a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

agriculture, religion and genocide

with 3 comments

I saw a debate some months ago, staged for our ABC, between believers and non-believers, entitled ‘is atheism true’ or ‘are atheists real’ or ‘are atheists human’ or some such crap [sorry it’s new year’s eve and I’m getting pleasantly pissed here within the bosom of the family], in which the religious side, or one of their team, tried on the hoary old argument about Stalin and Hitler being arrant atheists who would never have embarked on their path of destruction had they been practising Christians. The Believer team [Christians all of course] seemed to have decided to go ‘for the throat’, trying to link atheism to mass-slaughter, as well as to shallow materialism, and to passing fashion. All to no avail, as the shallow, murderous and trendy ABC crowd voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Unbelievers, as was pretty well inevitable. It all tended to highlight the questionable value of such exercises to yours truly.

Even so, I was seriously annoyed that the Christians got away with this ‘atheists tend to kill people more’ crapola. The debate was set up so as not to actually be a debate [don’t you just hate that?], but a set of three set-piece speeches from each side, followed by voting.

I mention all this because I’ve recently been reading a book that describes much in the way of genocide – slaughter, extermination, extirpation and the like – throughout history. It’s called Blood and soil, by the Australian historian Ben Kiernan. The book begins with the depradations of the Spartans, and goes on to describe the senseless destruction of Carthage and all its inhabitants by the Romans, after a relentless propaganda campaign by the thuggish Cato the Censor, but mostly it treats of more recent genocidal attitudes and events, and in particular with the agricultural ideology, adapted from John Locke among others, that if you don’t work and enrich the soil, then you cannot be said to possess it, and so your removal in favour of those superior beings who can use the land more effectively is entirely justified, even if it means your destruction as a race or culture. This was the ideology that decimated the Aborigines in the days of white colonisation, and it was equally devastating to the indigenous inhabitants of that other ‘new world’, the Americas, with the arrival of Europeans.

Kiernan’s focus on agricultural ideology means that religion as a primary cause of genocide is only indirectly touched upon, and my own view is that religion is almost impossible to isolate from a host of other contributing factors, but it’s certainly there. The prominent nineteenth century journalist Horace Greeley, one of the most liberal writers of his time, had this to say of the Indians of the Great Plains:

These people must die out, there is no help for them. God has given this earth to those who will subdue and cultivate it, and it is vain to struggle against his righteous decree.

This was the enlightened liberal view. The majority white view was much more black.

Note though how the ideology of agriculture is attached to a religious ‘promised land’ belief system. This type of thinking was widespread among whites of the time.

Of course, in the early days of European contact, the days of the Spanish conquistadores, the aim wasn’t so much colonisation as plunder and enslavement. Even so, religious comparisons and promised land terminology were prominent. Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda [1490-1573], historian and cheerleader for the conquistadores, wrote of the Indians as ‘natural slaves’, and compared the Spaniards to the heroic Romans who ‘justly subjugated the other nations of the world’. The ignorant Indians were like ‘the Amorites and Perizzites and other inhabitants of the Promised Land [who] were exterminated by the Children of Israel,’ though with the charming inconsistency of religious fanaticism, Sepúlveda favoured the extermination of the Jews.

The conquistadores, Catholic to a man, destroyed whole civilizations and slaughtered and worked to death an incalculable number of ‘savages’ and ‘inferiors’ in the Americas. On the island of Hispaniola alone [now divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic], the local population, estimated at anywhere between a few hundred thousand and two million, were all but wiped out. Bartolomé de Las Casas [1484-1566], a heroic critic of the genocidal behaviour of the Spanish, estimated that more than 12 million men, women and children had been exterminated in the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America by 1542, fifty years after the arrival of Columbus. No doubt it’s an unreliable estimate, but considering that they didn’t have at their disposal the genocidal technologies developed in the twentieth century, it was an extraordinary slaughter by any measure, and arguably more lasting in its impact on the victimised cultures than even the Nazi holocaust.

Again, this wasn’t about religion, though religion was invoked frequently enough. It was more about greed and racial ideology, an ideology that has only recently been laid to rest [though it is persistent, even rampant, in some enclaves]. Many factors have led to its demise as a mainstream motivating force, and religion is certainly not one of them. Education, globalisation, telecommunications and population genetics are terms that can be separately analysed to show how they have led to a greater understanding of universal human qualities and conditions, eroding the differences between us and emphasising our social needs and our interdependence. Steven Pinker, in The better angels of our nature and in talks such as this one , gives a number of possible explanations for the general decline in violence in the west, including the development of the modern state, the general diminution of suffering and the growing sense of comfort and ease, the perceived advantage of non-zero-sum ‘games’, such as trade relations and defence treaties, and the expanding circle of sympathies brought about by developments in these other areas. Genocide may not yet be a thing of the past, but the old ideologies, such as those that equated cultivation of the soil with cultivation of the mind, or those that took the biblical concept of the promised land seriously, or those that treated purity of blood and race as something real and positive, these ideologies have been rendered untenable by modern understandings of how the world really is, and how we have managed and still manage to survive in all our diversity, and with all our essentially common goals.


Written by stewart henderson

January 2, 2012 at 11:32 am

Posted in crime, politics, religion

3 Responses

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  1. I agree about those set-speech ‘debates’. They do occasionally throw out some real gems of speeches, like this though.


    January 2, 2012 at 11:47 am

  2. Yes, that’s a fine speech. I’ve always argued that the Catholic Church isn’t a Christian organisation, if by Christian is meant ‘following the teachings of Jesus as spelled out in the gospels’ – but then, what organisation is? It’s surely true though that the Jesus constructed in the gospels wouldn’t have had a single positive thing to say about the Catholic Church leadership. Bunch of grotesques.


    January 3, 2012 at 1:13 pm

  3. this is a fascinating article, there is no doubt in my mind that their religion gave these societies the conviction that what they were doing was ok by god. Faugh!


    January 9, 2012 at 8:15 am

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