The study of world religions yields a bloody history. Holy wars have been fought between different factions of believers, martyrs have willingly given up their lives for their religious beliefs, people have been sacrificed to appease angry gods and victims have been tortured and killed in the name of religion.
This history says more about the violent and hurtful aspects of human nature than it does about the existence of God. The fact is that certain people are always willing to sacrifice themselves for something they believe in, regardless of whether those beliefs are religious in nature or not. Dying in the name of a religion is tragic and lamentable, but it does not prove that such actions are justified by the will of an existing deity.
People Will Die for What They Believe In
People have frequently been willing to risk their lives for political, religious or cultural reasons through actions like hunger strikes, self-immolation, violent protests and more. But logically, why would anyone choose to die or welcome death for reasons such as these? Many of these worldviews rely on belief systems that promote self-sacrifice as a method transcending death or a way to find greater purpose. These worldviews are sometimes religious, like the idea of an afterlife that renders mortal suffering irrelevant, or they may be secular, like the belief that one’s actions can leave behind an immortal legacy by participating in a social cause. One theory offers an explanation for this common practice of assigning a greater meaning or notion of non-permanence to death: terror management theory (1). Essentially, the theory states that because humans are uniquely aware of their mortality, they create coping mechanisms to overcome the anxiety associated with it. Otherwise, people could live in constant, paralyzing fear of death. Therefore, humans create cultural worldviews that allow them to feel transcendent or believe that they are part of something immortal. The key in this instance of a person welcoming death for a particular cause is that the person feels as though he is part of something greater than himself and that his death will result in an eternity of immortal afterlife.
This might explain suicide cults, where otherwise rational people are willing to commit mass suicide. In 1997, 39 people in the Heaven’s Gate community died believing that doing so would enable them to board a UFO that would save them from an imminent apocalypse (2). In the 1970s, Jim Jones pronounced himself a messiah and led more than 900 people to kill themselves (3). That so many people died through participation in these cults clearly does not mean that the claims of their founders were true. It could simply mean that these people were manipulated into feeling that they were part of something greater than themselves and that their deaths could be especially meaningful in the context of that belief system.
The Reality of Holy Wars
The tendency of humans to be attracted to martyrdom can be easily exploited, and this is clearly a factor in many of the religious conflicts throughout history. War is a complex issue, and wars are rarely ever fought for just one reason. Even so-called holy wars can have non-religious motivations, like revenge, politics or obtaining resources from neighboring communities. Yet religion plays a vital role in the recruitment and motivation process (4). It is far easier to recruit troops willing to die for a cause if that cause seems particularly transcendent. People might be unwilling to risk their lives for commercial success, but they might be more willing if they believe they are promoting an ideology or acting on a deity’s will. It is also likely easier to convince someone to die for a cause if they believe that their earthly death is only the beginning of a blissful and eternal afterlife. After all, dying isn’t such a big deal if you’re not really dying.
In a conflict between two religions, at least one side would necessarily have to be wrong; they could not both be right, as each individual religious belief system is unique. Since fatalities exist on all sides of every conflict – there is no indication that a deity is overseeing these battles or choosing sides. People of many different religions have died for their religious beliefs. Martyrs come from Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other religious backgrounds, and all of them believe that theirs is the right cause. They can’t all be right. At least some martyrs must have died in vain. Mollified by a belief in an afterlife or some sort of cosmic reward, people are willing to waste or sacrifice their lives. With no evidence for an afterlife, we should recognize the true value of our current lives as our one and only shot at happiness. Wasting it on unfounded claims and ancient myths is an absolute tragedy.
- Routledge, Clay. "Understanding Self-Sacrifice: Suicide as Self-Transcendence." Psychology Today. January 19, 2011. Accessed September 21, 2014.
- Zennie, Michael. "New Age Followers Still Waiting for Aliens to Beam Them up 15 Years after Heaven's Gate Cult Suicides Left 39 People Dead." Mail Online. March 26, 2012. Accessed September 21, 2014.
- Hall, John R. "The Apocalypse at Jonestown (with Afterword)." In gods we trust (1981): 269.
- "Suicide Terrorist Database - Flinders University- Australia." Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium.