“Religion poisons everything. As well as a menace to civilization, it has become a threat to human survival.” – Christopher Hitchens (1)
We are often told that religion, including Christianity, is the cause of great evil in the world—that in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “religion poisons everything.” It is claimed that if religion is removed violence will be greatly diminished. In his book, “God Is Not Great,” the late Hitchens outlined in the second chapter, entitled “Religion Kills,” various conflicts and atrocities that he blamed on religion. (2)
I’m leaving aside the question of whether one can be good without God. I’m also not going to counter with the argument that atheist belief systems have been responsible for a greater share of evil and death, or enter the debate over whether communist states were atheist. I’m also going to avoid bringing up the thorny issue that if an atheist claims religion is evil they are committing themselves to a system of absolute moral standards.
Instead, let’s do a thought experiment. What if you had a magic ray gun that could remove someone’s religious beliefs instantly? Imagine further that you had a way to spread the effects of this ray gun over the entire earth, so that every person on the planet was struck, and no longer had any religious belief. Would all war and evil instantly disappear? Would we wake up to a world without wars, robbery, rape?
An argument can be made that some wars were religiously motivated, but all? World War One, War War Two, Vietnam? Most wars are caused by nations seeking to extend their power and bumping up against others that seek to do so as well.
Are most crimes motivated by religion? Very few.
I think that it would be extremely difficult to contend that if religion were to instantly disappear that all evil would disappear with it. Therefore, I don’t think it to be the case that religion is the cause of all evil.
So I think we’re left with the following question: Would instances of these be lessened if our hypothetical ray gun rid the world of religion?
There is definitely some violence that is due to religion. But, of even these, perhaps not all are truly attributable to religious impulses. Take the conflict in Northern Ireland, often described as between Catholics and Protestants. Many conflicts break down along ethnic lines and religion may often be a convenient label. Growing up in the Republic of Ireland, I never heard anyone express religious motivations for the “troubles.” The fight was over political power and exclusion and largely descended into “tit for tat” killing and mayhem. The participants may have been labeled catholic and protestant, but they were fighting over land and historic injustices, not religious differences.
If, as it seems to be the case, the zapping of religion would not end all war and other violence, there must be something else causing the problem. That there is something besides religion that causes such murderous chaos. Moreover, if this is true, then even those who claim to be acting in the name of religion are just using this as a cover. That is to say, they would likely find another reason to act violently in the absence of religion. So removing religion would not do any good.
Atheists are claiming that we can live in a world where the lion lies down with the lamb and men beat their swords into plough shares if we can get rid of religion. However, this is not the case. If there is no God, and this is recognized by all, this may have a negligible effect on violence in the world. When you factor in religious beliefs that urge pacifism, it may be that removing religion makes the world a much worse place.
It is to create a straw man to claim that religion is the problem. Man is the problem and he uses religion in some cases to further his aims.
Any solution to the problem of violence must deal with man, must make him want not to maim, rape, or kill. The problem is that man’s selfishness can breed hate. Jesus identified our inner thoughts and motivations as key. He stated that it was not enough not to murder, we must not hate:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (3)
Many people have misused Christianity. But the heart of Christianity—loving your enemy and treating every life as sacred, believing that how you treat others has eternal consequences—has a much better chance of bringing peace.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? (4)
One may reject the Christian solution to the problem of violence in the world, but it is hard to reject Jesus’ diagnosis of the problem.
(1) Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything, (New York: Twelve, 2009), 24-25.
(3) Matthew 5:21-22.
(4) Matthew 5:43-46.