First of all, your brother should (and probably does not) accept two things:
1. Even if religious wars have caused fewer deaths than other types, religion is still responsible for a whole pile o’ death. A lesser evil is still evil. Following on from that, just because some things have killed more people than religion (and some things certainly have) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to stop and prevent religious violence as well. Doctors are still working to eradicate malaria even though cancer is more widespread and still needs curing.
2. The deaths attributable to Communism and Fascism are not due to lack of religion, or to atheism. Most Fascist regimes were superficially religious (the Nazis, for example, were always officially Catholic). As for Communism,
just because it demands atheism doesn’t mean it follows from atheism. It’s just incompatible with any religion because the Communist ideology will not tolerate any competitors. It’s too close to a religion itself.
I’ve made my points, so now I’ll get you started on this list.
I’m no historian, I’m afraid. I’ve had a look around the Web, but it’s difficult to find a simple list of wars for which the primary motivation was religion. Go to Google and try.
To begin with, many religious conflicts have gone completely undocumented because nobody involved was literate. Tribal warfare was often driven by the concept of a literal battle between the gods of different tribes. Before organised polytheism, few people claimed to have the true gods, only the best gods.
Once we get into early recorded history, motivations are somewhat opaque at first because a nation needs no more reason to invade another than the orders of its absolute leader. Religion often comes into it, but usually only to motivate the people after the decision has been made to attack.
Later on, even the best-known examples of religious violence may not count as real wars. The Crusades were, certainly, but all the different Inquisitions (Wikipedia lists four) were entirely civil affairs (that is, affairs between one country and its own people). Once Lutheranism and Protestantism emerged in Europe, it’s likely that as many people were tried and executed for their beliefs as slain in battle.
Acts of ethnic cleansing continue to this day, with varying degrees of religious justification. Recent examples occurred and are still occurring in Kosovo, Burma and all over Africa.
The biggest current, ongoing religious conflict is the War on Terror. It’s not officially Christianity on the march but many in the religious right do see it that way. The Muslim extremists on the other side certainly consider themselves to be waging a Jihad or holy war.
It’s nearly always really freaking complicated. Religions are certainly one of the major factors in this world causing violence and death, but often in ways such that casualties can never be counted.
Your brother has an easier job counting the casualties from twentieth century wars and waving them in your face. As I said to begin with, deaths not explicitly religious in nature do not let religion off the hook, and atheism is not responsible for them any more than Christianity is responsible for the Nazis’ attempted extermination of the Jewish people.
Edit: Go look up the Thirty Years War, a protracted conflict between Catholics and Protestants across Europe. It was responsible for the deaths of double-digit percentages of several European nations (the old “German states”), which today would mean a good few million people. It would be hard to blame that war on anything else.
Posted: February 4th 2008
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