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Does religion really poison everything, Adam Dodds asks. 

The late Christopher Hitchens popularised the pithy phrase "religion poisons everything".

While this charge concerning religion's effect is not new, it is remarkable in its comprehensiveness. Does religion really poison everything, or is this simply new atheist propaganda that should be treated with scepticism rather than taken on faith?

According to atheists there is no deity, so religions must be human creations. If religion is the product of human imagination then it follows that people poison everything. Since religion is universal, this claim is evidence of the universally flawed nature of human beings. Interestingly, this is precisely what the Bible teaches. Human beings are created intrinsically good and capable of beauty and creativity, yet simultaneously are broken and subject to destructive impulses, which the Bible calls sin.

But is it right to treat all religions as one amorphous solidity - a common secular tendency? In fact they are diverse and often mutually exclusive. For example, the Bible records that one religion - worshipping the god Molech - involved sacrificing one's own children, yet biblical faith strongly condemns this as abhorrent. Thus, some religions are intrinsically malevolent, but not all are. Returning to Hitchens' original contention then, the question must be asked, "which religion"?

Some new atheists claim that religion causes all wars. According to the Encyclopedia of Wars, authors Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod observe that less than 7% of wars have religious causes.

A further thought is this: why must it be religion that poisons everything? A person could claim that power poisons everything; or money; or politics. All these equally sweeping claims share three characteristics. They each contain a grain of truth: each has been used to harm people. Each claim is cynical, and each claim is a vast oversimplification.

Moving from reflection to response, finding one instance of religion's positive affect would disprove the claim that religion poisons everything. But the evidence is much stronger than that. Summarising numerous studies on the psychological experience of believers and non-believers, Helen Philips of the New Scientist (September 2007) states, "On average, religious believers. feel better about themselves; use their time more constructively; and engage in long-term planning rather than gratifying their impulsive desires. On a moment-by-moment basis, they report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited." This is corroborated by accomplished professor of psychiatry Andrew Sims' book Is Faith Delusion? Why Religion is Good for Your Health. Clearly, religion does affect people positively.

But enough about religion in general. Religions are not all alike, and those differences make a difference. As a Christian, I acknowledge that many horrific acts have been carried out in the name of Christianity. Confessing sin is a core Christian practice. So: confession time.

Violence in Christ's name includes the post-Reformation religious wars, witch trials, Inquisitions, the effects of the Papal bull Dum Diversas (1492), and the persecution that followed Roman Emperor Theodosius' edict in AD380. All these acts are wrong, indefensible, and unjustifiable. And of course, the full list is far longer and includes contemporary events.

The cause of most of these instances of violence can be traced to the fourth century. Then, Christianity underwent a transformation from being a minority faith persecuted by the state, to significantly holding the reins of power. It was the church-state, religious-political alliance, called Christendom, which has led to such violence.

But Christendom violence was not Christian because it directly opposes the teaching and example of Jesus. Using an encyclopedia to hit someone's finger does not make the encyclopedia malicious. It means the encyclopedia has been used against its purpose. Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek. When one of Jesus' own disciples drew a sword to defend Jesus he commands him to "put away your sword".

The ripple effect on humanity of Jesus' life was/is extraordinary; precisely what you would expect since Jesus was God revealed in the flesh. Christians claim in Jesus' teaching and person; in His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus revealed exactly what God is like.

Christianity spread rapidly in the early centuries because converts were transformed: Christ's followers fed the poor, clothed the naked, nursed the sick, and promoted a radical equality across class and gender divisions (see Galatians 3:28).

In the fourth century, church leader Gregory of Nyssa made the first ever principled condemnation of slavery because of his Christian convictions. Historian Tom Holland says the concept of human rights goes back to the writings of the New Testament, and these ripple effects are still shaping our modern world today.

The effects of Jesus' life in Dunedin today includes Christians providing food for the hungry - through foodbanks and the Dunedin Night Shelter. The effect is genuine life transformation through God's powerful Holy Spirit. We had a baptism service recently where people spoke of Jesus' loving power transforming them from the inside out. The outcome of this is what is called the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, kindness, and self-control.

Having considered, and rejected the claim "religion poisons everything", perhaps you might consider the claims of Jesus.

 - Dr Adam Dodds is a senior pastor at the Elim Church in Dunedin.



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Since the persecution of Christians began when the town elders nailed Jesus to the cross, the church has sustained an endless barrage of attacks. The attacks are ongoing.

The chaos of modern life is alarming to many. Selfishness, money, violence. Not even the definition of man and woman is safe. In the olden days, the Christians hid in the catacombs of Rome for hundreds of years, fearing assault. Whilst reactionary violence can't be condoned, it can be understood, when you consider how people are. Hitchen's and his new atheists are just another wave of assault. This is where the violence originates.

Why are so many people getting tattoo's? One idea is that they are yearning for something permanent, something solid in our crazy modern battlefield. The tattoo is like an orthodox icon carved into the flesh. Another option, equally painful, is to strive to live up to the values of Christendom, in one of its forms, before we have to retreat to the catacombs.

The values of Christendom are the values of theocracy. No thanks. It's a pluralist world.

Yes there are many "biblical" values that are truly horrible but many useful ones too. The notion that all values must be biblical seems absurd given the human timeline. Assuming humans have been around for say 1 million years, but the oldest biblical texts are say 3K years old there is a gap of 997,000 years where apparently no laws, values or ethics were practiced. We know of some such as the laws of Hammurabi, and Sumerian codes of commerce. We can assume that the OT was not written in a vacuum so would have built on ancient near east values. You could argue that the biblical values then were only an evolution of human values. A further evolution then could be humanist values. At the moment religious values in a modern society are subject to humanist law. Increasingly secular values are being adopted as biblical values are seen to pursue inequality, unfairness or moral obfuscation.

'Not even the definition of man or woman is safe'. Gender is not a religious matter, but personal choice. It's not determinist and that is a kind of individual freedom.

The 'Social Gospel' was a practice last century. 'Hikoi of Hope', and vigil at Dunedin Anglican Cathedral.

In Latin America, activist religious were stopped by JP2.

NZ churches and NGO's are involved with work that was Governments' responsibility.

When we consider all the problems in our country I often think we need more religion. From a Christian perspective, Jesus promoted the concept of good stewardship which applies to our land, our bodies, our finances, our relationships etc. We have the God of "Me" which isn't new but a very destructive internal voice and Christian teaching talks a lot about getting our focus away from "Me" so important that people get to hear this teaching.

It is noted that false christianity is like" a wolf in sheep clothing. Outwardly they appear righteous but inwardly they are ravenous/ very hungry wolves." This hunger can appear as greed for money, power, control. Thus violence is done to achieve these ravenous desires.

Adam, Developing a straw man argument is a form of bad faith arguing. Going from Hitch to all atheists is a stretch, and does huge disservice to most. Sam Harris would concede that many good things occur through religion. Of course they may occur without religion as well. The central problem are the many versions of gods and claims made. The discovery institute is a major well funded source of dis-information which attempts to science up creationism and other stuff. The lengths they go to to mislead are striking. Mis-information is a major problem for religion, as people become more literate, its much harder to mislead them. Bad faith arguments like your one will only confirm to young people that religious leaders are not capable of good faith arguments where your opponents position is accurately presented, and pushed back on.

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