Conquistadors, communists, and the blame for atrocity

One over-heated battle between fundamentalists and atheists is over which “side” is to blame for causing more suffering.

Not only is this a silly contest — “My dad kills fewer people than your dad!”  — but it’s also a simplistic, and simply wrong, way to look at human aggression. It’s not religion, or its absence, that causes atrocity.

Crusades, conquistadors, pogroms, witch hunts, suicide bombers, inter-faith and inter-denominational genocides — the list goes on and on. In the name of one divine god or another, millions have been oppressed, tortured, and murdered.

Hitler and the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Cultural Revolution in China — the list goes on and on. In the name of one godless dogma or another, millions have been oppressed, tortured, and murdered.

Looks like a tie — and in the event of a tie, the winner is the person who understands that a “tie” occurs when the terms of the correlation are incorrectly identified in the first place. And that’s what’s happened here.

Let’s try a different comparison: Proselytizing faiths and dogmas on one hand, and tolerant faiths and ideologies on the other. Faiths and dogmas that put ideas ahead of people on one hand, and faiths and ideologies that put people ahead of ideas on the other. Now, assign our lists of atrocities above to one group or the other.

So, what happened? All of the atrocities lined up behind the faith-spreaders and the dogmatists, didn’t they? And none of them strolled over to hang out with the live-and-let-live folks, did they?

When atheists write about religion, there’s always one section where the author lists the evil deeds committed in the name of God. When they’re being subtle, which is infrequent, they may distinguish a bit between one religion and another — Islam takes most of the big hits these days — but few allow that it isn’t religious dogma but the human capacity for evil expressed through religion that is the root cause of the actions they condemn.

When theists write about atheism, there’s always one section where the author lists the evil deeds committed because of the absence of faith in God. From the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution to the communist purges of the 20th century, theistic authors blame dogmatic murder on one or another form of secularism or materialism, which they invariably attribute to atheism. (Yes, I know that this very contentious idea is certainly wrong, but that’s not the subject of this post.) Few allow that it isn’t disbelief in God but the human capacity for evil expressed through non-theistic dogmatism that is the root cause of the actions they condemn.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to indulge in another long, repetitive argument about this creedal spitting contest. On the contrary. It’s just that sort of endless back and forth on what I believe to be a non-issue that I’m complaining about. So I’ll be brief and to the point.

It isn’t religion or “atheism-induced” dogmatism that causes human behaviour — religion and dogmatism are human behaviours. They are expressions of mental states that lie far deeper in us than the external forms by which they come to light. To blame religion or non-theistic dogmatism for atrocity is as illogical as to blame Brooks Brothers for the banking crisis or Mueslix for eco-terrorism.

Creeds that must be spread at any cost to free mankind from evil or ignorance share the same impulse for power and control, open the same neural pathway to primitive violence, no matter how dissimilar their details are. What important difference is there if one person was burned as a devil-worshipping witch in medieval Europe for having a birthmark, and another person was executed as an intellectual anti-revolutionary in Kampuchea for wearing glasses?

It doesn’t matter whether a true believer — God-fearing, God-hating, or God-indifferent –wields a sword or points a rifle, quotes Leviticus or cites Karl Marx. What matters is the intention to strike, the moral evil of believing that your creed is worth more than my life. It’s that simple.

It really is.

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One thought on “Conquistadors, communists, and the blame for atrocity

  1. Again, I disagree. I do think religion has the potential to cause damage by itself. In as much as religion has no way to persuade other people to accept some beliefs (precisely, because they are held by faith, and faith has no possibility of demonstration), religious people are left with the recourse to violence.
    I may agree that we should be tolerant. But, you can not be tolerant of intolerance. And, in such cases, the use of the bayonet is legitimate. You say that my creed is not worthier than your life. That depends. If you enslave your people, and my creed is freedom, then I would say that my creed is worthier.

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