What About Atrocities That Have Been Done in the Name of Religion?
by Rich Deem


Many atheists claim that religion is evil and, as such, cannot be from God. It is true that there are many examples of evil committed in the name of Christianity. In the past, those who disagreed with "official" church doctrine, such as Galileo were persecuted or killed. Many other Christians were brought before the Inquisition because they were teaching from the Bible instead of from "officially sanctioned" Roman Catholic Church materials. In addition, the Crusades resulted in "holy" wars between "Christians," Jews, and Moslems. In more modern times, wars have been fought between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. However, common to all this violence was an underlying struggle for power. Today, some people kill abortionists in the name of God. Are these people unwilling pawns of religion or using religion to justify their own evil agendas?

History of human atrocities

Therefore, I absolutely agree with atheists and others who say that many atrocious things have been done in the name of God, and even in the name of Christianity. However, these atrocities were not perpetrated by God, but by evil human beings. If we look at the history of democide (which includes genocide, politicide, and mass murder, but not war-dead) prior to the 20th century, we find that millions of people were killed by people groups who wanted the other people groups eliminated. Note that these numbers do not include those killed through wars.

Selected Pre-20th Century Democide and Totals1

Cases Years2 Democide3 Religious?

China 221 B.C.-19 C. 33,519,0004 No
Mongols 14 C-15 C 29,927,000 No
Slavery of Africans 1451-1870 17,267,000 No
Amer-Indians 16 C-19 C 13,778,000 No
Thirty Years War 1618-1648 5,750,000 No
In India 13 C-1 9 C 4,511,0005 No
In Iran 5 C-19 C 2,000,0004,5 No
Ottoman Empire 12 C-19 C 2,000,0005 No
In Japan 1570-19 C 1,500,0005 No
In Russia 10 C-19 C 1,007,0005 No
Christian Crusades 1095-1272 1,000,000 Yes
Aztecs Centuries 1,000,0006 Yes
Spanish Inquisition 16 C-18 C 350,000 Yes
French Revolution 1793-1794 263,000 No
Albigensian Crusade 1208-1249 200,000 Yes
Witch Hunts 15 C-17 C 100,000 Yes

Total For All Cases pre-20 C 133,147,000 2,650,000
Hypothetical Total 30 C B.C.-19 C A.D. 625,716,0007  

International war-related dead 30 C B.C.-19 C A.D. 40,457,0008  
Plague dead (Black Death) 541 A.D.-1912 102,070,0009  

  2. Unless otherwise noted, years and centuries are A.D.
  3. Unless otherwise noted, these are a best guess estimate in a low to high range.
  4. Excludes democide in China by Mongols.
  5. An absolute low.
  6. A very speculative absolute low.
  7. From STATISTICS OF DEMOCIDE.. Calculated from the 20th century democide rate and the population for each century since 30 B.C.
  8. From table STATISTICS OF DEMOCIDE. Total undoubtedly inflated by democide.
  9. A minimum: includes plague dead in circa 541-542 A.D.; 1346-1771 in Europe; 1771 in Moscow; 1894 in Hong Kong; and 1898-1912 in India. From Duplaix (1988, p. 677-678).

What percentage of these killings were due to religious democide? It is less than 3% of the totals. The surprising thing is that these killings occurred during a period of time when virtually all the peoples of the world were involved in some sort of religion. Here is the data for the 20th century:

20th Century Democide1


U.S.S.R. 1917-87 61,911,000 Yes
China (PRC) 1949-87 35,236,000 Yes
Germany 1933-45 20,946,000 No
China (KMT) 1928-49 10,075,000 No
Japan 1936-45 5,964,000 No
China (Mao Soviets)3 1923-49 3,466,000 Yes
Cambodia 1975-79 2,035,000 Yes
Turkey (Armenian Genocide) 1909-18 1,883,000 No
Vietnam 1945-87 1,670,000 Yes
Poland 1945-48 1,585,000 Yes
Pakistan 1958-87 1,503,000 No
Yugoslavia (Tito) 1944-87 1,072,000 Yes
North Korea 1948-87 1,663,000 Yes
Mexico 1900-20 1,417,000 No
Russia 1900-17 1,066,000 Yes
China (Warlords) 1917-49 910,000 No
Turkey (Ataturk) 1919-23 878,000 No
United Kingdom 1900-87 816,000 No
Portugal (Dictatorship) 1926-82 741,000 No
Indonesia 1965-87 729,000 No
LESSER MURDERERS 1900-87 2,792,000 ?
WORLD TOTAL 1900-87 169,202,000 107,047,000

  2. Includes genocide, politicide, and mass murder; excludes war-dead. These are probable mid-estimates in low to high ranges. Figures may not sum due to round off.
  3. Guerrilla period.

Vox Day, in The Irrational Atheist, lists 22 atheistic regimes that committed 153,368,610 murders in the 20th century alone:

Murders by Atheists (20th Century)
North Korea1948-20073,163,000
Spain (Republic)1936-1939102,000


Democide by governments results from concentrate power base
Figure 1. Percentage of democide based upon type of government control.

What percentage of this democide was due to religious conflict? It turns out that religious democide doesn't even make the top 20 (although I am sure there is some in the "lesser murderers" category. Still, the total religious killings is less than 2%. In fact, the top two killers were specifically atheistic states (which had never existed before in human history). Should atheism be blamed for more than 50% of the atrocities committed during the 20th century? The answer of course is No! If one examines the nature of the regimes that committed these atrocities (even the religious ones), the key factor is absolute power (see Figure 1, right). According to Professor R.J. Rummel, in the 1816-2005 period there were 205 wars between non-democracies, 166 wars between non-democracies and democracies, and 0 wars between democracies. Lord Acton's warning that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" seems to be more than just a trite saying.

What about Christians who commit evil?

Jesus Himself addressed the issue of "Christians," performing evil deeds in a rather chilling prophecy:

"Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'" (Matthew 7:22-23)

The Myth of Religious Violence One should note that Jesus said that "many" people who think they are His followers will be rejected by Jesus when at the judgment when they attempt to claim that they are His disciples. Not all who claim the name of Jesus are actually His disciples. My guess is that in even the best of Christian churches only about half of the people have been truly born again (see John chapter 3).1 Christianity should be judged on the basis of what Jesus said and did, not on the basis of the actions of people who merely claim to be Christians. Foxe's Book of Martyrs details the deaths of Christians who were killed because of their faith in Christ, in many cases by people claiming to be Christians.

How do you know if a person is a Christian or not?

We cannot know for certain whether a person is or is not a true Christian (only God can makes such a determination).2 However, the Bible describes the nature of a person who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit3 (which happens at the point a person accept Jesus as Lord and Savior):

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

In addition, the true believer does what is right and demonstrates love toward others.4 Even non-believers can readily see who the true Christians are. Ultimately, the behavior of those who claim to be Christians but practice evil should not be a consideration in determining if the claims of Christ are true or not.

Conclusion Top of page

Yes, "Christians" have committed atrocities against other religious and non-religious people. However, atheists have committed far more atrocities than all religious groups combined. Even so, the key factor in these atrocities has been totalitarian power, rather than religion, which has resulted in these hundreds of millions of murders. The Bible says that people are evil (and the statistics on this page support this claim), but that they can become transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit to live lives of love, joy and peace.

References Top of page

  1. Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Him by night, and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him." (John 3:1-2)
    Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3)
    Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?" (John 3:4)
    Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:5-8)
    Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?" (John 3:9)
    Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you do not receive our witness. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things? And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God." (John 3:10-21)
  2. God judges based upon the intentions of an individual's heart, not just apparent actions. See God Tests the Hearts of People. It is only through faith that one can be completely justified (declared righteous) before God.
  3. The Holy Spirit of God comes to live in the body of those who have confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior:
    However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. (Romans 8:9).
    Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: "He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us?" (James 4:5)
    If the person has already been living a moral life, the change may be subtle, being primarily characterized by increased peace, joy, and patience. However, in those who have led immoral lives, the change is dramatic.
  4. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:10)

Last updated April 14, 2008


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