June 2015 Pulse

It seems that it is quite impossible to read the papers or watch the news on television without encountering stories of unconscionable atrocities committed in the name of religion, whether by ISIS in the Middle East or by Boko Haram in Nigeria. These instantiations of religious violence seem to lend credence to the view, advanced by a good number of prominent atheist writers, that religion is the cause of much of the violence we see in our world.

Sam Harris, for instance, has insisted relentlessly that ‘most Muslims are utterly deranged by their religious faith’. Harris feels compelled to arrive at the extremely vexed conclusion that ‘religion itself produces a perverse solidarity that we must find some way to undercut’. This chorus of voices blaming religion for violence is of course directed by Richard Dawkins, who in The God Delusion declares quite categorically that ‘only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people’.

The proponents of this theory – that religion causes violence – often point to the Thirty Years War as perhaps the example par excellence of the kind of chaos and carnage that religiously motivated violence can unleash. The senseless war that caused millions of deaths and the outbreak of diseases and plagues was brought to an end by the Treaties of Westphalia (1648), which these theorists see not only as the genesis of modern state but also as a triumph of secularism.

This is an astonishingly simplistic reading of both the complex confluence of factors and ambitions that fuelled the Thirty Years War and the accomplishments of Westphalia. It is, however, repeatedly used as the undisputable example of the serious disruption to social peace that religion can cause. It promotes the unexamined secularist mantra that asserts that religion produces violence because it is divisive. Which leads to the corollary that in a religiously diverse world, secularism is the only guarantor of social peace.

Such rhetoric often directs attention away from the violence and atrocities for which secular and atheist regimes and governments are responsible in recent memory.

For example, according to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, the Mao Zedong regime is responsible for the deaths of seventy million. In his classic, The Rise and Fall of Communism, Archie Brown estimated that Mao’s mass mobilisation programme called The Great Leap Forward alone had caused thirty million deaths.

In Stalin’s Russia, millions of people were either killed or starved to death as the result of the industrialisation programme of their new autocrat. The historian J. M. Roberts reports starkly that seven years after the programme for the ‘collectivization’ of land and the development of heavy industries began in 1928, ‘5 million families disappeared from European Russia’.

To this list, we must add Pol Pot, the secretary general of the Cambodian communist party in 1963 and leader of the ‘Khmer Rouge’ faction. According to Roberts, Pol Pot ‘presided over the killing of as many as 2 million (out of 7 million) of his countrymen and countrywomen in the name of radical Maoist and fanatically xenophobic (anti-Vietnamese) ideology’.

The list could easily be expanded to include Hitler, Fidel Castro, Lenin, Nicolae Ceausescu and Kim Jong-il. In fact, the deaths caused by Christian emperors and rulers in the five hundred period of the history of the Church which encompasses the Crusades and the Inquisition amounted to only 1 percent of the deaths caused by Hitler, Stalin and Mao in just a few decades.

What makes the crimes of Mao and Stalin more horrific than the deaths caused by the Thirty Years War, argues Dinesh D’Souza, is that the atrocities of these atheist regimes were committed in peacetime and against their own countrymen and countrywomen.

Now, of course statistics alone cannot settle the matter. It would be quite ludicrous to argue that religion is superior to secularism because the statistics show that it has been responsible for lesser deaths. In supplying this data, I merely wish to show that secularism also has a history of violence.

These historical facts dispel the smoke screen generated by the rhetoric of religious violence. They expose as false the myth that secularism is more tolerant and peaceful and that it alone is the reasonable arbiter and guarantor of social peace.

As Hunter Baker has perceptively put it: ‘Secularism tells a story about its differences with religion that are not necessarily true. For instance, one frequently hears about Christian failures such as the Inquisition, but we are led to believe that secularism represents cooler heads, rationality and common ground. What often goes unacknowledged is that secularism has itself often been associated with the coercive, the unjust, the violent, and the undemocratic’.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.