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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.