Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Religion and Genocide

The worst genocide in recorded history occurred in territory now known as the United States of America, starting around 1600 and lasting 300 years or more.  During that time approximately 90 percent of the indigenous people were killed to make way for the new immigrants and colonizers from Europe.  The process started in the early 1600's or late 1500's when the English colonists noted that the native people were not immune to such childhood diseases as measles, mumps, and chicken pox.  Today we know that these diseases are caused by viruses and that children have much stronger immune systems than adults.  When a child contracts measles, he or she generally recovers and become immune to the disease for the rest of his or her life.  Among Europeans it was customary for children to have all of these diseases.  Since the parents had had the same diseases when they were children, they were immune and were able to care for the children.

The natives of New England had never been exposed to these particular viral diseases.  They contracted them as adults.  Measles in particular is often fatal to an adult who has no acquired immunity.  Entire population of villages would come down with measles and would die.  The European settlers were actually welcomed when they occupied the villages that had been emptied in this way.  No one in those days understood that diseases are caused by tiny living things, like bacteria and viruses.  Things not understood were ascribed to God.  God was very near.  God took care of His people, the people who worshiped the Bible as God's Truth, and punished their enemies.  The Bible contained stories of how the Israelites, God's chosen people, had come out of the desert into a fertile land, already occupied by another people, and had slaughtered the occupants to make room for themselves.  Arranging for the native Americans to die of measles was thought to be the act of God, who was preparing the new land for his chosen people.

By 1900 the descendants of the Europeans realized that it wasn't the work of God at all but the result of this "European" disease that had killed the native population.  The idea that we descendants of Europeans were somehow responsible for a great killing began to take root in our thinking.  Today we try to make amends by creating museums devoted to the culture of the now-vanished original inhabitants, recording as much as we can of the native languages and oral literature, and romanticizing the lost people.  We congratulate ourselves that at least we admit that we caused the extinction of tens of millions of people.  Some of regret what happened.  Others believe still that it was inevitable that the superior European culture would replace the native cultures.  Perhaps it was.  At least we do not censor writers who study this great genocide and report for future historians the facts available about it.
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