By James A. Haught
“What mean and cruel things men do for the love of God” —W. Somerset Maugham
How ironic that millions of religious adherents – those who preach love, unity and peace – continue to perpetrate murder, mayhem and violence on a grand scale. All over the world, faiths that teach (in one form or another) “love thy neighbor as thyself” kill their neighbors with sickening regularity.
• November 1995: A militant Jew who said he was acting “on orders from God” assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
• November 1995: Muslim terrorists dispatched a suicide zealot to ram an explosives-laden truck into the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan, killing 17 and wounding 60.
• Summer 1995: Muslim fanatics from Algeria planted several bombs in France, including one in a Paris subway that killed seven and wounded 90.
• July 1995: An Islamic suicide bomber aboard a Tel Aviv bus killed six Jews and himself.
• March 1995: Nerve gas loosed in Tokyo’s subway killed 12 commuters and sickened 5,500. Police charged leaders of the secretive Supreme Truth sect, whose adherents kissed their guru’s big toe, paid $2,000 each for a sip of his bathwater, and paid $10,000 for a drink of his blood.
• December 1994: Muslim fanatics who want to turn Algeria into a theocracy hijacked a French airliner, murdered three passengers, and planned to kill 100 more in a firebombing explosion over Paris, but commandos thwarted them. At home in Algeria, fellow fanatics shoot high school girls in the face for the sin of going unveiled, and execute teachers for the sin of allowing boys and girls to sit in the same classrooms.
• December 1994: A Christian zealot killed two women at abortion clinics in Massachusetts. It was the third fatal clinic attack in America in two years.
• October 1994: An Islamic suicide bomber blew up a bus full of Jews in Israel, killing at least 22 and wounding multitudes.
• September 1994: In Switzerland, 48 members of the Solar Temple died in a mass murder-suicide. Many bodies were found in ceremonial robes in a secret underground chapel lined with mirrors. Clusters of dead children were in three ski chalets. In Quebec, four more victims were found at a Solar Temple branch. The Canadian group had been stockpiling guns to prepare for the end of the world.
• September 1994: Two Louisiana sisters were convicted of gouging out a third sister’s eyes to drive Satan from her.
Religious horrors occur in many varieties – from child molesting by Catholic priests to million-dollar swindles by TV evangelists. The most lethal varieties are terrorism by fundamentalist fanatics and ethnic warfare fueled by “religious tribalism,” which stems from religion’s power to divide people into rival groups, often turning them against each other.
American sociologist Nathan Glazer said ethnicity is the most powerful force in human events. Ethnic conflicts grow from differences in race, language, economics, locale, politics, culture – and religion. Anything that separates people can spawn hostility, and religion is one of the strongest dividers. British anthropologist Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, called religion a “cultural isolating mechanism” because it “demands social separation from those who worship in a different manner. It creates sects and breeds sectarian violence.”
The 1990s witnessed an amazing irony: Religion – supposedly a source of brotherhood – took the lead as the chief contributor to bloodshed. With Soviet Communism gone and the Cold War no longer spurring conflicts, the world spotlight has shifted to local ethnic strife, most of it involving fractious faiths. Examples:
Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis slaughter each other in the Caucasus; fundamentalists who murdered a former Egyptian president now threaten his successor; Catholic islanders of East Timor languish under occupation by Muslim Indonesia; Sudan’s never-ending war between northern Muslims and southern Christians has caused famine; fundamentalists who were winning an election in Algeria turned to terrorism after the election was halted; black Muslims briefly shot their way to control of Trinidad; Christian Greeks and Muslim Turks on Cyprus still need U.N. peacekeepers to hold them apart, 30 years after plunging into combat; Buddhists in Nepal are in ferment over a new constitution that declares the mountain kingdom a Hindu state.
Frequently, members of a majority religion brutalize minority believers – as in Iran, where the Shi’ite “government of God on earth” executes and persecutes outnumbered Baha’is. Also, Iran’s mullahs still offer $2 million reward for the assassination of author Salman Rushdie.
Learned people always have known that faith has a potential for horror. Mark Twain wrote: “Man is the religious animal…. He is the only animal who has the true religion – several of them. He is the only animal who loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat, if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven.”
• Summer 1994: Ambushes between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims at mosques in Pakistan killed dozens of worshipers. Meanwhile, under Pakistan’s law mandating death for “blasphemy,” four Christians were charged with writing graffiti on a mosque. As they emerged from a court hearing, militant believers shot them down, killing one and wounding the rest.
• All of 1994: In former Yugoslavia, slaughter between Orthodox Christian Serbs, Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats continued to shock the world. At one village, Orthodox gunmen herded Muslim families into a basement and tossed in grenades, then joked that the screams sounded “just like a mosque.”
• February 1994: In Hebron, Israel, a devout Jewish doctor took a machine gun into a historic mosque and murdered 30 Muslims as they knelt in prayer. The massacre, in retaliation for Muslim murders of Jews, triggered yet another wave of killing.
• October 1993: At Halloween, Catholic terrorists in Northern Ireland burst into a Protestant pub, shouted “trick or treat,” and killed seven people.
• May 1993: A Hindu suicide bomber killed the Buddhist president of Sri Lanka and several bystanders – another gory event in the civil war between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils that has claimed 20,000 lives on the lovely island south of India.
Of course, many religious people of all faiths are horrified by what has been done in the name of God. Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., an Episcopal priest, called in 1990 for establishment of an international religious Security Council to intercede in such conflicts. Writing in the Washington Post, he complained that most church leaders “remain mute in the face of religiously inspired calamity.”
“In most if not all of the world’s trouble spots,” Danforth said, “religious extremism is at the heart of the problem. In Israel, Muslims throw rocks at Jews and Jews shoot back at Muslims. In the chaos of Lebanon, religious factions are so numerous it is difficult to keep track of them. In Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant Christians bomb each other as they have for decades. Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan face off against each other, offering the prospect of nuclear weapons if necessary to prove their points….
“All of this killing is done with the absolute certainty that God wants it so. If thine enemy offends thee, rub him out. Indeed, it is believed that to lose one’s life in God’s cause is to die a martyr’s death and win a reward in heaven.”
How can the peril be reduced? The best solution would seem to be the one that has worked so well in the United States: separation of church and state. Let every faith function independently, without molesting the others. Don’t allow majority believers to use the power of government to impose their values on smaller groups. Enough religious trouble exists, without the government adding to it. In 1890, for example, when Wisconsin believers demanded worship in public schools, the state Supreme Court refused, declaring:
“There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter into our civil affairs, and our government would soon be destroyed.”
The dilemma of religious murder and madness has plagued humanity for centuries. It won’t disappear soon. Perhaps the clearest symbol of the depth of the problem occurred at the Parliament of the World Religions in 1993, attended by more than 6,000 adherents representing more than 125 religions. At one point, more than 200 delegates from all major faiths adopted a declaration titled “Toward a Global Ethic,” written by a team headed by Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung. It decried:
“Time and again we see leaders and members of religions incite aggression, fanaticism, hate and xenophobia – even inspire and legitimize violent and bloody conflicts…. We are filled with disgust…. We condemn aggression and hatred in the name of religion.”
Sounds good, except for one problem: the session constantly was interrupted by – religious bickering!
• October 1993: Massacres occurred in the Kashmir province of India because Muslim fanatics barricaded themselves in a mosque to protect its sacred relic, a hair from Muhammad’s beard.
• April 1993: Zealot David Koresh led 85 adherents to fiery death in his Bible prophecy compound at Waco, Texas.
• February 1993: Muslim militants desiring to smite “The Great Satan” (America) triggered a fuel-and-fertilizer bomb in New York’s World Trade Center, killing six people, injuring 1,000, and causing $500 million damage.
• January 1993: Religious leaders in Somalia sentenced five women to be stoned to death for adultery. Worshipers killed the women after evening prayers. Cheering onlookers videotaped the execution. United Nations observers who tried to save the women were driven off.
• December 1992: Swarms of Hindus destroyed a Muslim mosque which they said desecrated an Indian hilltop where Lord Rama was born 900,000 years ago. The incident touched off Muslim-Hindu rioting that killed 3,000.
• September 1992: An outspoken Saudi Arabian man was beheaded in public with a ceremonial sword after a religious court ruled that he had “insulted God, the holy Koran and Muhammad the Prophet.”
• May 1992: Seven leaders of the black Temple of Love in Florida were convicted of 14 murders. Prosecutors said leader Yahweh ben Yahweh ordered his aides to kill “white devils” and backsliders. Victims’ ears were brought to him.
• All of 1992: Sikh militants, hoping to establish “The Land of the Pure” in the Punjab region of India, ambushed Hindu wedding parties, festivals, and the like. The death toll in religious fighting in that district was 3,800 for the year.
• Also in 1992: Ohio cult leader Jeffrey Lundgren, who made human sacrifices of a mother, father and three daughters, filed court appeals in hope of escaping his death sentence.
A Short History of Holy Hatred
Religious violence, of course, is nothing new. It has been recurring for centuries.
In the 11th century, Christian crusaders marched off to attack Muslims occupying the Holy Land – but before leaving, they massacred “the infidel among us,” Jews living in Germany. After the crusaders took Jerusalem, they slaughtered the whole population and gave thanks to God.
Some Christian groups in Europe, such as the Cathari and the Waldensians, were declared heretics, and “internal crusades” were launched against them. When a crusader army captured the French city of Beziers in 1208, commanders asked the papal legate how to separate the town’s condemned Cathari from its faithful residents. The pope’s emissary replied: “Kill them all; God will know his own.” It was done.
Jihads – holy wars – spread Islam as far as Spain and India. And no sooner had the conquered peoples been converted than rival Muslim sects began declaring jihads against each other. Shi’ites, Kharijis, Azariqis, Wahhabis, Mahdists and others waged gory mutinies against the Sunni majority.
Jews of Europe lived in peril. Christian councils forced them to wear badges of shame and reside in ghettos. Massacres happened again and again – usually after rumors spread that Jews were sacrificing Christian children in blood rituals, or that Jews were stealing host wafers from Christian churches and driving nails through them to crucify Jesus again.
The internal crusades against heretics evolved into the Inquisition, which tortured Christians into admitting unorthodoxy, then burned them for it. Later, the Inquisition switched to witchcraft. Hundreds of thousands of women were tortured into confessing that they flew through the sky, changed into animals, copulated with Satan, and the like. Most were executed.
After the Reformation erupted in 1517, Europe was wracked by dozens of Catholic-Protestant wars. In France, eight wars were fought against the Protestant Huguenots, many of whom were killed in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre during a truce in 1572. The last bloodbath of the Reformation was the Thirty Years War in the 1600s, which killed half the population of Germany.
While Catholics and Protestants waged a century of combat against each other, both sides executed Anabaptists for the crime of double baptism.
Pope Pius V typified the religious horror of that era. As Grand Inquisitor, he sent troops to kill 2,000 Waldensian Protestants in southern Italy. After becoming pope, he sent troops to fight Huguenot Protestants in France, and told the commander to kill all prisoners. He also launched the final crusade against Islam, sending a Christian naval armada to slaughter Muslims in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. And he revived the Inquisition to torture suspected heretics. After his death, he was canonized a saint.
During the same era, elsewhere in the world, Aztecs were staging human sacrifices by the thousands in Central America, and India’s Thugs were strangling multitudes of victims for the goddess Kali.
Catholic-Protestant combat touched America briefly, in an 1844 cannon battle that killed about 20 Philadelphians. When a Catholic bishop objected to use of the King James Bible in public schools, enraged Protestants stormed Catholic neighborhoods, burning homes and churches. Troops with cannons arrived to protect the Catholics – whereupon Protestants took cannons from sailing ships at the wharfs, and an artillery duel ensued.
After the Baha’i religion sprouted in Iran in the 1850s, the Shi’ite majority inflicted murderous persecution on the peaceable Baha’is.
The worst religious calamity in history was the Taiping Rebellion in China in the 1850s, which killed perhaps 20 million people. A holy man declared himself to be Jesus’ younger brother, and said God his father had instructed him to “destroy demons” and make China a theocracy. His Association of God-Worshipers mustered an army of 1 million followers (partly by promising them shares of land and loot they seized). They cut a terrible swath. Eventually, the rebellion was crushed by opposing armies, including one commanded by British general “Chinese” Gordon. (Poor Gordon was cursed by religion. After leaving China, he led an Egyptian army against Muslims waging a holy war in the Nile Valley, and was killed when the fanatics overran Khartoum.)
Christian pogroms against Jews continued into the 20th century. Europe’s 900 years of religious slander against Jews branded them as a despised people and set the stage for the Nazi Holocaust.
(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine. This article originally appeared in Liberty, March-April 1996.)