God

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We’re extremely lucky to live in this era, where for the first time in human history, science can not only give us a better way of finding truth and purpose than religion can, but can potentially even give us a better way of escaping death. But for all these new ways in which science has expanded the scope of what we can do, what about the question of what we should do? The purpose of science, after all, is to determine the way things are, not the way things ought to be – so don’t we still need religion to fill that latter role?

This question of morality might be the biggest reason of all why people argue that religious belief should still be encouraged even if it’s false. They say that because religion gives people a well-defined framework for making moral decisions – as well as a strong incentive to do so – it’s still a force for good in the world overall, despite its flaws.

And it’s true that religion can, in many cases, incentivize people to behave more morally in the world. Asking yourself “What would Jesus do?” might make you more inclined to donate to charity; knowing that you’re giving testimony under oath, having sworn to God to tell the truth, might make you less likely to lie in court; and so on. Religious organizations also do all kinds of humanitarian work – distributing food and medicine to the poor, promoting peace in war-torn parts of the world, helping people overcome addiction, etc. – and I certainly don’t want to diminish the value of those contributions. I’m just glad that they’re doing these things.

The reason I’m wary of religion being used as the moral justification for these actions, though, is that in the religious worldview, the humanitarian benefits of these things aren’t what make them morally good; simply the fact that God commands them is what makes them good. And that assumption can lead to some downright catastrophic results.

To see why, we can actually go all the way back to Socrates, centuries before Christianity was founded. He pondered this exact question in terms of what’s now known as the Euthyphro Dilemma, asking: Does God command certain acts because they’re good, or are such acts good because God commands them? That is to say, does the inherent goodness of an act make it more likely that God will command us to do it, or does the mere fact that God commands us to do something automatically make it good by definition, regardless of what the act itself might be?

If the former is the case – i.e. if God is more likely to tell us to be kind to children and help the poor because those are morally good acts, and less likely to tell us to torture children and murder the poor because those are morally bad acts – then that means the morality of an act is defined by something other than God himself. God is looking to some higher standard outside of himself to determine what goodness and badness are; and therefore, his will alone can’t be the ultimate source of moral value.

If the latter is the case, though – if things are morally good simply because God says they’re morally good – then that’s even more problematic, because it makes the concept of goodness itself a moot point. God could declare something to be evil one minute and good the next minute, and we’d just have to accept that torturing kittens or dismembering kindly old grandmothers had suddenly become morally obligatory, simply because God commanded it. (You might argue that God would never command such a thing – but why wouldn’t he? Because it’s immoral? That just sends you back to the first horn of the dilemma – the idea that good and evil are defined by standards other than God’s will.) If morality was defined solely by God’s commands, then the only way to be a good person would be to do whatever he said, even if he said to inflict the maximum possible suffering on every sentient being you could find. Rape, abuse, torture, you name it – as long as God commanded it, it would be not only permissible, but perfectly good and righteous.

But like I said, defining “goodness” in this way causes the word to lose all meaning. What does it mean, in this model, to say that God’s commands are good? What does it mean to say that God himself is good? If “goodness” just means “in accordance with God’s will,” then all it means to say that God and his commands are good is that his will is in accordance with his will – an empty tautology.

Fundamentally, when you’ve got a moral system that bases the goodness of an act solely on whether God commands it, that isn’t a system of morality at all; it’s just a system of obedience. It’s just “might makes right” taken to its most literal conclusion. As H.L. Mencken (probably apocryphally) put it: “Morality is doing what is right regardless of what you are told. Religion is doing what you are told regardless of what is right.” And once you’ve got people thinking that the only moral justification necessary to justify any action is that they were told to do it (or more accurately, that they think they were told to do it), that can open the floodgates for all kinds of terrible outcomes. Anyone can claim that any action is moral – even the most bigoted or violent actions imaginable – and as long as they think that God agrees with them, there’s no moral argument you can make to convince them otherwise. After all, who are they going to listen to – some foolish, flawed human, or the perfect, omniscient Lord of the universe?

Christina writes:

I’ve made this point before, and I’m sure I’ll make it again: Religion, by its very nature as an untestable belief in undetectable beings and an unknowable afterlife, disables our reality checks. It ends the conversation. It cuts off inquiry: not only factual inquiry, but moral inquiry. Because God’s law trumps human law, people who think they’re obeying God can easily get cut off from their own moral instincts. And these moral contortions don’t always lie in the realm of theological game-playing. They can have real-world consequences: from genocide to infanticide, from honor killings to abandoned gay children, from burned witches to battered wives to blown-up buildings.

Recall the biblical stories of Abraham being ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac, Joshua being ordered to commit genocide, etc. The central point of these stories is that when God commands you to do something, you must not even listen to your own conscience. The suffering caused by your actions doesn’t matter. The only moral good is obedience. If God tells you to swing an axe into the neck of a child, you should do it and be proud of your virtue. If he tells you to wipe out an entire race, you should wholeheartedly embrace the opportunity to demonstrate your fundamental decency as a human being. Naturally, you might feel some instinctive revulsion at what you’re being asked to do; but if you’re a good person – a faithful person – then your moral duty is to repress your own judgment and defer to God’s instead. If he’s ordering it, then it’s good by definition, regardless of what your nagging conscience might tell you. So in the same way that you might “suspend your disbelief” while watching a movie in order to better immerse yourself in the fictional world, you likewise have to “suspend your moral disbelief” in order to fully adhere to religious morality.

Yudkowsky discusses his own experience with this:

[There is] an awful little facet of human nature I call “suspension of moral disbelief”. The archetypal case in my mind will always be the Passover Seder, watching my parents and family and sometimes friends reciting the Ten Plagues that God is supposed to have visited on Egypt. You take drops from the wine glass – or grape juice in my case – and drip them onto the plate, to symbolize your sadness at God slaughtering the first-born male children of the Egyptians. So the Seder actually points out the awfulness, and yet no one says: “This is wrong; God should not have done that to innocent families in retaliation for the actions of an unelected Pharaoh.” I forget when I first realized how horrible that was – the real horror being not the Plagues, of course, since they never happened; the real horror is watching your family not notice that they’re swearing allegiance to an evil God in a happy wholesome family Cthulhu-worshiping ceremony. Arbitrarily hideous evils can be wholly concealed by a social atmosphere in which no one is expected to point them out and it would seem awkward and out-of-place to do so.

There’s a popular quotation from Steven Weinberg that goes: “With or without [religion], you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” It’s not strictly true, of course, that religion is the only thing that can cause good people to do evil things – other kinds of ideologies (like political ones) can do the same thing – but Weinberg’s comment neatly sums up why the idea of basing morality on religion is so dangerous. A morality that consists solely of doing whatever God tells you will inevitably lead to bad outcomes when your ideas about God and his desires turn out to be less than perfectly benign. And if the history of religion has shown anything, it’s that our ideas about God and his desires are never perfectly benign – especially when they’re based on such deeply flawed texts as the Bible, the Quran, etc. Here’s Harris again:

Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur’an is not a moderate. Reading scripture more closely, one does not find reasons to be a religious moderate; one finds reasons to be a proper religious lunatic – to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc. Of course, anyone can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love his neighbor and to turn the other cheek. But the more fully a person grants credence to these books, the more he will be convinced that infidels, heretics, and apostates deserve to be smashed to atoms in God’s loving machinery of justice.

I’ve already mentioned plenty of examples of intolerance and violence from within the Bible itself – too many, frankly. But considering how many of those stories probably never actually happened, I think it’s also worth pointing out some examples from the real world, just to drive home the seriousness of the matter and show how real the impact of sincerely-held religious beliefs can be.

Pinker provides a few historical examples for starters:

The early Christians […] extolled torture as just deserts for the sinful. Most people have heard of the seven deadly sins, standardized by Pope Gregory I in 590 CE. Fewer people know about the punishment in hell that was reserved for those who commit them:

Pride: Broken on the wheel
Envy: Put in freezing water
Gluttony: Force-fed rats, toads, and snakes
Lust: Smothered in fire and brimstone
Anger: Dismembered alive
Greed: Put in cauldrons of boiling oil
Sloth: Thrown in snake pits

The duration of these sentences, of course, was infinite.

By sanctifying cruelty, early Christianity set a precedent for more than a millennium of systematic torture in Christian Europe. If you understand the expressions to burn at the stake, to hold his feet to the fire, to break a butterfly on the wheel, to be racked with pain, to be drawn and quartered, to disembowel, to flay, to press, the thumbscrew, the garrote, a slow burn, and the iron maiden (a hollow hinged statue lined with nails, later taken as the name of a heavy-metal rock band), you are familiar with a fraction of the ways that heretics were brutalized during the Middle Ages and early modern period.

During the Spanish Inquisition, church officials concluded that the conversions of thousands of former Jews didn’t take. To compel the conversos to confess their hidden apostasy, the inquisitors tied their arms behind their backs, hoisted them by their wrists, and dropped them in a series of violent jerks, rupturing their tendons and pulling their arms out of their sockets. Many others were burned alive, a fate that also befell Michael Servetus for questioning the trinity, Giordano Bruno for believing (among other things) that the earth went around the sun, and William Tyndale for translating the Bible into English. Galileo, perhaps the most famous victim of the Inquisition, got off easy: he was only shown the instruments of torture (in particular, the rack) and was given the opportunity to recant for “having held and believed that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center and moves.” Today the rack shows up in cartoons featuring elasticized limbs and bad puns (Stretching exercises; Is this a wind-up? No pain no gain). But at the time it was no laughing matter. The Scottish travel writer William Lithgow, a contemporary of Galileo’s, described what it was like to be racked by the Inquisition:

As the levers bent forward, the main force of my knees against the two planks burst asunder the sinews of my hams, and the lids of my knees were crushed. My eyes began to startle, my mouth to foam and froth, and my teeth to chatter like the doubling of a drummer’s sticks. My lips were shivering, my groans were vehement, and blood sprang from my arms, broken sinews, hands, and knees. Being loosed from these pinnacles of pain, I was hand-fast set on the floor, with this incessant imploration: “Confess! Confess!”

Though many Protestants were victims of these tortures, when they got the upper hand they enthusiastically inflicted them on others, including a hundred thousand women they burned at the stake for witchcraft between the 15th and 18th centuries. As so often happens in the history of atrocity, later centuries would treat these horrors in lighthearted ways. In popular culture today witches are not the victims of torture and execution but mischievous cartoon characters or sassy enchantresses, like Broom-Hilda, Witch Hazel, Glinda, Samantha, and the Halliwell sisters in Charmed.

Institutionalized torture in Christendom was not just an unthinking habit; it had a moral rationale. If you really believe that failing to accept Jesus as one’s savior is a ticket to fiery damnation, then torturing a person until he acknowledges this truth is doing him the biggest favor of his life: better a few hours now than an eternity later. And silencing a person before he can corrupt others, or making an example of him to deter the rest, is a responsible public health measure. Saint Augustine brought the point home with a pair of analogies: a good father prevents his son from picking up a venomous snake, and a good gardener cuts off a rotten branch to save the rest of the tree. The method of choice had been specified by Jesus himself: “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”

And this mentality wasn’t just some brief aberration in Christian history, either – it produced centuries of holy wars, crusades, genocides, and other atrocities. Nor was it specific to Christianity alone; religiously-motivated violence and oppression have cropped up nearly everywhere religion has existed throughout history. As Weinberg writes:

I could point out endless examples of the harm done by religious enthusiasm, through a long history of pogroms, crusades, and jihads. In our own century it was a Muslim zealot who killed Sadat, a Jewish zealot who killed Rabin, and a Hindu zealot who killed Gandhi. No one would say that Hitler was a Christian zealot, but it is hard to imagine Nazism taking the form it did without the foundation provided by centuries of Christian anti-Semitism.

RationalWiki also provides its own list of historical atrocities – a few of which were only partly related to religion, but most of which arose directly from religious ideas and resentments. (You may prefer to just skim this list, but even a brief glance should give you the basic idea.) And even this list is only the tip of the iceberg; there’s far more where this came from:

Roman Empire

  • State-sanctioned murder of Christians by pagans until Christianity became the official religion.
  • State-sanctioned murder of pagans by Christians until there were no more pagans left.
    • Of particular note are numerous massacres of pagans by Christian mobs in the fourth and fifth centuries CE.

Middle Ages

  • The Muslim conquests (ordered by Muhammad, carried on after his death) shortly after Islam’s foundation, led to numerous massacres of pagan Arabs and Iranian Zoroastrians for not converting to Islam.
    • Massacre of Banu Qurayza: Muhammad’s forces betrayed an alliance with Arabic Jews and slaughtered them, killing between 600-900.
  • Sasanian conquest of Jerusalem: Jews purchased thousands of Christian prisoners from the Persian Empire and massacred them.
  • Massacre of Verden: In October 782 after the Saxon pagans rebelled against forced Christianization, Charlemagne had 4,500 captive rebel Saxons executed. Historian Alessandro Barbero comments that the most likely inspiration for the mass execution of Verden was the Biblical tale of the total extermination of the Amalekites and conquest of the Moabites by David.
  • The Fez pogrom of 1033: Berber Moroccan tribes massacred more than 6,000 Jewish citizens of the city of Fez shortly after conquering the city.
  • The Granada Massacre of 1066: A Muslim mob crucified a Jewish vizier and brutally massacred the city’s Jewish population. About 4,000 killed.
  • The Crusades: [Several] million victims in the Middle East over the centuries of religious warfare, based on contemporary estimates.
    • Rhineland massacres: Crusaders during the First Crusade commit mass murder against the Jewish population of western Germany. About 12,000 killed.
    • 1097 Antioch massacre: Crusaders murder thousands of Muslim and Christian civilians, unable to tell them apart.
    • 1098 Ma’arra massacre: Weary and hungry Crusaders kill and cannibalize (!) about 20,000 Muslim civilians.
    • Battle of Ascalon: [12,700] Muslims slaughtered “in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
    • 1099 Jerusalem massacre: Crusaders butcher Jerusalem’s Muslim and Jewish population in a cold-blooded act of ethnic cleansing.
    • Richard the Lionheart’s massacre: The king of England ordered the execution of 2,700 Muslim prisoners due to Saladin’s failure to pay a ransom.
    • Albigensian Crusade: Crusaders murder over 200,000 Cathars in France.
    • The Sack of Constantinople in 1204: Crusaders destroy the Byzantine capitol, killing an unknown but high number of their fellow Christians.
  • Massacre of the Latins: In 1182, Eastern Orthodox Christians wiped out the Catholic population of Constantinople, killing 60,000 to 80,000.
  • Timurid conquests: Islamic Mongol ruler Timur, also called Tamerlane, led a reign of terror over southern Asia while calling himself the “defender of Islam”, committing genocides against Indian Hindus, Egyptian and Turkish “usurpers”, and Middle Eastern Christians. He justified his campaigns against his fellow Muslims by describing them as “bad”; one infamous incident saw him behead 90,000 people in Baghdad so he could build towers with their skulls. In total, Timur killed an estimated 17 million people on his insane quest for Islamic dominance and purification.
  • The Valentine’s Day Massacre: Several hundred to 2,000 Jews were burned to death in Strasbourg by Christians blaming them for the Black Death.
  • Attack on Mainz: A Christian mob attacked the Jewish population of Mainz, Germany and killed 3,000 due to hysteria over the Black Death.
  • 1391 massacres: A Catholic priest in Seville, Spain incited the city’s Christians into mass killing over 10,000 Jews during their holy week.

Early Modern era

  • Spanish Inquisition: Torquemada alone is estimated to be responsible for [tens of thousands of acts of torture and] executions.
  • Polotsk drownings: Ivan the Terrible ordered his soldiers to drown 300 Jews to death for refusing to convert to Christianity.
  • Massacre in the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan: in 1520, Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado ordered the unprovoked massacre of [hundreds] of Aztec citizens [during] one of their religious festivals [although his specific motives are disputed].
  • The German Peasant’s War: German peasants inspired by the ideals of the Protestant Reformation rose up against the Catholic Church, resulting in a war that killed 100,000 people.
  • Massacre of Cajamarca: Spanish conquistadores executed an entire army of the Inca Empire during an unprovoked attack in 1532, including Inca ruler Atahualpa [after Atahualpa offended their religious sensibilities by tossing a breviary onto the ground]. This began the near-total destruction of Inca culture and religion.
  • The Münster Rebellion: Anabaptists took over the city of Münster and turned it into a brutal theocracy; local Catholics responded by killing 600 people and torturing the movement’s three leaders to death.
  • Mérindol massacre of 1545: Francis I of France ordered the deaths of thousands of Waldenisan heretics in Provence in an unprovoked attack against civilians.
  • French Wars of Religion (1562-1598): a long series of wars between French Catholics and French Huguenots (Calvinists) which tore the country apart for decades. The wars notably featured numerous massacres carried out against civilians by religious fanatics. Between 2,000,000 and 4,000,000 people were killed as a result of war, famine, and disease.
    • Massacre of Wassy: Francis, Duke of Guise ordered [50] Huguenot worshippers to be murdered without cause out of personal anger, inciting the religious wars in 1562.
    • Massacre of Sens: French Catholics celebrated Easter in 1562 by tying about 100 Huguenots to poles and drowning them in the Yonne river.
    • Toulouse riots: In 1562, Huguenots and Catholics clashed violently over the span of a week, killing 3,000 to 5,000 people.
    • The 1572 Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France left up to 30,000 Protestants dead. This was the largest massacre of the wars and occurred across the country. It also notably occurred in between the religious wars, making it even more galling for happening during peacetime.
  • Massacre in Florida: Spanish colonial troops massacre about 200 French colonists in Florida, only sparing the Catholics.
  • The Spanish Terror: During the Dutch Revolt, Spanish armies destroyed multiple Dutch Protestant cities to put down religious/nationalist rebels, killing [tens of thousands].
  • Witch trials: 40,000 women put to death by hysterical Christian witch trials during Europe’s wars of religion.
  • Thirty Years’ War: Tensions between the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor and various Protestant states spiraled into a devastating continental war that killed between five and ten million people.
    • The Sack of Magdeburg: Imperial Catholic armies destroyed the city of Magdeburg, killing 20,000 Protestants.
  • The Ulster Massacres: Irish Catholics rose up against the English in 1641, in the process slaughtering 4,000-12,000 Protestants.
    • The Protestants later got their revenge thanks to Oliver Cromwell’s notoriously brutal conquest of Ireland. Cromwell and many of his army were Puritans who considered all Roman Catholics to be heretics, and so for them the conquest was partly a crusade. [Between 10% and] 40% of Ireland’s pre-war population died. Cromwell is still a hated figure in Ireland.
  • Chmielnicki Pogrom: In 1648, Cossacks under Bohdan Chmielnicki rose up against Polish rule in Ukraine, in the process attempting to exterminate all Jews in the region and killing [as many as] 100,000 people.
  • Massacre of Uman: Ukrainian Cossacks rising up again against Polish rule in 1768 massacred many thousands of Jews, Catholics, and Uniates near Kiev.
  • First Massacre of Machecoul in 1793: Angered by conscription and by the restriction of the privileges of Catholic clergy during the French Revolution, French Catholic zealots rose up and slaughtered hundreds of suspected republican sympathizers.

Victorian era

  • The Constantinople Massacre of 1821 was orchestrated by the authorities of the Ottoman Empire against the Greek community of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in retaliation for the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence. As soon as the first news of the Greek uprising reached the Ottoman capital, there occurred mass executions, pogrom-type attacks, destruction of churches, and looting of the properties of the city’s Greek population. The events culminated with the hanging of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Gregory V.
    • Not to be outdone by the Turks, the Greeks after capturing the city of Tripolitsa (Tripoli) showed everyone how it’s properly done. Up to 30,000 Muslims were killed and [nearly] the whole Jewish population was wiped out.
  • Haun’s Mill massacre: A Missouri mob murdered 17 Mormons acting on an “Extermination Order” issued by Governor Lilburn W. Boggs.
  • Mountain Meadows massacre: Mormon militia killed up to 140 unarmed members of the Baker-Fancher emigrant wagon train.
  • Russian Tsarist pogroms (first wave): An 1881-84 wave of violence targeted Jews in southwest Imperial Russia, featuring mass rapes and killing an unknown-but-high number of Jews.
  • Hamidian massacres: Sultan Abdul Hamid II ordered Turkish forces to kill Armenian Christians across the Ottoman Empire from 1894–1896, killing some 300,000 people.

Twentieth century

  • Bud Dajo Massacre: In 1906, US forces massacred about 900 Moro Muslims with artillery in the Philippines during operations to counter Muslim anti-colonial insurgency.
  • Russian Tsarist pogroms (second wave): A 1903-1906 wave of pogroms killed [up to] 2,500 people. It’s likely that the Russian state press helped instigate the violence to distract from the disastrous failures of the Russo-Japanese War.
  • Adana massacre: Pogroms target Armenian Christians in 1909, resulting in 20,000 to 30,000 deaths.
  • Lvov pogrom: Polish militias murdered about 150 people in the chaos of the Polish-Ukrainian War in 1918.
  • Late Ottoman Genocides: Ottoman soldiers attempted to eradicate Armenian Christians, killing [around 1] million.
    • This happened concurrently with the Greek Genocide, where the Turks killed between 450,000 and 750,000 Greek Christians.
    • It also happened concurrently with the genocide of Syriac Christians, where the Turks killed between 200,000 and 275,000 people.
  • Azerbaijan genocides of 1918: Christian Armenian nationalists slaughtered [over 10,000] people, including Jews and Azerbaijani Muslims [and triggered an equally bloody retaliation a few months later by the Army of Islam].
  • Pinsk massacre: Polish forces murdered 35 Jews in 1919 over religion and fears of “Jewish-Bolshevism”.
  • Hebron massacre: Arab religious leaders incited Muslims to massacre 67 Jews in British Palestine in 1929.
  • 1929 Palestine riots: Muslim and Jewish disputes over access to holy sites in Jerusalem escalated into mass religious riots that left 133 Jews and 116+ Arabs dead.
  • Simele massacre: Iraqi forces machine-gunned or executed [between 3,000 and] 6,000 Assyrian Christians in 1933.
  • Crimes of the Catholic Croatian fascist group Ustaše during World War II, which were explicitly motivated by a desire to promote a “Holy Croatia” by exterminating Eastern Orthodox Serbs. They mass murdered upwards of 300,000 Serbians, 30,000 Jews, and [26,000 Roma] throughout their four-year reign of terror.
    • Gudovac massacre: Firing squads mass murdered some 190 Serbs in 1941.
    • Glina massacres: Paramilitaries murdered Serbs who would not convert to Catholicism, shooting them or burning them inside church buildings, killing [between 2,000 and] 2,400.
    • Banski Grabovac massacre: Summary executions of [between 1,100 and] 1,200 Serbs.
    • The Garavice extermination site was used by the Ustaše as a place to murder between 12,000 and 15,000 people and dump their corpses.
    • The Jasenovac death camp, where the Ustaše murdered between 77,000 and [100,000] people between 1941 and 1945 through methods that included knifing, smashing skulls with mallets, and torture to death.
    • The Stara Gradiška death camp, where the Ustaše murdered an estimated 12,800 people.
  • Indian Partition: Millions of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were killed during the partition of India in tit-for-tat massacres between all three, with a total death toll of up to two million.
  • Guatemalan genocide: Paramilitaries under Efraín Ríos Montt’s government massacred indigenous Mayan villagers, killing almost 200,000.
  • Algerian Civil War: Islamic fundamentalists [clashed with the government in a conflict that killed tens of thousands of] people.
  • Malisbong Massacre: Filipino armed forces murdered about 1,500 Moro Muslims inside a mosque.
  • Karantina Massacre: Lebanese Christian militias murdered 1,500 people in a Palestinian slum district.
  • Damour Massacre: Palestinian militias murdered the residents of a Christian town south of Beirut in retaliation for the Karantina Massacre, killing between 150 and 582 people.
  • The Sabra and Shatila Massacre: Israel allowed a Lebanese Christian militia to enter a Palestinian refugee camp; the militia proceeded to massacre at least 800 civilians.
  • Tel el-Zaatar Massacre: Lebanese Christian militias attacked a Palestinian refugee camp, killing between [1,500 and 3,000].
  • The Troubles: In large part a religious civil war, the conflict in Northern Ireland resulted in 3,500 deaths, of which [nearly 2,000] were civilian.
  • Bosnian Genocide: Serbs in Bosnia attempted to exterminate Bosnian Muslims during the Yugoslav Wars, resulting in a civilian death toll of [tens of thousands].
    • The Srebrenica massacre alone saw Serbs murder more than 8,000 Bosniaks.

Twenty-first century

  • 9/11: Al Qaeda terrorist attack in the United States that killed 2,977 and was motivated by religious anger at non-Muslim US forces based near Islamic holy sites in Saudi Arabia.
  • 2002 Gujarat riots: Hindus and Muslims clashed for days in Gujarat, killing between 1,000 and 2,000.
  • 2003 Iraq War: President George W. Bush claimed that God told him to “end tyranny in Iraq”. The war and the resulting chaos has claimed the lives of over 182,000 civilians and counting.
  • The back and forth murder of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims based on [competing claims to] the Holy Land.
  • Routine executions and honor killings in the Middle East in the name of tribal morality.
  • Muslims persecute and murder Christians during the Arab Spring, currently ongoing in Egypt and Syria.
  • DAESH [AKA ISIS], AKA the result of the unnecessary war mentioned above, i.e. numerous crimes on the lands occupied by them plus exporting the Jihad to the world.
  • DAESH acts of genocide the Yazidi ethno-religious group, killed some [5,000] people.
  • 2017 Al Shabaab truck bombings in Mogadishu, Somalia killed at least 537.
  • Peshawar School Massacre: The Taliban attacked a school in Pakistan, killing 141 people, 132 of whom were children.
  • Sri Lanka Easter bombings: ISIS-aligned suicide bombers attacked churches in Sri Lanka, killing 253 people.
  • Boko Haram mass shooting at a Nigerian funeral in 2019 that killed at least 65 people.
  • In 2020, forces of Muslim Eritrea murdered [about a hundred] Ethiopian Christians attending a festival celebrating the Ark of the Covenant.
  • [Etc.]

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Again, none of this is to say that people can’t commit terrible atrocities for reasons other than religion; the genocides carried out by dictators like Hitler and Stalin are prime examples of how politically-motivated violence can be just as deadly as religiously-motivated violence. But religious violence is qualitatively different. It’s uniquely dangerous because it turns ordinary conflicts into spiritually sacred ones, raising their perceived stakes and consequently exacerbating their intensity and duration far beyond what they might otherwise be. Here’s Pinker again:

Names like the “Thirty Years’ War” and the “Eighty Years’ War” […] tell us that the Wars of Religion were not just intense but interminable. The historian of diplomacy Garrett Mattingly notes that in this period a major mechanism for ending war was disabled: “As religious issues came to dominate political ones, any negotiations with the enemies of one state looked more and more like heresy and treason. The questions which divided Catholics from Protestants had ceased to be negotiable. Consequently… diplomatic contacts diminished.”

When you think that your actions are being dictated by God himself, the idea of compromising is unthinkable; it’s not like you can just to refuse to obey God because there are other mitigating factors. Serving God is an infinite good; and that means you have to be willing to accept any cost in order to accomplish it – even mass bloodshed.

Pinker talks in another context about how utopian political ideologies like Nazism and Stalinism, because they place such immeasurable value on the ends they’re trying to achieve, can be used to justify any means of getting there, including massive collateral damage. But as applicable as these considerations are to earthly ideologies, they’re even more applicable to religious ones (like those held by the Crusaders and ISIS), in which victory is believed to have eternal consequences:

Utopian ideologies invite genocide for two reasons. One is that they set up a pernicious utilitarian calculus. In a utopia, everyone is happy forever, so its moral value is infinite. Most of us agree that it is ethically permissible to divert a runaway trolley that threatens to kill five people onto a side track where it would kill only one. But suppose it were a hundred million lives one could save by diverting the trolley, or a billion, or – projecting into the indefinite future – infinitely many. How many people would it be permissible to sacrifice to attain that infinite good? A few million can seem like a pretty good bargain.

Not only that, but consider the people who learn about the promise of a perfect world yet nonetheless oppose it. They are the only things standing in the way of a plan that could lead to infinite goodness. How evil are they? You do the math.

Again, this is the fundamental flaw of religious morality. When you define good and evil in such absolutist terms – in which anything that conforms to your interpretation of God’s will is automatically good, and anything that doesn’t is automatically evil – it leaves no room whatsoever for any deviation from that formula. Pinker continues:

The second genocidal hazard of a utopia is that it has to conform to a tidy blueprint. In a utopia, everything is there for a reason. What about the people? Well, groups of people are diverse. Some of them stubbornly, perhaps essentially, cling to values that are out of place in a perfect world. They may be entrepreneurial in a world that works by communal sharing, or bookish in a world that works by labor, or brash in a world that works by piety, or clannish in a world that works by unity, or urban and commercial in a world that has returned to its roots in nature. If you are designing the perfect society on a clean sheet of paper, why not write these eyesores out of the plans from the start?

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