That Sam Harris keeps coming around, either he or his buddies, preaching that all would be ecstasy if only we could ban religion and devote the world to atheists and science. I'm not buying it and neither should you. The vilest deeds in human history have been carried out by atheists and scientists.
Admittedly, it's a challenge to rank vile deeds. There are many excellent contenders, for example Iraq, Darfor, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Malawi, and northern Ireland. But in our task or ranking bloodbaths we must keep in mind several contributing factors, and how their presence or absence can aid us in our ranking task. It is just as homicides can be ranked for vileness....premeditated at the top and manslaughter at the bottom.... the latter partly determined by permanent or temporary insanity, depression, post traumatic stress, medication side effects, etc, etc. And so with most slaughters worldwide we may allow for mob action hot tempers, civil war, desperation from poverty, miscommunication, ignorance, reaction to oppression, and so forth. Doesn't excuse the mayhem, of course, but it does help explain it.
There have been genocidal campaigns in which none of these softening factors are present, thus taking evil to a higher level. You might argue that the Pol Pot Cambodian [atheists] slaughter is in that camp. Certainly the German Holocaust of World War II, and its even more hideous escalation, the "medical" experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele (the Angel of Death) and associates. These are sickening to read of. Google the topic if you must.
A parallel WWII Japanese program existed, experiments with the added aim of develping biological weapons, under the depraved oversight of Dr. Shiro Ishii. Known as Unit 731, the program was based in Mongolia. Ethnic Chinese were the primary victims, but also Koreans, Russians, ethnic Japanese and even some American POWs. In the quest for weapons, bubonic plague, typhoid, anthrax and cholera was cultivated and released on the populace, and it is thought that hundreds of thousands perished from such exposure. Hundreds more suffered unspeakably from dehydration, starvation, frostbite, air pressure, animal blood transfusion, and amputation experiments, similar to Mengele's medical experiments. Enthusiasts billed it as "science untethered to morality."
Such campaigns take barbarity to a new level. Poverty plays no part, nor miscommunication, nor emotions boiling over from civil war. There is no mob action. To be sure, World War plays a part, yet these crimes take place far from the front. Quiet moments abound, during which one might stop, reflect, and turn back. Instead, with calm deliberation, perpetrators pushed ahead to commit the most ghastly deeds of all time.
Everyone knows about Nazi atrocities, but few know of the parallel Japanese deeds. There is a reason. At the end of the war, Japanese scientists offered their knowledge and data to American victors in return for complete immunity. Americans thought it a good deal, lest such data fall into the hands of the Russians, supposedly eager to compensate for not yet having the bomb. Remember, the cold war was just beginning. While many of the German doctors were brought to justice, (excluding Mengele himself) Japanese counterparts were not. Many went on to prosperous and prestigious careers.
Daniel Barenblatt may be the world's foremost expert on Unit 731. His 2003 work A plague Upon Humanity: The Hidden History of Japan's Biological Warfare Program, published by HarperCollins, offers an unflinching account of that evil time, exhaustive yet never sensational. Reading the book requires a strong stomach. Imagine researching and writing it. Mr. Barenblatt devoted himself to doing so when he realized that, some 70 years after the war, the sordid history was still largely unknown, a result of the immunity deal. He describes himself as an extremely sensitive person who thinks something is fundamentally wrong with the world. He says ferreting out the truth put him in non-stop emotional pain.
He comes from an interesting family... one with a conscience. His father, Lloyd Barenblatt, is known to legal historians from the McCarthy era. Barenblatt v United States, (1959) argued before the Supreme Court, tested the powers of Congressional investigation in the light of the First Amendment. By standing his ground and upholding his conscience, he substantially derailed his academic career.
Others of the family are Jehovah's Witnesses. It is through them that I first learned of the Barenblatt book, and of Unit 731.
Should these inhuman deeds be used as an indictment of science? Obviously, they should not. Science was merely the venue in this history, just as politics and religion are in others. Still, I will keep these examples up my sleeve for the next time that smug Sam Harris comes around. The most vicious offences in history have been in the name of science.