Quoting Bejamin Beit-Hallahmi’s textbook Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity, pages 131-132.
The lessons of history argument
If we are going to present anecdotes of selfless acts and exemplary behavior, we will be challenged with many more contrary cases. It is easy to compile long lists of horrifying events inspired by religion over the course of human history, in recent times, or even the present moment (Munson, 2005). Apocalyptic and messianic prophecies have sown death, destruction, and suffering all over the world. Between 1095 and 1291, untold millions died in the Crusades, and a leading historian wrote that “the Holy War was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God” (Runciman, 1951, p. 480). Jonathan Z. Smith (1982, p. 110) emphasized that Christianity should not be singled out, as “religion has rarely been a positive, liberal force. Religion is not nice; it has been responsible for more death and suffering than any other human activity.” Pinker (1997, p. 555) stated: “Religions have given us stonings, witch-burnings, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, fatwas, suicide bombers.” A contrary view is expressed by Myers: “We also have religion to thank for much of the antislavery, civil rights, and antiapartheid movements, and for the faith-based founding of hospitals, hospices, and universities” (Myers, 2012b, p. 93). Founding hospitals and universities is praiseworthy, but giving credit to religion for “the antislavery, civil rights, and antiapartheid movements” is unwarranted (see below). In the case of the abolition of slavery, for example, historians give more credit to the Enlightenment (Martinez, 2012).
The Nazi Third Reich was far from being a secular enterprise, and most Nazi leaders made frequent references to the Christian God in their speeches and writings (Bartov and Mack, 2001; Lewy, 1964; Probst, 2012; Steigmann-Gall, 2003). Most Nazis came from Christian homes (in 1933, 95 percent of Germans were Christians), and in Nazi-occupied Europe, the political forces that supported the occupier were often religious. Long before modern genocides, there were religious texts commanding the total annihilation of some human groups. The Hebrew Bible offers us narratives of the extermination of the Midianites and the Canaanites by the Israelites, as ordered by divine authority (see Numbers 31; 1 Samuel 15). These blood-curdling narratives are totally fictitious, but they reflect very real ideals. Apparently, they were invented to justify exclusionary attitudes towards non-Israelites. Those who composed them more than two millennia ago were not worried about anybody being outraged by them. Moore (2000) claimed that the readiness to persecute and kill people of different religious and political persuasions in the defense of “moral purity” had its origins in the monotheism of the Hebrew Bible, but it is clear that followers of other traditions were just as committed to lethal intolerance.
The reality of European colonialism, starting in 1492, was one of genocidal cruelty, often sanctioned by religious authorities. Christian missionaries were often part of the colonial enterprise which enslaved whole continents, and a few of them protested eloquently, but the majority did not (Hanke, 1974). In recent times, it was secular intellectuals who were prominent in the global anti-colonialist struggle, most visibly in the cases of Algeria, Vietnam, and Palestine. Anti-colonialist movements were likely to be made up of the least religious. During the years of United States military intervention in Vietnam (1954-1975), those with no religious affiliation were most opposed to the war. In the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States, most of the white activists involved were unaffiliated or Jewish, and an inverse relationship was found between religiosity and support for the movement (Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle, 1997).
The apartheid regime in South Africa (1948-1994) was being led and supported by devout Christians and opposed by atheists. Under apartheid, South Africa did not admit atheists or agnostics as immigrants, despite its desperate efforts to increase the white population. This was justified, as atheists were indeed likely to oppose government policies. Looking at the Jewish community in apartheid South Africa is instructive, as religiosity again correlated with support for the regime. Jews, constituting only 2 percent of the white South African population, made up 50 percent of all activists arrested for opposition to apartheid. But who were they? Just like other whites, religious Jews supported the regime. The activists, who made up most white members of the African National Congress (now the ruling party in post-apartheid South Africa), were atheists of Jewish descent (Shimoni, 2003).
Moslems are a minority in India, and so the target of majority (Hindu) violence. When Moslems are a majority, as in Egypt or in Pakistan, they treat the religious minorities there as badly as they are treated in other countries. Shinto religion did play a major role in the rise and fall of the Japanese empire, Nazism’s global ally (Hardacre, 1991). Japanese Zen Buddhism, widely considered meditative and pacifist, was actually an enthusiastic supporter of the imperial regime and Japan’s war policies (Victoria, 2006). In the twenty-first century, massacres have been carried out by Buddhists, and directed at Moslems, a minority community, in Myanmar and Sri Lanka (Fuller, 2013). Buddhists should not be singled out, because followers of all religions have been guilty of such crimes, with the exception of religious pacifists, who are found in many groups.
In response to the challenge to the status of any religion as a source of moral inspiration, apologists will hasten to bring up the horrors committed by the atheist dictators Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot (Adolf Hitler is usually added to the list, but he remained a Roman Catholic to his last day) and the evil brought about by secular nationalisms and revolutions. Examples of historical atrocities committed by secular and religious movements could be easily multiplied, but the psychological question is the effect of religiosity on individual behavior. Will any religious individual picked at random be more or less pro-social compared to an atheist?