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10 Religious Verses Used To Justify Terrible Atrocities

Alan Boyle

People passionately disagree on exactly what impact religion has on the horrors we inflict on one another. What is certain, however, is that many people use the teachings of their particular books to justify and spread their inhumanity. Each of the following verses has served as ammunition for someone to make the world a much more awful place.

10The Quran And Terrorism

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“So let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter. And he who fights in the cause of Allah and is killed or achieves victory—We will bestow upon him a great reward.”

A study by the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews found that the above verse from the Quran is the most cited of any in English-language Islamic terrorist propaganda. In a selection of 30 English texts produced to promote violent jihad, the phrase appeared in nine of them.

It’s easy to see the appeal to the verse—it very explicitly sells the idea of a reward for those that die fighting “in the cause of Allah.” The phrase even appeared in Al-Qaeda’s response to the death of Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden himself used a related verse when he declared a fatwa against the US in 1996. That verse, Muhammad 47:4–6. similarly tells that those “who are killed in the cause of Allah” will enter paradise.

However, the author of the paper notes that such verses are typically cherry-picked and offered out of context. This is particularly effective as a recruiting tool on those unfamiliar with Arabic and the Quran in their original forms.

A different analysis of Islamist writings by Arizona State University found that the most used verse, quoted in 12 percent of texts, didn’t relate to violence at all. It reads: “And Allah is predominant over His affair, but most of the people do not know,” (Yusuf 12:21).

The quote is part of the story of the prophet Joseph. It’s almost identical to the equivalent story in the Hebrew Bible—Joseph has a bunch of jealous brothers who pretend he is dead but who actually sell him into slavery. At the point where this phrase appears, Joseph has just arrived in Egypt, and the “most of the people” in question are the Egyptians who bought him. Extremist texts take the verse out of context to reaffirm that Allah remains in control and has a plan, even when injustice occurs.

9The Bible And Slavery

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“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”

Slave owners and pro-slavery pastors used the above passage to justify the African slave trade up until the 19th century. Titus 2:9 was similarly popular, proclaiming, “Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them.”

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States during the American Civil War, said that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God . . . it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation.”

The Bible was used to justify not just slavery in general but the inferiority of “dark-skinned peoples” in particular. Many theologians interpreted the cursed Canaanites from Abrahamic mythology as having dark skin. Their progenitor is Ham, the son of Noah, and people misread the Hebrew word for Ham to mean “black” or “dark.” This particular Bible passage has been used throughout history to justify the oppression of whomever it was convenient to oppress.

Even today, the story of Ham is still quoted by those who believe in racial segregation. The pastor of Appleby Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, Texas wrote on his website in 2013 that “the proof of the presence of God among the Israelites was the absence of the black skinned folk of Canaan.” He said that God is a separator rather than a mixer, and interracial marriages are the work of the devil.

8Hindu Texts And Child Marriage

“For fear of commencement of puberty let the father give his daughter in marriage while she is still going about naked. For if she remains at home after the marriageable age sin falls upon the father.”

Child marriage is a big problem. There are 24 million child brides in India alone. In Nepal, 63 percent of girls marry before age 18, and in some regions, the percentage is even higher. The practice, while technically illegal, is so socially accepted that hardly anyone complains.

As one mother put it, on the day her 12-year-old daughter married a man of 20, “Doesn’t a daughter’s marriage weigh you down? How would we get her married later?” She then complained, “I still have the burden of marrying one more daughter.” Yet 12 is hardly young—girls are sometimes married off at half that age.

If the statistics are shocking, they’re nothing compared to the human reality. Some girls are tortured or killed by their new in-laws in disputes over dowries. Inevitably, the children are raped by their husbands, and many die because their bodies simply aren’t ready to handle pregnancy. And the brides who survive are hardly happy. One teenage girl who was married at age nine said, “I hope other children will not suffer like me.”

The practice is enshrined in the teachings of Hinduism, and both Nepal and India are predominantly Hindu. The passage above comes from the Yoga Vasisth, a Hindu spiritual text. Another text, the Baudhayana, says, “The girl should be given while she is still immature; even from an unworthy man she should not be withheld if she has attained womanhood.”

A text called the Angirasmriti says there is “no atonement” for any man who sleeps with a girl who had her first period before marriage. Other texts say that the girl’s father and husband will both fall into hell if she is married after her first period, and their forefathers will be reincarnated as insects.

7The Bible And Genocide

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“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ “

The Old Testament serves as a laundry list of the worst crimes humanity can commit, up to and including genocide. These atrocities are often justified, or even commanded, by God. It’s no surprise, then, that people invoke the book to rationalize the widespread murder of others.

Europeans quoted the above verse to excuse the murder of Native Americans. Catholics and Protestants have each quoted it in their violence against the other. Preachers quoted it to support the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Some Christians are still quoting it today to teach that the murder of men, women, and children is the righteous reaction to disbelief in God. And they’re teaching it in US schools.

The Good News Club is a project of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, which provides after-school Bible study classes to around 100,000 American schoolchildren each year. The teachers’ instruction manual for the lesson on the verse says teachers should make it clear that genocide was justified because “the Amalekites refused to believe in God, and God had promised punishment.” Teachers should also make clear that King Saul was wrong to stop short when “he kept the king and some of the animals alive.”

6The Quran And Subjugation Of Women

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“Men are in charge of women by what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in absence what Allah would have them guard. But those from whom you fear arrogance—advise them; forsake them in bed; and, strike them. But if they obey you, seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.”

Most countries that base their laws on the teachings of Islam don’t have a reputation as beacons of women’s rights. In Saudi Arabia, women are legally bound to be subjugated to men and can’t even undergo some medical procedures without permission from a male guardian. That’s true even if the procedure is an emergency and there is simply no male guardian around.

The quote above is from Surat An-Nisa , which means “The Women.” Many Muslim men read the verse very literally. If your wife fails to be “devoutly obedient,” you should tell her off. If she continues to argue, refuse to sleep with her. Finally, you can beat her into submission.

One imam defends teaching the verse literally by saying husbands “should beat them lightly.” This somewhat misses the point of the criticism, but it’s downright enlightened compared to other interpretations. In May 2012, a man in Saudi Arabia beat his wife so badly that she was hospitalized; his sentence was to memorize parts of the Quran and quotes from Muhammad. In 2009, a Saudi judge said it was justifiable for a man to hit his wife if she spent too much money on clothing.

New laws against domestic violence implemented in 2013 have been welcomed, but they don’t change that women still live under the guardianship of their husbands.

5Scientology And Anti-Psychiatry

“Crimes of extortion, mayhem, and murder are done daily by these men in the name of ‘practice’ and ‘treatment.’ There is not one institutional psychiatrist alive who, by ordinary criminal law, could not be arraigned and convicted of extortion, mayhem, and murder. Our files are full of evidence on them.”

Scientology has no specific holy book, but it is built on the writings of founder L. Ron Hubbard. The above quote is taken from a treatise he published in 1969. The church denies mental illness even exists, and its followers have called psychiatry a form of terrorism.

The harm caused by this stance is real and deadly. We’ve previously covered several incidents of death due to Scientologists’ failure to treat serious mental. But these aren’t unusual or rare incidents.

Linda Walicki was a 25-year-old woman with schizophrenia. In 2007, she stabbed her father and teenage sister to death and seriously wounded her mother. Linda’s parents were Scientologists, and they had taken their daughter off her medication due to the church’s stance on psychiatry. One doctor said that the correct medication could have changed the course of Linda’s life. This story bears an eerie similarity to the death of Elli Perkins, which we covered earlier. Perkins was stabbed 77 times by her son when the church swapped his prescribed medication for vitamin pills.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect is that the church is using its power, especially its roster of Hollywood celebrities, to push its anti-medicine agenda into law. Scientology members were behind proposed legislation in Florida that would have made it more difficult for children to receive psychiatric care. Actress and Scientologist Kirstie Alley testified on behalf of the church to the Florida legislature. The bill was ultimately vetoed by governor Jeb Bush.

4The Bible And Child Abuse

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“Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. “

Many people are familiar with the summarized version of the above quote. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is commonly cited in support of corporal punishment, though it is actually from a 17th-century poem and is talking about flagellation for much more adult purposes. Nevertheless, the tough love sentiment from the original verse has been used as an excuse by some to torture their children to death.

How To Train Up A Child, a book sold mainly to evangelical Christians, encourages parents to use branches, rulers, and plumbing supplies to hit their children. “Training” should start practically from birth—a 20-centimeter (8 in) willow branch is described as “sufficient” to beat a baby who is under a year old. Parents must totally break their children’s will to make them compliant. The authors and their defenders are clear that they believe the book’s instructions are godly, invoking the “spare the rod” mantra.

Several children have died as a result of parents following the instructions laid out in the book. Teenager Hana Williams died of hypothermia after she was locked outside all night as a punishment. Sean Paddock was four when he was suffocated by being wrapped in blankets for not staying in bed. Seven-year-old Lydia Schlatz was spanked until she died of severe tissue damage, while her 11-year-old sister was hospitalized. A petition asking Amazon to stop selling the book has collected over 100,000 signatures.

3Hinduism And Abortion

“Enter thou after the beams, the smokes, O evil; go unto the mists or also the fogs; disappear along those foams of the rivers: wipe off difficulties, O Pushan, on the embryo-slayer.”

The Hindu position on abortion is made very clear in a number of their texts. The verse above rallying against the “embryo slayer” comes from the Atharva Veda. Other texts compare abortion to the murder of a priest or say that it’s a worse sin than murdering one’s parents. Still other texts list abortion among the crimes such as murder and incest that will cost a woman her caste status.

In many countries, religious opposition to abortion bleeds into law, but in India, abortion is completely legal. In spite of that, the stigma behind the procedure means that very few women have access to safe abortion. As a result, a woman dies every two hours in India due to unsafe abortion. In fact, it’s estimated that two-thirds of India’s seven million annual abortions are done outside of authorized medical facilities.

While the death figures make headlines, there are other complications. Women can be injured, infected, and rendered infertile by botched procedures. Many of those who end up seeking out illegal means are young girls who are too scared to tell their parents about their situation. Even a doctor who trains other medical professionals in the procedure has said, “It’s such a social taboo that even in our families we don’t tell them that we are working to help women have safe abortions.”

2Christian Science And Medical Neglect

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“Then comes the question, how do drugs, hygiene, and animal magnetism heal? It may be affirmed that they do not heal, but only relieve suffering temporarily, exchanging one disease for another. We classify disease as error, which nothing but Truth or Mind can heal, and this Mind must be divine, not human. Mind transcends all other power, and will ultimately supersede all other means in healing.”

Alongside the Bible, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy is the main text of Christian Science. The church, which is based in Boston, Massachusetts, takes the words very literally. They shun any and all medical care. While it is certainly the right of any adult to refuse treatment they don’t want, the church also forbids medicine for children.

The consequences of this are as predictable as they are tragic. Toddler Robyn Twitchell died of an obstructed bowel movement when his parents refused to take him to a doctor and instead turned to prayer. He is not the only child to die painfully—far from it.

Christian Science has also fought for religious exemption from laws designed to protect children from medical neglect. This hasn’t just protected their own members but also parents of other faiths who watch their children die needlessly. When Oregon removed its exemptions, the death rates among children dropped. In Idaho, the freedom to allow your children to die remains, and the deaths continue.

1The Bible And Homosexuality

“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

Many Christian pastors take the above line from Leviticus very literally. In 2012, a Kansas pastor claimed homosexuals should be put to death by the government. A pastor from Arizona supported the murder of gay people in 2013. Radio host Kevin Swanson suggested Christians should only turn up to gay weddings with a sign proclaiming the verse in full.

The devastating impact of homophobia can’t be overstated. Thousands of people are attacked in the US for their sexual orientation. In the UK, one in six gay and bisexual people have suffered to hate crimes in the last three years. That’s over 200,000 people annually. In Europe, a quarter of gay people have been subject to violence or threats in the last five years. Three-quarters of gay men are too scared to hold hands with their partner in public.

Hatred based on religion is certainly only part of the violence. However, one instance of harm that arises directly from the Bible is Christian conversion therapy. The belief that homosexuality is something that can be altered has caused Christians to react with anger to moves by UK authorities to ban the treatments. Conversion simply doesn’t work, and it can cause serious mental harm.

Alan occasionally pops into the comments section, but he’ll be giving this one a pass. You can pester him on Twitter instead.