Religion and Violence

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“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.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Matthew 5:21-22.

(4) Matthew 5:43-46.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Stephen McAndrew

Stephen McAndrew was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, and now lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children, where he runs his law practice. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin and the Law School at the University of Buffalo (SUNY), Stephen is starting a Ph.D. in Philosophy in Fall 2013. Stephen is also the author of Why It Doesn't Matter What You Believe If It's Not True, a book that examines the tensions between post-modernism and international human rights law. Stephen blogs at Songs of a Semi-Free Man or you can follow him on twitter @StephenMcAndrew.

  • Joe Bruce

    I know that is what Christopher Hitchens kept saying but, … Religion is bad for society? Compared to what? Atheism? We have a bit of real-world experience with atheistic societal experiments: it’s called communism. No free speech. No real liberty or self determination. Inferior in every important way I can see when compared to western culture which, whether atheists like to admit it or not, is based on Christianity and its ideals. I heard an atheist on the radio the other day say he values equality. Where does equality come from? Did the cave men practice equality? Is equality the natural law of the jungle? No. Equality came from Christianity. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The Christianity they hate is the source of the equality and civil liberties atheists hold so dear and take so for granted.

    • Lothar Lorraine

      It’s as fallacious to say that atrocities in communist countries were due to atheism in and of itself as to assert that the inquisition was a logical consequence of theism in and of itself.

    • tildeb

      Joe, I still you’re still peddling this trope when you assert for the umpteenth time We have a bit of real-world experience with atheistic societal experiments: it’s called communism. As if communism were an extension of atheism. Rubbish. Absolute, unmitigated rubbish. If you want a bit of real-world experience with atheistic societal experiments, look to today’s Western and Northern Europe and Japan. There you will find largely atheistic populations that have not broken down into totalitarian states but far exceed pro-social behaviours we find in any equivalently religious country. How can this be if religious belief – properly followed (whatever that means) – is the fountainhead for Enlightenment values? The position you take makes no sense nor is it supported by reality. Eventually, you’ll have face this fact, but in the meantime you continue to equate atheism improperly and without any – ANY – justification to a particular totalitarian state while conveniently ignoring the good catholic country of Germany that implemented a holocaust hand in hand with ‘good’ religious folk.

      If you want to compare influence supported by religion within a society then you do so against equivalent influence not supported by religion to see if there is a difference. And when you do this, then you typically will come to the inescapable conclusion backed by good data that identify the religious influence as a net and negative cost in any fair comparison. Sure, there is some data that shows religion to be a positive benefit in some cases but overall we find a negative correlation to all kinds of societal problems with religion. That’s why rather than attribute the comparison to be between religion and atheism, you should compare religion to non religion. It makes a statistical difference that backs up Hitchens’ assertion that religion poisons everything because at best it gives poor rather than good reasons to back up positive pro-social actions.

      And will you please stop stating as if fact that enlightenment values derived from religious ones. This is just ridiculous because in important ways they are antithetical and incompatible – especially when considering power of autonomy. In religion, we are to be subservient to god’s authority, whereas in enlightenment values, autonomy comes from the individual subservient to no one. This is why revolutions carried out in the name of this enlightened thinking place political authority with the individual and not god. It is this value that has empowered western secular liberal democracies to the forefront of human knowledge, human rights, human freedoms, and human dignity… all of which are constantly under attack by the religious who would have us all return to servitude in the name of piety. I shudder to think of the damage to all of these pursuits if the splintered sects of christianity were ever to unite into a politically cohesive unit under a single leader. Oh wait, I recognize what that would produce, and it’s called totalitarianism.

  • Lothar Lorraine

    I believe Dawkins and Hitchen are right that Atheism in and of itself doesn’t cause violence.

    However, ANTItheism (the belief that all religions are bad and ought to be wiped out) has arguably led to atrocities in former communist countries.

    Lothar’s son – Lothars Sohn
    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/

    • tildeb

      And I know of no New Atheist who advocates for the ‘wiping out’ of all religions. I do know of many who advocate for people to stop empowering it through critical reasoning. Many – including me – advocate for religion to be bounded by the private domain and not tolerated in the public domain (meaning public institutions and public offices). But I think you will have hard time finding any evidence that violence against theists has been carried out systemically by any government in the name of promoting atheism; instead, you’ll find totalitarian regimes that carry out extermination of people who ally themselves to any and all threats against the total power of the leader of the regime… including the killing of atheists.

      • Lothat

        “. But I think you will have hard time finding any evidence that violence against theists has been carried out systemically by any government in the name of promoting atheism”

        Well, not in the name of promoting atheism, but in the name of promoting ANTItheism. (or actually anti-religion). In the former sovietic union, people were murdered for different reasons related to the fact they were deemed dangerous for the regime and its ideology. And it clear that the countless murdered orthodox priests were killed because “religion” had to disappear. You can find notions of this fighting atheism in the writings of Lenine.

        There is no possible causal relation between Atheism and violence.
        But there is a clear causal relation between ANTItheism and violence.

        And no, the new atheists don’t content themselves with relugating atheism to the private sphere.
        It is clear from their rhetorics and writings that they won’t even tolerate moderate religious gathering to exist.

        I do believe SOME forms of religious upbringings are true child abuse.
        The new atheists believe that EVERY religious education is automatically child abuse, even the teaching that God loves everyone unconditionally.

        Their rhetoric reeks of a hatred I’ve only seen in the WORST Christian fundamentalist movements.

        For me, these folks are a danger to the open society defended by Karl Popper.
        They’re fachists in disguise.

        Lothar’s son – Lothars Sohn
        http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

        • tildeb

          And no, the new atheists don’t content themselves with relugating atheism to the private sphere.

          I do, and I am one.

          t is clear from their rhetorics and writings that they won’t even tolerate moderate religious gathering to exist.

          Source please? I’ve read and listened to Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens and none have stated any such thing. You’re just making stuff up, attributing it falsely to New Atheists to smear us as en masse.

          The new atheists believe that EVERY religious education is automatically child abuse.

          The key here to understanding why many New Atheists do hold exactly this position is the phrase ‘religious education‘ as if religion offers knowledge that can be passed on. It doesn’t. It contains what is more accurately described as religious indoctrination (which explains why there is such a strong correlation between geography and the predominant faith. Religious belief is not knowledge (in that it fails to to produce explanations that work in reality to describe it, fail to produce applications, therapies, and technologies based on these) but faith of the religious kind… which in any other human endeavor (asking us to believe in specific causal claims without compelling reasons based on evidence of effect from reality to do so) is considered (at best) foolish and gullible and (at worst) deluded. This is what is being taught to children… a failed methodology that does not describe reality as we know it to be nor explain causal effects and the mechanisms by which they operate in reality. In short-hand, it’s comparable in effect to ‘lying’ to children and fooling them not for their sake but for yours. As if this weren’t bad enough, the addition of everlasting and/or eternal and/or terrifying torments and abandonment and/or separation from loved ones after death for failing to accept some or most or all of these claims is not in way beneficial to children’s mental and emotional well-being here in this life where reality operates. This is what New Atheists are referring to when they talk about religious indoctrination of children to be a form of child abuse.

          Finally, Their rhetoric reeks of a hatred I’ve only seen in the WORST Christian fundamentalist movements. referring to New Atheists promoting secular humanism is a sly way of trying to equate religious extremism that you know is all too common with non belief, where there is no evidence to back it up. None, or you would provide the sources for this blanket assertion. I’ve read Stenger and Grayling and coyne and Onfray and Carroll and Pinker and Krauss and so on and so forth and I have not once ever come across anything I could honestly describe as an equivalent kind of hatred to the religious impulse to reject and condemn wholesale the pleasures and comforts of this life in preparation for the next one. This assertion by you is just another smear. Whether it is true or not doesn’t seem to be of any importance to you. You should reflect and learn from this… it’s a pretty good clue of what’s really going on in your efforts to vilify others in the name of defending your faith from legitimate criticism. Continuing to do this doesn’t reflect well on your character.

          • Lothat

            Dear Tildeb,

            thanks for your answer!

            According to your attitude, you’re NOT a new atheist, at least in the way I and many other scholars define the term.

            I agree with most you’ve written, and I find that so interesting I’m going to write a post on my blog to go into your objections.

            I’ll try doing that tomorrow and documenting my sources.

            I’d be extremely glad if you would comment there.

            Kind regards.

            Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son
            http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  • Jason Dykstra

    Stephen, thank-you. As a physician, I like to think of this in medical terms. If a surgeon uses a scalpel to kill a patient instead of remove their life-threatening tumor, is it the scalpel faulty? Is the scalpel’s manufacturer faulty? No, the tool and the creator of the tool are both innocent and in fact good, creating a perfectly well-designed instrument to bring life? God has created a perfectly well-designed tool, Christianity, to bring life, but humans can misuse it to bring death. It is man, not God or his plan, that is guilty.
    Jason @ http://www.jasondykstrawrites.com

    • tildeb

      In medical terms, what if religion is the tumor and reason is the scalpel? Just a thought to consider.

      Your ‘well-designed tool, Christianity’ is a bit of a fragmented ‘perfection’ with over 30,000 sects, wouldn’t you say? In fact the fragmentation should offer evidence that it is not well constructed by ANY stretch of the imagination… except perhaps (again, in medical language) delusion.

      • Jason Dykstra

        That would be 30,000 surgeons (or groups of surgeons), not scalpels. As each responsible surgeon uses their scalpel in different ways-but all to achieve the same end-each denomination should do the same. Christianity arises from the single source of the Bible, not the different ways it is practiced. And despite the ways it has been malpracticed, Christianity is a tool constructed so well that it has convinced more people to its cause than virtually any other! It truly and wonderfully works, and if you have never seen it do so, then PLEASE find those who are genuine followers of Christ (it is not at all hard if you are open-minded enough to really try) and see for yourself all the reasons to believe. In fact, reason IS why I believe (I wrote a book called Healing Hereafter explaining why); in all my life and with all my education, I cannot find anything more likely to be true than Christianity. Just like you, I wouldn’t believe otherwise.

        • tildeb

          So riddle me this: how can we determine which are the correct practices and which are malpractices? (The 30,000 sects is a clue, btw….)

          My beliefs are subject to being measured as justified true beliefs, meaning that the justification does not rest in my head but is the result of arbitration by reality. That’s why I can and do change my beliefs based on best reasons. If only you could say the same for your religious beliefs, eh? Only then would I grant your point about your and my beliefs having any reasonable equivalency.

          • Jason Dykstra

            So your beliefs are justified by objective reality so much that you chose to maintain them by subjectively assuming that my beliefs-which you know virtually nothing about-do not change when the evidence demands it and are not based on reason? Have you not proved yourself a hypocrite? If you truly desire to compare how reasonable each of our beliefs are, prove it by reading the book I wrote on my beliefs called Healing Hereafter, available 9/1 at the website below. All proceeds go to charity, so I won’t even make money off you. Half of what I wrote in that book I did not believe when I started-but the evidence demanded it-and I will happily read anything you have written as well, proving the open-mindedness and tolerance you claim to value but have yet to demonstrate. Are you genuine enough to put your money where your mouth is? We think more similarly than you subjectively want to believe.
            Jason @ http://www.jasondykstrawrites.com