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Which Causes More Violence: Atheism or Religion?
There is a big debate that goes on between atheists and religious people over which causes more violence: religion or atheism. Atheists will point to the Crusades, the Inquisition and 9/11 as examples of religious violence. Religious people will point to Stalin and Mao as examples of atheistic violence. It's an interesting debate with valid and invalid arguments coming from both sides.
There are some problems I find with arguments that come from the opposing sides. I won't answer the actual question I posed because it isn't really answerable. I will explain why.
Problems with Religious Arguments
Religious people will point to Stalin, Mao and Hitler as examples of atheistic violence. One problem with this argument is that Hitler wasn't an atheist. He did consider himself to be Christian but didn't seem to have been particularly religious. Stalin and Mao didn't kill millions of people in the name of atheism. They killed people in the name of communism, which is mainly a political and economic ideology.
Communism was often (though not always) atheistic partly because communists believed that religion was a factor in the oppression of the lower classes. Communists thought that the churches held back progress. Lack of belief in a god wasn't a motivating factor behind attempts to destroy religion. Atheists might see the fact that religion was used as a tool of oppression as a win for their side but attempts to wipe out religious belief in the USSR, Cambodia and even today in China show that atheists can also be guilty of trying to force favored beliefs on others.
Problems with Atheist Arguments
There is no doubt that religion has been used as a justification for violence. There has been a lot of religiously motivated violence throughout history. But as communism has proven, secular ideologies can be used as easily as religious ideologies to promote violence. Atheists often try to get around the communism problem by equating communism with religion. The state becomes a substitute for God. But this argument is unconvincing because atheists aren't immune to ideological based violence, as Stalin, Mao and their ilk prove.
Many atheists assume that the world would be a much more peaceful place without religion. But this is something we can't really know. The Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers (LTTE) have been behind more suicide attacks than any other group in the last few decades, yet they are completely secular in their motivations.
A Question We Can't Answer
Most people have been religious throughout history, so it shouldn't be surprising that religion was often used to rally people behind political, nationalistic or economic causes, which were often major factors in conflicts. The fact is we really have no idea what a completely atheistic world would be like.
The question I asked in the title is a completely hypothetical one. We really can't know the answer because we can't compare a largely atheistic world to a largely religious one. We can only make assumptions. Atheists make assumptions that favor an atheistic world. The religious make assumptions that favor a religious world.
If religion really is a major cause of violence then the world would be a far more peaceful place without it. If violence is an integral part of human nature, there may not be a significant difference in levels of violence. However, there would definitely be different reasons and justifications for it.
I lean more toward the view that violence is part of human nature and that religion isn't necessary to drive people toward violence. We shouldn't fear either religion or atheism. What we should fear is blind ideological belief and lack of critical thought. Given the right set of circumstances, it can be easy to motivate people to kill. Blind adherence to any ideology is dangerous, whether it's religious or secular in nature.