July 29, 2009
I was with a group of friends recently when another common myth of western civilization was trotted out as if it were gospel. "We all know religion has caused more violence and death than anything else."
"Well, actually, that's not true," I ventured.
Heads turned. Mouths gaped. The planet itself seemed to wobble on its axis. "What facts do you have to support that?" said the historian in the group, eyebrow arched.
"Well, take the twentieth century. Over one hundred million people died for political reasons."
"How'd you come up with that figure?" my historian friend asked.
"Start with fifty million who died in World War II. Another twenty million in World War I. Stalin took another twenty million at least. Mao another twenty or thirty million. Pol Pot two million. A million in Rwanda. A million Armenians."
"Hmm," he said. "I guess so."
Actually, I understated the figure. It's somewhere between160 and 190 million--and almost all for political, not religious, reasons. Ideology in the twentieth century was a much more deadly force than religion ever was. Fascism, communism and racially motivated genocide all went on rampages of horrific proportions.
If even one person is killed because of religious motivation, that is one too many. But religion doesn't cause wars the way people think it does. Even wiki.answers got it right. Religion is often used as an excuse or as a tool of cynical politicians to justify actions and whip up fury in the masses. Meic Pierce gives a more nuanced answer in the same direction. What is clear, in any case, is that people in the twentieth century should not have been fearing religion but largely atheistic ideologies instead.
Yet why do intelligent, educated people, like my historian friend, not know the basic statistics? Where do these myths come from? There are many possible answers, but certainly one of the founding fathers of ideological megadeath had it right:
"A lie told often enough becomes truth."