I was recently watching Bill "Look at the Moon" O'Reilly talking to Richard Dawkins on Fox, and O'Reilly trotted out the most popular anti-atheist slogan these days, which is "Atheist governments have killed more people than any other government." This statement is based on the the atrocities committed by the Communist regimes in Russia, China, and Cambodia from 1910 to roughly 1987. R.J. Rummel places the combined death toll for all these regimes at around 102 million, or 140 million if you include deaths from starvation under Mao Tse-Tung. In my calculations I didn't include the 38 million deaths from starvation, and I'll discuss the reason for that later. In any event, that is a substantial death toll, so big it defies comprehension, really. The claim, however, has two elements. First, that these deaths constitute the biggest mass murder in recorded history. Second, that these murders took place as a result of atheism.
Well, the second element is the easiest to refute, and in fact it should be pretty fairly obvious to anyone that it's wrong. There is no component of atheism that directly relates to morality. At all. The user's manual for a DVD player says as much about murder as atheism does. If an atheistic philosophy has anything to say about these atrocities, it's that we all came from the same place and nobody is more special than anyone else. That's sort of anti-genocide, but then, that might be stretching the tenets of atheism a bit. The doctrine just isn't there. But that doesn't deter O'Reilly. When Dawkins brings this point up, O'Reilly deflects. He talks about the "constraining influence" of religion. O'Reilly seems to feel that belief in God will prevent people from committing murder. He even points out that Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot all had one thing in common, they didn't believe in God. Well, they had a lot more than that one thing in common. All three were Asian (geographically), male, mass murderers, and... Wait for it... Communists! Every major Communist government has committed atrocities on a grand scale. Every Communist leader has worn pants at some point. Pants have as much relevance to mass murder as atheism, and a much stronger correlation to both religious and nonreligious mass murderers.
So, according to Bill O'Reilly, Christian governments wouldn't engage in mass murder. Clearly that's not the case. Let's take a look at how Christianity prevents mass murder. Kirk Durston offers this breakdown of the number of people Christendom has killed.
- Spanish Inquisiton: Up to 31,912 (The figure I keep coming up with is 3,000 - 10,000.)
- Witch Burnings: 30,000 to 100,000 (40,000 to 60,000. Pretty accurate.)
- The Crusades: 58,000 to 133,000 (The most conservative estimate I found was 1 million. High end was 20 million. I went with 9.)
Durston finishes with, "These three events, totaling over 264,000 killed, are thought to be the largest atrocities perpetrated by one or another form of Christendom." Well, they're certainly the most well-known, but far from the largest, and therein lies the problem with this claim that atheists killed more people than Christians. They didn't do it very recently. Also, for a large portion of history, the only records we have of the Church's wrongdoing are records kept by the Church. As Durston has illustrated, there's a potential for favoritism. Also, a lot of the records we do have are just shoddy. They give figures like "tens of thousands" when they give figures at all. In several cases figures are given in number of towns sacked or a notation that an entire population was destroyed, but no mention of how many people that might be. There just isn't an exact number. I did, however, find a site which has a wonderful list of what we do know about the blood on Christian hands. I have verified the larger numbers (over a million) on that list with secondary sources, and it seems to hold up fairly well, but bear in mind that a lot of this is gross estimation, and a lot of that was done by the people committing the atrocities.
The bulk of the mass murders in that list occurred over a stretch of about 750 years.
- 1 - 999 c.e. 7150 killed. Open season on pagans. The records are shoddy, of course. For death tolls listed as just "thousands" I estimated 2,000.
- 1000 - 1499 c.e. 10,244,266 killed. Biggest contributors are the Crusades.
- 1500 - 1649 c.e. 71,572,240 killed. Biggest contributors: 30 years war, Spanish Conquistadors.
- 1650 - 1749 c.e. 50,000,000 killed. Europeans arrived in North America and set about killing off the "heathens" who lived there.
The figures above do not include famine and disease as those statistics are, in most cases, not available, and in others, contentious. For this same reason I have omitted what few figures I was able to find for slavery, torture, mutilation and displacement. Although Adolph Hitler professed to be a Christian and clearly wasn't an atheist, I have omitted those statistics from this list, mostly because the subject is contentious. Also, it seems it was not fashionable to include women, children, or Jews in death toll calculations until fairly recently.
With those above figures and the deaths in World War 2 and Vietnam era Catholic concentration camps (680 thousand) I have a total of 132,504,976.
The death toll for the Communists, again, was 102,648,000.
What I find most interesting is what you see when you consider the total population available at the time these atrocities occurred.
- Between 1900 and 1990 c.e. Communism killed an average of 3.18% of the world population.
- Between 1000 and 1750 c.e. Christianity killed an average of 10.76% of the people living at that time.
Which goes to show that Christians can really do more with less.
And overall, assuming that 106 billion people have been alive on Earth since people got their acts together and stopped being apes, Christianity has killed .13% of anyone who has ever lived.
Now, consider that the total number of human beings that Christianity has killed, 132 million, does not include things like the ostensibly Christian Nazi mass murders (20 mil), or Bible-sanctioned slavery (at least 60 mil), or the gift of small pox which the Christian settlers brought to the New World (100 mil). Consider that a large portion of these atrocities took place before literacy was commonplace, and those who were literate didn't generally consider women, children, and Jews to be people.
Finally, consider that these were just the statistics for Christianity. These mass murders were committed at the behest of the Christian Church and in the name of the Christian God. Christianity is just one religion among many.
If there is a "constraining influence" in religion, it is, much like the power of prayer and the existence of God Himself, completely undetectable.
Brian Dunning has an article which covers most of this, and I think he sums all this up nicely by saying, "Religion does not cause you to kill people, and it certainly doesn't prevent you from killing people. Let's stop pretending that it does either." Sometimes people are just plain bad. Name calling is never going to change that.
Author's style note: The word Communist should be capitalized if it refers to the Communist party, but lowercase if it refers to communist ideals not related to the party, or theoretical communism. Communism is generally lowercase when not at the beginning of a sentence or in a title, according to some sources. Others say to follow the same party affiliation rules as Communist. Examples: Stalin was a Communist, but Marx was a communist. Also, you have Communist communism, Communist Communism, and communist communism. Because this article doesn't deal with Marxist communism, and because the conditionally capitalizing Communism game is frustrating and obnoxious, I decided to just go with a capital C in all instances.