The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
Get the Book!

The Root Causes of Religious Atrocities

We have seen that simply claiming that Christians are good people and good people don't commit atrocities is logically flawed. However before going through the unpleasant task of chronicling the horrible consequences of Christianity, it is important to look at one more defense often heard from believers. The defense is normally stated as such:

While it may be true that some Christians committed horrible acts, they did this in spite of the teachings of Christianity. True Christianity would not have advocated such horrible actions and atrocities.

Note how the defense now has shifted from what constitute a real Christian to what constitute true Christianity. Here we will see how the acts of intolerance and atrocities are direct consequences of the Christian theological paradigm.[a]

The Particularism and Exclusivity of Monotheism

In his book One True God: The Historical Consequences of Monotheism,[1] the University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark, postulated that the root causes of intolerance seen in monotheistic religions are the exclusiveness and particularism that are embedded within it's very definition.

Monotheism, by it's very nature, is the antithesis of polytheism. Note that polytheism is the belief in many non-exclusive deities. A person can go to one temple to ask a favour from the goddess of love and go to another the next day asking for help with money issues from the god of wealth. Polytheistic deities offer specialized services and are thus, by their very nature, non-exclusive. Thus there is never a need for adherents to a certain deity in polytheism to actively sought the overthrow or suppression of other gods.

Monotheism, however, is the belief that there exists only one god. All other gods are, by definition, either false or attempts by the devil to fool their adherents. Embedded within this belief is an automatic contempt for polytheistic gods. This tells us why monotheism will always be intolerant of polytheism.

Furthermore, in defining the attributes of their one God, include the concept of immutability, that God does not change. Thus the God of the monotheists comunicates only one consistent message. In this sense, monotheism is also particularistic. Not only is there only one god, there is only one true message and only one true religion. This leads to both internal and external conflicts.

In trying to find and understand the one true message,theologians read and interpret scriptures. Yet this is the very cause of heresy. For heresy, by definition, is an interpretation of the same message in a method different from the group which ultimately won the battle (and the right to call their interpretation "orthodoxy"). All monotheistic religions show this tendency to splinter. In first century Judaism we find such factions as the Essenses, the Pharisees and the Sadducess. The Jewish Talmud noted that there were twenty four different factions altogether. In Islam we have the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Sufis. In Christianity we have from the earliest days various groups such as the Gnostics, the Patripassians, Sabellianism, Dynamic Monarchainism and Arians. Even today we find Christianity splintering into more than 20,000 denominations.

Obviously if monotheistic beliefs could not even reconcile themselves with factions who share the same scripture (but a different interpretation of it), their attitude towards other monotheistic religions with different scriptures are even worse. For if God is said to convey only one consistent message, competing sacred scriptures, with different and sometimes contradictory messages, cannot be reconciled within a particular monotheistic paradigm. Classic examples of these are the various crusades between Christendom and Islam.

For Christianity we find proof of this intolerance within the Christian scripture itself.

While intolerance plays a major role in the historical horrors perpetrated by Christians and Christianity, two more tenets of Christian theology are required to make the cocktail really explosive.

Back to the top

The Inscrutibility of God's Mind

Another basic tenet of many monotheistic religion, including Christianity, is that God is all wise and his wisdom is impenetrable to the human mind.[b] This idea, that God's wisdom is beyond human comprehension is dramatically emphasised in the book of Job. For this is what the author had God rhetorically asking Job:

Job 38:4-5; 16-18
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements-surely you know!
Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.

With the advent of modern science of technology the passage sounds dated to us, but the message to believers in the past must have been clear: who are you to question god's wisdom?

The message was well understood by Christian theologians. Martin Luther (1483-1546), for instance, asserted that if God asked him to go to the field and eat corn, he would do it no matter how ludicrous it would seem.[2]

Luther's Catholic rival, St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), has the same teaching. He thought that founder of the Society of Jesus or Jesuits, in his book Rules For Thinking Within The Church taught a simple rule for believers to follow when their reason contradicts their faith: "If the church should have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appear white, we ought in like manner pronounce it black." [3]

Thus whether god is speaking through the bible or through the church, his commandments are not to be questioned but to be followed.

This is the second item of the explosive cocktail. Now we go to the final one.

Back to the top

God's Commandment as The Ultimate Moral Yardstick

Although Christians do believe that some moral values are "built-in" to the human psyche (see for instance Romans 1:19,20; 2:14,15); in the final analysis, an act is moral or ethical only because god commands it. This is clearly stated in the the section of Moral Law in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary:

The Scripture...taken as a whole, is our rule, our only rule, of faith and practice, and as a revelation of God's will, is binding on the consciences of all Christian men.[4]

We know from the Bible that god has commanded actions which under any circumstances would be considered barbaric and rivalling the achievements of Hitler and Stalin. One case to point is the commandment for the Israelites to slaughter the inhabitants of Canaan who were then living in the land promised to the former. Let us see these passages:

Exodus 23:23-24
"When my angel goes before you, and brings you in to the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Per'izzites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jeb'usites, and I blot them out, you shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their works, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces."

Deuteronomy 20:10-17
"When you draw near a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labour for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand you shall put all its male to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the cattle, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemy, which the Lord God has given to you. Thus you shall do to all the cities which are far from you, which are not cities of the nations here. In the cities of these people that the Lord your God gives you an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amoriotes, the Canaanites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded."

This commandment, of course, was faithfully carried out by Joshua. The story of this genocide is given in Joshua chapters 1 to 12. Below are a few sample passages:

The Conquest of Jericho
Joshua 6:16-17; 20-21
Joshua said to the people, "Shout! for the Lord has given you the city. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction..."
...So the people shouted and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged into the city and captured it. Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep and donkeys.

The Conquest of Ai
Joshua 8:18-25
Then the LORD said to Joshua, "Stretch out the javelin that is in your hand toward Ai; for I will give it into your hand." And Joshua stretched out the javelin that was in his hand toward the city. And the ambush rose quickly out of their place, and as soon as he had stretched out his hand, they ran and entered the city and took it; and they made haste to set the city on fire. So when the men of Ai looked back, behold, the smoke of the city went up to heaven; and they had no power to flee this way or that, for the people that fled to the wilderness turned back upon the pursuers. And when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city, and that the smoke of the city went up, then they turned back and smote the men of Ai. And the others came forth from the city against them; so they were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side; and Israel smote them, until there was left none that survived or escaped. But the king of Ai they took alive, and brought him to Joshua. When Israel had finished slaughtering all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword. And all who fell that day, both men and women, were twelve thousand, all the people of Ai.

It is interesting to hear the comments of the Illustrated Bible Dictionary on the massacre of the Canaanites:

It is enough that Joshua clearly knew this was the will of God, who employs his terrible agencies, famine, pestilence, and war, in the righteous government of the world. The Canaanites had sunk into a state of immorality so foul and degrading that they had to be rooted out of the land with the edge of the sword. "The Israelite's sword, in its bloodiest executiuons, wrought a work of mercy for all countries of the earth to the very end of the world." [5]

Notice then the actions of Joshua are justified because it was the will of God. Nevermind that the Canaanites were considered "immoral" simply because they worshipped other gods (e.g. Numbers 33:52, Deuternonomy 7:4-5).

This is the third element of our cocktail. We will now see how these elements work whether singularly or mixed together.

Back to the top

The Consequences of the "Cocktail"

We shall now see how all these three elements (intolerance, inscrutibility of God's wisdom and the definition of morality as what is commanded by God) were the underlying causes for many horrible acts perpertrated by Christians throughout history.

Thus Christian intolerance of outsiders and heretical insiders, mixed with the other two elements, had resulted in:

  • the persecution of pagans
  • the persecution of heretics,
  • the crusades against Islam,
  • the inquisition against the Albigenses,
  • the Spanish inquisition against closet Jews and Muslims,
  • the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants
  • the anti-semitic persecutions that had plagued Jews since the advent of the Christian myth of their responsibility for the death of Jesus. That this intolerance leads many times to the killing or massacre of the opposition, makes perfect sense for the believers. For wasn't Joshua commanded to kill the Canaanites because they were of other religions?

    The second and third elements of the cocktail when mixed together had also resulted in much suffering.

    • The perpetuation of slavery in Christendom until faily recent times was due largely to the fact that the Bible did not condemn slavery. Thus it was never considered immoral to own slaves.
    • The subordinate position of women in Christendom was rooted in the Bible and the teachings of the church fathers (who were merely following through on the Bible's teachings on this).
    • The medieval witch hunt which resulted in the death of an estimated two million people was the result of a consistent application of the two principles above in intepreting Galatians 5:19 and Exodus 22:8.
    • The case of Dr. Simpson and the resistance of the Scottish clergy to the use of anesthesia during childbirth is another example of how Christian morality is not premised on the reduction of human pain and suffering but on what the Bible (hence God) commands.

    It is clear therefore, that the atrocities and injustices above were committed, not in spite of Christianity, but because of it. [c]

    Back to the top


    a.Of course, more enlightened, liberal Christians no longer hold such views. However it remains true that throughout the bulk of its history, most Christians, and more importantly the ecclesiastics and theologians held such views. Furthermore, even today, fundamentalists and conservative Christians continue to propagate such ideas to the detriment of all.
    b.I can personally vouched for how widespread this belief is. Since I started this website, I have received numerous e-mails from believers chiding me for "daring" to question "god's word" and for being "arrogant" to the point where I dare to compare my mind to his. Persumably these people think that one should not even try to apply reason in examining one's beliefs. Sad.
    c.A recent study by psychologist Brad Bushman and his colleagues at the university of Michigan has further confirmed this link between belief in God and a predeliction to commit, or condone, atrocities in the name of the deity.


    1.Stark: One True God: p116-122
    2.Montgomery, Damed Through the Church: p60-61
    3.Ward, Dictionary of Common Fallacies II: p87
    4.Easton, The Illustrated Bible Dictionary: p475
    5.Easton, The Illustrated Bible Dictionary: p393

    Back to the top

  • [Home] [The Central Thesis] [Christianity] [The Bible] [Jesus] [Paul] [God] [History] [Pascal's Wager] [Bibliography] [Links]
    © Paul N. Tobin 2000

    For comments and queries, e-mail Paul Tobin
    Hosted by