I’m currently reading Christopher Hitchens’ book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. While the book is thus far proving to be a much more entertaining and interesting read than, for example, Dawkins’ The God Delusion (Hitchens is just a flat out good writer), I am finding the same troubling tendency to access history selectively—focusing exclusively on the tragically frequent instances where religion has been a (not “the,” as in “the only”—things are rarely that simple) motivating factor in the perpetration of great evil and ignoring the simple fact that religion is responsible for a lot of the good in the world as well.
In chapter two, Hitchens takes us on a tour of some of the atrocities perpetrated in the name of religion. In response to a question he was once asked by a religious person—”You see a group of men walking toward you in a dark alley in the middle of the night. Would you feel more or less safe if you knew they were coming from a prayer meeting?”—Hitchens proceeds to catalogue the horrors he has personally witnessed over the last 30 years or so, all done in the name of religion. Restricting his focus only to cities starting with the letter “b,” Hitchens describes how in Belfast, Belgrade, Beirut, Bombay, Bethlehem, and Baghdad religion has been the primary agent in fomenting hatred, injustice, intolerance, and unspeakable violence. These grim accounts are punctuated with the repeated refrain: Religion poisons everything.
As a religious person, I find it difficult and disheartening to read about the evil done in the name of religion. At times, it’s tempting to wonder what might happen if there were no religion—every day on the news there are more stories which suggest that this might not be a bad idea. It was particularly disconcerting to read of the latest development in the tragic story unfolding in Afghanistan, only minutes after putting down Hitchens’ book. Yet another death chalked up to someone’s fanatical commitment to religion, another life needlessly extinguished because someone was all-too convinced that God required killing to be done in his name. Religion poisons everything? Well it sure seems to poison some things.
I began to wonder what Mr. Hitchens’ reaction to this story might be. Tragic confirmation of this thesis, no doubt. Another case to add to the overflowing file of examples of religion’s toxic effects. But then something struck me that, while perhaps blindingly obvious to most people, had escaped my attention thus far in this deplorable situation. This group of Koreans who were abducted and are being held hostage in Afghanistan were part of a volunteer Christian aid organization which came to offer themselves in the service of their fellow human beings. And they did this as a result of their religious convictions.
Religion is certainly playing a major role in this tragic story, but not simply as a motivator for evil. Religion is, undoubtedly, steeling the resolve of those holding the guns, but it is also the main reason that these Koreans were in Afghanistan—reaching out to people in desperate need—in the first place.
This story illustrates—simply, and without much fanfare—that religion does not, in fact, poison everything. It may poison some things—even a lot of things—but not everything. These unfortunate Korean Christians volunteered to go to a foreign culture to offer what help they could because of their belief that an invisible deity who became incarnate in a Jewish peasant two thousand years ago, who claimed to be ushering in the kingdom of God, and whose followers insist was miraculously raised from the dead—beliefs which are truly offensive to human reason, as authors like Hitchens never tire of pointing out—has set the pattern for how we are to love God and our neighbours.
I expect that Christopher Hitchens would write off this example of commitment to the good of humanity motivated by supernatural belief as anomalous or, at the very least, as a case where religious people managed to ignore their own antiquated hate-texts to a sufficient extent that they could unwittingly align themselves with the agenda of enlightened secular humanism. Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps the world would be a safer, more humane place if everyone checked their religion at the door. Like Hitchens, I don’t think we’ll ever have the opportunity to find out; the religious impulse in humanity is simply too strong (Hitchens claims that it is largely fear and ignorance that fuel this impulse; I would have a different view with respect to its origins…).
In the meantime, if we’re stuck living with one another in a world where people are incorrigibly and persistently religious, it would seem prudent to at least be more circumspect in our pronouncements upon the influence of religion. Human history—the history of our intellectual, cultural, and moral development—is far too closely bound up with religious history to substantiate a claim as fantastic as the subtitle of Hitchens’ book. A more humble, and historically accurate claim would be that religion is currently proving to be one negative and divisive force (among others) in some (not all) places in the world. Granted, this doesn’t make for a very sexy or marketable book cover, but I think it does have the more modest benefit of being true.