Relax, Christians. History reveals atheists are perverse, not homicidal.

Relax, Christians. History reveals atheists are perverse, not homicidal. November 27, 2019

Remember that story of the atheist who killed a Christian (or a Pagan or Rastafarian or Jew, or a Flying Spaghetti Monster disciple) for not not believing?

heresy executions christianity atheism servetus calvin
Sculpture by Clotilde Roch of Spanish theologican Michael Servetus in prison before his 1553 execution for heresy in Geneva, Switzerland. (Wikimedia, Wellcome, CC BY 4.0)

Me neither.

That’s because history is only replete with examples of Christian believers slaying nonbelievers, not vice versa.

Unless you argue that modern godless Communism permanently dispatched millions of religious true believers (and assorted others) to the great beyond. But Stalin, Lenin, Pol Pot and Fidel Castro, to name a few famous commie despots, killed for power-gripping, authoritarian reasons, not secular, philosophical ones.

So, it’s probably very fair to say that atheists rarely if ever have killed people because of their faiths. Throughout history, though, faithful people have routinely killed those who lacked faith.

There’s tons of evidentiary support, including the legendary Greek sophist Socrates, who was sentenced to poison himself with hemlock for “refusing to recognize the Gods,” although he also had also angered a politically powerful Athenian whose son had been “tutored” by the great sage, who had a reputed obsession with innocent boys.

Even courtly Aristotle had to flee Athens for his religious heterodoxies, one of many Greek thinkers of the day persecuted and sometimes slain for their quirky ideas, notably including a then-revolutionary doubt in the existence of all so-called “gods.”

The Bible itself prescribes death for blasphemy. Leviticus 24 notes, “He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregations shall certainly stone him.”

“Jesus taught that blasphemers should never be forgiven,” wrote Free Inquiry senior editor James A. Haught in the magazine’s October/November edition. “As Christianity grew, so did the killing of nonconformists. … Under Catholicism, the Holy Inquisition tortured and burned “heretics” — and Protestants later did likewise.”

Haught evoked the memory of a medieval physician named Michael Servetus, a religious skeptic who had the great misfortune of getting mixed up with Puritan ideologue John Calvin at the height of Calvin’s influence in Geneva. An expert in his day of blood circulation, Servetus also was a fervent doubter of the widely believed Christian doctrine of the “Holy Trinity,” in which God is viewed (still today) as three distinct, equal and coexistent entities — the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Calvin approved Servetus’ burning at the stake in Geneva in 1553 for his putative “heresies.” Note that the religious hierarchical system Calvin instituted in Geneva was largely exported to New World America with his Puritan descendants.

Blasphemy and heresy, it turns out, have had tremendously lasting appeal to Christian faithful.

The last Briton hanged for religious heterodoxy was Thomas Aikenhead, 20, a Scot, who was convicted and executed in 1697 for disbelieving some Christian “miracles.”

In 1766, a contrary young Frenchman, Francois-Jean de La Barre was beheaded after having his tongue cut out for, among other “crimes,” wearing a hat as a church procession passed by, and disfiguring a crucifix, acts of adolescent — if still hugely ill-advised — silliness.

Such religious brutalities that snuffed out La Barre slackened and then mostly disappeared in the West after the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, but they continue today elsewhere unabated, even energized, in the modern world.

Thirteen nations still decree execution for atheism, and even garden-variety blasphemy (even if one is still nominally a believer) can get a heathen dismembered with swords, drenched in acid, shot or beaten to death in the Asian subcontinent, notably in notoriously brutal, Muslim Bangladesh. It’s not much better in Pakistan, where 68 people have been slain extra-judicially for blasphemy since 1990, Haught wrote, referencing reporting by the Arab news site Al-Jazeera.

Haught recounted a particularly appalling illustration of this kind of religious bigotry in Pakistan, where a young woman named Asia Bibi was sentenced to death for insulting the Muslim prophet Mohammad. In a judicial process that played out over more than a decade, Bibi was imprisoned in solitary confinement for eight years, a politician who stood up for her was murdered, and when she was finally released in 2018, top Muslim clerics issued fatwas calling for her destruction. This year she finally made her way to safety in Canada.

But even in the West, the ancient sting of blasphemy snaps on.

Last year in Austria, Haught reports, a woman was convicted of “publicly disparaging religious doctrines” when she had the temerity to suggest that the prophet Mohammad’s reputed marriage to a six-year-old girl was tantamount to pedophilia.

The European Court of Human Rights, unfathomably, supported the conviction.

As you can see, rendering blasphemy prejudices toothless is still a work in progress, even in the developed world.


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