Some people have made the claim that, based on the evidence before us, secularists (that is, those people whose prime daily motivator is not religion, and, additionally, whose dominant paradigm has not been informed or formed primarily by religion) have caused more death and suffering than religious people. Such a claim goes against the oft-repeated claim that religion has been the cause of all or most wars. But I would like to respectfully disagree with both propositions and offer an alternative explanation.
On the face of it, secularism does seem to be as destructive, if not more destructive, as religion. The actions and policies of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the Viet Cong, and so on are offered as evidence. Often forgotten are other examples: the ethnic clashes in Rwanda; the Communist oppression in Ethiopia; the campaigns of Alexander the Great; the campaigns of the Mongols; and so on. We can even throw in the Babylonians, Assyrians, ancient Egyptians, and other early civilizations as well. Their prime reason for war and slaughter was greed: land, power, money, control, fear, and so on. Religion may have played a role — the sacrifices and prayers and divinations and oracles and other rites — but this was more of a tool than a motivator. And although the commanding men (and this time I mean men, as women in such positions were extremely rare) believed in the Divine in whatever way they did, this belief and, even, their religion were not why they left their homes to kill foreigners and subjugate rebels.
And so, on the surface it seems that religion has not been the cause of even many wars. Religious wars, taking all of known human history in sight, has been a minor element. Sure, certain prominent religious wars remain at the top of our consciousness, such as the Crusades, the wars of Islamic conquest, the wars between Catholics and Protestants, the wars between kings and pope-kings, and so on. But when comparing these to the motives and reasons for war throughout human history, this theory of religion being the cause of wars weakens considerably, if indeed it can even be rationally proposed.
And this same evidence shows that secular men can be more dangerous than those men who were or are religious, an explanation can run that while a religious man believes he will have to answer to God for his deeds and mis-deeds, a secular man would feel no such accountability. But that is simply a theory and not something that can as of yet be proven either way. But, back to the point of the paragraph: history shows us how some of the most destructive men were secular or not very religion-minded. The usual offenders are trotted out (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, et cetera) to which we can even add Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan (Chinggez Khan), and so on. Q.E.D., no?
Ah, but the truth is that the evidence only seems to show the above. We forget one very important and crucial element: how free a leader or group is within the structure of the society’s hierarchy. In other words, we have completely forgotten human nature. I posit — and I read this somewhere and cannot for the life of me remember where, so instead I will state on behalf of that author that we each have in us, as humans and barring some grave deformity, the same potential for good and for evil. Each of us can be a Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta; each of us can be a Stalin. What matters is what aspect is more fully developed in an individual and how capable the individual may be to express or implement that aspect taking into consideration how much power, authority, and room for autonomy he or she may have.
Those with more power are more able to implement their dominant aspect than those with less power or opportunity, and those with absolute power can do so with impunity and with such a freedom that it seems extraordinary. But it all boils down to how many people will listen to a person. Remember that it was a religious and devout person, specifically Arnaud Amalric, abbot of Cîteaux and papal legate by Pope Innocent III for the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heretics, who said, “Kill them all: God will know His own.” And remember that it was a secular man who attempted to exterminate an entire people for no reason but spite against them. It was a secular Kemal Atatürk who helped modernize Turkey. It was a devout General Zia-ul-Haqq who helped expell the Communists from Afghanistan and who planted a seed for Islamist extremism in that region: his seed was next to that planted, figuratively, by his predecessor, the Shiite and socialist and secular Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
Let us, then, not get tied up in useless discussions on the evils of religion or secularism. The key, in my opinion, is human nature and which imperative one believes has absolute necessity — and whether it is necessary for God or for Communism or for glory is irrelevant in the end, for good is good and evil is evil.
Of course, I leave myself open to considerations that a religious environment or character, or a secular one, may predispose one to exercizing one aspect more than another.