Holy Horrors: A Grim Pattern

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Excerpt from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, by James A. Haught (Prometheus Books, 2002). Reprinted with permission from the author.


— In 1766 at Abbeville, France, a teen-age boy was accused of singing irreligious songs, mocking the Virgin Mary, marring a crucifix, and wearing his hat while a religious procession passed. Criticizing the church was punishable by death. The youth, Chevalier de La Barre, was sentenced to have his tongue cut out, his right hand cut off, and to be burned at the stake. The great writer Voltaire attempted to save him. The case was appealed to Parliament in Paris. The clergy demanded death, warning of the dire spread of doubt. Parliament showed mercy by allowing the youth to be decapitated instead of mutilated and burned alive. He was first tortured to extract a fuller confession, then executed on July 1, 1766. His corpse was burned, along with a copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary.

— In 1980 at Moradabad, India, a pig caused hundreds of people to kill each other. The animal walked through a Muslim holy ground. Muslims, who think pigs are an embodiment of Satan, accused Hindus of driving the pig into the sacred spot. Members of both faiths went on a rampage, stabbing and clubbing. The pig riot spread to a dozen cities and left 200 dead.

— In the 1500s in Mexico, the Aztec theocracy sacrificed thousands of people to many gods. Aztecs believed that the sun would disappear without the daily “nourishment” of human hearts ripped from victims on stone altars. To appease the rain god, priests killed shrieking children so that their tears might induce rain. In a rite to the maize goddess, a virgin danced 24 hours, then was killed and skinned; her skin was then worn by a priest in further dancing.

— In the 1980s, Iran’s Shiite theocracy—“the government of God on earth”—decreed that Baha’i believers who wouldn’t convert to Islam must be killed. About 200 Baha’is, including women and teenagers, were hanged or shot by firing squads. Some 40,000 others fled Iran.

— In 1583 at Vienna, a 16-year-old girl suffered stomach cramps. A team of Jesuits exorcized her for eight weeks. The priests announced that they had expelled 12,652 demons from her, demons her grandmother had kept as flies in glass jars. The grandmother was tortured into confessing she was a witch who had engaged in sex with Satan. Then she was burned at the stake. This was one of perhaps 1 million such executions during three centuries of witch-hunts.

— In 1983 at Darkley, Northern Ireland, Catholic terrorists with automatic weapons burst into a Protestant church on a Sunday morning and opened fire, killing three worshipers and wounding seven. It was one of hundreds of Protestant-Catholic ambushes, which have cost nearly 3,000 lives during twenty years of religious conflict in Northern Ireland.

— In 1096, at the start of the First Crusade, thousands of Christians massed into legions to march to the Holy Land to destroy infidels. In Germany, some Crusaders followed a goose they believed to be enchanted by God. It led them into Jewish neighborhoods, where they hacked and burned the residents to death.


“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction,” philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote.

About 2,000 Waldensian Protestants in Calabria, southern Italy, were massacred in 1560 by Catholic troops under Grand Inquisitor Michele Ghisheri, who later became Pope Pius V and was sainted. (Library of Congress print collection)

Jonathan Swift, looking back over centuries of church carnage, made his famous comment: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”

Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on Virginia, wrote:

“Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined, and imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites.”

But Christianity has no monopoly on killing for God. Even before the birth of Christ, the Roman poet Lucretius warned: “How many evils have flowed from religion!”

A grim pattern is visible in history: When religion is the ruling force in a society, it produces horror. The stronger the supernatural beliefs, the worse the inhumanity. A culture dominated by intense faith invariably is cruel to people who don’t share the faith—and sometimes to many who do.

When religion was all-powerful in Europe, it produced the epic bloodbath of the Crusades, the torture chambers of the Inquisition, mass extermination of “heretics,” hundreds of massacres of Jews, and 300 years of witch-burnings. The split of the Reformation loosed a torrent of hate that took millions of lives in a dozen religious wars. The “Age of Faith” was an age of holy slaughter. When religion gradually ceased to control daily life, the concept of human rights and personal freedoms took root.

Today, much of the Third World hasn’t broken free from religious horror. In India, Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims repeatedly massacre each other. In Iran, Shiite fundamentalists subjugate women and kill “blasphemers.” In Lebanon, Sunnis, Shi’ites, Druzes, Maronites, and Alawites destroy their nation and themselves. In Sri Lanka, Buddhists and Hindus exchange atrocities. In the Sudan, Muslims, Christians, and animists slaughter each other. It’s fashionable among thinking people to say that religion isn’t the real cause of these modern nightmares, that it merely provides labels for warring factions. Not so. Faith keeps the groups apart, alienated in hostile camps. “Religious tribalism” sets the stage for bloodshed. Without it, young people might adapt to changing times, intermarry, and forget historic wounds. But religion enforces separation—and whatever separates people breeds conflict.

Paradoxically, in spite of its gory record, religion is almost universally deemed a power for good, a generator of compassion. Former President Ronald Reagan called it “the bedrock of moral order.” President George Bush said it gives people “the character they need to get through life.”

Obviously, religion has a Jekyll-and-Hyde nature-with Dr. Jekyll always in the spotlight, and Mr. Hyde little noticed. Modern Westerners, accustomed to free lives in secular society, have largely forgotten the monster lurking behind supernatural beliefs. Europeans and Americans were startled in 1989 when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini ordered religious assassination of a “blaspheming” British author who had hinted that Mohammed’s pronouncements weren’t dictated by Allah. The wave of surprise showed how little the West remembers about religion.

At the height of the international crisis caused by the murder decree, scholars held an “Anatomy of Hate” conference at Boston University. Participants included a daughter of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was killed by Islamic fundamentalists who felt he had betrayed the faith. Harvard theologian Krister Stendahl commented: “Religion is a very dangerous thing. These are enormous powers we are dealing with…. Why has there been this dark side?”

This book traces the dark and dangerous side of religion through the past nine centuries.

Excerpted from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness by James A. Haught. Copyright © James A. Haught, 2002. All rights reserved.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He is also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book is Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught has won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He is in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His website is haught.net.

Holy Horrors
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books (30 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 1573927783
ISBN-13: 978-1573927789

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  1. The history of Europe is one long bloodbath to install unquestioned obedience to a white male god.
    Who loves human sacrifice.

  2. I don't know how familiar you are with India but you are wrong in ascribing communal riots to religion per se. At best religion is a convenient label to identify the warring parties. For example PM Indira Gandhi's Sikh bodyguard assassinated her in 1984, causing the revenge massacres of Sikhs — unrelated to Sikh religious beliefs or ways of worship. The infamous Gujarat riots in 2002 were retaliation for the alleged burning of men, women and children in a rail carriage. If any of this is news to you, I will be astonished. So I can't explain your linking these riots to religion.


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