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Which Causes More Violence: Atheism or Religion?

Updated on August 18, 2015

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.

Mao and Stalin in 1949
Mao and Stalin in 1949

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.

Christian Crusaders
Christian Crusaders

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.

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      PAUL BAKER CHESHIRE UK 4 years ago

      I HAVE NO TIME FOR RELIGION GOD SQUADING IT'S JUST HIDING

      FROM TRUTH AND REALLITY A COP OUT A WAST OF SPACE TIME AND OXYGEN

    • JoanCA profile image
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      JoanCA 5 years ago

      Psychicdog,

      I think love is more consistent with Jesus' teachings as well. Fundamentalism is very OT based.

    • psychicdog.net profile image

      psychicdog.net 5 years ago

      @Zerz and @JoanCA - If you read the bible as a fundamentalist you would certainly be thinking God can be quite violent - especially in the old testament where God promises and shows his wrath against sinners and detractors - floods for pagans, the ground opening up and burying detrators, not to mention what is to come etc... I would suggest non-fundamentalist Christians prefer to emphasize the Love of God and feel it safe to only think in terms of God's Love.

    • JoanCA profile image
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      JoanCA 5 years ago

      Zera,

      Yes, that's a good point. Some people do believe that if something is claimed to have come from God that it's moral no matter how bad it seems to us. I don't know if this makes religion potentially more dangerous or not, since people will do some really awful things for purely secular reasons as well. I think it's really hard to know.

    • SotD and Zera profile image

      SotD and Zera 5 years ago

      Well, with infallibility I was more referring to the nature of God, at least the nature of the Judeo-Christian God. As I understand, God is taught to be infallible, so if someone manages to convince people that God actually said what they report he did, then they're in. I know more than one Christian that holds that God is good just by being God, even when commanding acts that would be evil if commanded by a human. That always kind of scared me.

      Good point about Catholicism, though.

      @ psychicdog.net: For me, I start with the premise that nobody's perfect, particularly in a world like this that teaches all kinds of prejudices and practices all kinds of oppressions. While you can't completely let someone off the hook for damage they did unknowingly, the true test of their morality comes when they're told what they did. If they deny it and continue, they're fully in the wrong. If they stop and try to change themselves for the better, then they're redeemable.

    • psychicdog.net profile image

      psychicdog.net 5 years ago

      Zera the word fallible actually comes from the story of Adam and Eve - the Fall - don't worry plenty of faiths argue about what is right and wrong and in fact consider us less than perfect. Catholicism says we are all fallible (except the Pope) or sinners - what secularists sometimes seem to forget is that our civilization has grown up around Judeo-Christian values - and if you look at values it is possible to see we are following them still whether we believe in religion or not. I'm curious - would you say it was better to start with the premise we are sinners or never question how much wrong we can do without evening knowing it? This is a great hub thanks JoanCA.

    • JoanCA profile image
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      JoanCA 5 years ago

      Thanks for the great comment Zera. I think there are certain types of people who don't really want to think for themselves. Or don't know how. Or they get into difficult situations in life and they feel a sense of purpose in life by being a part of something and having someone to look up to. They want to be told how to think. Since more people are religious than nonreligious, it might be a bit more obvious with religion. But you can definitely see examples in secular movements as well.

      Even with infallibility many people do question religious beliefs and think for themselves. If you look at birth control use among American Catholics, very few are following church doctrine. People follow the parts they like and not the parts they don't. I think lower levels of education or insecurity due to social problems make people easy prey for whatever extreme ideology pops up.

    • SotD and Zera profile image

      SotD and Zera 5 years ago

      I agree that it's unthinkingly following ideology that's the main problem, rather than whether than ideology is religious or secular. The one extra danger from religion, however, is that infallibility is usually built in. The gods say do x, and the gods can't be wrong. On the flip side, of course, there have certainly been secular movements convinced that their leaders couldn't be wrong. But in general it's easier to question a person than a supernatural force.

      Then again, your whole point is that the problem is lack of thinking, and questioning requires thinking... well, I seem to have brought myself full circle. Anyway, great article.

      -Zera

    • JoanCA profile image
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      JoanCA 5 years ago

      Thanks psychicdog.

    • psychicdog.net profile image

      psychicdog.net 5 years ago

      I love hubs that make people think JoanCA - that's what you've done here on a topic I have had a bit to do with recently - I find myself agreeing with you a great deal! Voted up