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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

10th place — Grad student essay contest: Kelsey Easton

Kelsey Easton

FFRF awarded Kelsey $300.

By Kelsey Easton 

Under the cross, the crescent and star, even the lotus, is blood. In the name of religion has emerged the so-called problem of outlying identities (e.g., members of diverse beliefs, sexual and gender orientations, and ethnic and racial backgrounds) and the so-called solution of eradicating them. 

Any number of targeted mass killings — which the Australian National University’s Targeted Mass Killings dataset defines as the intentional killing of unarmed civilians due to their belonging to an identity group — can be traced to religious origins of justification. From genocides to ethnic cleansings to crimes against humanity, religions consistently appear as the culprits of atrocities. Historian Ben Kiernan points out in his book Blood and Soil main themes of justification for such actions, of which many are intertwined with religious rhetoric. 

Even before Kiernan’s first recorded genocide in Ancient Greece, religion had been encouraging such killings. For example, Deut. 7 of the bible (which is also in the Torah) instructs God’s followers to drive out other nations: “The Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess. . . many nations — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. . .When you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. . . Show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. . . Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire.” From destroying totally, to destruction of cultural property, to preventing certain births, these actions constitute the 1948 Genocide Convention’s legal definition of genocide. The written text of the source of Abrahamic religions clearly points to religion — here, specifically God’s instruction — as the solution. The context behind this quote is no more exculpatory: God’s people, according to the story, were instructed by God to destroy entire peoples in order to accomplish their own conquest, one of the historical justifications for genocide. 

The Abrahamic religions have, since their infancy, historically justified targeted mass killings — from the Crusades, to the genocidal slavery in the Americas, to Taliban-sponsored ethnic cleansings in Afghanistan, etc. 

Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great points that even more recently, religion in the shape of Catholicism aided in the Holocaust. 

Abrahamic religions alone do not hold responsibility for mass atrocities in the name of religion. In a contemporary example, the Rohingya in the Rakhine state of Myanmar have been victims of what the United Nations called “textbook ethnic cleansing” in the name of Buddhism. 

Members of certain religions, usually those in government or other political power (from theocracies to religious political figures), isolate and identify certain groups of individuals who pose an ostensible threat — though often the threat to what or to whom remains nebulous. They create a problem, connect it inextricably to religion (according to Hitchens); and solve it with blood, horror and an urgency to return the people to religion. 

In essence, religion itself is the problem. Many planners of targeted mass killings use religion to defend their crimes and influence the public to believe such justifications. Granted, removing the power of religion from the hands of those who would persecute may not entirely solve targeted mass killings and other mass atrocities. After all, Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell points out that the Cambodian genocide remained wholly areligious. Nonetheless, Power demonstrates that the vast majority of genocides since the 20th century evoke and resolve conflict with killings in the name of religion. 

The best answer to this religion-caused problem and religion-cited solution is to remove its sway from those in power. Stronger critical thinking is the first solution, along with replacing religious argumentation with human rights-based understandings. The international community must deny sectarianism or the intractability of religious feuds as excuses for egregious human rights violations. Condemning religion as the cover for persecution, and rebuking those who claim higher ground through religion (on an interpersonal, national, and international level) can solve the fervor that mass killers will try to stir. Religious dogma will not solve targeted mass killings. International cooperation, using the principles of human rights over religious belief, will. 

Never should a cross or lotus wield the power of a sword. Religion has been the beacon of excuse for targeted mass killings, but refusing to accept such a pretext can significantly decrease targeted mass killings. So long as those in power exert religious sentiment as their answer for why they pursue targeted mass killings, such atrocities will only continue. 

Kelsey, 27, attends the University of Denver and is working toward a master’s degree in international human rights.

“I am a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Panama, and have volunteered in a Restorative Justice initiative with the criminal justice system,” Kelsey writes. “I’ve lived in Costa Rica, Panama, Sweden, and traveled to China, Nicaragua, Iceland and Copenhagen.”