“Religious wars,” the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is reputed to have said, “are basically people killing each other over who has the better imaginary friend.”
That’s a statement that’s been attributed to Napoleon by a number of religious skeptics, mostly on the Internet.
The quotation is almost certainly fraudulent. It hasn’t been located, so far as I can tell, in any genuine historical source. Moreover, it doesn’t even sound authentic. Although he was a well-known religious skeptic and a fairly outspoken critic of Christianity, Napoleon never seems to have referred to God (or to anybody else, for that matter) as an “imaginary friend.” Such coolly ironic language savors much more of the 21st century than of the early 19th.
Abraham Lincoln correctly identified the problem nearly a century and a half ago: “The trouble with quotes on the Internet,” he’s reported to have said, “is that you never know if they’re genuine.”
What really puzzles me, though, is why any critic of religious belief would want to claim Napoleon as an ally and support in the first place.
It was Napoleon, after all, who, for reasons of personal ambition rather than idealism — no “imaginary friends” for him! — kept Europe churning with violence from 1803 until his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Estimates of total military and civilian deaths in the Napoleonic Wars range from a low of about 3.25 million to a high of 6.5 or even 7 million, at a time when the entire population of Europe was probably around 150 million. In other words, at least 2 percent of Europe’s population died as a result of Napoleon’s military adventures, and perhaps almost as many as 5 percent.
The impact on France itself was catastrophic. By the end of the wars, only 8.5 French males remained for every 10 French females, and the country’s population hadn’t recovered even a century later. The Holy Roman Empire collapsed, the global empire of Spain began to fall apart, and France’s victorious archenemy, the British Empire, emerged as the world’s foremost power, remaining so for at least the next hundred years.
Atheists who wrap themselves in Napoleon Bonaparte’s battle flag aren’t choosing wisely.
But the overall argument that religion is the principal source of wars, conflict and oppression simply doesn’t hold up. Many other factors contribute. For instance, it’s recently been argued that a bizarre misapplication not of religion but of science helped to fuel the horrors of the First World War (see youtube.com/watch?v=9n900e80R30).
Between 1933 and 1945, Adolf Hitler’s “National Socialism” caused at least 30 million deaths. Hitler was a social Darwinist who dismissed humanity as “a ridiculous cosmic bacterium.” “I am freeing man from the dirty and degrading self-mortification of a false vision called ‘conscience and morality,’” he explained. “The Ten Commandments have lost their validity. ‘Conscience’ is a Jewish invention, a blemish like circumcision.”
From 1929 to 1953, the atheistic Soviet dictatorship of Joseph Stalin murdered approximately 40 million people. But he’s eclipsed by China’s communist regime under Mao Zedong, under which, between 1949 and 1976, at least 60 million people, and perhaps as many as 80 million people, died. In terms of percentages, though, the communist Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, inspired by Stalinism and Maoism, probably win the prize: From 1975 to 1979, they murdered between 1.5 and 3 million of their own people (out of a total Cambodian population of 8 million).
Obviously, atheism as such doesn’t impel people to launch wars and commit mass murders. But, also very plainly, religion hasn’t been the major, let alone the sole, impetus behind the genocides of the past century.
It takes religion, some say, to persuade people to strap on bomb vests and kill innocent bystanders. But the meticulous research of the University of Chicago’s Robert Pape demonstrates beyond reasonable dispute that religion is, at most, only one of the factors behind suicide bombings, and that it’s sometimes not a factor at all. And Graham Fuller persuasively argues that the politics of the Middle East would probably look much the same today even if Islam didn’t exist (see this previous column "Is Islam a primary cause of international violence?").
Bad people will always do bad things, others claim, but it takes religion to persuade good people to do evil things. Once again, though, this is demonstrably untrue. Idealistic Marxists and even patriotic Nazis have done horrific acts on behalf of their godless causes; hundreds of suicide bombers have been complete secularists.
Religion doesn’t kill people. People kill people.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.