Christopher Hitchens, an avowed atheist, in his book, “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” wrote that organized religion is “the main source of hatred in the world,” because it is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children,” and accordingly it “ought to have a great deal on its conscience.” The Crusades (1095–1291) is an example of this dark side of religion.
The Crusades were a series of religious expeditionary wars blessed by the papacy to restore Christian access to holy places in and around Jerusalem. The origin of the word “crusade” is traced to the cross made of cloth and worn as a badge on the outer garment of crusaders. Since the Middle Ages the meaning of crusade had been extended to include all wars undertaken in pursuance of a vow, and directed against infidels, i.e. Muslims, pagans, heretics, or those under the ban of excommunication.
The First Crusade was called in 1095 by Pope Urban II who promised “eternal reward in heaven” to anyone who led a contingent of believers to the Holy Land to kill infidels and free the holy places from defilement by the Muslims. With crosses displayed on their tunics, banners and shields, Crusaders, accompanied by priests, attempted to evangelize along the way and in the process murdered over ten thousand Jews in France and Germany. Crusaders massacred so many men, women and children in and around Jerusalem that a Christian chronicler, Fulcher of Chartres, described an area as “ankle-deep in blood.” While burning Jews alive, some crusaders reputedly sang, “Christ, We Adore Thee.”
The Crusaders’ zeal to convert others to the faith began with good intentions, with which the road to hell is proverbially paved, but quickly degenerated into a bloodbath. Unfortunately, “one infidel is as good as another,” became the motto of some crusaders as Jews and Muslims were killed indiscriminately. Before death, infidels were generally given the choice — convert or die. If the wrong choice was made, as the sword was thrust into the infidel’s midsection, Crusaders spoke the words Deus vult (“God wills it”), motto of the First Crusade. Some Jews committed suicide or killed their children rather than submit to forced conversion. Killing Jews and Muslims reoccurred during subsequent crusades. In 1204 Crusaders sacked Constantinople, the center of Eastern Christendom, including the historic Cathedral of Saint Sophia, seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. The violence and destruction wreaked during the Crusades, ostensibly called for a noble purpose, was. presumably, an unintended consequence. Ironically, both Crusaders and Saracens killed each other with moral certitude that their deaths would earn them immediate entry into paradise, albeit different paradises. Saracens, moreover, died in expectation of an added bonus — access to as many as 72 virgins, the number depending on which mullah was their spiritual adviser.
In October, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI expressed “great shame” for violence committed in the name of Christianity, including centuries of evangelization by the sword. He apologized, in particular, for the use of force to spread the faith in the Old World, citing, Crusades in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries. He made no mention, however, of the Spanish Conquistadors, who in the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries did the same thing in the New World. Hernán Pizarro, for example, is the Spanish conquistador responsible for destruction of the Aztec Empire in Mexico and the Inca Empire in Peru and Ecuador in the sixteenth century.
Additionally, in 1208 Pope Innocent III launched the Albigensian Crusade against the heretical Christian Cathars of southern France. The crusade was waged over twenty years, punctuated regularly by massacres. Seven thousand Cathars were reputedly killed in Paris’ La Madeleine Church alone. “Forward, then, most valiant soldiers of Christ,” a papal legate urged crusaders at the outset of the crusade. “Go to meet the forerunners of the Antichrist and strike down the ministers of the Old Serpent.”
It should be noted that in January, 1937 German bishops called for a modern day crusade against Bolshevism. In a New Year pastoral letter read from pulpits throughout Nazi Germany, the bishops identified Bolshevism as an existential threat to all of Europe. Invoking religion and patriotism, linking civic and moral duty, they anointed Hitler to lead the crusade and exhorted the faithful to cooperate with and support him “by all means possible,” while Germany was marching inexorably toward an unprovoked and unjust war.