As the debate over religion rages on, those on both sides resort to a common argument, one that we have all heard at some time. Simply put: the other side’s beliefs lead to war. Critics of religion are quick to ascribe the crusades, along with the jihadist war on the west, to religious ideology. They claim that is a natural follow-on from such dated and hostile beliefs. Those of faith are quick to respond by ascribing the atrocities committed by Hitler and Stalin at the turn of 20th century to an atheistic world-view, asserting that their lack of religious ethics follows on naturally to war-crimes and persecution. Whilst simultaneously writing off religious acts of war and terrorism as the actions of extremists.
Let us examine these arguments under the microscope of history to see if either of them hold water, and ascertain whether there are any negative implications that naturally result from faith, or the lack of it.
Firstly, I’d like to point out that even if there are definite negative ramifications of either religion or atheism, it still says nothing about whether or not they are true. Even it could be demonstrated incontrovertibly that atheism would lead a man to a life of crime without exception, and a belief in God to a more moral existence (or vice versa) this would imply nothing about the existence of God either way, or the veracity of religious texts. That subject must be debated separately. That said, let us first look at the evidence for religion leading to war.
Certainly the crusades were an effort to advance the borders of Christendom forcefully and recapture a site of spiritual significance. Many were killed, and many forced to convert. I don’t think anyone can argue that if not for Christianity, many lives would be spared in that era, and the subsequent handing over of power to the church was that so devastating to progress, both scientifically and societally has held us back. Cue the dark ages.
Fast forward to the middle-east today, and you find a similar situation. Islamic doctrine is enshrined in national law for many countries, yielding oppressive and devastating regimes. This religious law is unquestionable, after all, who-ever questions that law is also questioning Allah. Militant groups like Hamas and others see no separation between mosque and state, and have a rather militant interpretation of spirituality and the Qur’an, which they gladly enforce to the letter. It seems that once religious ideology finds its way into the mind of a king, or the laws of a nation, oppression is soon to follow.
Now run-of-the-mill, moderate religious folk are quick to point out that they themselves are nothing like the fundamentalists of old, or even these modern day fundamentalists in America (creationists, anti-abortion murderers) and the middle-east (jihadists, terrorists). “That’s not how we interpret the bible/Qur’an” they say, “We think it’s about peace or love, these extremists don’t represent our religion in any way, they’ve misunderstood the central message.”
I’m afraid my dilemma is that if a certain ideology, or holy text, is so open to interpretation that it could inspire some people to live peaceful, moral lives (the bare minimum really), whilst causing others to fly planes into skyscrapers, force women to live in cloth-bags, murder scientists and doctors in their homes and instil a vivid fear of hell into the minds of young children; we should be seriously questioning that ideology’s (or text’s) right to exist in a progressive, modern society. It is crucial that we ask ourselves these questions. To what extent is a belief harmless if some are led by it to such barbaric conclusions?
Despite the good intentions of some, we cannot deny that countless horrors have been joyfully committed in God’s name, lifted straight out the very same holy words that others have taken to imply peace and love. Jesus’ commission to “spread the good news” has caused some people to kill, others to stand in streets shouting about hell and eternal pain, and others to build hospitals.
Despite your own opinions about Jesus, or Mohamed, and their messages, you cannot deny that some have felt moved by him to do terrible things. They were doing it in his name, as much you disagree with the notion. Their motives are firmly rooted in religious doctrine and there is no way around it.
Stalin, an atheist, killed upwards of 20 million people as a result of his horrible political oppression, and poor leadership in war. The religious are quick to point this out. Yet is tough to see how his being an atheist played any direct part in it. He was not trying to further the cause of atheism, and certainly had no God to serve. Just as Stalin and Hitler both wore moustaches, yet moustachism is not even remotely a causal factor in continental war. This highlights the essential difference:
The key point is that no atheist has ever killed in the name of atheism.
Some people are good by nature, and some are bad. They also may, incidentally, be atheists. But this is quite unrelated to how good they may be, and won’t motivate them to any sort of irrational or extreme behavior. This is because there is no prescribed truth or dogma handed down to atheists, there are no ten commandments or divine decrees to be gleefully enacted. Atheism is simply the lack of belief. However religious people, being also both good and bad in nature, may be led to commit a terrible act of inhumanity simply by believing it to be God’s will; even if they were otherwise a good person. They don’t even stop to question the ethics of their actions, because it came straight from God. This is obviously a dangerous and irrational belief, seeing as God may apparently tell one man to build a church and another to strap a bomb to himself and board a bus. The salient point to consider is that Abraham was held up as a shining example of faith for attempting to murder his son at God’s command without question. A rather fitting metaphor.
Steven Weinberg summed it up nicely: “Without religion, good people would do good things, and bad people would do bad things; but it takes religion for good people to do bad things.”
Some religious people might want to claim that if Stalin wasn’t acting specifically for atheism, it must have been instead his lack of religious values, which left him somehow morally deficient, that led him to be so monstrous. I think this argument would only be valid if the crusades had never happened. If every religious person on earth were a shining example of moral fibre and integrity and every dictator was an atheist I would be forced to consider the preposition. But this, however, is not the case. On average religious people are just as bad and as good as atheists. Equal amounts of both have been at the helm of some terrible catastrophes in history. Yet I’ll restate, at least none of the atheists were motivated by their atheism, which cannot be said for religion, which has definitely caused some people to commit vile acts where they otherwise would not have.
Instead Stalin was actually motivated by unwavering belief in Marxism, a political ideology. Many of the Nazis were manipulated by extreme nationalism, a belief in “my country right or wrong”. It seems that lurking behind every terrible event in history is some sort of subscription to an ‘ideology’. Some set of beliefs that have been held on to long past their usefulness, whether they happen to be a religious belief or text, a political philosophy, or a deeply held prejudice. The common factor is a kind of faith in these ideologies, a refusal to update your views when you observe something that contradicts them. Maybe, just maybe, communism doesn’t work in practice, and you should lead your country elsewhere. Maybe your country isn’t a glorious place destined to rule by some sort of genetic right. Maybe that 2000 year old religious text is not the best authority on how to conduct a moral life, and maybe God isn’t telling you to blow a car up, or kill a bunch of people. Maybe he doesn’t even exist. Just maybe.