Thursday, October 21, 2010

Who's Doing the Killing: Atheists or Christians

Have you heard the claim that atheism is awful because the amount of death atheism is responsible for is off the charts? For instance in this article Greg Koukl says that yes, Christianity is responsible for some death. You could look to the Inquisitions and Salem witch trials, and yes many thousands were killed. But contrast with atheism. Millions under Stalin. Millions under Mao. Conservapedia relies on Koukl heavily as they make the same case.

I decided to try and dig into the facts as best I'm able to get a handle on this claim. Who is responsible for creating the most corpses? I'm aware of many US backed atrocities that people don't talk about a whole lot. I bet if we were to tally them we might be surprised at the facts.

I found a great resource here from someone named Matthew White. He compiles the various death estimates from what appear to be credible sources and attempts to make a judgment about the totals on the basis of that information. The link I provided focuses on the top 30 atrocities of the 20th century. Digging deeper into the website provides additional information, including in the case of WWII a break down of who is responsible for what amount of the death.

What I've done is attempted to break the totals down by the religion of the responsible party. This is a little subjective and I'm certainly open to modification, but here's how I approached it. In the case where I know who an aggressor is I attribute all death to the aggressor nation. So for instance the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and Muslim Afghans retaliated and killed Soviets. I'm attributing all death to the Soviets in that case. If on the other hand I don't know how to identify the aggressor I partition the death between the agents to the conflict. If a pretty good majority of all agents belong to a particular religion I attribute all death to the majority religion. If it's nearly 50/50 I likewise split the toll.

Also death includes death due to starvation. Mao and Stalin didn't necessarily put a bullet in everyone's head, but they enacted policies that lead directly to death and so they are responsible for that.

In the case of the Iran-Iraq war I split the death between Christians and Muslims because Saddam was installed by the US and both sides were provided weapons from the US. So the foot soldiers were Muslim, but the backing was Christian.

I've added a couple of additional atrocities that weren't in White's list. I use his figure for Iraqi sanctions, but it wasn't on his list possibly because he was tallying what he calls "bloodlettings." There may be other incidents that belong and I'll add them as I come to know them.

He also didn't list the Iraq/Afghan war, so I've added that. My source is here. I've also included the WTC bombings simply because they are prominent.

Numbers are in thousands.

1886-1908Congo Free State8000

1900-1999Brazilian Genocides550

1910-1920Mexican Revolution1000


1917-1922Russian Civil War

1917-1937China Warlord Era

1922-1953Stalin's Russia

1936-1939Spanish Civil War365

1945-1947German Expulsions

1945-1949Chinese Civil War

1945-1954First Indochina war400

1947India-Pakistan Partition
1948-1999N Korean Communist Regime

1949-1976Mao Zedong's China

1950-1953Korean War1400
1954-1962French-Algerian War338338

1955-1972Sudanese Civil War


1962-1992Ethiopian Civil War1400

1965-1966Indonesian Communist Massacres225225

1967-1970Nigeria: Biafran Revolt500500

1971Indo Pakistani War
1975-1994Angolan Civil War300

1976-1979Pol Pot's Reign

1976-1992Mozambique Civil War800

1980-1988Iran-Iraq War500500

1980-1989Afghanistan Soviet War

1983-1999Sudanese Civil War

1990-2003Iraqi Sanctions835

1991-1999Somali Atrocities

1994Rwandan Massacres917

1998-1999Congolese Civil War1700


2001-presentInvasions of Iraq & Afghanistan1036

Totals (Thousands)73,7455,30383,25820,675

So let's notice something here. Yes, atheists are in the lead. But the facts kind of help us recognize that this argument is not very forceful. Is atheism obviously wrong due to the death of 83 million, but Christianity is not obviously wrong because they only killed 74 million? And I would also note that this time frame is convenient from a Christian perspective. If you go out another 25 years you can tack another 26 million on the heads of Christians due to famines induced in colonial India by the British. That's enough to give Christians the lead.

Also for the most part I'm sticking with Matthew White's top 30 list. I think as I look for additional smaller items I'll see much more religious death. All the dictators imposed throughout Latin America for the last 50 years will make a big difference. Other CIA adventures (Shah in Iran, terrorism in Cuba, backing of Indonesian invasion of East Timor under Ford and through the Clinton years, etc) would again add to both the Muslim and Christian totals.

What pops out to me though is the paltry amount of Islamic death. A mere 5 million? If this argument proves anything it proves the truth of Islam.


Darf Ferrara said...

While I don't think your classification is perfect, I think that you're probably right that there isn't much difference. It seems to be an odd argument for Christians to make anyway. It has nothing to do with the truth of Christianities central claims. It's more like 'Christians are 20% less likely to murder than are atheists'. What do you think that Koukl is trying to prove?

On the other hand, as a moral atheist, if you thought that believing in God made people better, do you think that the right thing to do (as someone who "knows the truth") is to be silent? Is there some threshold of improvement in morality that might convince you to not convince people to be atheists? This is sort of a "Men of Gold, Men of Silver, Men of Brass" idea that Plato had in mind.

Jon said...

I think the argument could make sense crafted like Paul Draper does against Craig. What do you expect the world to look like if Christianity is true? Christians, having access to the source of morality, would be expected to be better people. Under atheism there's no reason to expect Christians to be any better. It might make sense if the numbers showed Christians were better by lopsided margins. Koukl doesn't say this explicitly, but I think it's in the background.

This does backfire though as you look at the results. Given that improved morality is the expectation, the fact that there's little difference is surprising on theism, but really not on atheism.

And I think I would agree that I should be silent if I found that rejecting religion lead to immorality. Some alcoholic finds Jesus and he straightens out his life, stops beating his wife. If I thought knowing the truth would lead him to beat his wife I wouldn't tell him.

HispanicPundit said...

I still think atheists win by a larger amount when you consider two factors:

1. Atheism is a much smaller proportion of world population. So if you normalize the killings to something like "religion per capita", atheism would blow up. Far surpass its competitors.

2. You cant just add ~35 million deaths during WWII. Most people would agree that WWII was a just war (I know you have not on previous occasion, but most reasonable people would), so those killings have to count as zero, or even negative (killing bad guys is a GOOD thing). Which further separates the two.

Darf Ferrara said...

I think WWII is probably not labelled accurately, but I think it's probably a not helpful or accurate to say that there are "good killings". Many of the soldiers involved (in any war) are conscripted, and aren't fighting for any ideology, and hence don't really deserve to die.

In addition when you look at all of history, you'll find that religious persons tried to kill people more than non-religious. Until the twentieth century the means for killing mass numbers of people didn't exist. Well, except for Black Death, which was created by God.

Jon said...

1-That's perhaps a plausible direction to take the argument if you're interested in that. I'm addressing the claim made by Christians which is related to the raw number of deaths. But keep in mind that you'd have to proportion out based on the fact that China and the Soviet Union are atheist countries with large populations.

2-I'm sort of accounting for the justness of the war by attributing casualties primarily to the aggressor nation. The primary aggressor is Germany and they are Christian. I think you mean that it was just for the allies to enter the war, and I agree. I'm attributing some of the death to the allies (nuclear bombs, carpet bombing of civilian population centers), but Germany is responsible for almost all of the military death since Britain and US military death is due to their efforts to repel the aggressor nation. Just like the Soviets and Afghanistan.

This method is based on international law. The Nuremberg Tribunal called aggression "the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole." So things like subsequent sectarian violence or starvation trace their causal root to the initial act of aggression and that is how it is regarded legally.

Paul said...

"Have you heard the claim that atheism is awful because the amount of death atheism is responsible for is off the charts?"

I am unable to take this type of question seriously. It is incoherent or a fallacy of equivocation.

Atheism (alone) has no normative properties. It says nothing about what one ought to do (or not).

Put another way - atheism is a property of a world view. A world view that surely has many other properties.

Whereas religion *is* a world view (in the context)

A more interesting comparison would be to separate the various world-views where atheism is a property into distinct categories.

Ultimately; however, as Darf stated (and in a rare occurrence where I agree with him) the argument is an invalid one as a means to establishing a truth of which world-view is the correct one.

Lastly in truth before this argument can even be had: one has to explain what is moral. And to do so - cannot be done using religion as doing so makes the entire thing circular.

HispanicPundit said...

Ah - good point on #2. That clarification sounds reasonable to me.

Arnoldo said...

The study should not be Christians and Atheists,You are absolutely flawed for example WWII, was a christian war and you say other, when the data clearly demonstrates the involvement of the catholic churh. So go do some research, caus you sound like a 5 grader. if you add them all up except atheists you will find a very different result.

Jon said...

Stalin played a major role in WWII. He regarded equipment as more valuable than human life and his strategic moves were designed with that in mind. He took half of Poland in a deal with Hitler. That's why he gets some credit for the death totals, but not all. I've attributed the majority to Christians in WWII.