November 22, 2015
Recently, I attended a new employee orientation for a hospice service in Northern California and met a smart, well-traveled nurse in her 30s.
After a few minutes of office banter, our talk turned to the Paris terrorist attacks.
“You know, Chaplain, you have to admit that there’s been more killing perpetrated in the name of religion than for any other cause.”
I’d heard this regurgitated reasoning from the neo-atheist camp, but I was a bit surprised to hear the myth from someone so educated. At first, I considered arguing the points from a column I’d recently read by Rabbi Alan Lurie.
Lurie believes that “… an objective look at history reveals that those killed in the name of religion have, in fact, been a tiny fraction in the bloody history of human conflict.”
As proof, he quotes the “Encyclopedia of Wars” by authors Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, who documented the history of recorded warfare in their 2004 three-volume set.
The rabbi concludes, “From their list of 1,763 wars only 123 have been classified to involve a religious cause, accounting for less than 7 percent of all wars and less than 2 percent of all people killed in warfare. While, for example, it is estimated that approximately one to three million people were tragically killed in the Crusades, and perhaps 3,000 in the Inquisition, nearly 35 million soldiers and civilians died in the senseless, and secular, slaughter of World War 1 alone.”
I should have mentioned all that to the nurse, but I didn’t. That’s because the calculations really depend on how one defines the word “religion.”
If “religion” can be defined loosely as “a zealous system of beliefs and values,” then you’d have to include the genocidal maniacs of the world who’ve made a religion of power. In other words, for the nurse’s supposition, to be true she’d count the anti-religious fervor of Hitler in Europe, Stalin in Russia, Mao in China and Pol Pot in Cambodia. These men worshiped at the maniacal shrine of greed, in the church of xenophobia and in the temple of hedonism.
Include their efforts and you’d be hard-pressed to accurately count the hundreds of millions of people killed in the last 75 years alone. While these men weren’t religious per say, they became expert practitioners of intolerance.
If I could have offered my new nurse friend a slight correction, I’d have reworded her premise to say: there have been more people killed in the name of intolerance — not religion — than any other thing.
But if you’re like my nurse friend and still believe that religion is somehow responsible for the increased level of violence we’re seeing, then I’d like to prescribe the writings of historian and New York Times bestselling author Reza Aslan.
In response to a question put to him by CNN, Aslan made the point that “religion only becomes violent when you bring violence into it.”
He said, “If you’re a violent person, then your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent. There are marauding Buddhist monks in Myanmar slaughtering women and children. Does Buddhism promote violence? Of course not. People are violent or peaceful and that depends on their politics, their social world, and the ways that they see their communities.”
Nevertheless, if you insist that we’re being drawn into a war about religion, check out Aslan’s book, “How to Win a Cosmic War.” In addressing the question, “How do you win a religious war?” he gives the best answer I’ve read yet:
“By refusing to fight in one.”
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