I recently had the chance to review Matthew White’s The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities (New York & London: W.W. Norton, 2012). Including an introduction by Harvard’s Steven Pinker, it offers an impressive 669-page analysis of, according to the author, the “one hundred events with the largest man-made death tolls, regardless of who was involved or why they did it.” (p. XIV)
I found White’s book both engaging and interesting because I am considering the historic impact of religion on warfare for an essay I am currently working on. As a result, I am in the process of surveying multiple works like this in an attempt to systematically count how many past wars have been inspired primarily by religious motivations, which will be one component of the essay. Indeed, religion has often been criticized as a primary source of conflict, with among the most notable recent examples coming from the neuroscientist Sam Harris, a prominent critic of the historic impact of religion on ancient and modern societies. Indeed, in his 2004 book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York & London: W.W. Norton, 2004), Harris referred to religious faith as “the most prolific source of violence in our history.” (p. 27) Harris is certainly not alone in making such claims, as they have been repeated by many others, both historically and today.
Regardless of the prevalence of criticisms of religion and its role in historical human violence, White’s study of the one hundred worst atrocities in history would seem to provide a counter to such claims by Harris and others. This is because of the one hundred events White lists in his detailed study, he only lists eleven of them under the category of “Religious Conflict” (p. 544) and two more under the category of “Human Sacrifice,” (p. 548) for thirteen atrocities equaling only 13% of the total. I have included the “Human Sacrifice” category in this case with religious conflicts because, as White notes, “ritualized killing was performed in hopes of earning the favor of supernatural forces.”
His lists include the following: Continue reading