Murder and torture are as old as humanity. Ever since man first invented the club, he probably used it to kill another caveman. Murder in the name of religion probably wasn’t very far behind. Overzealous faith has been used as an excuse to torture and kill since the beginning of recorded history. What follows are but a few examples. Theist or not, they cannot be denied.
The Persecution of Christians in Rome
** Christian martyrs in the Coliseum.
In 64 A.D., a tremendous fire broke out in Rome, destroying a majority of the city. Rumors quickly circulated that emperor Nero himself had set the blaze. To divert attention from those rumors, Nero decided to place the blame on Christians. In short order, he had them rounded up and killed.
Why did Nero target the Christians? After all, the empire was fairly tolerant of numerous religions during the early days of Rome. Local gods of newly conquered areas were frequently added to the Roman pantheon and often given Roman names. Jews were allowed to practice their religion as long as they paid the “Jewish tax.”
For one thing, Christians were regarded as apostates from the ancient faith of Moses. Worshiping no visible God, they were held to be atheists. Also, Romans tended to view with great distrust any secret, clandestine meetings among its subjects. Because of their secret, nocturnal meetings, Christians appeared particularly dangerous in the eyes of the law.
Nero was reportedly quite mad and was recorded to have tortured Christians for his own enjoyment. According to the Roman historian Tacitus:
Besides being put to death they [the Christians] were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clad in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open his grounds for the display, and was putting on a show in the circus, where he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or drove about in his chariot. All this gave rise to a feeling of pity, even toward men whose guilt merited the most exemplary punishment; for it was felt that they were being destroyed not for the public good but to satisfy the cruelty of an individual.
Persecution of Christians intensified until all were commanded to sacrifice to the Roman gods or face immediate execution. This continued until Constantine I came into power and legalized Christianity in 313 A.D.
The Spanish Inquisition
** From History of the World: Part I
If all you know of the Spanish Inquisition is from old Monty Python sketches or the Mel Brooks movie “History of the World, Part I,” you don’t have the full story. The Spanish Inquisition, or Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, was a body established by Catholic monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile with the blessing of Pope Sixtus IV. It was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms and replace the Medieval Inquisition, which was under Papal control.
For the most part, it was originally intended to ensure the orthodoxy of those who converted to Catholicism from Judaism and Islam. Between 1492-1501 regulations were altered to state that Jews or Muslims must either convert or leave the Kingdom.
Many prominent citizens were concerned about their country’s religious diversity and had bigoted attitudes toward non-Catholics. Jews were isolated in Ghettos, and many were killed. Jews who did convert were known as “Marranos” (a derogatory term) and were often accused of practicing Judaism secretly.
In the latter part of the 15th century, Spain conquered Grenada, which was populated by a large number of Muslim Moors. They were soon to suffer the same persecution and oppression as Jews. In the late 16th century, Protestants, mainly Lutherans, also became the target of the Inquisition.
The Spanish Inquisition consisted of tribunals, trials of sorts, where a judge both tries the accused and passes judgment. The accused was required to testify, and he could receive no assistance from an attorney. Refusal to testify was interpreted as proof of guilt. Anyone could testify against the defendant, and he was not told who his accusers were.
People rarely testified in favor of the accused, lest they also become accused of heresy. Heresy could be proven if the accused was caught in a heretical act or if he confessed. The inquisitors preferred confession. Accused heretics could be imprisoned for years until a satisfactory confession was obtained.
It is important to remember that a papal bull existed at the time that permitted torture to get confessions. Spanish inquisitors took full advantage of this bull even though torture was only supposed to be used when all other methods of obtaining a confession were exhausted. The inquisitor did not accept confessions obtained during torture. The confession must be repeated in the absence of any physical coercion to be sufficient.
Numerous forms of torture were employed on the suspected heretic: Some used starvation or forced ingestion of water or other fluids. Some inquisitors heaped burning coals on various body parts. The rack is a well-known method of torture often associated with the Spanish Inquisition. The accused was attached by his hands and feet to rollers attached to a large wooden frame. The torturer turned the roller, thus pulling with great force on the accused’s arms and legs. In short order, the joints would become dislocated, causing great pain. If the torturer kept turning the rollers, the limbs would be ripped from the torso.
Strappado was a form of torture where the subject’s hands were tied behind his back, and the rope was looped over a pulley hanging from the ceiling. The accused was raised off the ground by his arms and allowed to hang. While he was hanging, red hot pincers and pokers were often used to poke and prod the subject.
What happened when/if the accused broke down and confessed? Confession resulted in the accused being forgiven. However, in many cases, penance had to be undertaken. Examples of this would include tasks like going on a pilgrimage or wearing multiple large, heavy crosses. If the accused refused to confess, they could be sentenced to life in prison. Inquisitional acts in Spain did not stop until 1834.
Mountain Meadows Massacre
You might not have heard of the Mountain Meadows massacre. The year was 1857, and Utah was a territory that was organized as a democratic theocracy headed by Brigham Young. A wagon train, composed mostly of families, was making its way from Arkansas to California. After arriving in Salt Lake City, the wagon train moved south to Cedar City, where they attempted to buy grain and supplies. The local Mormons refused them due to their suspicion of aiding potential enemies.
The group eventually stopped to rest at Mountain Meadows. While the group was camped in the meadow, local militia leaders planned an attack. They planned to make it look like Native Americans had attacked the group. The militia leaders armed some local Paiute Indians and persuaded them to join a larger group of militiamen (disguised as Native Americans) in the attack.
Following the initial assault, the settlers fought back, and a five-day standoff ensued. Over time, fear spread through the militia leaders, and they believed the settlers saw white men among the attackers. After a couple of days, the settlers allowed a small party of militiamen to enter their camp. John Lee entered the wagon circle with a white flag, convincing the emigrants to surrender peacefully.
Required to put down their guns, the women and children were escorted out first, then the men and boys. An armed militiaman escorted each man and boy. Unbeknown to them, the settlers were being walked right into an ambush. Intending to leave no witnesses of complicity by Mormons in the attacks and prevent future reprisals, the militia killed all men, women, and older children. Over 120 individuals in all. Seventeen children, all younger than seven, were spared.
The victims were hastily buried in shallow graves. Their belongings were quickly gathered and auctioned off. The children were placed with local families. It would be many years, mostly because of the Civil War, before the murders were fully investigated. Out of nine indictments, only one man, John Lee, was tried in a court of law. Lee was tried in the Utah Territory, where he was found guilty and executed for his involvement in the massacre.
The obvious question remains: Why would Mormons kill innocent emigrants? Since the founding of their church in 1830, the Mormons had been heavily persecuted and attacked. They had been chased from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and then finally to Utah. While in Missouri, eighteen Mormons were massacred. The governor of Missouri went as far as to order all Mormons out of the state or face being killed. Joseph Smith, the founder of the church, was assassinated. In 1857 the federal government sent 1,500 United States troops to Utah to deal with what it thought was a rogue sect. Tensions were high in Utah in 1857. It is most likely that the Mormons who participated in the massacre acted out of an abundance of fear and deep paranoia.
In an interesting aside, the massacre occurred on September 11th. The 2007 movie September Dawn seems to draw parallels between the two events, attributing them both to religious fanaticism.
** The Thugs killed their victims after taking away their valuables.
The Thuggee cult, or simply “Thugs,” was a religious sect, secret society, and an organized gang of professional assassins that traveled in groups across India for hundreds of years until the mid 19th century. It sounds like there has to be an action movie in there somewhere. There were several. Most notably: Gunga Din (1939) with Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Victor McLaglen; Terence Fisher’s Stranglers of Bombay (1960); Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) with Harrison Ford and Kate Capshaw; and The Deceivers (1988) with Pierce Brosnan.
The Thuggee would befriend travelers and gain their confidence. This enabled them to get close enough to loop a handkerchief or rope around their necks and strangle them. The Thugs would next remove any valuables from their victims and bury the bodies. The murderers broke all of the joints in the limbs of their victims in order to speed up the decomposition process and prevent the swelling of graves that would attract scavenging jackals and other wild animals. The killings were quite ritualistic and were performed in honor of the goddess Kali.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the Thuggee cult was responsible for approximately 2,000,000 deaths from 1350-1830. This is even more amazing when you consider that the Thugs had a peculiar code of ethics whose rules forbade the killing of fakirs, musicians, dancers, sweepers, oil vendors, carpenters, blacksmiths, maimed or leprous persons, Ganges water-carriers, women, and skeptics. OK, I made that last one up. Despite the restriction against the murder of females, however, the presence of wives traveling with their husbands often necessitated the strangling of a woman to protect the secrecy of the society.
Why did the Thuggee strangle their victims? One of the strictest rules of Thugs was a prohibition against the spilling of blood. According to Thuggee beliefs, the goddess Kali taught the fathers of thuggery to strangle with a noose and to kill without permitting the flow of blood. Most of the killing done by the Thuggee was made in homage to Kali. All victims were sacrificed to her. A Thug would have been greatly incensed if they were accused of killing only for financial gain. To be fair to Kali worshipers of a bygone age, not all of her followers belonged to the Thuggee.
It is no exaggeration to say that several volumes could be written about atrocities committed in the name of religion. The subject is way beyond the scope of what I can write here. Religion isn’t the only catalyst of war, but it is a main cause. One need look only to the activities of 9/11 to see that.
Questioning the moral justification of holy war leads, moreover, to troubling questions about the legitimacy of some basic theological claims and the authority of foundational religious scripture. Such a theological treatise is well beyond the scope of my ability. Perhaps there is a genetic component to all of the hate and killing. After all, our species, like that of our chimpanzee cousins, may share the same inborn tendency to hunt down and kills others for no reason other than they aren’t “one of us”.