Religious martyrdom is an odd thing. If someone is killed because of that person’s race or ethnicity or sexuality, that death is deplored but people who share the victim’s targeted identity do not see the death as a vindication or a badge of honor of that identity. On the other hand, religions seem to revel in their martyrs, as if having someone die or be killed for their belief somehow makes that belief more worthy.

When it comes to Christian martyrs, the figure that is sometimes bandied around is about 100,000 a year. That is a lot, if you think of martyrs as people who have been killed because of their religious beliefs. But where did that figure come from? The number seems to have originated with the estimate of one million Christians killed between 2000 and 2010.

But commenter Pierce R. Butler sends along this story that says that the actual numbers are much less than that and that the inflated figure is due to Christians dying because of conflicts occurring in Christian countries, like the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the genocide in Rwanda, not because they were targeted for being Christian.

Once one accounts for that, the actual number is estimated to be 7-8,000 actual Christians killed per year, which is still a lot. The number also depends on how one defines a martyr. Judd Birdsall says it is not easy coming up with a good definition and the word gets assigned a little too freely, like ‘heroes’.

Calling millions of Christian victims of bloody civil wars “martyrs” is a bit like calling all the victims of 9/11 “heroes.” To be sure, many exhibited remarkable heroism. But most 9/11 victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The same goes for most Christians who lose their lives prematurely as a result of human hostility. They are often caught up in conflicts sparked by a complex web of ethnic, economic, political, ideological and other factors. Singling out the religious factor — let alone identifying religious martyrs — is incredibly complicated.

I would argue for an understanding of martyrdom that is honest and modest. Honest about the messy complexity of human violence and modest about the ability to quantify with any precision the number of people violently killed for their faith. The number of clear-cut martyrdoms each year is actually quite low, and they often make international news.

Dying for one’s religion seems like a waste of a human life. But it is interesting to think about what abstract causes are worth dying for.


  1. Chiroptera says

    But it is interesting to think about what abstract causes are worth dying for.

    Heh. I think it may have been Bertrand Russell who said, “I would not die for my beliefs because I may be wrong.”

    Me, I’m not sure I’d be willing to die for abstract causes. Now, more concrete issues that affect individual people’s well-being, that I would be much more willing to make sacrifices for — even, perhaps, the ultimate one. Giving my life to that my fellow citizens may be free and equal and live their lives in peace and contentment? Maybe. Giving my life so that my people can be ruled by a home-grown dictator rather than a foreign one? Not so much.

  2. coragyps says

    My grandfather died a martyr for Christianity, according to some, at least. (His son didn’t really seem to think so….). He happened to be in China in 1932, being a missionary and actually trying to do good works. He was kidnapped by “bandits,” which seems to be the old word for “insurgents.” They were pursued by the military, there was shooting, and anyone on the ground was beheaded to be real sure they stayed on the ground. So Grandpa was an accidental casualty, no doubt kidnapped for his potential ransom value – but pamphlets still were published on him being martyred in a particularly nasty way – bullets weren’t mentioned, as I remember. I think “unlucky.”

    Oh, Mano – incidentally, grandpa’s brother was the president of one of the halves of your university back in the 1920’s.

  3. invivoMark says

    Dying for something is easy. You don’t have to live with the consequences.

    The hard part, and therefore the more commendable part, is to work for something while one is alive, without intending to die because of it. The cases where one’s death can better contribute to a cause than one’s continued effort while still living are rare.

    I would have no problem dying for a cause, as long as I was certain that the cause was right and that my death would actually contribute to that cause. But I don’t anticipate ever being in such a position.

  4. invivoMark says

    Totally tangential, but I don’t like the term “ultimate sacrifice.” It means there can be no greater sacrifice.

    But a greater sacrifice than death would be a long, slow, painful life, followed eventually by death. Death happens to everyone, so choosing it isn’t really that much of a sacrifice unless the alternative is a high quality of life.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    I had expected Prof. Singham, as a scientist, to zero in on the (ahem) flexible use of numbers by the Vatican.

    “… every year an estimate of more than 100,000 Christians are killed because of some relation to their faith,” Vatican spokesman Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi announced in a radio address …

    That’s some non-trivial bandying!

    Todd Johnson, director of CSGC [Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts] … says his centre has abandoned this statistic in its more recent work. The 100,000 figure still appears in its 2013 Status of Global Mission… author John Allen[: “it would be good to have reliable figures on this issue, but I don’t think it ultimately matters…The truth is two thirds of the 2.3 billion Christians in the world today live… in dangerous neighbourhoods. … And they are often at risk. And ultimately I think making that point is more important than being precise about the death toll.”

    In other words, for these men “truth” lies in having the desired emotional impact on the reader, not the mere facts.

  6. left0ver1under says

    “Martyrdom” is the claim of victimhood by people who wanted to “murder them! (i.e. political, religious and ideological opponents).

    They are usually people who get killed before they could do any killing, though sometimes they did commit murder (re: the Bali bombers, who were executed).

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