At the top of the list of the twentieth century’s deadliest regimes, you’ll find three anti-religious states: Communist China, the USSR, and Nazi Germany. These three alone were responsible for an estimated 130,000,000 victims, which dwarfs the number of people killed in the name of all religions throughout all of history. And that number doesn’t even take into account the millions killed by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rogue, the Communist North Korean regime, or the Derg (the Ethiopian Communist state, headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam).Share
Religion isn’t the cause of most of the world’s violence: it’s not even close. In fact, in each of the deadliest states of the twentieth century, we see the same pattern: an aggressive campaign to neutralize or eliminate religious belief (and believers). Ross Douthat pointed this out, using the example of the Soviet Union, in a debate with Bill Maher:
Maher: “Someone once said: to have a normal person commit a horrible act almost never happens without religion. To have people get on a plane and fly it into a building, it had to be religion.”Douthat: “I think that what’s true is: to get a normal person to commit a crazy act, it does take ideas, right? But those ideas can be secular as well as religious. A lot of normal people …”Maher: “But mostly, in history, they’ve been religious.”Douthat: “Not in the twentieth century. Not in the Soviet Union. A lot of dead bodies there, not a lot of Christians… except among the dead bodies.”Maher: “I would say that’s a secular religion.” (Maher then quickly shut down debate before Douthat could respond.)In a way, Maher ends up conceding one of Douthat’s points: that secular ideas can be just as deadly religious ones (and in fact, have been many times deadlier). But Douthat’s other point is worth drawing out: religious belief serves not only as a potential motivator for violence, but as a check against state totalitarianism.
For a totalitarian regime, religion is dangerous. As a believer, I recognize that human rights come from God, not the state or social convention. I recognize that there’s an authority higher than the state to Whom both I and the state leadership will someday be accountable.
It’s precisely this sort of belief system that serves as a check on ideology and state authority that made these Soviet and Nazi states so anti-religious: they don’t want you to render unto both God and Caesar. They want you to obey Caesar alone. (Read more.)