Religion's Death Toll
by James A. Haught
note: This article was first published in 1990. For that reason,
neither the ongoing carnage in Iraq nor terrorist attacks in the past
15+ years are mentioned.]
Ronald Reagan often called religion the world's mightiest force for
good, "the bedrock of moral order." George Bush said it gives people
"the character they need to get through life." This view is held by
millions. But the truism isn't true. The record of human experience
shows that where religion is strong, it causes cruelty. Intense beliefs
produce intense hostility. Only when faith loses its force can a
society hope to become humane.
The history of religion is a horror story. If anyone doubts it, just
review this chronicle of religion's gore during the last 1,000 years or
-- The First Crusade was launched in 1095 with the battle cry "Deus
Vult" (God wills it), a mandate to destroy infidels in the Holy Land.
Gathering crusaders in Germany first fell upon "the infidel among us,"
Jews in the Rhine valley, thousands of whom were dragged from their
homes or hiding places and hacked to death or burned alive. Then the
religious legions plundered their way 2,000 miles to Jerusalem, where
they killed virtually every inhabitant, "purifying" the symbolic city.
Cleric Raymond of Aguilers wrote: "In the temple of Solomon, one rode
in blood up to the knees and even to the horses' bridles, by the just
and marvelous judgment of God."
-- Human sacrifice blossomed in the Mayan theocracy of Central America
between the 11th and 16th centuries. To appease a feathered-serpent
god, maidens were drowned in sacred wells and other victims either had
their hearts cut out, were shot with arrows, or were beheaded.
Elsewhere, sacrifice was sporadic. In Peru, pre-Inca tribes killed
children in temples called "houses of the moon." In Tibet, Bon shamans
performed ritual killings. In Borneo builders of pile houses drove the
first pile through the body of a maiden to pacify the earth goddess. In
India, Dravidian people offered lives to village goddesses, and
followers of Kali sacrificed a male child every Friday evening.
-- In the Third Crusade, after Richard the Lion-Hearted captured Acre
in 1191, he ordered 3,000 captives -- many of them women and children
-- taken outside the city and slaughtered. Some were disemboweled in a
search for swallowed gems. Bishops intoned blessings. Infidel lives
were of no consequence. As Saint Bernard of Clairvaux declared in
launching the Second Crusade: "The Christian glories in the death of a
pagan, because thereby Christ himself is glorified."
-- The Assassins were a sect of Ismaili Shi'ite Muslims whose faith
required the stealthy murder of religious opponents. From the 11th to
13th centuries, they killed numerous leaders in modern-day Iran, Iraq
and Syria. They finally were wiped out by conquering Mongols -- but
their vile name survives.
-- Throughout Europe, beginning in the 1100s, tales spread that Jews
were abducting Christian children, sacrificing them, and using their
blood in rituals. Hundreds of massacres stemmed from this "blood
libel." Some of the supposed sacrifice victims -- Little Saint Hugh of
Lincoln, the holy child of LaGuardia, Simon of Trent -- were beatified
or commemorated with shrines that became sites of pilgrimages and
-- In 1209, Pope Innocent III launched an armed crusade against
Albigenses Christians in southern France. When the besieged city of
Beziers fell, soldiers reportedly asked their papal adviser how to
distinguish the faithful from the infidel among the captives. He
commanded: "Kill them all. God will know his own." Nearly 20,000 were
slaughtered -- many first blinded, mutilated, dragged behind horses, or
used for target practice.
-- The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 proclaimed the doctrine of
transubstantiation: that the host wafer miraculously turns into the
body of Jesus during the mass. Soon rumors spread that Jews were
stealing the sacred wafers and stabbing or driving nails through them
to crucify Jesus again. Reports said that the pierced host bled, cried
out, or emitted spirits. On this charge, Jews were burned at the stake
in 1243 in Belitz, Germany -- the first of many killings that continued
into the 1800s. To avenge the tortured host, the German knight
Rindfliesch led a brigade in 1298 that exterminated 146 defenseless
Jewish communities in six months.
-- In the 1200s the Incas built their empire in Peru, a society
dominated by priests reading daily magical signs and offering
sacrifices to appease many gods. At major ceremonies up to 200 children
were burned as offerings. Special "chosen women" -- comely virgins
without blemish -- were strangled.
-- Also during the 1200s, the hunt for Albigensian heretics led to
establishment of the Inquisition, which spread over Europe. Pope
Innocent IV authorized torture. Under interrogation by Dominican
priests, screaming victims were stretched, burned, pierced and broken
on fiendish pain machines to make them confess to disbelief and to
identify fellow transgressors. Inquisitor Robert le Bourge sent 183
people to the stake in a single week.
-- In Spain, where many Jews and Moors had converted to escape
persecution, inquisitors sought those harboring their old faith. At
least 2,000 Spanish backsliders were burned. Executions in other
countries included the burning of scientists such as
mathematician-philosopher Giordano Bruno, who espoused Copernicus's
theory that the planets orbit the sun.
-- When the Black Death swept Europe in 1348-1349, rumors alleged that
it was caused by Jews poisoning wells. Hysterical mobs slaughtered
thousands of Jews in several countries. In Speyer, Germany, the burned
bodies were piled into giant wine casks and sent floating down the
Rhine. In northern Germany Jews were walled up alive in their homes to
suffocate or starve. The Flagellants, an army of penitents who whipped
themselves bloody, stormed the Jewish quarter of Frankfurt in a
gruesome massacre. The prince of Thuringia announced that he had burned
his Jews for the honor of God.
-- The Aztecs began their elaborate theocracy in the 1300s and brought
human sacrifice to a golden era. About 20,000 people were killed yearly
to appease gods -- especially the sun god, who needed daily
"nourishment" of blood. Hearts of sacrifice victims were cut out, and
some bodies were eaten ceremoniously. Other victims were drowned,
beheaded, burned or dropped from heights. In a rite to the rain god,
shrieking children were killed at several sites so that their tears
might induce rain. In a rite to the maize goddess, a virgin danced for
24 hours, then was killed and skinned; her skin was worn by a priest in
further dancing. One account says that at King Ahuitzotl's coronation,
80,000 prisoners were butchered to please the gods.
-- In the 1400s, the Inquisition shifted its focus to witchcraft.
Priests tortured untold thousands of women into confessing that they
were witches who flew through the sky and engaged in sex with the devil
-- then they were burned or hanged for their confessions. Witch
hysteria raged for three centuries in a dozen nations. Estimates of the
number executed vary from 100,000 to 2 million. Whole villages were
exterminated. In the first half of the 17th century, about 5,000
"witches" were put to death in the French province of Alsace, and 900
were burned in the Bavarian city of Bamberg. The witch craze was
religious madness at its worst.
-- The "Protestant Inquisition" is a term applied to the severities of
John Calvin in Geneva and Queen Elizabeth I in England during the
1500s. Calvin's followers burned 58 "heretics," including theologian
Michael Servetus, who doubted the Trinity. Elizabeth I outlawed
Catholicism and executed about 200 Catholics.
-- Protestant Huguenots grew into an aggressive minority in France in
the 15OOs -- until repeated Catholic reprisals smashed them. On Saint
Bartholomew's Day in 1572, Catherine de Medicis secretly authorized
Catholic dukes to send their soldiers into Huguenot neighborhoods and
slaughter families. This massacre touched off a six-week bloodbath in
which Catholics murdered about 10,000 Huguenots. Other persecutions
continued for two centuries, until the French Revolution. One group of
Huguenots escaped to Florida; in 1565 a Spanish brigade discovered
their colony, denounced their heresy, and killed them all.
-- Members of lndia's Thuggee sect strangled people as sacrifices to
appease the bloodthirsty goddess Kali, a practice beginning in the
1500s. The number of victims has been estimated to be as high as 2
million. Thugs were claiming about 20,000 lives a year in the 1800s
until British rulers stamped them out. At a trial in 1840, one Thug was
accused of killing 931 people. Today, some Hindu priests still
sacrifice goats to Kali.
-- The Anabaptists, communal "rebaptizers," were slaughtered by both
Catholic and Protestant authorities. In Munster, Germany, Anabaptists
took control of the city, drove out the clergymen, and proclaimed a New
Zion. The bishop of Munster began an armed siege. While the townspeople
starved, the Anabaptist leader proclaimed himself king and executed
dissenters. When Munster finally fell, the chief Anabaptists were
tortured to death with red-hot pincers and their bodies hung in iron
cages from a church steeple.
-- Oliver Cromwell was deemed a moderate because he massacred only
Catholics and Anglicans, not other Protestants. This Puritan general
commanded Bible-carrying soldiers, whom he roused to religious fervor.
After decimating an Anglican army, Cromwell said, "God made them as
stubble to our swords." He demanded the beheading of the defeated King
Charles I, and made himself the holy dictator of England during the
1650s. When his army crushed the hated Irish Catholics, he ordered the
execution of the surrendered defenders of Drogheda and their priests,
calling it "a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches."
-- Ukrainian Bogdan Chmielnicki was a Cossack Cromwell. He wore the
banner of Eastern Orthodoxy in a holy war against Jews and Polish
Catholics. More than 100,000 were killed in this 17th-century
bloodbath, and the Ukraine was split away from Poland to become part of
the Orthodox Russian empire.
-- The Thirty Years' War produced the largest religious death toll of
all time. It began in 1618 when Protestant leaders threw two Catholic
emissaries out of a Prague window into a dung heap. War flared between
Catholic and Protestant princedoms, drawing in supportive religious
armies from Germany, Spain, England, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, France
and Italy. Sweden's Protestant soldiers sang Martin Luther's "Ein
'Feste Burg" in battle. Three decades of combat turned central Europe
into a wasteland of misery. One estimate states that Germany's
population dropped from 18 million to 4 million. In the end nothing was
settled, and too few people remained to rebuild cities, plant fields,
or conduct education.
-- When Puritans settled in Massachusetts in the 1600s, they created a
religious police state where doctrinal deviation could lead to
flogging, pillorying, hanging, cutting off ears, or boring through the
tongue with a hot iron. Preaching Quaker beliefs was a capital offense.
Four stubborn Quakers defied this law and were hanged. In the 1690s
fear of witches seized the colony. Twenty alleged witches were killed
and 150 others imprisoned.
-- In 1723 the bishop of Gdansk, Poland, demanded that all Jews be
expelled from the city. The town council declined, but the bishop's
exhortations roused a mob that invaded the ghetto and beat the
residents to death.
-- Islamic jihads (holy wars), mandated by the Koran, killed millions
over 12 centuries. In early years, Muslim armies spread the faith
rapidly: east to India and west to Morocco. Then splintering sects
branded other Muslims as infidels and declared jihads against them. The
Kharijis battled Sunni rulers. The Azariqis decreed death to all
"sinners" and their families. In 1804 a Sudanese holy man, Usman dan
Fodio, waged a bloody jihad that broke the religious sway of the Sultan
of Gobir. In the 1850s another Sudanese mystic, 'Umar al-Hajj, led a
barbaric jihad to convert pagan African tribes
-- with massacres, beheadings and a mass execution of 300 hostages. In
the 1880s a third Sudanese holy man, Muhammad Ahmed, commanded a jihad
that destroyed a 10,000-man Egyptian army and wiped out defenders of
Khartoum led by British general Charles "Chinese" Gordon.
-- In 1801 Orthodox priests in Bucharest, Romania, revived the story
that Jews sacrificed Christians and drank their blood. Enraged
parishioners stormed the ghetto and cut the throats of 128 Jews.
-- When the Baha'i faith began in Persia in 1844, the Islamic regime
sought to exterminate it. The Baha'i founder was imprisoned and
executed in 1850. Two years later, the religious government massacred
20,000 Baha'is. Streets of Tehran were soaked with blood. The new
Baha'i leader, Baha'ullah, was tortured and exiled in foreign Muslim
prisons for the rest of his life.
-- Human sacrifices were still occurring in Buddhist Burma in the
1850s. When the capital was moved to Mandalay, 56 "spotless" men were
buried beneath the new city walls to sanctify and protect the city.
When two of the burial spots were later found empty, royal astrologers
decreed that 500 men, women, boys, and girls must be killed and buried
at once, or the capital must be abandoned. About 100 were actually
buried before British governors stopped the ceremonies.
-- In 1857 both Muslim and Hindu taboos triggered the Sepoy Mutiny in
India. British rulers had given their native soldiers new paper
cartridges that had to be bitten open. The cartridges were greased with
animal tallow. This enraged Muslims, to whom pigs are unclean, and
Hindus, to whom cows are sacred. Troops of both faiths went into a
crazed mutiny, killing Europeans wantonly. At Kanpur, hundreds of
European women and children were massacred after being promised safe
-- Late in the 19th century, with rebellion stirring in Russia, the
czars attempted to divert public attention by helping anti-Semitic
groups rouse Orthodox Christian hatred for Jews. Three waves of pogroms
ensued -- in the 1880s, from 1903 to 1906, and during the Russian
Revolution. Each wave was increasingly murderous. During the final
period, 530 communities were attacked and 60,000 Jews were killed.
-- In the early 1900s, Muslim Turks waged genocide against Christian
Armenians, and Christian Greeks and Balkans warred against the Islamic
-- When India finally won independence from Britain in 1947, the "great
soul" of Mahatma Gandhi wasn't able to prevent Hindus and Muslims from
turning on one another in a killing frenzy that took perhaps 1 million
lives. Even Gandhi was killed by a Hindu who thought him too pro-Muslim.
-- In the 1950s and 1960s, combat between Christians, animists and
Muslims in Sudan killed more than 500,000.
-- In Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978, followers of the Rev. Jim Jones
killed a visiting congressman and three newsmen, then administered
cyanide to themselves and their children in a 900-person suicide that
shocked the world.
-- Islamic religious law decrees that thieves shall have their hands or
feet chopped off, and unmarried lovers shall be killed. In the Sudan in
1983 and 1984, 66 thieves were axed in public. A moderate Muslim
leader, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, was hanged for heresy in 1985 because he
opposed these amputations. In Saudi Arabia a teen-age princess and her
lover were executed in public in 1977. In Pakistan in 1987, a
25-year-old carpenter's daughter was sentenced to be stoned to death
for engaging in unmarried sex. In the United Arab Emirates in 1984, a
cook and a maid were sentenced to stoning for adultery -- but, as a
show of mercy, the execution was postponed until after the maid's baby
-- In 1983 in Darkley, Northern Ireland, Catholic terrorists with
automatic weapons burst into a Protestant church on a Sunday morning
and opened fire, killing three worshipers and wounding seven. It was
just one of hundreds of Catholic-Protestant ambushes that have taken
2,600 lives in Ulster since age-old religious hostility turned violent
again in 1969.
-- Hindu-Muslim bloodshed erupts randomly throughout India. More than
3,000 were killed in Assam province in 1983. In May 1984 Muslims hung
dirty sandals on a Hindu leader's portrait as a religious insult. This
act triggered a week of arson riots that left 216 dead, 756 wounded,
13,000 homeless, and 4,100 in jail.
-- Religious tribalism -- segregation of sects into hostile camps --
has ravaged Lebanon continuously since 1975. News reports of the civil
war tell of "Maronite Christian snipers," "Sunni Muslim suicide
bombers," "Druze machine gunners," "Shi'ite Muslim mortar fire," and
"Alawite Muslim shootings." Today 130,000 people are dead and a
once-lovely nation is laid waste.
-- In Nigeria in 1982, religious fanatic followers of Mallam Marwa
killed and mutilated several hundred people as heretics and infidels.
They drank the blood of some of the victims. When the militia arrived
to quell the violence, the cultists sprinkled themselves with blessed
powder that they thought would make them impervious to police bullets.
-- Today's Shi'ite theocracy in Iran -- "the government of God on
earth" -- decreed that Baha'i believers who won't convert shall be
killed. About 200 stubborn Baha'is were executed in the early 1980s,
including women and teenagers. Up to 40,000 Baha'is fled the country.
Sex taboos in Iran are so severe that: (1) any woman who shows a lock
of hair is jailed; (2) Western magazines being shipped into the country
first go to censors who laboriously black out all women's photos except
for faces; (3) women aren't allowed to ski with men, but have a
separate slope where they may ski in shrouds.
-- The lovely island nation of Sri Lanka has been turned hellish by
ambushes and massacres between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils.
-- In 1983 a revered Muslim leader, Mufti Sheikh Sa'ad e-Din el'Alami
of Jerusalem, issued a fatwa (an order of divine deliverance) promising
an eternal place in paradise to any Muslim assassin who would kill
President Hafiz al-Assad of Syria.
-- Sikhs want to create a separate theocracy, Khalistan (Land of the
Pure), in the Punjab region of India. Many heed the late extremist
preacher Jarnail Bhindranwale, who taught his followers that they have
a "religious duty to send opponents to hell." Throughout the 1980s they
sporadically murdered Hindus to accomplish this goal. In 1984, after
Sikh guards riddled prime minister Indira Gandhi with 50 bullets,
Hindus went on a rampage that killed 5,000 Sikhs in three days. Mobs
dragged Sikhs from homes, stores, buses and trains, chopping and
pounding them to death. Some were burned alive; boys were castrated.
-- In 1984 Shi'ite fanatics who killed and tortured Americans on a
hijacked Kuwaiti airliner at Tehran Airport said they did it "for the
pleasure of God."
Obviously, people who think religion is a force for good are looking
only at Dr. Jekyll and ignoring Mr. Hyde. They don't see the
superstitious savagery pervading both history and current events.
During the past three centuries, religion gradually lost its power over
life in Europe and America, and church horrors ended in the West. But
the poison lingered. The Nazi Holocaust was rooted in centuries of
religious hate. Historian Dagobert Runes said the long era of church
persecution killed three and a half million Jews -- and Hitler's Final
Solution was a secular continuation. Meanwhile, faith remains potent in
the Third World, where it still produces familiar results.
It's fashionable among thinking people to say that religion isn't the
real cause of today's strife in Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland,
India and Iran -- that sects merely provide labels for combatants. Not
so. Religion keeps the groups in hostile camps. Without it, divisions
would blur with passing generations; children would adapt to new times,
mingle, intermarry, forget ancient wounds. But religion keeps them
alien to one another.
Anything that divides people breeds inhumanity. Religion serves that
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