Has Secularism Killed More People Than Religion?

This is an issue most self prescribed atheists have a strong opinion of.

As I pointed out some of the greatest horrors in modern history occurred under secular rule. This is not to downplay the evil committed in name of religion, like in Iran. But,as far as cost in life and well-being the secularists of the 20th/21st Centuries are well ahead as far as global impact.

Most atheists would strongly disagree with this assessment. I will try to explain why we so fundamentally disagree on this issue.

As I’ve tried to explain before, secularism is not a detailed set of beliefs about how to run a society, or live your life in the way religion is. Thus splitting the world into two chunks: the secular world and the religious world and making a tally of good an evil committed on both sides does not compute.

The secular world is huge. It includes people who are religious as well as a multitude of ideologies and ideas: capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism, environmentalism etc. You can be a secularist while being religious.

Let me give some examples. Most of the members of PLO belong to the muslim faith. However the organization was secular in nature. It promoted the freedom of Palestinians with secular arguments. Even its terror was rationalized in a secular way. This is different from Hamas which has many of the same objectives, but which uses religious logic in how it advances those causes.

Here is the nuance you are missing from you argument. PLO terrorism was secular, but it was not motivated or amplified by secularism. The idea that politics and religion should be kept separate, was not the cause of PLO terrorism.

Likewise Hitler did not invade Europe, because he did not include religion in his rational for it. Separation of church and state was not the cause, contributor or influencer of Nazi horrors. Less known is that the Catholic church of Germany cooperated with Hitler, so the Nazis were not anti-religion. Just like you would not call PLO, anti Islam, just because their cause is advanced in a non-religious manner.

Thus the horrors of Nazism was caused by Nazism, not religion. The horrors of Communism was caused by communist ideology, not secularism. Yes these are secular ideologies, but that does not make secularism any more responsible than vegetarianism is responsible for Nazism. The Nazis were quite strong advocates of animal rights and passed many animal right laws in Germany. Hitler would vocally challenge anybody eating meat at his table, by talking about how inhumane slaughterhouses are.

Yet I don’t think that is cause to say vegetarianism and animal rights has any blame for Nazism, anymore than secularism has. Just like Islam is not the cause of PLO terrorism.

Absurdities in Tallying The Crimes of Secularism

Most crime in today’s society, even in Iran is caused by secular reasons. People get robbed and killed, not because a religious disagreement. If a junkie needs money for heroin and robs you, then it was not a religious reason for this crime. So you can claim it happened for secular reasons. Yet it is absurd to add this crime to the tally of crimes by secularists. Secularism, the idea of separation between church and state was not motivation behind the crime.

I hope I’ve been able to hammer this point home. So let us switch to why I see religion as more problematic.

Religions will contain very specific moral rules, which can induce people to commit horrible crimes. The point is that take any society with its multitude of flaws and apply either secularism or religion to it. Which choice will let to a net gain in violence, and which one will most likely lead to a reduction in violence?

We must do this with several different kinds of societies to see the trends in the outcomes. Imagine a Nazi society. Secularism would not make it worse or better. But imagine adding religion. Now they got more argument to rationalize their evil. They can say the Führer has been picked by God. They can say killing jews and slavs has been ordained by God, and it is your religious duty to do so.

Now imagine adding secularism to Iran. It cannot make it worse. Quite the contrary you are stripping them of a lot of their moral authority.

It is hard to make a perfectly rational and compassionate person do horrible crimes unless you throw religion into the mix. With religion you can convince someone to do something horrible, they instinctively know is wrong, because they believe it is God’s will.

An exception to this rule which I have learned is that psychopath do in fact often rely on religion to remain moral. I came across a discussion forum for psychopaths once. A psychopaths unlike normal people has no inherent feeling of empathy towards other people. What helps normal people do a lot of bad things, is that we “feel” it is wrong. Hurting another person will pain us as well. A psychopath in contrast will think nothing of it. It is important to note that being a psychopath is not evil. At least not in clinical terms. I am aware that psychopath is not a medical term, but I use it is a term people are familiar with. People can essentially become psychopaths due to brain injuries. If you injure the part of your brain dealing with empathy, you can loose it.

Being a psychopath does not mean you go around murdering people, but it will often mean that other people may perceive you as cold hearted and emotionally manipulative. For these people religion can be a substitute for lack of empathy. Religion gives them a clear set of rules to follow.

However there are functioning psychopaths who do not rely on religion. My point of elaborating on this, is that I often feel as if many religious people, treat all of humanity as if we were all psychopaths. As if we would have zero sense of right or wrong without religion.

Axioms of Religious Morality and Secular Morality

The major difference between religion and secular is the foundation of the beliefs. In religion the set of axioms is defined by a deity

I would disagree. I personally don’t feel like religion is based on axioms at all. Most religion has a huge amount of rules to obey and these rules are not derived from a small set of axioms.

Secular beliefs have no such foundation, it is based off the personal worldview of the individual or group and has not been tested over time.

The is precisely what most secular philosophical or moral systems are based on. I believe you got it in reverse. If you study most philosophies or morality, they will begin by defining some axioms and argue strongly why they pick these axioms. Then they will derive the rest of their moral system through logic based on these axioms.

This means most rules are open to revision, because you may discover that you applied logic in the wrong way to derive it. With religion there is nothing like this. Deuteronomy 22:11 says:

You shall not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woolen and linen together.

How could we derive this rule from any minimal set of axioms? You can find thousands of these sorts of arbitrary rules in religion which cannot be inferred from any axiom.

Secular morality has been battle tested. The enlightenment has been the moral foundation of western liberal democracies, and I would argue this has had a tremendous success, far in excess of the religious thought dominating the west in medieval Christian times.

The biggest flaw in Secularism is that the axioms have no foundation. There is no guidance, it it simply what people agree on. And people are stupid. Using Trump as a perfect example. There are still people who think he is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Axioms by definition have no clear foundation, otherwise they would not be axioms. That is not a flaw. If you argue that, then you might as well argue that mathematics cannot exist, or is useless. The axioms of mathematics have been picked because most rational people agree these are sensible choices. Just like the axioms of various forms of secular morality has been picked because people agree that they are sensible.

As I’ve elaborated on with regards to psychopaths. The great majority of humans have a very strong built in moral foundation. We have a keen sense of empathy and concern for other living things. If you don’t have that you are immediately an outlier. You get labels like psychopath, narcissist etc.

Even in the animal kingdom there is not utter moral chaos. They have moral codes they follow as well. Animals tend to avoid killing their own kind e.g. There are bird species which stay faithful to one partner through their whole life. It is not like every person just rolls a moral dice. Evolution made us this way.

The other problem is that Secularism does not have much place for the Supernatural.

But it does. Secularism is not atheism. You are free to believe in religion or spiritual things within secularism. You are simply not allowed to make that a basis for how society is run. That is a personal and private matter.

Is Secularism Unorganized Religion?

The spirituality movement is a rejection of Organized Religion. If there is Organized Religion, then logically there is also Unorganized Religion. So in the case of Secular Religions, I am taking about about a set of sincerely held beliefs which have not been codified into a Church.

New Age and other spiritual movements are definitely unorganized religion, however a secular religion is an oxymoron. If it is secular it is not religious by definition. There is no super natural or spiritual element. People like Deepak Chopra represent unorganized religion but Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris don’t. Sam Harris e.g. does a lot of stuff related to meditation. I have been interested in that, but found it difficult to deal with meditation with a religious component as found in Buddhism. Sam Harris takes meditation techniques as practiced in many religions and strips away the religious parts to make it accessible to atheists like myself.

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store