The Beast in the Shadows Behind Religion

By James A. Haught | 4 March 2019

(Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay)

This is the opening segment of a nine-part series on religious horrors, cruelties, atrocities and tragedies of all types.

Millions claim that religion causes believers to be kind and brotherly. But an ugly flipside exists, a beast lurking in shadows behind supernatural faith. Few people grasp the wide variety of evils once done, or still done, for religion.

Human sacrifice. Jihad holy wars. Torturing and burning women as “witches.” Massacring religious minorities such as Jews, Anabaptists and Baha’is. Castrating small boys to keep their voices golden for castrati cathedral singing. Suicide bombing to murder “infidels” of rival faiths or no faith. Killing “blasphemers” who question supernatural dogmas. Torturing “heretics” to make them admit deviant beliefs, then burning them at the stake. Civil wars between opposing religio-ethnic groups. Cult tragedies. Stoning women to death for sullying male “honor.” Sexual molesting of children by trusted priests. Genitally mutilating girls to deaden their sexual feelings and keep them “pure” for husbands. Etc., etc.

Back in the 1980s, I researched this field and gave a talk to our local Unitarian discussion circle. Then, on a whim, I sent my paper to Penthouse. By coincidence, it reached the sex magazine a couple of days after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death warrant for novelist Salman Rushdie, an act that stunned much of Western civilization. Iran’s theocracy offered $1 million bounty to any devout Muslim who would murder the “blaspheming” author.

To my amazement, Penthouse paid $4,000 for my talk. Next, I sent it, with a copy of the Penthouse check, to Prometheus Books, which gave me a contract for my first book, Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness. It became a successful seller. Evidently it’s the only book ever written on the whole spectrum of religious atrocities. After the historic 9/11 suicide attack on America, the book was expanded and reissued as a paperback.

Ever since, I’ve been fascinated by the bizarre phenomena of sacred savagery, the human destruction done for supposed invisible gods that merely are imaginary, and don’t exist.

In coming weeks, I want to outline the entire field. I’ll provide samples like these:

Did you know that a Catholic-Protestant cannon battle occurred in Philadelphia in 1844? A Catholic bishop complained about Protestant worship in public schools, so Protestant mobs stormed Catholic neighborhoods, burning homes and churches. Martial law was declared. Federal troops with cannons arrived to keep peace. Protestants took cannons from sailing ships at the wharf and loaded them with bolts and nails. Ensuing barrages killed two dozen.

Did you know that one of history’s worst wars, the Taiping Rebellion, erupted in the 1850s because a Chinese man read Christian pamphlets and had a vision that he was a second divine son after Jesus? In the vision, God told him to “destroy demons,” so he roused a million follower-warriors to seize territory from the emperor. Taipings conquered a huge part of China before they were defeated by defense armies – including one led by British adventurer “Chinese” Gordon. The death toll is estimated around 20 million. (Poor Gordon faced religious horror twice. Later, he led defense forces against a Muslim holy war in the Nile valley, and was killed when the fanatics overran Khartoum.)

Did you know that Mexico’s Cristero War in the 1920s killed 90,000? It happened because the government tried to halt church control over society. Bishops retaliated by stopping worship services – which sent ardent Catholics, and a few priests, into armed rebellion. Slaughter was horrendous. U.S. diplomats finally negotiated a cease-fire. In 2000, the Vatican conferred sainthood on 23 Cristero figures, and later beatified 13 more.

Currently, Muslim suicide bombers kill themselves and surrounding “infidels” at a rate of about one massacre per day. Arguably, it’s the worst cause of world bloodshed since the Cold War ended.

On and on it goes. The record of holy cruelties and atrocities is too vast to count. Let’s start with this one:


Ancient Greeks sacrificed thousands of animals – and occasional people – to a fanciful array of invisible gods who supposedly lived atop Mount Olympus. Legend says that King Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to induce the goddess Artemis to provide wind so his fleet could sail to the Trojan War.

In the 1500s, Aztec priests sacrificed an estimated 20,000 victims per year to many gods, including an invisible feathered serpent and other fantastical deities.

In the 1800s, India’s Thugs strangled about 20,000 victims yearly for the many-armed goddess Kali – before British rulers found 3,689 stranglers and hanged many of them. Supposedly, Thugs believed that Brahma the creator was making lives faster than Shiva the destroyer could end them, so they killed on behalf of Shiva’s consort Kali.

Pre-Inca priests of Peru burned as many as 200 children in great ceremonies to appease bizarre gods. Druids of Gaul allegedly put victims into man-shaped wicker constructions and burned them. In Borneo, builders of pile houses drove the first pile though a maiden’s body to placate the earth goddess. In Tibet, Bon shamans performed ritual killing. In Africa, Ashanti priests sacrificed about 100 yearly to bring a good yam harvest. In 1838 a Pawnee Indian girl was cut into pieces to fertilize newly sown crops.

Live Science counted 25 ancient cultures that practiced human sacrifice to appease gods. Pliny the Elder wrote that the Roman Senate officially abolished the practice in 97 BCE.

I recall a New Yorker cartoon of festooned priests hurling a baby into flames to placate the holies. At one side, two skeptics confided something like: “I no longer believe in it, either, but I think it’s a valuable part of our heritage that should be preserved.”

(Next: The Crusades.)

Reprinted with permission from the author.

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

Animated map shows how religion spread around the world

Animated map shows how Christianity spread around the world

Christopher Hitchens explains why religion poisons everything

Ricky Gervais And Stephen Go Head-To-Head On Religion

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


  1. Millions know that religion causes believers to be nasty and hateful….!

    (stems from their lies and they know that they have to hurt all criticisms of their lies….)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here