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Stunningly Wrong

Religious zealotry has been responsible for killing more people than any other thing. ~Chuck Hagel [1]

Taken on its own, there are few sillier statements.  If we can attribute the deaths of the French Revolution to liberalism, and I think we can, right there liberalism in France accounts for more deaths in the 18th century than religious conflict throughout the world in the same century.  Liberalism would seem to fare better in the 19th  For every extremely violent and extremely rare T’ai-P’ing Rebellion critics of religion can cite, defenders could point to ideologically-driven state-induced famines caused by collectivisation or nationalist genocides on the other.  For every Thirty Years’ War on one side of the ledger, defenders of religion could invoke the secular and nationalist Thirty Years’ War of 1914-1945.  In sheer numbers, “religious zealotry” at its worst usually cannot compete with the power and passion of revolutionary ideologies.  (The death tolls from the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648 and the T’ai-P’ing Rebellion are as high as they are because of the famine and pestilence that resulted from constant, large-scale campaigning.)  The point is not to cheer on religious zealotry as such, nor is it my purpose to ignore the atrocities of zealots, but rather I am trying to recognise that there are far more destructive and virulent ideas out there that have done and will continue to do more damage.  This is not to dismiss the damage that religious zealotry can do, but to keep in perspective that there are worse things–and things that are responsible for killing more people–than that. 

I am unfortunately reminded here of Dawkins, who rattled off a list of all the violence that would never have happened without religion, all the while failing to notice that most of the killing done throughout history was done for entirely different reasons.  Predictably, Sullivan [2] approves of this bakvas.

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5 Comments To "Stunningly Wrong"

#1 Comment By Kitty On January 23, 2007 @ 7:58 pm

You include the 17th C’s Thirty Years’ War as a religious conflict. I’m not really sure that can be established, since the combatants often allied with members of the religion they were supposedly extirpating and against their co-believers. (Wasn’t the Protestant Gustavus Adolphus at one point an ally of Catholic France against Catholic Austria? Or the other way ’round? I don’t feel like looking it up.) The facts of that war support a conclusion that it was a straightforward war of conquest for territory, with religion providing about the same justification for each side as the ritual invocations to Marduk provided for the Babylonian armies — something to do at the start but not the real initiating factor. If there weren’t some land for the winners, I rather think the combatants would have satisfied themselves with making proclamations and kept the armies at home.

#2 Comment By lone_striker On January 23, 2007 @ 10:06 pm

Yeah, but the rest of what Hagel says in the interview is fine; excepting his waffle on ‘gay’ civil unions, which may in the end be the only political possibility anyway, as Christians are driven from politics and back into the catacombs, altogether.

Pro-life & anti-war, and enough backbone to oppose George, publically. I wish I were from Nebraska. I’d gladly vote for him.

#3 Comment By Sephiroth On January 23, 2007 @ 10:57 pm

Had a educated man made this statement in 1900 or thereabouts he probably should have been forgiven. To say so in 2006, with the purely secular horrors of Stalinism, Maoism, Nazism, (real) Fascism, the Khmer Rouge, et cetera is either idiocy or willful ignorance. Utopian leftism killed, easily, an order of magnitude more civilians this century than did all of the confessional strife over the last five hundred years.

Hagel’s reading of Middle East affairs is also quite troublesome; his completely unsupported claim that all conflict in “the region” is attributable to religion is weak, at best. The war between the Israelis and the Palestinians was generally considered (by virtually everyone) to be a yet another war between two rival ethnic claimants for a single piece of real estate. It’s important to note that Israel from its creation until the late 1970’s was continuously led by ultra-secularist Mapai [Labor] governments, and the second most prominent Palestinian insurgent was Yorgos Habbash of PFLP, a Greek Orthodox Palestinian. It really wasn’t until the 1980’s, with the rise of Hamas, Hezbollah, and religious Zionism that the conflict took on a largely sectarian complexion.

Needless to say, much the same could be said of many of the other Levantine wars of the last half century. The Lebanese civil war was hardly the Christian-Muslim conflict many in the west believe it to be (although, of course, it certainly was one of the factors), with much of the worst fighting between the Muslim AMAL militia and various Palestinian factions for control of West Beirut. I would also like someone to explain how the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, Darfur, or the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait were religiously motivated, or why Saddam Hussein worried much more about pro-Iranian sympathies among the Kurds (the Iranians’ fellow ethnic Persians, but Sunni) than he did with the Shi’ite Arabs.

#4 Comment By Nick On January 23, 2007 @ 11:44 pm

This is a terrific blog, so it is a pleasure for me to make a small contribution from my own area of expertise:
Wade-Giles: T’ai-P’ing
Pinyin: Taiping
But although the leader of the rebellion was motivated by religious ideas, it seems unlikely to me that the rebellion as a whole, and more particularly the horrendous death toll, should be blamed on religious zealotry. In China blood is usually shed for more immediate purposes than religion.

#5 Comment By Daniel Larison On January 24, 2007 @ 12:06 am

Thanks, Nick, for the kind words and the correction. I had a feeling that spelling didn’t look right, but I didn’t stop to check it. I agree that the whole death toll of the rebellion cannot be laid at the feet of religious zealotry, since the rebellion, as I understand it, was also a massive social rebellion that tapped into many other resentments. I did want to acknowledge it as having some religious spark, but your points are well taken.

Thanks, Kitty, for the important point about the Thirty Years’ War. It wasn’t a purely religious war, but since it is often classed as one I wasn’t going to go into detail. Certainly a war in which devot France eventually sided against Counter-Reformation Austria has many elements that are not religious, and it is fair to say that the causes of the war were heavily political with religious undertones. That is, the immediate cause of the war was whether the Winter King would become king of Bohemia. If he had done so successfully, it would have determined the future of the Empire and direct it in a Protestant direction, b.ut it is also true that it would have directed it in a non-Habsburg direction. There were many factors besides confessional hostility at work. It is possible that the confessional nature of the war incited belligerents to greater cruelty in certain instances than might have been the case in a war with fewer religious implications, but even the sack of Magdeburg was an example of a frustrated, weary army breaking a siege in disorderly and atrocious fashion (as was, for example, the Crusader sack of Jerusalem).

There are some things I like about Hagel, but here he shows what I think is his major weakness, and it also happens to be one that makes him an even longer shot in any presidential race. I assume Hagel is a conventional churchgoing man, but he has always adopted the stance of a social moderate and tended to look askance at the concerns of Christian conservative voters. If he thinks religious zeal of any kind is the source of so many ills, this is understandable, but it often puts him at odds with the real world and with the constituencies in his party that he would need to win over if he ever wanted to advance towards a nomination. I realise there has been talk of an independent run, but this would be, in my opinion, unfortunately equally unsuccessful because Hagel has no strong constituency that will back him come what may.

It is my impression that media and political establishment types in the West attribute the causes of especially baffling conflicts to religion first, and then ethnicity second. Americans may cite both, because a great many find both religion and ethnicity an absurd thing to fight over. If they deem a foreign conflict absurd and pointless, they will therefore conclude that it must stem from “ancient hatreds” and so forth. These attributions have less to do with the reality on the ground than they do with the level of confusion and lack of understanding of why the conflict is happening. A sure way to know that a journalist has no idea about the causes of a conflict is when he refers to it as the fruit of a “centuries-long religious divide.” Intractable conflicts, for the “reasonable” and the “moderate,” almost have to be religious in nature, because there is the assumption that only something they consider to be as irrational as religion could be behind a seemingly inexplicable conflict.