Nowadays I’m feeling quite apologeticky. I usually do not discuss such stuff here even though I am very interested in it. I guess the events that prompted me to write The Real Jesus have put me in the mood. In Peering into the Moral Mirror I assessed the fairness of the popular sceptical charge of inconsistency in Christianity and whether atheists themselves measured up when the same levels of scrutiny are applied. One of such accusations is the evil that committed under the name of a good God. New Atheists resolve the contradiction by saying God, who is according to them a human fabrication to dominate others, is in fact not good at all so the very idea of him prompts injustice. They therefore surmise that religion is a very bad thing, the number one cause of war, violence and oppression in human history. What?
I wonder how anyone could come up with such an astounding conclusion. To use a millennial catchphrase, “like seriously?” Sadly, this bit of bad reasoning has really caught on in recent years and I have even heard professing Christians accept this. Last year during the aftermath of the Paris attacks some atheists used it as an opportunity to drum the old “religion is bad for your health” line. I recall discussing what went wrong with a roommate and to my puzzlement he said “religion is the problem.” The apologist in me just reacted instinctively to point out the absurdity of equating all religions. Readers of the blog know I have a problem with the word “religion” because the things it refers are so fundamentally different from one another, they do not belong in the same basket. Yet to go on to claim it is the worst evil in the world is I think unjustified. Even if we place all those disparate things labelled awkwardly as religion together, I still do not think it is true. The very definition of religion by those who do a comparative study of it is contentious. So instead of trying to defend something so broad and vague that it is impossible to make any argument with precision, let’s narrow things down.
At first the “religion is the problem” accusation was mainly levelled at Christianity. The accusation is itself not new but in recent decades it has seen a great revival. Now some of the stick is going to Islam. The Paris attacks and most acts of terror in the world today are committed by Muslims. There is a murky debate as to whether these criminals are true representatives of Islam but they were certainly not Christians. (Contrary to what is popularly taught in schools Islam and Christianity and the gods they worship are very different.) Yet something that we call religion was responsible for that atrocity. There are also other horrible things that have been done in the name of god. As a Christian I am ashamed to admit some of them have been committed in the name of Christ. There’s a laundry list of terrible sins the Church has repented of, some of which we still need to repent of. The dominant faith of Western Europe for the last millennium and a half has been Christianity. Now to make the appeal to history and only select the worst episodes as exhibits against Christianity is very unfair. The idea that Christianity has only been a blight on the world is more than stretching it. I have argued this elsewhere so I won’t belabour the point but Christianity has overwhelmingly been a positive influence on the West and the greater world. Ironically, quite a few of the things these sceptics decry as moral evils come from a Christian worldview, the same one they are denouncing as bad.
Now the philosophical debate as to whether Christianity is good or bad is something more complicated. However, this post is addressing the real world effects of the Christian religion. So we look to history and ethics, how have Christians behaved in the past? Should Christianity be the only one scrutinised what about atheism. Now if Christian religion is bad and then irreligion must make a positive difference. However, as many apologists have pointed out, the data is not stacked in favour of atheism. Modern secularism is quite a new thing. As the great American sociologist Philip Rieff pointed out, human societies for most of history have been founded on the sacred. Some authors argue that is still the way society is, except in the West what is sacred is variously known under the rubric of “liberal principles.” Philosophical atheism is not new but the modern form which is socially acceptable is new. Due to the novelty of modern atheism it is a bit easier to track its influence.
Nietzsche’s mad man prophetically declared at the end of the 19th century the death of God. God had been evicted from public discourse in the political, social, academic and economic spheres of life, confined to a neat little category called “religion” and departments of theology. Nietzsche therefore predicted there would be great upheaval in Western society as a consequence of the metaphysical death of God that had already happened in Western thinking. I’m not sure though that what ensued in the following century was what he had in mind. From surveying various figures and arguments, I can confidently say the 20th century was the bloodiest century in human history. By sheers numbers alone, more died cumulatively than in any other period. Adjusting for the boom in world population, the frequency of conflicts etc. the 20th century still ranks highly enough to sustain the claim. In the era where the greatest advancements in human history had been made to save lives was also the most life destroying. In both the West and the East, atheism in various forms was strong in the consciousness of each civilization. If we are to play the numbers game irreligion seems to be the latest greatest evil in the world.
I am not the first to make the empirical argument against atheism neither will I be the last. What I find particularly ironic is that it is an evidential argument against atheism, a type of argument that is commonly used against Christianity. Now a common counter is that not all atheists are that bad, furthermore even Christians were involved in the atrocities of the 20th centuries. The question then is in morally assessing evil in the 20th century, was it in keeping with the Christian worldview or was it ethically the logical outworking of atheistic thinking? The case can convincingly be made for the latter.
By now it is obvious that I certainly do not think religion, whatever it might mean, is the problem either. Even though atheism can and has produced great evil, I also do not think it is the number one cause of violence and oppression. As much as it surprises me that anyone would make the claim that religion is inherently violent and oppressive (moreover some people actually believe it) what really baffles me is how they miss the most obvious institutional cause of violence in the world: politics.
Now the accusation against religion is mostly directed at organised religion. Most sceptics do not have a problem with private spirituality since there is the firm belief that when religion is kept out of the way it does not cause problems. Its continuing presence is just a tolerable nuisance. Religion is like the Victorian child who should only be seen and never heard. Atheism may lack distinctive societal institutions of its own but as a worldview it has the ability to influence the way a society is organised. When it comes to getting a large group of people to do something, politics is a great organizer and as an institution it is as old as human civilisation. To cite examples of war and somehow miss that it falls under the category of politics is very interesting to say the least.
Now politics is not a closed of category but overlaps with many other areas of life. Political motivations may come from a variety of sources including the religious. However, the use of force is a legitimate part of politics when it comes to the governance of a society. Whether it is imprisonment or full on war, all these are displays of political power. The rule of law requires the use of justifiable forms of force. Of course the political use of force can be unjust and that can lead to great evil as attested by the various wars and oppressive regimes littered throughout history. I do not think politics is an inherently bad thing. On the contrary, I think it is a very good thing but like many good things in the world, it can be corrupted and used for evil. Since politics requires the use of different kinds of power, it possible for that same power to have a seductive, corrupting influence. To understand the basic nature of political power means it should be quickly considered when it comes to the sources of evil in the world.
Now there is a reason why even just governments sometimes have to use force. Not every person is nice. Even among normally decent people, if law and order should breakdown, might not act in such a civilised manner. There is plenty of evidence of looting, destruction of property and general outbursts of violence when there is anarchy. When I look at Nazi Germany, they were the most educated society on the planet, yet an entire generation followed a madman’s genocidal agenda. It is more obvious than religion or politics that the number one source of evil in this world is the heart of man. Malcolm Muggeridge once said,
The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.
We don’t like to say it because it means evil is no longer something that happens without but it exists within. Of course there are organizations as well as ideas that cause evil in the world yet it is human beings who come up with them. We are the common denominator. If we admit human nature is inherently sinful it means we are all the bad guys. For the atheist and many others that is such a repugnant idea but is there evidence to the contrary that human nature is not the problem? All the education, learning and overall progress we have made over the last century has not affected who we are at a fundamental level. Our technological advancements are also used as new opportunities for evil. We are even inflicting unprecedented damage to the planet itself. When atheistic thinking held sway it did not produce a global secular utopia as was anticipated but mass murder. Instead of playing the blame game perhaps the sceptic should go down a new line of thought starting with sombre introspection. The profound words of Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn should give us pause for meditation,
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?