In 2007, atheist author Christopher Hitchens published a book called, “god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”. This reflects a sentiment that is common in our secular society, effectively asserting that the world would be a better place if everyone were secular and there was no such thing as religion. Continuing this series on Christian apologetics (explaining your faith to those examining Christianity with honest intellectual curiosity), I am going to (briefly, I hope) explore a few aspects of this assertion that religion poisons everything.
How the World Has Benefitted from Religion
I acknowledge that throughout history, people have done bad things in the name of religion–the Crusade, the Inquisition, and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. But for the most part, the deities or human leaders of the major world religions have not asked people to do those bad things. Instead, aberrant behaviors such as these result from broken people misinterpreting the guidance from their holy texts or leaders, or simply from abusing their position to gain wealth or power. Nowhere in the Bible or the Koran are these atrocities commanded or even suggested.
It’s also worth wondering aloud why the focus of secularists is only on the bad things done in the name of God or faith. Is it possible they are advancing an agenda rather than earnestly considering the relative pros and cons of all major faiths in general or any single faith specifically? Atheism, after all, is really just its own set of beliefs and assertions about God.
In fact, it is really rather short-sighted to claim that religion has only had negative impacts on the world. On the contrary, the world has benefitted greatly throughout history due to the five major religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism). There are countless examples of this, but in the interest of brevity, let me pick just a few summaries.
- Teachings of goodwill and the golden rule (do unto others)
- Promoting ethics and good morals in political life
- Inner strength and courage to do the right thing
- The message of forgiveness
- Religious art/music
- Sense of community and belonging
- Selfless Service
Also, societies are generally healthier, happier, and safer because of the existence of religion. According to an article by Luna Greenstein on the website for the organization National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):
Religion gives people something to believe in, provides a sense of structure and typically offers a group of people to connect with over similar beliefs. These facets can have a large positive impact on mental health—research suggests that religiosity reduces suicide rates, alcoholism and drug use.Luna Greenstein, National Alliance on Mental Illness, December 21, 2016
Further, there are economic benefits due to religion. In 2013, then-contributor to Forbes.com Jeffrey Dorfman, Professor of Economics at The University of Georgia, wrote in his article entitled, “Religion Is Good For All Of Us, Even Those Who Don’t Follow One“:
How much does all this add up to, in terms of economic gains? According to Rodney Stark, a professor of sociology, the American economy benefits to the tune of $2.6 trillion per year thanks to being a quite religious country. That is about one-sixth of our total economic output.
These gains, found in his recent book, America’s Blessings, derive from the extra human capital, lower unemployment among the religious, fewer crimes being committed, and other benefits listed above. Some of the benefits are direct gains that show up in economic statistics. Others are monies saved (for example, by not imprisoning as many people), so they do not actually contribute to GDP or other visible statistics, but they save society money. Religious people are keeping our tax rates and insurance premiums lower than they would be otherwise.Jeffrey Dorfman, Forbes.com, December 22, 2013
Secular Society Is More Poisonous Than Religion
As society has tended more toward a secularist philosophy, supposedly progressing beyond “primitive and barbaric” religion, let’s see how things have gone. We don’t have to look any further than three secular leaders in the last 100 years of “progress” to find people who have been responsible for far more deaths than all religious atrocities in the history of the world:
- Adolf Hitler: “By genocide, the murder of hostages, reprisal raids, forced labor, “euthanasia,” starvation, exposure, medical experiments, and terror bombing, and in the concentration and death camps, the Nazis murdered from 15,003,000 to 31,595,000 people, most likely 20,946,000 men, women, handicapped, aged, sick, prisoners of war, forced laborers, camp inmates, critics, homosexuals, Jews, Slavs, Serbs, Germans, Czechs, Italians, Poles, French, Ukrainians, and many others. Among them 1,000,000 were children under eighteen years of age.1 And none of these monstrous figures even include civilian and military combat or war-deaths.” R.J. Rummel, University of Hawaii (emphasis added)
- Joseph Stalin: “Prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the archival revelations, some historians estimated that the numbers killed by Stalin’s regime were 20 million or higher.” Wikipedia (emphasis added)
- Mao Zedon: “But both Hitler and Stalin were outdone by Mao Zedong. From 1958 to 1962, his Great Leap Forward policy led to the deaths of up to 45 million people – easily making it the biggest episode of mass murder ever recorded.” Ilya Somin, The Washington Post, August 3, 2016 (emphasis added)
For those not keeping up with that morbid running total, that’s 80 million people, conservatively.
And religion is the poison?
Following Christ Is Not a Religion
Moving on, in previous posts, I have made points relevant here as well:
- Lumping all world religions together as though they’re basically the same, as many secularists and atheists like to do, shows a complete lack of understanding of any of those faiths (see this section of Beyond Belief – How Can You Believe Jesus Is the Only Way to God?). Intellectually, this is either disingenuous or just plain lazy. Similarly, those who say “We believe in science” as a sort of inane rebuttal to religion, as though science and religion are mutually exclusive, are also admitting that they have no grasp of science or the scientific method (see Beyond Belief – How Can You Believe in Jesus and Science?).
- Jesus did not come to earth to start a religion (see Beyond Belief – Did You Know Jesus Came to Start a Relationship, Not a Religion?). He came to show people how to restore their relationship with the triune God (which includes himself) and, since we are incapable of living without sin, to redeem us by taking the punishment we deserve. He wants everything we do to be motivated by our love for him or by our love for our fellow humans, which is to be at least as powerful as the love we feel for ourselves (see Matthew 22:37-40).
- Similarly, holding Christ responsible for every aberrant act of Christians makes no sense since Jesus did not ask or command people to do terrible things or behave badly (see Beyond Belief – Did You Know Jesus Came to Start a Relationship, Not a Religion?). This would be tantamount to throwing my wife and me in jail if one of our kids broke the law. And yet, even the great Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi fell into this trap:
Along the lines of the list above pertaining to how all the major religions have improved life on this planet, there’s a whole Wikipedia article describing the wide variety of ways Followers of Christ have made positive impacts on the trajectory of the world. In the interest of brevity, though, I will provide the link instead of trying to summarize the entire article: Role of Christianity in Civilization. All you have to do is ask yourself: whenever there’s a natural disaster or any other sort of crisis, which group of people generally gets there first to help those who are suffering? The church–Followers of Christ being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.
So instead of holding Jesus responsible when his followers behave badly, people honestly investigating the veracity of following Christ should instead familiarize themselves with the things Jesus did command his followers to do, which included:
- Many of the beatitudes, from the start of his Sermon on the Mount, describe the kind of attitude we should all have in relation to God and others–for example, be merciful and pure in heart; be peacemakers (Matthew 5:3-11)
- Not only should we not murder, but we shouldn’t even be angry with one another (Matthew 5:21-26)
- Not only should we not commit adultery, we shouldn’t even look lustfully at someone other than our spouse (Matthew 5:27-30)
- Be trustworthy (Matthew 5:33-37)
- Don’t retailiate; instead, forgive and go above and beyond what is expected in helping one another (Matthew 5:38-42)
- Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:43-48)
- Give to those in need (Matthew 6:1-4)
- Forgive others the way God has forgiven us (Matthew 6:14-15)
- Do for others as you would have them do for you (Luke 6:31)
- Love others sacrificially, the way he loved us (John 13:34, John 15:12)
These commands obviously set the bar for appropriate behavior quite high. Do I meet them? Not on my best day! Does any Follower of Christ meet them completely? Nope.
So then, why bother trying, if nobody can meet such high standards??
Here is where Gandhi got it right: because this is the way Jesus acted, and if all of his followers did the same, the whole world would be Christian.
And here’s the really great news for me and for all Followers of Christ: Jesus has done all of the really hard work–all of the impossible work–for us. He lived a perfect life because we cannot. He died the punishing death we all deserve, sacrificing himself for us so that we could be restored into the relationship with God that he originally intended for us.
And here’s the truly amazing thing that so many people–those who are not followers of Christ–fail to grasp: God offers this extravagant gift of grace to them as well. Sadly, they do not recognize their need for it. My urgent prayer for you, if you fall into this category, is that you will realize this before it’s too late.