Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Body-Count Proof of God

One of the dilemmas the religious face, is accounting for the horrific atrocities of their religion whilst simultaneously holding on to the belief their faith is the product of a loving, moral creator.  I can't say that I'm persuaded for instance, that a religion that spawned the crusades, inquisition, witch-trials and pogrom demonstrates any divine origin.

There is a type of theist who responds to this by arguing that atheism has killed more. This is done by cherry-picking some of the 20th C totalitarian states and the death toll these perpetuated. In effect, they are trying to justify the body count of their religion with the body count of other regimes.
  • The argument is on one hand, simply offensive. The emergence of totalitarian regimes in the early and mid-twentieth century were a product of many factors. These factors were myriad- political economic, military etc.  Most importantly, such states ranged from true Christian regimes (Mussolini, Franco) to Christian-influenced theism (Hitler)
    German Wehrmacht belt-buckle with slogan "God with Us".
    to communist regimes in E Europe (Stalin). The mass-slaughter of people in the mid-20th C by totalitarian governments, is just an argument against totalitarianism. That’s the only fair conclusion we can draw from this slaughter. 
  • The comparison also fails because the Communist regimes did not kill in the name of atheism. They killed because they identified some groups as being enemies of the state and targeted them. Atheism isn’t a political philosophy. It is not a synonym with Marxism.
  • On the other hand, religions have killed in the name of their religion. Christians tortured and executed their neighbours for witchcraft because that’s exactly what their religion said to do. Torture was attendant to this to force a confession- so that the person’s soul could still be saved. It was a strange concern- Christian love- for the soul that made torture acceptable.
  • The history of Islam since the days of the 4th Caliph Ali is one driven by sectarian violence. The normally moderate 12th C Damascene historian ibn al-Qalanisi describes the attacks on the Batinis in Damascus- adding with relish how their slain bodies were just left in the streets for the dogs to devour.The current stories of horrific
    Two Bombs Kill 66 in Baquba, Iraq
    bombings from the Middle East show little has changed.
  • The third problem is the changes in technology are ignored. If the Crusaders had spandau machine-guns instead of swords and spears, the whole body-count comparison would look a lot different. It’s not even a fair comparison.
Lastly, the whole line of argument is a big ‘so what’. If your case for god is that your religion has killed a few million people less than some other doctrine, it’s still a pretty odious religion. And it offers absolutely no evidence for the existence of god. Maybe atheism does make some people evil. So what? It doesn’t make your god real. Only valid evidence can do that.


  1. Always strikes me as especially infantile, and an abdication of personal responsibility, to argue that what you've done is somehow mitigated, or even justified, because someone else did it too.

    Is it okay to rob banks because others have, or to lie, cheat and steal for a living because others do? What sort of objective morality is that?

    On the subject of Christian (especially) support for totalitarian Fascist regimes, one only need look at the unswerving support given by the Catholic Church to those regimes in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Hungary and the Balkans, and the support given to the Fascists in former Yugoslavia by the Orthodox Church. Even the Japanese brand of 1930s Fascism was intertwined with Shintoism and supported by Buddhists.

    And let's not forget the Christian-inspired brutal Taiping Rebellion in China and the equally brutal reaction by Manchu Buddhists, which cost 20 million lives.

    1. It's a pretty asinine argument in favour for faith, yes. I think it's popularity may stem from the way it deflects from the atrocities of their religion. Easiest way to avoid rationalising these horrors is to shift the subject of the debate.

  2. There are two types of religious violence, though:

    1. Violence inspired by the actual religious teachings and the example of the religious figures (especially the founder if there is one). For example, Muhammad waged many war campaigns in his lifetime, there are many verses in the Quran that encourage Muslims to subjugate unbelievers, and Jihad is one of the core doctrines in Islam. This makes it clear that in this case the cause of the violence are religious teachings themselves

    2. Violence inspired by the political leaders using religion as a means to further their own agenda. I'd argue that atrocities committed in the name of Christianity or Buddhism fall in this category. Yes, people who did it probably thought they were doing it because of their faith, but there's almost nothing that would encourage violence in the original teachings of Christ or Buddha or in their lives. Although in case of Christianity, there are plenty of violent things in the Old Testament, so you can use that to justify atrocities despite it contradicting the message of New Testament (why many Christians tend to accept Old Testament over New Testament remains a mystery to me).

    Obviously, this has nothing to do with the existence/non-existence of God or the validity of the religious claims, but if you want to point out that religions have caused a lot of suffering throughout the history of humanity, you have to be fair and separate which acts of violence can be supported by religious teachings of people doing them and which ones cannot. Otherwise, you are talking not about the ideology, but about people who claim to follow it, and as we all know these are two very different things (would Christ approve what Church did in Middle Ages? I don't think so).

    People tend to lump all religions into one "religion" category. The term "religion" is like term "sport": chess and boxing both fall into "sport" category, but it doesn't mean that they are two identical activities, and it most definitely doesn't mean that they are equally violent (I think Sam Harris uses this example?). I just wanted to point out the difference between different religious teachings. Not everything that is said to be done in the name of religion can be supported by the original teachings of that religion.

  3. A great post. Shouldn't it be "the body-count proof of God"? Or is it a wordplay that I don't get?