“If a person doesn’t think that there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?”
–Convicted serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer
The idea that religion causes violence is taken as an almost self-evident truth in many circles. Atheists often use this as a justification for embracing a “secular” lifestyle and belief system that does not acknowledge the existence of God. But there are big problems with this line of reasoning. Religious scholar William T. Cavanaugh writes in The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict:
“What would be necessary to prove the claim that religion has caused more violence than any other institutional force over the course of human history? One would first need a concept of religion that would be at least theoretically separable from other institutional forces over the course of human history. …The problem is that there was no category of religion separable from such political institutions until the modern era, and then it was primarily in the West. What meaning could we give to either the claim that Roman religion is to blame for the imperialist violence of ancient Rome, or the claim that it is Roman politics and not Roman religion that is to blame? Either claim would be nonsensical, because there was no neat division between religion and politics.”
“It is not simply that religion and politics were jumbled together until the modern West got them properly sorted out. As Wilfred Cantwell Smith showed in his landmark book, The Meaning and End of Religion, religion as a discrete category of human activity separable from culture, politics, and other areas of life is an invention of the modern West.”
“…The first conclusion is that there is no trans-historical or trans-cultural concept of religion. Religion has a history, and what counts as religion and what does not in any given context depends on different configurations of power and authority. The second conclusion is that the attempt to say that there is a trans-historical and trans-cultural concept of religion that is separable from secular phenomena is itself part of a particular configuration of power, that of the modern, liberal nation-state as it is developed in the West.”
Thus, it is impossible to establish which conflicts were caused by “religion” and which conflicts were caused by “politics” or “culture” because such categories have no intrinsic meaning, but rather, are human inventions. Cavanaugh continues:
“At first glance, this may seem like an academic exercise in quibbling over definitions, but much more is at stake. The religious-secular dichotomy in the arguments sanctions the condemnation of certain kinds of violence and the overlooking of other kinds of violence. …The myth of religious violence is so prevalent because, while it delegitimates certain kinds of violence, it is used to legitimate other kinds of violence, namely, violence done in the name of secular, Western ideals. The argument that religion causes violence sanctions a dichotomy between, on the one hand, non-Western, especially Muslim, forms of culture, which—having not yet learned to privatize matters of faith—are absolutist, divisive, irrational, and Western culture on the other, which is modest in its claims to truth, unitive and rational.”
(Please see this article for more detail).
And history provides no better example of violence legitimized for “secular” reasons than the violence committed by atheistic communism (although many scholars believe that Marxist communism fits the definition of a “religion”). In 1920, Vladimir Lenin (the key founder of the Soviet Union) stated:
“We repudiate all morality that proceeds from supernatural ideas that are outside class conceptions. Morality is entirely subordinate to the interests of class war. Everything is moral that is necessary for the annihilation of the old exploiting social order and for uniting the proletariat.”
Lenin also said,
“Our program necessarily includes the propaganda of atheism.”
Adopting a “religious” faith in no way guarantees that someone will become a moral person. Just as going to the hospital does not guarantee that someone will recover from an illness, adopting “religious” beliefs that promote peace and love will not guarantee that a person will become peaceful and loving. But if a person kills in the name of a religion with a text that clearly says, “Thou shalt not kill,” that person is clearly perverting that religion. This is entirely consistent with the biblical concept of humankind’s “fallen nature.”
With political systems that embrace atheism or concepts of human dignity that are rooted in atheism, no such perversion is necessary. Communism is a political system that officially embraces the atheist worldview. It is telling that the number of people who have been killed by atheistic communism is estimated to run as high as 110 million (sources: Death by Government by political science professor R.J. Rummel and The Black Book of Communism).
Nazism was not officially atheist, but it was staunchly anti-religious and similar to communism in the respect that it adopted concepts of human dignity that are rooted in atheist philosophy. I recommend From Darwin to Hitler by professor of modern European history Richard Weikart, to explore this subject further.
When I say that “no such perversion is necessary,” I mean that the atheist worldview greatly diminishes the value of human life by declaring that people are nothing but “survival machines” that exist mainly to pass on their genes and ensure the survival of the species. This is why the communists were able to send people to their deaths in “gulags” (or prison camps) in such great numbers with so little restraint. As Lenin is quoted above, the atheist communists “repudiate all morality that proceeds from supernatural ideas”….such as the supernatural Judeo-Christian idea that human beings have a supernatural soul and therefore transcendent value.
In a nutshell, because atheism denies the existence of any “supernatural” (or transcendent) reality, it also, by extension, denies that humans have any transcendent value. This severely devalued concept of human life is what allowed the communists to justify their historically unprecedented killing spree.
The Nazis killed anyone and everyone who they did not feel was worthy to pass on their genes. It seemed to them perfectly justifiable to kill any “survival machines” with what they perceived to be “undesirable” genes. As Weikart points out, the racist Nazi rationalization for killing comes straight from Darwin. In The Descent of Man, Darwin writes:
“With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, the sick;….Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”
At another point in The Descent of Man, Darwin writes:
“The civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.”
And exterminating everyone perceived to be “savage” or unworthy of passing on their genes is exactly what the Nazis tried to do. It is not, then, difficult to see why Weikart was justified in saying that:
“Darwinism by itself did not produce the Holocaust, but without Darwinism…neither Hitler nor his Nazi followers would have had the necessary scientific underpinnings to convince themselves and their collaborators that one of the world’s greatest atrocities was really morally praiseworthy.”
This can be seen in the statements made by Hitler which betrayed his Darwinist views. Hitler once said:
“The law of selection justifies this incessant struggle, by allowing for the survival of the fittest. Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature. Taken to its logical extreme, Christianity would mean the systematic cultivation of the human failure.”
Hitler also said:
“The stronger asserts his will, it’s the law of nature. The world doesn’t change; its laws are eternal.”
What one kills “in the name of” is far less relevant than the philosophical factors that facilitate or motivate killing. This is evidenced by the fact that the communists and Nazis were by FAR the most prolific killers in all of human history. And as time passes, the link between rejecting the Judeo-Christian concept of the sacredness of human life and killing just becomes more apparent. This is clearly illustrated today in the stark difference between North Korea and South Korea. North Korea is run by an officially atheist regime that would not exist were it not for the massive slave labor / starvation camps that keep the population in a constant state of fear. North Korean citizens are routinely thrown into such camps (often to die) for believing in God, of for infractions as minor as sitting on a newspaper photo of the dictator (Kim Jong Il).
Contrast this with South Korea, which has seen an explosive growth in Christianity in recent decades…and which has a human rights record far, far superior to its neighbor to the north.
When it comes to the connection between atheism and unrestrained killing, mathematician David Berlinski hits the nail on the head in his book The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and It’s Scientific Pretensions:
Somewhere in Eastern Europe, a [Nazi] SS officer watched languidly, his machine gun cradled, as an elderly and bearded Hasidic Jew laboriously dug what he knew to be his grave. Standing up straight, he addressed his executioner. “God is watching what you are doing,” he said. And then he was shot dead. What Hitler did not believe, and what Stalin did not believe, and what Mao did not believe, and what the SS did not believe, and what the Gestapo did not believe, and what the NKVD did not believe, and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Blackshirts, Gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe, was that God was watching what they were doing. And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either. That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.