Was the late antitheist polemicist, Christopher Hitchens, right when he said that religion poisons everything?
In his 2007 book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens posited that “organized religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children” and sectarian, and that accordingly it “ought to have a great deal on its conscience.” (Wikipedia)
But is this actually inherently true of religion?
While it is true that religion has been responsible for many horrific atrocities in history, I want to make the case that it does not follow that it’s always because of religion or even that religion is unique in this regard. I’m also using the term “religion” in its generic sense for this post (because I differentiate between religion and following Jesus. See “Does Jesus poison everything?”).
In his book, The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking about God, Alister McGrath debunks Dawkins’ assertion that atheists would never do the violent things religious people do and gives examples where they actually do these same things:
“If “man is the measure of all things” (Alexander Pope), what happens if we are flawed? That was the point that the Soviet dissident and novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) made in his famous commencement address at Harvard University in 1978. After his experiences of the brutal political and intellectual repression of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn had no doubt about the limitations of human nature. The dreadful events of the twentieth century made it clear to any thinking person that the Enlightenment vision of humanity was a delusion, a fiction with no counterpart in reality. (P.149 *)
One of the greatest threats we face today is from weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear weapons. Who invented these? Scientists. Now if someone were to use the flawed logic of Christopher Hitchens (a few members of group X do bad things, therefore group X is bad), you could write off science as morally disastrous and wicked….Since it spawned such evil, it must itself be evil. But everyone knows this is nonsense. Things are more complicated than this.” (P. 151 *)
As McGrath points out, both science and religion can spawn monsters. But they need not do so, nor should either be judged by its pathological forms.
You can see McGrath’s argument in the following video. I’ve cued it up to where he begins talking about this myth that religion poisons everything:
In the video (@30:32), McGrath mentions Madam Roland. She and her husband were supporters of the French Revolution and influential members of the Girondist faction but fell out of favor during the secular “Reign of Terror” and died on the guillotine in 1793. When facing the guillotine, she reportedly looked at the liberty statue in Paris and spoke these words: “Liberty? What crimes are committed in your name.”
So, does liberty also poison everything? Of course not.
Is it religion or human nature that’s to blame?
Solzhenitsyn’s assessment was that human nature—not religion, science, politics, or liberty—is at the heart of the problem:
“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” (Quote retrieved here. *)
“If we create God in our own image, and this God is evil, what does that say about us? If there is no God, we cannot blame this nonexistent God for human evil. The fault is ours alone.
The only way out of this dilemma is to appeal to the moral dualism that underlies so many failed philosophies and religions of the past. This version of this flawed worldview holds that there are bad people who invent religion, and there are good people who oppose it.
The philosopher John Gray insists that we need to be critical of human nature and recognize its limitations and aberrations. Yes, he declares, religion can go badly wrong: ‘But the fault is not with religion, any more than science is to blame for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or medicine and psychology for the refinement of techniques of torture. The fault is in the intractable human animal.'” P. 154-155. John Gray reference from article, “What Scares the New Atheists, The Guardian, March 2015 *)
Can we say “religion poisons everything” empirically?
As skeptic Michael Shermer says in his book, How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God,” we need to tell the full story, not just cherry-pick negative examples in history while leaving out the good that’s been done by religious people:
“However, for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go unreported . . . Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.” (p.71)
Harold Koenig and Harvey Cohen’s book “The Link between Religion and Health” took 100 individual studies (not individuals but studies) on the impact of religious faith and found the results are positive (see graphic). The research has continued and the same pattern occurs over and over.
The point being, if Dawkins and Hitchens were right, the results should be the other way around.
I will finish by showing a video I included in “The Closing of the Modern Mind, but relevant to this post, Jonathan Haidt, while still an avid antitheist, started studying morality in culture and realized that religion is a necessary component in a healthy culture. After studying the empirical research on the effects of religion and, at least in the United States, those effects are overwhelmingly positive.
He mentioned Robert Putman and David Campbell’s book, American Grace: How Religion Divides Us And Unites Us“, who basically came to the conclusion, through survey data and other kinds of data, that members of a religious community are simply better citizens. They give more, not just to their religious communities, but their society in a variety of ways.
I cued up the following clip where Haidt talks about his change in attitude toward religion after seeing the empirical data that contradicted his prejudice against religion.