Religious Horrors (Part 3 of 3)

James A. Haught

In the previous articles, Jim asked the question why many people think religion causes believers to be compassionate and familial. However, historical records give a different view when religious zeal causes followers to do unspeakable things in the name of their religious belief. 

In this final part 3 of 3, Jim recalls further inhumane epochs in history when ideals and beliefs are taken to an unreasonable conclusion…


Rampant corruption and greed in the medieval church triggered the Reformation, which spawned a bloodbath of Catholic-Protestant wars.

A preliminary battle erupted in the 1400s when Czech priest Jan Hus protested the sale of indulgences (paid forgiveness for sins) and denounced Vatican immorality. Hus drew followers—some of whom were executed. Hus was excommunicated and exiled, but he persisted. An emperor gave him safe passage to present his grievances at the 1415 Council of Constance, where he was seized and executed. This caused the Hussite Wars, with papal armies repeatedly engaging Hus’s followers until they were crushed.

Martin Luther’s historic revolt began in 1517 when he nailed his 95 Theses/protests to a church door: unleashing a century of holy slaughter. The first outbreak was the Peasants War in which hymn-singing amateur soldiers were decimated by trained legions.

In Switzerland, Protestant Ulrich (Huldreich) Zwingli led a revolt against Catholic cantons. Zwingli was killed, and Switzerland turned Protestant.

In Germany, Lutheran princes formed an alliance, and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sent Catholic armies to annihilate the Protestants. He lost, and was forced to accept the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, which allowed 300 local rulers to choose whether their districts would be Catholic or Protestant.

In Spain and Italy, the Holy Inquisition ferreted out secret Protestants and burned them. In France, Catholic King Henry II created a heresy court to find and burn Protestant Huguenots. Religious warfare erupted, then subsided, then erupted again – eight separate times. After the third war, ruler Catherine de Medici sought to end the horror by marrying her Catholic daughter to a young Huguenot prince. But when Huguenots came to Paris for the wedding, they were massacred at night on Aug. 24, 1572 –St. Bartholomew’s Day—in a surprise attack. The Huguenot leader’s head was sent to Rome, where Pope Gregory XIII received it joyfully: the pope struck a medal celebrating the Catholic victory.

Thousands of Huguenots fled France. One group settled at what is now St. Augustine, Florida. A Spanish fleet found them in 1565 and killed nearly all, posting a sign saying the settlers were executed “not as Frenchmen but as Lutherans.”

In the Low Countries, Protestantism grew, but Catholic ruler Philip II of Spain sent armies to exterminate it. Protestants rebelled and burned 400 Catholic churches. After a decade of killing, they finally won independence in northern provinces.

England’s Protestantism was different, because Henry VIII broke with Rome to gain a right to divorce. His Anglican Church ruled until his daughter, “Bloody Mary,” gained the throne and unleashed a wave of executions to force England back to Catholicism. Her burnings of Protestants sickened most English, turning them bitterly against Rome.

The last great spasm of the Reformation was the Thirty Years War, from 1618 to 1648. It started because Protestant nobles entered a Prague palace and threw two Catholic ministers out a window onto a dungheap. Resulting Catholic-Protestant slaughter seemed unstoppable and killed millions in Germany, leaving starvation and poverty behind.


Anabaptists rejected infant baptism, contending that only adults are mature enough to choose religion. For this “heresy,” they were massacred by both Catholics and Protestants.

“A larger proportion of Anabaptists were martyred for their faith than any other Christian group in history,” British scholar Bamber Gascoigne wrote: “In several European countries, Anabaptists were condemned, burned, beheaded  and especially drowned, which was considered appropriate for baptizers.”

At Münster, rebelling Anabaptists seized the city and barricaded themselves inside. Outside, a religious army set siege, and finally broke through, killing inhabitants. Anabaptist leaders were tortured to death with red-hot pincers and their bodies hung in iron cages from a church steeple.

“Such leaders as had escaped the carnage at Münster were hunted down like rabbits and killed wherever found,” historian Hendrick van Loon recounted.

Surviving fragments eventually became modern Mennonites, Amish and Hutterians.


In the 1840s, a holy man in Iran declared that he was the Bab, a “gate” through which a mysterious Twelfth Imam spoke. He drew many followers, including a woman poet who advocated female equality.

Muslim leaders suppressed the tumultuous Bab’is. The Bab was imprisoned, then shot by firing squad in 1850. Bab’i uprisings worsened; Islamic forces massacred 20,000 Bab’is in Teheran, including the woman poet. Surviving believers were sent into captivity.

One of them, Baha’ullah, prayed in a garden and declared that he was “the promised one of all religions”. Jesus returning for Christians, the Messiah coming for Jews, a long-awaited Third Imam coming for Muslims, etc., and his followers became Baha’is.

Shi’ite mullahs denounced them as heretics and sorcerers. Mobs sporadically attacked them.Waves of massacres erupted in 1903, 1906 and during World War I. In 1955, a fiery sheik preached by radio that true Muslims should wipe out the “false religion.” A storm of murder, rape, pillage and arson struck the defenseless minority until the United Nations intervened.

In the 1980s, after the Ayatollah Khomeini and fundamentalists turned Iran into a theocracy, the Baha’i faith was outlawed. A chief religious judge declared that Iran “cannot tolerate the perverted Baha’is, who are instruments of Satan.” Hangings, jailings, torture, forced conversions and mob lynching ensued.

In 1985, more than 100 members of the U.S. Congress signed a resolution condemning Iran’s “relentless acts of savagery against the innocent Baha’is.”


The horror of Sept. 11, 2001—when 19 Muslim suicide volunteers killed 3,000 Americans by crashing hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—awoke everyone to Islam’s fringe “cult of death,” which has become the world’s worst cause of bloodshed.

The 9/11 “martyrs” left behind a testament saying God would reward them with “women of paradise” upon their deaths. They believed that God craves mass murder.

Although Christianity faded until it no longer produces wars and executions (except for a few “pro-life” murders at women’s clinics), Islam hasn’t advanced to such a peaceful stage. Muslim nations abound with young zealots eager to kill themselves to massacre defenseless strangers.

Holy suicide was little-known until 1983, when a volunteer truck-bomb driver killed 240 U.S. Marines at a Lebanon barracks, and another killed 60 at the U.S. Embassy there. Since then, it has grown to the monster of the 21st century, claiming tens of thousands of lives. A total of 800 suicide bombers killed 5,560 people in 28 nations in 2016, according to the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. In 2015, some 735 martyrs killed 4,370. In 2014, the toll was 937 death volunteers and 4,400 victims, scarcely more than four casualties per martyr.

Columnist David Brooks calls suicide martyrdom “the crack cocaine of warfare…. It unleashes the deepest and most addictive human passions – the thirst for vengeance, the desire for religious purity, the longing for earthly glory and eternal salvation.” He said volunteers are promised “dark-eyed virgins in paradise” upon death.

It’s utter insanity – yet it’s a religious reality of our times.


Next time someone says religion makes believers kind and humane, try not to laugh out loud. Just remember the unmistakable historic record.

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction,” philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote.

Jonathan Swift, recalling centuries of church carnage, commented:  “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on Virginia: “Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined and imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity.  What has been the effect of coercion?  To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites.”

James A. Haught is Editor Emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  He can be reached by phone at 304-348-5199 or e-mail at  He recently joined the United Coalition of Reason as a Writer-in-Residence. Part of this series is drawn from his 2002 book, Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness.

If there are some topics you’d like Jim to consider writing about, email him your ideas!

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