This is such a common myth amongst so many people, that it needs to be questioned. There are three main things to note. firstly, that all the world’s worst genocides, both in terms of absolute numbers, and, secondly, in terms of percentages, are the produce of, in Franz von Papen’s expression, ‘political religions’.
Normally ‘religion’ is defined by worship of God. Here it the worship of a man and/or his oligarchy, together with his mythology.
The second thing to note is that there are different types of “religion’” Here I confine ourselves to Christianity. Psychologist Gordon Allport (1966, “The religious context of prejudice”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, No. 5, 447-457) has identified three types of adherent: (1) the extrinsic (‘means to an end’) believer, (2) the instrinsic (‘for its own sake’) believer, and (3) the ‘indiscriminately pro-religious’ believer (who accepts something unthinkingly). The first and last of these Allport found to be the most prejudiced.
Thirdly, Ervin Staub (1989, “The roots of evil: the origins of genocide and other group violence”, CUP) has described various genocides, and found that they all tend to have similar characteristics.
These are (1) A culture of militarism, autocracy and authoritarianism, (2) hard times, with lost prestige, and consequently (3) a nostalgia for a great past (real or imagined). Connected with this loss is (4) a chronically poor national self-esteem, as, for example in Germany after the Versailles Treaty of 1919.
Similarly in Rwanda, with the Tutsis loss of prestige after being in all the senior positions. Also in the former Yugoslavia, where similar socio-psychological characteristics can be seen.
I might point out, with Scott Peck, that poor self-esteem drives violence, as such people and/or nations will then do almost anything to get this self-esteem back – even genocide.
There may also be deeply-rooted mythologies, and a culture of anti-Semitism (and in Rwanda the Tutsis and Hutus were alleged to have different racial origins). Regrettably, it has to be said that while predestinarian theologies and ‘foundation’ mythologies regarding origins can bring great comfort to their adherents since God “has a caring plan for their lives, this can fuel injustices”.
For such theologies can also be used to legitimise abuse of one’s enemies as sub-humans, as in the case of the holocaust, the African-Caribbean slave trade, and the alleged superiority of the Tutsis. Weren’t such ‘people’ after all predestined to be slaves and sub-humans, or, alternatively, a ‘master race’?
It cannot be a complete accident that Quakers and Methodists (who reject individual predestination, and were also ‘intrinsic believers’) were at the forefront of movements to abolish slavery and other human rights abuses, while holders of predestinarian beliefs (‘extrinsic’ Lutherans in Germany) were amongst those driving Nazi mythologies.
The world’s greatest mass killers, in modern times, have been Mao (perhaps 20 million in the Great Leap Forward, alone), Pol Pot (around a third of his own people), Stalin and Hitler.
All have argued for a form of ‘purity’, with Nuom Chea (‘Brother number 2’, Pol Pot’s deputy) stating quite explicitly that ‘purity’ was what he sought. Doubtless other tyrants elsewhere have used similar ‘cleansing’ legitimations.
This was a moral war, waged to remove false deities, and to replace these deities with new ones – themselves, and their political ideology.
Was von Papen right? I think so. ‘Political religion’ this is; and the tin-pot god with which we are concerned is the human tyrant, whatever the mythology.
What we need is a God who comes to serve, not to be served.