It is often said that terror of this kind is possible only when one has first "dehumanized" some group of people--aristocrats, Jews, the bourgeoisie. In fact, what motivated the spectacle was exactly the knowledge that the victims were people, and capable of feeling pain and fear as people do. We don't humiliate vermin, or put them through show trials, or make them watch their fellow-vermin die first. The myth of mechanical murder is almost always that.This strikes me as very true, and it emphasizes, for me at least, the personal nature of evil. It is too tempting to dehumanize the "dehumanizers" by labelling them "evil" or making them a part of some group that is then said to be acting according to the dictates of some mechanistic plan to "exterminate" some other group. (I have complained about this reification of groups and institutions in previous posts.) In general it is safe to say that evil acts are perpetrated by individual persons who have their own passions, desires, and motivations lying behind what they do. They are not robots who "just follow orders"--that is precisely why we may hold them morally culpable for the evil acts that they commit. If they really were just robots then they would have no moral responsibility for their crimes.
This thought makes me wonder about one element of--well, either Gopnik's review, or of the books under review, or perhaps the mindset of Gopnik's editors--it's difficult to tell who is ultimately responsible for this element. As is often the case, there is one of those full-page cartoonish illustrations accompanying Gopnik's review. It is a drawing of Robespierre, who is depicted holding the rope of a guillotine (fully loaded with a moderately corpulent representative of the enemy class) and calmly holding a book with a cross on the cover. The caption of this illustration reads: "The Terror wasn't secular reason run amok. It was a faith-based initiative, and the guillotine was another kind of auto-da-fé". I confess that it was this illustration with caption that first prompted me to read the review: I thought perhaps that Gopnik was going to claim that religion was ultimately responsible for the Terror. The caption is indeed taken directly from the review, but it is not in the least bit representative of the tone taken by Gopnik in his review. His comments on the contrast between Enlightenment rationalism, as personified by Voltaire, and "faith-based initiatives" are contained in less than two paragraphs near the end of the review. Some editor, I suppose, thought it the most interesting--or perhaps the most controversial?--element of the review and solicited the illustration with that in mind.
Whatever--there are no sweeping claims about the ills of religion, not even of Robespierre's vaguely deistic kind (Gopnik does not distinguish between deism and theism in his review, and one does not know whether to blame this on him or on the books he is reviewing). Which is a very good thing: even if one were to grant that Robespierre was himself motivated by religious sentiments (and it is not clear from the review whether this is a claim made by Scurr herself or is merely Gopnik's own extrapolation from the claims that are made in the book), it by no means follows that the massive outpouring of sectarian violence over which he presided was in every case motivated by similar sentiments. People do what they do for their own peculiar reasons, never because they are mere automata following the programming of a Robespierre.
One often hears secular humanists complain of the violent impulses of the religiously inclined. Even in a university setting one find folks clinging to the myth that "more people have died because of religious extremism or persecution than for any other cause" etc. etc. Granted, it is usually students--most often freshmen--who make this claim, but I can't say that I've never heard it leaking from a professor's lips. It may actually be true that a lot of carnage has been due to mistaken application of religious principles, but it is no more interesting a claim than the fact that people have also fought and died and killed in defense of liberty, equality, and brotherhood, not to mention all sorts of other political ideals that have no connection to religion at all other than to be opposed to it (Communism, for example). To say that sectarian violence, or the sort of tribalism that would drive one to eliminate, even by violent means, other tribes, is a characteristic of "religious sentiment" per se is banal and simplistic. In every case of hatred, violence, oppression, and killing of innocents, what is to blame is not religion or atheism or any political ideal, but some individual human being who has made a mistaken decision to hate, harm, oppress or kill an innocent. All such decisions are in themselves mistaken, and they would be as mistaken if they were made by an atheist for atheistic reasons as they would be if they were made by a religious person for religious reasons.