by James A. Haught
Writer-in-Residence–United Coalition of Reason
Many people think religion causes believers to be compassionate and brotherly. But the record of history—from human sacrifice to Crusades, to Inquisitions, to witch-hunts, to jihads, to pogroms against Jews, to Catholic-Protestant Reformation wars, to slaughter of Catholics, to slaughter of Baha’is, to Muslim suicide bombers, etc.—tells an uglier story.
Did you know that a Catholic-Protestant cannon battle occurred in Philadelphia in 1844? A Catholic bishop complained about Protestant worship in public schools, so Protestant mobs stormed Catholic neighborhoods, burning homes and churches. Martial law was declared. Federal troops with cannons arrived to keep peace. Protestants took cannons from sailing ships at the wharf and loaded them with bolts and nails. Ensuing barrages killed two dozen.
Did you know that one of history’s worst wars, the Taiping Rebellion, erupted in the 1850s because a Chinese man read Christian pamphlets and had a vision that he was a second divine son after Jesus? In the vision, God told him to “destroy demons,” so he roused a million follower-warriors to seize territory from the emperor. Taipings conquered a huge part of China before they were defeated by defense armies—including one led by British adventurer “Chinese” Gordon. The death toll is estimated around 20 million.
Poor Gordon faced religious horror twice. Later, he led defense forces against a Muslim holy war in the Nile valley, and was killed when the fanatics overran Khartoum.
Did you know that Mexico’s Cristero War in the 1920s killed 90,000? It happened because the government tried to halt church control over society. Bishops retaliated by stopping worship services—which sent ardent Catholics and a few priests into armed rebellion. Slaughter was horrendous. U.S. diplomats finally negotiated a cease-fire. In 2000, the Vatican conferred sainthood on 23 Cristero figures, and later beatified 13 more.
Currently, a Netflix series, “Lovebird,” tells of a past Turkish doctor who was sentenced to death by Muslim holy men because he saved his father’s life with a forbidden blood transfusion.
On and on it goes. The record of holy cruelties and atrocities is too vast to count. Here are a few:
Ancient Greeks sacrificed thousands of animals—and occasional people—to a fanciful array of invisible gods who supposedly lived atop Mount Olympus. Legend says that King Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to induce the goddess Artemis to provide wind so his fleet could sail to the Trojan War.
In the 1500s, Aztec priests sacrificed an estimated 20,000 victims per year to many gods, including an invisible feathered serpent.
In the 1800s, India’s Thugs strangled about 20,000 victims yearly for the many-armed goddess Kali, before British rulers found 3,689 stranglers and hanged many of them. Supposedly, Thugs believed that Brahma the creator was making lives faster than Shiva the destroyer could end them, so they killed on behalf of Shiva’s consort Kali.
Pre-Inca priests of Peru burned as many as 200 children in great ceremonies to appease bizarre gods. Druids of Gaul allegedly put victims into human-shaped wicker constructions and burned them. In Borneo, builders of pile houses drove the first pile though a maiden’s body to placate the earth goddess. In Tibet, Bon shamans performed ritual killing. In Africa, Ashanti priests sacrificed about 100 yearly to bring a good yam harvest. In 1838 a Pawnee Indian girl was cut into pieces to fertilize newly sown crops.
Many people think the Crusades were romantic quests by shining knights wearing crimson crosses, but they actually were a nightmare of slaughter, rape, looting and magic tales.
After Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade in 1095 to wrest the Holy Land from infidels—declaring Deus vult (God wills it)—volunteer armies arose like mobs around Europe. Some in the Rhine Valley followed a goose they thought had been enchanted by God to guide them.
Other groups decided they should first kill “the infidels among us,” so they stormed Jewish ghettos and slaughtered inhabitants, giving some a chance to save themselves by converting to Christianity at swordpoint.
As the peasant armies traveled through the Balkans, they pillaged farms and towns for food, provoking battles with local peoples. In one clash, an army led by Peter the Hermit killed 4,000 Christian residents of Zemun, Yugoslavia, and then burned nearby Christian Belgrade.
As crusaders reached the eastern end of the Mediterranean, they decapitated hundreds of Muslims and carried the heads as trophies. During the siege of Antioch, 200 Muslim heads were catapulted over the walls into the city. Muslim defenders inside decapitated the city’s Christians and catapulted their heads outward.
When Jerusalem fell, almost every resident was slaughtered. Chronicler Raymond of Aguilers wrote proudly: “The horses waded in blood up to their knees, nay, up to the bridle. It was a just and wonderful judgment of God.”
However, Muslims regrouped and eventually drove out crusaders. So a Second Crusade was launched, then a Third, and several more. During the Third Crusade, in 1191, Richard the Lion-Hearted ordered 3,000 captives at Acre to be cut open to retrieve swallowed gems. St. Bernard of Clairvaux declared: “The Christian glories in the death of a pagan, because thereby Christ Himself is glorified.”
In the Fourth Crusade, cross-wearing soldiers became sidetracked and sacked Christian Constantinople. Other crusades fizzled.
The seventh and final crusade was the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when a papal fleet defeated a Muslim fleet. A crusader named Miguel de Cervantes suffered a maimed arm. He later wrote “Don Quixote.”
Incidentally, the Seventh Crusade was ordered by Pope Pius V, who espoused slaughter. As Grand Inquisitor, he sent troops to kill 2,000 deviant Waldensians, followers of preacher Peter Waldo, in southern Italy. After becoming pope, he sent troops to fight Huguenot Protestants in France, telling commanders to kill all prisoners. And he revived the Inquisition to torture and burn Christian “heretics.” After his death, Pius V was canonized a saint.
Check back in the next UnitedCoR newsletter for a continuation of Jim’s article “Religious Horrors” when we’ll visit the darker side of religion on the European Continent.