Modern historians estimate that the various inquisitions were responsible for roughly 6,000 deaths over 500 years. By comparison, between 11 and 17 million people died in the Nazi holocaust (including some six million Jews) in a little over a decade. Over some seventy years, the Soviet Union caused the deaths of between 28 and 126 million people, many of them the victims of anti-religious persecutions. Even including the approximately 40,000 people who died as a result of the Crusades, the deaths inflicted upon religious people when they were the out-group vastly outweigh the deaths caused by religious institutions when they were the in-group. Even if one attempts to massage this interpretation by flippantly altering definitions (as Christopher Hitchens seems to enjoy doing), the case against militant institutions is clearly stronger than that against religion as such.
Those who have publically committed to an anti-religious agenda naturally fall prey to myside bias and have no difficulty pointing a finger at the worst excesses of religion on the one hand while conveniently redefining the worst excesses of non-religion (particularly Marxist ideology) as being effectively religious in nature. If one defines religion as institutional evil, it is a foregone conclusion that one will find that religion is evil, but such intellectual chicanery cannot convince anyone who is not already committed to the same perspective. We see in this attitude the discrimination and persecution associated with cognitive dissonance just as clearly as in the equivalent religious bigotry that condemns people for holding different beliefs.
Two other key arguments against religion – that it is false, and that it bribes people with promises of immortality – are equally problematic. Metaphysical beliefs, such as those most religions express, are by definition untestable, and as such it makes as much sense to say they are false as it does to say they are true. How would you test the claim either way? As for the lure of eternal life, the non-religious can be just as besotted with promises of this kind, as indicated in the popularity of Ray Kurzveil and the tremendous faith many unreligious people have in scientific immortality. That making humanity physically immortal would instigate the worse population crisis imaginable is somehow never considered; it makes stories of an afterlife seem quite innocent in comparison.
Part 19 of 23 in the Pentenary series.