Steven Pinker on the history of Christian violence

Props to my friend Harry for bringing this to my attention. Taken from the Q&A page over at Steven Pinker's website, bold emphases mine:

Wasn’t the spread of Christianity the main historical force that drove down violence? Jesus preached love, peace, and forgiveness. The Spanish missionaries eliminated human sacrifice in Latin America. Abolitionism in the 19th century, and the Civil Rights movement in the 20th, were inspired by the morality of Christianity and led by Christian ministers. The two world wars show what happens when people depart from the teachings of Christianity. 

Jesus deserves credit for stigmatizing revenge, one of the main motives for violence over the course of human history. But things started going downhill in 312 when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the historical facts are not consistent with the claim that Christianity since then has been a force for nonviolence:
  • The Crusaders perpetrated a century of genocides that murdered a million people, equivalent as a proportion of the world’s population at the time to the Nazi holocaust.
  • Shortly afterwards, the Cathars of southern France were exterminated in another Crusader genocide because they had embraced the Albigensian heresy.
  • The Inquisition, according to Rummel, killed 350,000 people.
  • Martin Luther’s rant against the Jews is barely distinguishable from the writings of Hitler. 
  • The three founders of Protestantism, Luther, Calvin, and Henry VIII, had thousands of heretics were burned at the stake, as they and their followers took Jesus literally when he said, “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.”
  •  Following the biblical injunction, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” Christians killed 60,000-100,000 accused witches in the European witchhunts.
  • The European Wars of Religion had death rates that were double that of World War I and that were in the range of World War II in Europe.
  • Christian conquistadors massacred and enslaved native Americans in vast numbers, and perhaps twenty million were killed in all (not counting unintentional epidemics) by the European settlement of the Americas.
  •  World War I, as I recall, was a war fought mostly by Christians against Christians. As for World War II and its associated horrors, see my answer to the previous question.

Certain Christian denominations, such as the Quakers, did indeed mobilize the abolitionist movement, but they came late to the party.  Christianity had no problem with slavery for more than 1500 years, and agitation against the institution only took off with the writings of John Locke and other philosophers of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, who found plenty of good secular reasons why slavery was abominable. The American abolitionists fought against a slaveholding South that was, of course, thoroughly Christian, including many ministers who defended slavery because it was approved in the Bible.
As for Martin Luther King, in his essay “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” he discusses his inspirations: ancient Greek and Enlightenment philosophers, renegade humanistic theologians who rejected orthodox Christian doctrine, and most of all, Gandhi. And of course the segregationists he opposed were all Christians, and several of the civil rights activists they murdered were Jewish.
This is not to single out Christians or Christianity as a source of violence; many of the contemporary alternatives were just as bad. And there have been times in recent history when Christian ideas and movements have been pacifying forces, particularly when they have been influenced the humanitarian currents I discuss in the book. But to say that Christianity has, overall, been a force for peace in history is factually inaccurate.


I've lost count of the number of times, in conversations with Christians, it's been claimed that Christianity was and is primarily a force of peace and civility. This is quite flagrantly false, and we shouldn't forget that while Christianity has been tamed by the forces of secular modernity, it was historically spread by the sword and inspired some of the most grotesque cruelty in history. 


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