In the Name

I apologize for the lengthy interval since my last post–with the proviso that there will probably be just as long an interval before the next one.  Ordinary life calls, I have children, and so on, plus I have been bitten by the novel-writing bug yet again.  But, since I don’t have access to my novel-writing PC right now, I might as well do my duty here, right?

Since I’m feeling lazy, I’ll tackle another of the internet’s common attacks on religion: the argument from atrocity.  Here I mean extra-biblical atrocities: certain incidents from the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, various pogroms, the Thirty Years’ War, etc.  Those weird little bits from the dusty back corners of the Pentateuch, which all go something like, “And the Lord commanded Jerushaphat to slay seven and fifty of the Edomites, together with their wives, and their children, their slaves, and the slaves of their children, the children of their slaves, the children of their slaves’ children, and their oxen, and their sheep, and the sheep of their neighbors, but not the sheep of their neighbors’ slaves, etc.”–well, those are a different matter, which I will probably not bother over, because those bits are only ever read by infidels with chips on their shoulders, and these days said infidels tend to focus more on obscure anecdotes from the Koran.  Also, it’s not clear whether any of the early Biblical atrocity anecdotes ever even happened.

So: actual historical atrocities in the name of God.  I should begin by noting that a double standard is more or less always applied to this sort of thing.  The rule is that, if religious people do good, even if that good is explicitly commanded by their religion, it is no credit to the faith, while any bad done by religious people can be blamed on their religion even if said religion explicitly forbids it.  If we kill in the name of Christianity, and Christianity forbids killing, that doesn’t let Christianity off the hook; it just means Christianity makes people killers and hypocrites to boot.

However, if the irreligious do evil, there is still a way out: said atrocities were never done in the name of atheism, the way that, say, the mass murder of Arawaks was done in the name of Christ.  Now, prior to the twentieth century, it’s very hard to find examples of the irreligious doing evil at all, because religiosity has been dominant across the globe for the overwhelming majority of recorded history.  In the European Middle Ages, and even well into the modern era, “atheist” didn’t even mean “one who does not believe in God”; such people were too few for that kind of label to see much use.  “Atheist” was simply another word for “heretic.”

I am aware of exactly one time prior to 1900 when open atheists (in the modern sense of the word) ever held enough power to be abused in the first place.  It was a brief interval in the French Revolution, when the most fanatically anti-religious went on a priest-murdering, church-looting spree, and put the words “Death is an eternal sleep” over graveyard gates.  That didn’t last long, though; Robespierre eventually had the atheists purged.  Not because he frowned on killing priests or looting churches–his own faction had done plenty of both, with his approval–but he was a sort of deist, not an atheist per se, and disapproved of throwing God away altogether.

So, we have something of a sampling bias at work here.  Atheists have committed far fewer atrocities than the religious, but perhaps only because we never gave them any opportunity to do so.  Until the Twentieth Century, when various Communist kooks between them starved, jailed, tortured, and killed hundreds of millions of people.  At that point, the not-in-the-name loophole ostensibly kicks in.  But that, too, is not fair.  Atheism is not a religion.  It is simply the belief that God does not exist, and nothing more.  It’s an isolated opinion.  By comparison, most religions comprise a whole array of beliefs that touch every aspect of life from birth to death.  Is it any surprise that plenty of people have killed for the latter, and almost none for the former?

The proper antithesis of atheism is not any specific religion, but simple theism: the belief that God does exist.  And if you go looking for people who have enslaved, or raped, or tortured, or killed, out of simple theism, you will not find anyone.  Nobody kills for such a shallow and flimsy cause.  But if you elaborate on that simple core, adding a superstructure of moral beliefs, ideals, rewards and punishments, rituals, customs–you get a religion, such as Christianity.  Or an ideology, such as Communism.  And there is ample evidence that people will kill for either.  They’re not that choosy.

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