Atheists invariably haul out the religious wars of Europe to make the case that religion is pernicious. It is indisputable that from The Age of Faith to the Reformation/Counter Reformation numerous bloody wars and slaughters were committed in the name if the Christian God and there were countless more if you include the wars fought in His second best known name, Allah. It’s not an obviously wacky point.
But hold on there—religious war is monstrous just as all war is monstrous, and it is possible that religion is monstrous as well, but the proposition that wars being fought over religion proves that religion is monstrous is a classic example of what philosophers call “an association fallacy of the red herring type.” The herring, i.e., the thing dragged in that is not logically connected is religion. Helen’s face launched a thousand ships only in a poetic sense; Paris and Agamemnon are to blame for the Trojan war, not Helen, love, or beauty.
Such a fundamentally flawed attack shouldn’t require any defense, but logic isn’t a central concern in religion; Christians consistently fall for this argument and end up defending Christianity from the accusation with words to the effect that “sure, there were wars, but those people weren’t real Christians” or “they weren’t acting consistently with Christian principles.“
This is a terrible argument but not because it’s inherently fallacious. It’s weak because it invites the accuser to apply what is known as the duck test, AKA Occam’s Razor. You’d sneer if I defended, say, Nazism, using the same logic. Try it out: “Nazism didn’t really underly the horrors of the Holocaust; the problem was that bad people coopted a good idea. Let’s let bygones be bygones and give it another chance.” No, the killers were Nazis and the actions were consistent with the principles of Nazism as advocated by the founders, so you can go out on a limb and say Nazism caused the Holocaust. It is logically possible that a small animal that looks like a duck, swims like a duck, quacks like a duck, and is often seen in the company of ducks, is not a duck, but that’s not where a wise ornithologist will take the argument.
The Real Problem
Even if you ignore the red-herring problem, there’s something else wrong with using the religious wars as an argument against the legitimacy of Christianity. Any such judgement assumes an understanding of what those actions meant in the context of the world they occurred in, but in fact, the Medieval world view is almost incomprehensible to us.
For those long ago people, the ubiquitous beliefs and the iconography of Christianity filled virtually all of the imaginative and cognitive space that is today shared with books, magazines, movies, science, history, recorded music, television, DVDs, the Internet, and the numberless artificial worlds of electronic gaming. How can we disregard or un-know our modern perspective on the scale and diversity of the cosmos, the existence of deep-time, the chain of protohumans stretching back to Lucy and beyond, the knowledge that thousands of languages and cultures exist in regions of the world then unimagined, or the existence of mathematical sciences that can describe and predict phenomena in the world out to a dozen decimal places?
It is not just the accumulation of knowledge. The pre-modern mode of understanding the universe was essentially poetic rather than literal. Now, as then, we understand the world as stories; the difference is that the modern mind thinks in terms of the utility of those stories, i.e., their explanatory and predictive power, while the pre-modern world thought in terms of their truth. The tapestry of stories that ordered the Medieval world was essentially complete in that it embraced the arc of the cosmos from the moment of creation to the end of time, fixing and defining the position and role of men and women, and indeed of all creatures. All interpretations of heaven and earth had to be consistent with that received knowledge.
Stories that explain our modern world are no longer all literally stories, of course. Much of our understanding of the world is now scientific and mathematical, but 99% of pre-modern people were probably as clueless about the details of theology as 99% of us today are about science and mathematics. It isn’t the specifics of the stories that are significant so much as it is our relationship to the nature of understanding itself that separates the modern from all that went before. The modern mind does not so much deny that truth exists as it considers it an imponderable. In the place of received truth we have a vast web of interlocking provisional truths. We select, develop, and discard a specific idea based upon both its utility and its consistency with the region of that web that the idea impinges upon. Sometimes the idea at issue must change or be discarded because it conflicts with the web of accepted understanding and sometimes it is a subset of the elements of that web that must be adjusted, but all understanding is inherently mutable.
To the modern mind, understanding of the cosmos develops upward from observation to principle; to the pre-modern mind, it is the world that is reconciled to received knowledge. The modern intellect is characterized above all else by that inversion. To pre-modern people, an assault upon received truth was in a very real way, an attack on the world itself; if they could have comprehended the modern mode of understanding the universe, they would have regarded it as irredeemably evil. The organizing story at the center of Medieval and pre-modern Christian understanding is of evil being brought into the world when Eve disregarded the word of God and let herself be seduced by a reptile into eating from the tree of knowledge. To a pre-modern person, our mode of understanding would be seen to side with Eve and not her creator.
For this reason alone, faith then wasn’t “like faith now, but more-so.” For a pre-modern European, there was nothing to be except a Christian or a Jew. Pre-modern people knew of the near-mythical Moslem, but Moslems weren’t a part of daily life. They existed, but in a world so far away as to be conceptually irrelevant.
Non-belief or belief in something significantly different would have been an incredible feat of imagination the only outcome of which would be isolation if you kept it to yourself and ostracism or even death if you did not. Even the Jews had an existence in Scripture that integrated them into the fabric of belief all the way back to Abram in Genesis. Christ Himself was a Jew.
In contrast, religion today can be selected from a boundless range of possibilities, including not only all religions, quasi-religions, and superstitions, but atheism, agnosticism, and the ever-popular shrug. The very existence of choices makes the Medieval and pre-modern world view inaccessible to us, along with the passions that defended belief.
It is inconceivable that even the most ardent 21st Century Christian would choose to be put to the sword along with his family rather than profess that sprinkling with water is sufficient for baptism, just as it is almost as inconceivable that any sane person would want to wield the sword. These things are not inconceivable because people of centuries past were made of inherently sterner stuff but because that level of certitude cannot exist among choices. Even for the most fanatical cultists believes in something that may be of extraordinary importance their lives, but that belief is still a particular thing in the world like the Theory of Relativity or Marxism. For Europeans in those days, Christianity didn’t have a place in peoples lives so much as it was like the forest is to the peoples of the Amazon, an all encompassing frame of reference.
It is the impossibility of truly understanding that context that makes the religious wars irrelevant to Christianity today. We can deplore them—many Christians deplored them even as they were happening—but we can never truly understand the world they occurred in. That the butchery of centuries ago was sometimes nominally about religion is more an indicator of the completeness with which God once saturated the imagination than a measure of the latent ferocity of Christianity itself.
Wars and other religion-related mayhem of grotesque violence occurred routinely in the pre-Christian world but we modern people shouldn’t be too quick to assume the mantle of superiority. The apparent bloody-mindedness of our forbears is in part a matter of style and perspective. Throughout recorded history people have killed in the manner and for the reasons appropriate to their time.
The Christian world seems peaceful today because the last big war in Europe took place at the edge of living memory but war in the formerly Christian world is not clearly a thing of the past. We’ve had three whoppers and several small ones within the last 150 years and the margin of error in estimates of the death toll of either of the biggest two is probably greater than the combined deaths from all the religious wars in European history. Moreover, even now, eight countries possess nuclear arms and several more host them and presumably all of these nations are willing to use those weapons to vaporize cities if it comes to that. It’s definitely a stretch to say that we’re qualitatively less violent than our ancestors.
Then and Now
In the hope of understanding the relationship of belief to organized killing, let’s limit ourselves to the span of history that looks anything like today. The Renaissance is usually taken to be the origin of the modern world, but the vast majority of Europeans remained essentially Medieval for much longer. Starting with the First Industrial Revolution makes more sense. By then the wars of the Reformation/Counter-Reformation had ended, and mass-printed information was storming into the cognitive space once occupied almost exclusively by religion. Call it 1760, a generation before the founding of the United States yet almost a century before the end of the Spanish Inquisition.
For much of the next 270 years we went at each other hammer and tongs, and when it comes to running up the death score, though the people of the 18th and 19th Centuries made a tremendous effort with the weaponry that was available, explosive growth in technology gave the Twentieth Century a crushing advantage. The often cited figure is one hundred million dead at government hands, but this number is probably conservative. At that scale, counting the dead is not like counting the bodies at the scene of a crime. It is a highly technical and somewhat subjective activity in part because truly large scale slaughter is usually accomplished as much by deliberate starvation and malignant neglect as it is by gunfire. Much analysis of such things consists of estimating the excess deaths in some time an place using statistical methods, rather than compiling literal head counts.
Statistics aside, if we look at these slaughters we see that there were four big causes for mass killing during this period: extirpating or suppressing indigenous peoples; promoting political, economic, or imperialist power; preserving or promoting national identity; and revolutionary ideology. Religion as a motivation for war was essentially extinct in the West between the First Industrial Revolution and the mid-Twentieth Century, but in one of the great ironies of history, it made a surprising comeback with the Second World War in the form of its mirror image, militant atheism.
Atheism was a key component of Marxist and to a lesser extent, Fascist ideology. Suppression of “the opiate of the people” was a major goal of Marxism, suffusing the movement from its earliest days in the late 19th Century, and while no major conflict was fought exclusively for the purpose of advancing atheism, neither was religion the sole motivation for many, perhaps any, of the religious wars. Certainly suppression of the Christian Church in general and/or the wiping out of specific religions was one of the goals of all the great ideological conflicts from the Spanish Civil War onward.
Other Times, Other Ducks
So, yes, Europeans hacked each other to bits over religion off and on for centuries but the religious wars occurred in a context in which religion so permeated European life that it is almost meaningless to claim anything was or wasn’t about religion.
On the other hand, we can understand the modern world reasonably well, and in that time span, wars of faith have been essentially non-existent. When religion has appeared as a motivation, it has overwhelmingly been Christianity’s evil twin, atheism, that is on the side of the killing and the religious who have been the victims.
There is more to Marxism and Fascism than atheism, but atheism was a major component of both ideologies, along with class grievances, crackpot racial theories, and the rest, and thus bears a portion of the blame for empowering those movements. While it is impossible to come up with some exact percentage of the blame to assign to any one facet of these ideologies, they all contributed. The Second World War wasn’t fought for the sole purpose of acquiring lebensraum or killing the Jews either, but those things each played a part.
With that principle in mind, what proportion of the blame for the hundred-million dead should be chalked up to militant atheism? It is not zero percent, so pick a number—it’s anyone’s guess. One percent? Twenty-five percent? Apportioning to atheism even ten percent of the blame would make it a bigger killer in less than one lifetime than all religious wars of Europe combined. Even two percent would probably outweigh them all, if you leave out the Thirty Years War and the French Wars of Religion, which are nominally about religion but generally regarded by modern historians as primarily economic and political conflicts.
The Bottom Line
Atheism is inherently political. An atheist actively believes that God does not exist and that the social structures built to support belief are nonsense. Active opposition to social structure is a political position, not just a philosophical one. And that’s what you see in practice. It would take a pretty cold-blooded atheist to disbelieve in God and not see religion as a sham and a ripoff. If you’re an atheist, you should be pissed off at religion.
But it is a tautology that principles not applied generally are not principles. This has been Liberalism’s stumbling block since its calamitous failure to hold Marxism responsible for the mass slaughters and genocides perpetrated by the Soviets in the period between the World Wars.
If the religious wars of Europe taint Christianity, then sauce for the duck is sauce for the drake; surely by the same token atheism is likewise tainted by the epic bloodlettings of the 20th Century.
My own view is that truth is more complicated and the credibility of neither atheism nor Christianity are determined by the actions of those who have abused them, but it legitimate, if more pessimistic, to claim that both are permanently stained by the things done in their name. What you can’t legitimately claim that other people’s Christianity is guilty but your own atheistic ideologies get a pass for the things done in it’s name.