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Is it legitimate to condemn religion for historical atrocities? First we had better examine the facts.

I got a call from a gentleman from San Francisco who was exorcised about Christian missionaries going into foreign lands.  Then he started talking about not only the destruction of indigenous beliefs, but also the destruction of missionaries.  That's what he wanted to see happen.  He also said that Christians and religious groups are responsible for the greatest massacres of history.  It turns out he was quite supportive of Wicca and indigenous religions which worship the Mother Earth force, Gaia.  This is essentially the basic foundation for witchcraft and I made a comment then that this was basically what he was talking about. 

But a couple of the things that he said were a challenge to me.  Not only did he assert that historically missionaries have destroyed cultures and indigenous religions at the point of a gun, but also Christian and religion were responsible for most of the bloodshed in the world, or the great majority of it.  I've heard this claim before.  I wanted to respond with more detail because I'm sure you've heard these things as well.

I have a tactic that I employ in situations like this that is called "Just the Facts, Ma'am."  In other words, there are times when you're faced with objections to Christianity or your point of view that really fail with an accurate assessment of the facts.  There are people who make accusations and assertions that are empirically false.  This is one of them. 

The assertion is that religion has caused most of the killing and bloodshed in the world.  The greatest atrocities committed against man were done in the name of God. 

Before I get to the particular facts, there is more than just a factual problem here.  There is a theoretical problem as well and I tried to make the point that we must distinguish between what an individual or group of people do and what the code that they allegedly follow actually asserts.  The fact is that there are people who do things consistently that are inconsistent with the code that they allegedly follow.  But often times when that happens, especially where religion is concerned, the finger is pointed not at the individual who is choosing to do something barbaric, but at the code he claims to represent.  The only time it's legitimate to point to the code as the source of barbarism is if the code is, in fact, the source of barbarism.  People object to a religion that used barbaric means to spread the faith.  But one can only use that as an objection against the religion if it's the religion itself that asserts that one must do it this way, as opposed to people who try to promote the spread of the religion in a forceful fashion in contradiction to what the religion actually teaches.

It's my understanding that much of Islam has been spread by the edge of the sword.  That isn't because Muslim advocates were particularly violent.  It's because their religion actually advocates this kind of thing.  The difference between that and Christianity is that when Christianity was spread by the edge of the sword it was done so in contradistinction to the actually teachings of Christianity.  This is when individual people who claim to be Christians actually did things that were inconsistent with their faith. 

I've had some people that have told me when I've brought this up, "That's not a fair defense.  You can't simply say that those people who committed the Crusades or the Inquisition or the witch burnings weren't real Christians.  That's illegitimate."  My response is, why?  We know what a real Christian is.  A real Christian is someone who believes particular things and lives a particular kind of lifestyle.  John makes it clear that those who consistently live unrighteously are ipso facto by definition not part of the faith.  So why is it illegitimate for me to look at people who claim to be Christians, yet live unrighteous lives, and promote genocide to say that these people aren't living consistently with the text, therefore you can't really call them Christians.  I think that's legitimate.

For example, no one would fault the Hippocratic Oath, which is a very rigid standard of conduct for physicians, just because there are doctors who don't keep it.  We wouldn't say there's something wrong with the oath, the code that they allegedly follow.  We'd say there was something wrong with the individuals who don't live up to the ideals of that code.  That is the case frequently where people waving the Bible in one hand are also waving a bloody sword in the other.  The two are inconsistent.  So it's not fair or reasonable to fault the Bible when the person who's waving the sword is doing things that are contradictory to what the Bible teaches ought to be done. 

So that's the first important thing to remember when you face an objection like this.  Distinguish between what a person does and what the code they claim to follow actually asserts.  Christianity is one thing, and if we're going to fault Christianity we must fault its teachings and not fault it because there are people who say they are Christians but then live a life that is totally morally divergent from what Christianity actually teaches. 

As I said earlier, this kind of objection falls when you employ a tactic I call "Just the Facts, Ma'am," and I'd like to give you some of those facts.  My assertion as I responded to the gentleman who called last week was simply this, it is true that there are Christians who do evil things.  Even take people's lives.  This is an indication that these people aren't truly Christians, but it may be true also that people with the right heart, but the wrong head do things that are inappropriate, like I think might have been the case in the Salem Witch Trials. 

My basic case is that religion doesn't promote this kind of thing; it's the exception to the rule.  The rule actually is that when we remove God from the equation, when we act and live as if we have no one to answer to but ourselves, and if there is not God, then the rule of law is social Darwinism--the strong rule the weak.  We'll find that, quite to the contrary, it is not Christianity and the belief in the God of the Bible that results in carnage and genocide.  But it's when people reject the God of the Bible that we are most vulnerable to those kinds of things that we see in history that are the radical and gross destruction of human lives. 

Now for the facts.

Let's take the Salem Witchcraft Trials.  Apparently, between June and September of 1692 five men and fourteen women were eventually convicted and hanged because English law called for the death penalty for witchcraft (which, incidentally, was the same as the Old Testament).  During this time there were over 150 others that were imprisoned.  Things finally ended in September 1692 when Governor William Phipps dissolved the court because his wife had been accused.  He said enough of this insanity.  It was the colony's leading minister, by the way, who finally ended the witch hunt in 1693 and those that remained in prison were released.  The judge that was presiding over the trials publicly confessed his guilt in 1697.  By the way , it's interesting to note that this particular judge was very concerned about the plight of the American Indian and was opposed to slavery.  These are views that don't sit well with the common caricature of the radical Puritans in the witch hunt.  In 1711 the colonies legislatures made reparation to the heirs of the victims.  They annulled the convictions.

I guess the point is that there was a witch hunt.  It was based on theological reasons, but it wasn't to the extent that is usually claimed.  I think last week the caller said it was millions and millions that were burned at the stake as witches.  It certainly wasn't the case in this country.  It seemed that the witch hunt was a result of theological misapplication and the people who were involved were penitent.  The whole witch hunt lasted only a year.  Sixteen people were hanged in New England for witchcraft prior to 1692.  In the 1692 witch hunt nineteen were executed.  So you've got thirty-five people.  One hundred fifty imprisoned.  This is not at all to diminish or minimize the impact of the American witch hunts which resulted in thirty-five deaths.  But thirty-five is not millions.  It is not hundreds of thousands.  It's not even hundreds.  It's thirty-five.  This was not genocide. 

Now in Europe it was a little different.  Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft in 1431.  Over a period of 300 years, from 1484 to 1782, the Christian church put to death 300,000 women accused of witchcraft, about 1000 per year.  Again, I don't want to minimize the impact of 1000 lives lost a year, but here we're talking about a much, much smaller number over a long period of time than what has been claimed in the past.

In America we're talking thirty-five people.  In Europe over 300 years, we're talking about 300,000.  Not millions.  The sources here are World Book Encyclopedia and Encyclopedia Americana.  You can also read in Newsweek, August 31, 1992.  I was accused of being a liar last week.  I'm trying to give you the facts from reputable sources that show that the accusations from last week aren't accurate.

There were two Inquisitions.  One of them began right around the end of the first millennium in 1017.  It began as an attempt to root out heretics and occurred chiefly in France, Germany, Italy and Spain.  The Spanish Inquisition followed in the fourteenth century and was much bloodier.  It began as a feudal aristocracy which forced religious values on society.  Jews were caught in the middle of this and many of them were killed.  About 2000 executions took place.  The Inquisition that took place at the turn of the millennium, less than that.  So we're talking about thousands of people, not millions.

There were actually seven different Crusades and tens of thousands died in them.  Most of them were a misdirected attempt to free the Holy Land.  Some weren't quite like that.  There were some positive aspects to them, but they were basically an atrocity over a couple hundred years.  The worst was the Children's Crusade.  All of the children who went to fight died along the way.  Some were shipwrecked and the rest were taken into slavery in Egypt. 

A blight on Christianity?  Certainty.  Something wrong?  Dismally wrong.  A tragedy?  Of course.  Millions and millions of people killed?  No.  The numbers are tragic, but pale in comparison to the statistics of what non-religion criminals have committed.

My point is not that Christians or religions people aren't to vulnerable to terrible crimes.  Certainly they are.  But it is not religion that produces these things; it is the denial of Biblical religion that generally leads to this kind of things.  The statistics that are the result of irreligious genocide stagger the imagination. 

My source is The Guinness Book of World Records.  Look up the category "Judicial" and under the subject of "Crimes:  Mass Killings," the greatest massacre ever imputed by the government of one sovereign against the government of another is 26.3 million Chinese during the regime of Mao Tse Tung between the years of 1949 and May 1965.  The Walker Report published by the U.S. Senate Committee of the Judiciary in July 1971 placed the parameters of the total death toll in China since 1949 between 32 and 61.7 million people.  An estimate of 63.7 million was published by Figaro magazine on November 5, 1978. 

In the U.S.S.R. the Nobel Prize winner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn estimates the loss of life from state repression and terrorism from October 1917 to December 1959 under Lenin and Stalin and Khrushchev at 66.7 million. 

Finally, in Cambodia (and this was close to me because I lived in Thailand in 1982 working with the broken pieces of the Cambodian holocaust from 1975 to 1979) "as a percentage of a nation's total population, the worst genocide appears to be that in Cambodia, formerly Kampuchea.  According to the Khmer Rouge foreign minister, more than one third of the eight million Khmer were killed between April 17, 1975 and January 1979.  One third of the entire country was put to death under the rule of Pol Pott, the founder of the Communist Part of Kampuchea.  During that time towns, money and property were abolished.  Economic execution by bayonet and club introduced for such offenses as falling asleep during the day, asking to too many questions, playing non-communist music, being old and feeble, being the offspring of an undesirable, or being too well educated.  In fact, deaths in the Tuol Sleng interrogation center in Pnom Penh, which is the capitol of Kampuchea, reached 582 in a day." 

Then in Chinese history of the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries there were three periods of wholesale massacre.  The numbers of victims attributed to these events are assertions rather than reliable estimates.  The figures put on the Mongolian invasion of northern China form 1210 to 1219 and from 1311 to 1340 are both on the order of 35 million people.  While the number of victims of bandit leader Chang Hsien-chung, known as the Yellow Tiger, from 1643 to 1647 in the Siechuan province has been put at 40 million people. 

China under Mao Tse Tung, 26.3 million Chinese.  According the Walker Report, 63.7 million over the whole period of time of the Communist revolution in China.  Solzhenitsyn says the Soviet Union put to death 66.7 million people.  Kampuchea destroyed one third of their entire population of eight million Cambodians.  The Chinese at two different times in medieval history, somewhere in the vicinity of 35 million and 40 million people.  Ladies and gentlemen, make note that these deaths were the result of organizations or points of view or ideologies that had left God out of the equation.  None of these involve religion.  And all but the very last actually assert atheism. 

It seems to me that my colleague Dennis Prager's illustration cannot be improved upon to show the self-evident capability of Biblical religion to restrain evil.  He asks this in this illustration.  If you were walking down a dark street at night in the center of Los Angeles and you saw ten young men walking towards you, would you feel more comfortable if you knew that they had just come from a Bible class?  Of course, the answer is certainly you would.  That demonstrates that religion, and Biblical religion in particular, is a mitigator of evil in the world. 

It is true that it's possible that religion can produce evil, and generally when we look closer at the detail it produces evil because the individual people are actually living in a rejection of the tenants of Christianity and a rejection of the God that they are supposed to be following.  So it can produce it, but the historical fact is that outright rejection of God and institutionalizing of atheism actually does produce evil on incredible levels.  We're talking about tens of millions of people a result of the rejection of God. 

Article | Apologetics, Christianity & Culture
Feb 20, 2013
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