed to religion is politics. Religions are political entities, and therefore they are often caught up in ideological disputes that can result in bloodshed. The only difference is that at the end of the day, a ‘political figure’ will appeal to political ideals as a means of encouraging his constituents to engaged in whatever act they desire whereas a ‘religious figure’ will appeal to religious ideals. Often the underlying motivation between these two figures is negligible – speaking cynically, they both want to improve their grasp on power and (perhaps) improve their overall quality of life. Even so, I imagine any deaths resulting from the latter would be attributed to religion, likely because these acts are always coached in religious terminology (e.g., see the persecution of the Knights Templar – a probable political maneuver to claim their wealth and consolidate power).

Jim Jones (of Jonestown) is another possible example: According to his son (who survived the massacre) it is quite possible that Jones did not believe any of the religion he preached and was instead using religion as a means of controlling the population. Reading historical accounts of Jonestown seems very congruent with this interpretation – near the end it was far more political than it was religious. Also look to Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

Even if political/ideological involvement were responsible for many of the deaths attributed to religion I suppose one could argue that whereas political influence is unavoidable, religious influence is unnecessary; and as something that is unnecessary that has the potential to encourage harm, why not abolish it? The same argument could be made for alcohol (which directly and indirectly kills an impressive number each year), fast cars (why even make a vehicle that travels faster than legally permitted?), and rap music (the misogyny found in some rap lyrics is comparable to ancient Biblical texts). The reason we do not abolish these things (besides the fact that abolition only begets illegal trade) is because it is not the alcohol, car or music that commits any wrong. People kill people, not objects and certainly not abstract notions.

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14 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Teague T. on August 27, 2010 at 2:51 PM

    If you take a Humean approach and think that actions are by way or beliefs + desires (I tend to agree), and we characterize some beliefs as “religious”, then the issue becomes clearer. If we ask “what caused person P to do action A?” and if we answer “because P believed B and desired D”, then we have our answer about the causal relationship between beliefs/desires and actions.

    So, if “people kill people”, what causes that? Probably some abstract notions. I would be careful blaming “religion” though, as there is no belief called simply that.

    Reply

  2. Posted by mhiggs on August 27, 2010 at 2:51 PM

    I agree with you on this one. I personally have never felt convinced by the arguments some atheists use by claiming religion is responsible for so much or most of the evil in the world. I have always believed people are responsible for their actions, not religion, not atheism, not anything – just people. Sure, certain things, like religion could play a role; or could be manipulated or used to one’s advantage. The dangerous thing about religion is that there seems to be no other form of ideology that people will follow so blindly as they will follow religion. They will line up to put all of their faith in a religion and do pretty much whatever they are told – like in Jonestown. But all religion should not be assumed evil because of the ones that are, but it is certainly a reason to be skeptical of any ideology that claims to have all the answers to life’s biggest questions. Religion is only as evil as people make it, just like anything else. (Another example of what you were talking about is Marjoe. If you haven’t heard of him you should check it out. He did a documentary which is quite interesting. He was a child prodigy as far as faith healing and preaching went. When he lost his faith he quit, but then he came back pretending to still believe and documented the ridiculousness of his own practice and how he could use it to manipulate people).

    Reply

    • Posted by Teague T. on August 27, 2010 at 3:59 PM

      I will check that out, thanks. You summed up the point perfectly, “Religion is only as evil as people make it…”I wish some of the ultra conservative Christians would realize that point when debating the ground zero mosque. Nice blog, btw:)

      Reply

  3. It does seem a little silly and vapid to claim that religion is the biggest cause of death.

    It becomes even sillier if you include politically-motivated killing by religious rulers, because then youalso have to include politically-motivated killing by atheist rulers. And once you compare any list of “killers” to Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, Lenin, Mengistu, Kim (both of them), Hoxha, Ceausescu, Tito, etc, etc, etc… Well, let’s just say the argument starts to look a little thin.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Doctor Bad Sign on September 19, 2011 at 4:28 AM

    Abstract notions cannot directly kill people, this is true, but they certainly can influence people to kill or hurt others.

    Take the 9/11 hijackers for example, would they have done what they did without the abstract notion of becoming martyrs, being rewarded as heroes by Allah in paradise? They certainly wouldn’t – no atheist could ever be convinced to fly planes into buildings under these pretences.

    When I criticise religion, I do not claim that religion itself kills people. What I do say, however, is that history has overwhelmingly shown us that religion is used all to often to justify hatred, oppression and evil. The persecution of Jews did not start with Hitler, it had been going on for centuries, perpetrated by pious Christians, inspired by the Biblical notion that the Jews were responsible for killing their messiah, and that his blood would be upon them for generations.

    Whether or not you subscribe to their interpretations is irrelevant, the Bible was used as a justification for slavery, for the vicious witch trials, the inquisition and so on. Religion serves as a gaping barrier between peoples – who have used it to fuel sectarian conflict and wars throughout history.

    No one is saying that the abstract concept of religion itself kills people, just that it often causes people to kill for reasons that they would be unable to justify in the absence of religion. For that reason it is dangerous, and for that reason it should be opposed.

    I do not claim that all religious people use their faith to justify evil. In some cases it’s quite the opposite. However, it is undoubtedly true that without religion we would still have the Twin Towers gracing the New York skyline.

    Reply

    • I understand your perspective, and it makes sense. However, it causes three potential problems when you blame religion as a whole. First, it allows for the potential to think absence of religion superior, when without religion there has still been mass annihilation by those who believe they answer to no higher authority than themselves (Stalin and Pol Pot come to mind), and without religion many of the noblest humanitarians may not have done what they did (Mother Teresa comes to mind here). Such a narrow criticism of religion misses both of those aspects.

      Second, and this is sort of a result of the first point, absence of religion is used as justification for many of the same things that religion is used for (i.e. slavery, war), so to think that if we eliminate religion then we eliminate these problems is short-sighted. It is not just religion that spurs on these actions, and in fact absence of religion creates many other potential problems (i.e. alcoholism, abortion controversies, increased levels of marital infidelity).

      Finally, it allows for condemnation as a whole based on the actions of some. Am I really to believe that all atheists are as rude and condescending as Richard Dawkins, or as heartless as Christopher Hitchens? You would not consider yourself to have the same negative connotations that these men create, yet you would attribute to all religious people the negativity you have for some of the people, or even only the abstract notion of religion. How is that more rational that judging each book by its cover? That seems less like free thought and more like group-speak, which is exactly what atheism purports not to be. Pot, meet kettle.

      It might be true that without religion we would still have the Twin Towers. However, with the absence of religion comes a protest that sucks the hope out of people ten years in the aftermath. Which one has longer-term and more damaging effects? It’s an answer neither you or I will probably see in our lifetime.

      Reply

  5. Posted by Doctor Bad Sign on January 15, 2012 at 3:59 AM

    “I understand your perspective, and it makes sense. However, it causes three potential problems when you blame religion as a whole. First, it allows for the potential to think absence of religion superior, when without religion there has still been mass annihilation by those who believe they answer to no higher authority than themselves (Stalin and Pol Pot come to mind), and without religion many of the noblest humanitarians may not have done what they did (Mother Teresa comes to mind here). Such a narrow criticism of religion misses both of those aspects.”

    I don’t deny that people have found justification for atrocities in other ideologies such as Nazism and communism. I don’t argue that people would stop killing each other if religion went away tomorrow, we wouldn’t. I’m not trying to claim superiority, I’m saying simply that it is the religion itself that provides justification for certain atrocities. Had the Bible not demanded that witches be killed, there would have been no justification for the witch trials in which countless women (all innocent) were tortured and killed.

    Also I do not deny that religion can be a motivation for good deeds and charity, however I don’t think you can use that to apologise for the atrocities. That would be like saying ‘yes the Nazis killed 6 million Jews but they did build a damn efficient transport system’ or ‘Stalin might have killed lots of people, but he did help us defeat Hitler’ – I don’t think that any of the good things done by religiously motivated people in any way make up for the evil done by religiously motivated people. Also plenty of charitable and compassionate acts are carried out by non-religious people.

    “Second, and this is sort of a result of the first point, absence of religion is used as justification for many of the same things that religion is used for (i.e. slavery, war), so to think that if we eliminate religion then we eliminate these problems is short-sighted. It is not just religion that spurs on these actions, and in fact absence of religion creates many other potential problems (i.e. alcoholism, abortion controversies, increased levels of marital infidelity).”

    I didn’t say that all the world’s problems would be eliminated if we removed religion, you’re reading between the lines to find something that I never actually said, or think.

    And just as an aside:

    “Divorce rates among conservative Christians were significantly higher than for other faith groups, and much higher than Atheists and Agnostics experience.”
    (source: http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_dira.htm)

    Perhaps marital infidelity is more of a problem for the religious than you seem to think it is? Anyway some kind of evidence is always handy when making claims such as ‘absence of religion leads to increased levels of marital infidelity’.

    “Finally, it allows for condemnation as a whole based on the actions of some. Am I really to believe that all atheists are as rude and condescending as Richard Dawkins, or as heartless as Christopher Hitchens? You would not consider yourself to have the same negative connotations that these men create, yet you would attribute to all religious people the negativity you have for some of the people, or even only the abstract notion of religion. How is that more rational that judging each book by its cover? That seems less like free thought and more like group-speak, which is exactly what atheism purports not to be. Pot, meet kettle.”

    Again you seem to be straw manning my position, did I not say:

    “I do not claim that all religious people use their faith to justify evil. In some cases it’s quite the opposite.”

    I do not tar all religious people with the same brush, I am well aware that the nice old lady in the shop doesn’t use her Bible to justify stoning her homosexual nephew to death. However those that are motivated to do such things find justification for it right there in the Bible, there is no way of getting around that, it says quite plainly that homosexuals should be put to death. This is my point; religion provides justification for evil that would otherwise have no justification. If the Bible and subsequently the Koran did not condemn homosexuality then there would be no issue of gay people being hanged in several African and Middle Eastern countries. If the 9/11 hijackers were not motivated by religious ideas of paradise, they would not have done what they did. Do you see what I’m getting at?

    “It might be true that without religion we would still have the Twin Towers. However, with the absence of religion comes a protest that sucks the hope out of people ten years in the aftermath. Which one has longer-term and more damaging effects? It’s an answer neither you or I will probably see in our lifetime.”

    Religion might give people hope, but personally I do not care about that. Religion has been the number one justifier for conflict and atrocity throughout history, I don’t think you can fob that off just by saying ‘well at least it gives people hope’. It also gives people a lot of reasons to kill each other.

    Reply

    • I see all of your points (they really all lead to the same conclusion), but I respectfully disagree. In my opinion, it is not religion that is the number one justifier for conflict and atrocity throughout history, but the absence of religion and the ignoring of Christian principles. It flies right in the face of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” so if people were to adhere to Christianity and its tenets, there would be no conflict. It’s when we stray from that that problems arise.

      Just like you say the Bible and the Koran cause deaths of homosexuals, the atheistic, Communistic regime in China is responsible for killing thousands of Christians of year, just for trying to share their faith in their country. Do you see why atheism is no better when it comes to motivation for conflict? That is the point I’m trying to make. You can’t blame religion when the result without religion doesn’t change. That is the point of this post.

      Reply

      • Posted by Doctor Bad Sign on January 15, 2012 at 7:35 AM

        The issue with the Bible is that it can be cherry-picked to support whatever view you wish to hold. Sure you can quote ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ but you can also quote:

        ” If you hear it said about one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you to live in that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods you have not known), then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done among you, you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. You are to gather all the plunder of the town into the middle of the public square and completely burn the town and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the LORD your God. That town is to remain a ruin forever, never to be rebuilt,” – Deuteronomy 13:12-16

        And use that to justify the inquisition.

        Therefore you can say that something like the inquisition was justified by the religion via it’s sacred text. You cannot say the same for the communist killings, there is no sacred atheist text which implores people to kill religious believers, atheism is not an ideology – it’s simply the absence of belief in God. The killings carried out by communists are carried out due to an almost religious devotion to the ideology of communism – it is unquestioning adherence to ideologies and religions that is the problem. Something that as an atheist I stand against in all of it’s forms.

      • And I can say just as easily that ignoring a sacred text might allow a dictator who might otherwise be convicted by such texts to go about justifying his slaughtering of millions as being blissfully unaware of ultimate consequences or that he/she is subject to something greater than himself/herself.

        Misinterpretation of the Bible can lead to problems, but not even reading it will lead to far more problems, in my opinion.

  6. Posted by Doctor Bad Sign on January 15, 2012 at 4:27 PM

    I am quite curious as to how the leaders of the inquisition misinterpreted that verse from Deuteronomy? Apart from the fact that rather than burning all their possessions they tended to favour keeping them for themselves, how do you propose they got it wrong? It seems pretty explicit what that passage is telling you to do.

    And yes, I am aware that the Bible also has in places, a message of kindness and tolerance. However, those passages do not remove from the fact that those such as the Deuteronomy passage I cited in my previous comment quite explicitly condone horrendous actions, and can quite easily be used to justify something like the inquisition.

    I could just as easily be a hateful bigot and feel that my opinions and actions are justified Biblically as I could be a charitable and compassionate person… The fact that I could cherry pick from it to support either view shows that there is no misinterpretation, it’s simply a muddled book, written by people over centuries who all had something different to say.

    Reply

    • Let me ask you this: have you ever attempted to reconcile the two? Or have you looked at Deuteronomy and said, “This looks hateful, and doesn’t sound like ‘love your neighbor,’ so it must not make sense?” Plus, and I hate having to keep saying this over and over again to different people, but Christians since the time of Jesus are bound to the New Covenant that Jesus came to set up. So using Old Covenant dogma (such as your passage in Deuteronomy) is a mis-interpretation of the text, because the Bible says clearly that those things are meant to serve as a lens through which we can see God’s working and can interpret the New Covenant for how to live.

      It’s when you cherrypick the text (such as you’ve done here) that such problems arise, because you’re not really reading the text with the intention of understanding it.

      I have a challenge for you. Read the book of John from start to finish, and then tell me (without using any other pieces of the Bible) what problems there are with the teaching in that text. Then maybe we can start a dialogue about understanding the meaning of the Bible. If you’re really interested in understanding why it seems to be off (rather than simply attacking it), then please do that. Otherwise you’re mis-representing yourself here.

      Reply

      • Posted by Doctor Bad Sign on January 16, 2012 at 8:30 AM

        I appreciate that you have your own view of the Bible, however is there any reason why I should accept your interpretation over anyone else’s? The very fact that yourself, and Fred Phelps can feel as though you’re both perfectly justified in your interpretation to me indicates that there is no consistent message in the Bible, and no correct way to interpret it. As George Bernard Shaw once said:

        “No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means.”

        The fact that there are so many competing denominations of Christianity, all of whom claim to have the correct interpretation of scripture, yet all of whom disagree sometimes quite considerably as to the nature of the supposed absolute truth contained therein, indicates quite firmly to me that there is no consistent message in the Bible, people pick the parts that suit them, and ignore all the others.

      • I understand your concern. I’m saying, read the book of John and then let’s talk about some stuff. That will show me you are sincere in your intentions.

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