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Religion Poisons Everything?

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.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gil #

    This argument about religion being false because it can produce evil seems to beg a fairly important (and often repeated) question. How does Hitchens decide on what is poisonous? He’s making an explicitly moral argument – religion is immoral because of the kinds of evils it produces – so where does the standard of morality come from?

    In a world with no inherent purpose and no external source for morality can there be anything but the wills of individuals and communities to preserve themselves? In this kind of a world you would expect to see the kinds of evils that Hitchens rightly deplores. I am not saying that Hitchens (or any other atheist) believes this, I’m just saying that his whole argument seems to be based on an assumed foundation that is not easily accounted for in a purely naturalistic worldview. Does he ever address this? Am I missing something obvious?

    July 31, 2007
  2. Gil #

    I should add that I’m aware of certain pragmatic options that have been floated. My understanding is that some say that ‘goodness’ is not something that corresponds with an actual reality ‘out there’ but rather it’s a way of talking about what works best for the greatest number of people. I think this can answer some of the questions (like how we can stop killing each other) but not all. If the concern was ONLY to ensure a level of basic peace then this could be a place to start. But I suspect Hitchens and others have objections to belief in God that go a bit deeper than this.

    Dawkins, for example, seems to find something immoral in the idea of denying children the opportunity to decide about religion for themselves. For Dawkins religion is something that violates a sacred human freedom to know and to decide. This is an example of where a purely pragmatic ethical foundation seems to fall apart for me.

    July 31, 2007
  3. I don’t think you’re missing anything obvious. It has long struck me as ironic that by far the strongest arguments against God and religion offered by folks like Hitchens and Dawkins are moral ones – arguments which are extremely difficult (if not impossible) to ground on the basis of a consistent naturalistic worldview. As you suggest, it’s difficult to see how, for example, commitment to evolutionary theory – a scientific theory based on observation of the natural world – could oblige anyone to accept that it is morally impermissible to teach children about metaphysical or religious claims.

    It’s also difficult, for that matter, to see where such virtues as “truth” and “freedom” acquire their normative force in the first place. If, at rock bottom, evolutionary theory exposes all of my metaphysical beliefs as fanciful (or harmful) illusions, then “utility” or the extent to which something enhances my own self-interest, not abstract concepts such as “truth” or “freedom” would seem to be much more important for me to worry about. Why wouldn’t a logical response be to say, when someone like Hitchens or Dawkins informs me that my beliefs are untrue, “Who cares whether they’re true or not? If human beings are, as Dawkins insists, nothing more than ‘survival machines,’ then what ought to concern me, above all else, is whether or not something is advantageous to me!”

    July 31, 2007
  4. Hey Dueck brothers,

    I certainly don’t think it’s “morally impermissible to teach children about metaphysical or religious claims”. I want my child to know about all the popular theories in this world, and what are great tools/questions to test them – like ‘falsifiability’.

    I want my child to know what her world consists of, including social contracts that attempt to provide all individuals equal freedoms in their pursuits. I want her to know that these contracts can provide a degree of assurance regarding these freedoms, as a deterrent to lying, by stipulating legal consequences enforced by the state. Then, she may see that truth does in fact matter.

    I also want my child to know the value of attaining mutual advantages through democratic processes such as social contracts, as an attempt to satisfy (to some degree) each individual’s self-interests. She may then learn that morality is developed by humanity’s natural instincts (among other instincts) to communicate affectively a respect for others’ self-interests as well as our own.


    August 1, 2007
  5. Gil #

    It seems to me that we share a strong interest in teaching our kids certain truths about the world and ethical responsibilities that cannot neither be proved nor falsified.

    I cannot prove the existence of a moral God who is the ultimate ground of ethical behaviour. Likewise I think a social contract based on “respect for others’ self interests” is impossible to prove as a necessary consequence of a naturalistic worldview. WHY should we respect the self-interests of others? Evolutionary theory can do a good job of explaining personal self-interest but it cannot, in my estimation, explain why I should value others’ self-interest as an unqualified good.

    Personal self-interest can be explained in terms of a basic survival instinct. Cherishing the freedom of others to pursue their goals is a statement of value, it is a claim about the ‘rightness’ of this kind of activity. That, in my view, is extremely difficult to account for within a purely naturalistic worldview.

    If this value of the freedom of others is attributed to ‘instinct’ or something inherent within human nature (as you seem to do above) then we are up against something that cannot be proved, it is something that must simply be accepted as given and believed.

    August 1, 2007
  6. Hey,

    I am looking forward to reading Hitchens when I finish Dawkins. I read his weekly column and he is indeed a fantastic writer.

    I posted an article about Dawkins on Digital Journal that I think you’d be interested in:

    There is also one about Hitchens (not by me) at:


    August 1, 2007
  7. Gil,

    The human species has developed such a consciousness that we have become aware (by our instinctive nature) to observe and recognize the logical, natural effects in our lives. We can recognize that we are not only governed by nature, but nurture as well. And we’ve become conscious of the fact that our environment includes strong influences by our fellow human beings.

    Therefore, our evolved minds have also recognized that our instinctive desire to preserve our lives (a wholistic self-interest of ours) has developed an instinctive need to have the influences of fellow human beings benefit our personal survival. This requires a certain degree of diplomacy – which in my mind, is an ‘unqualified good’ found in humanity’s individual self-interests.

    Now, is this theory of mine correct? That’s where falsifiability can come in. Scientists have the opportunity to observe tangible tests taken on human beings to see if there is a possibility that an individual’s desire for diplomacy is in fact NOT based on personal, instinctive self-interests.

    So I would agree that “the existence of a moral God who is the ultimate ground of ethical behaviour” cannot be falsified, but respectively disagree that my naturalistic worldview of ethical responsibilities also cannot, in fact, be falsified.

    In peaceful opposition,

    August 2, 2007
  8. Gil #

    Can you refer to some tangible tests that have been taken on human beings that would verify that this ‘individual desire for diplomacy’ is based on personal, instinctive self-interest? What would such a test look like? How would you verify the results? What kind of observable data would produce this kind of conclusion? If there are published studies out there I’d love to have a look.

    It seems to me that you have an extraordinarily high level of faith that the process of evolution, a process that is by definition governed by natural selection or the survival of the strong at the expense of the weak, could produce something beyond self-interest. Even more difficult to prove would be the human appreciation for beauty or truth or some other metaphysical reality that does not offer a direct benefit for human survival.

    Again, my claim is not a radical one. I’m just saying that we’re both in the same boat – we’re both interpreting experience based on a starting point that cannot be proven.

    August 2, 2007
  9. jc #

    I was listening to a podcast recently done WNYC. The show was called Radio Lab and believe the podcast is available on their website as it is on itunes. The show had a number of interesting segments on it that seem to be related the discussion here. One segment was an interview with a guy who works at Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. Apparently he has observed chimps having some sense of morality. He throws a branch into their habitat and the alpha male take the branch and divides it among the group of chimps. Everybody gets a piece of the pie. Observations of chimps having some sort of morality would make sense, of course, in viewing morality from an naturalistic perspective. If we have evolved from apes then it would be reasonable to see them having somewhat of a moral system to. Another interesting segment was about a guy who took brain scans at the point when subjects in the study had to make a certain moral decision. You can read about the moral questions he asked the subjects here if you like… it makes for interesting cocktail party discussions. According to him he could see parts of the brain lighting up on either the rational side of the brain or the emotional side of the brain when the subjects were asked these questions. Depending on the question either the rational side of the brain would win or the emotional side of the brain would win. In the case where the emotional side of the brain would win it could still be quite reasonably argued that this would result in the wrong moral choice.

    I don’t know if any of that was interesting but I thought it provides more food for thought when thinking about morality.

    As for this book…. I would agree that the style of writing in this book makes it worth reading. However I agree with you Ryan that the book does not even approach proving its title. It’s too bad that the claim that religion poisons everything was put in the title because some of the books’ contents are worth discussing. I think that this claim kind of makes it hard to take seriously at all.

    August 2, 2007
  10. Gil #

    Thanks JC,
    Thanks for the reading material. I was particularly interested in one of Dr. Greene’s papers called “From Neural ‘Is’ To Moral ‘Ought’”.

    Here he talks about how morality is most often based on ‘intuition’ or gut-level reactions to situations demanding moral decisions. He explains these as having had some selective advantage in our distant past. This is a lot like Dawkins argument that if something appears to have no selective advantage now then it must have had one at some point in the past. Why? Because of the assumption that natural selection is the explanatory framework.

    Overall his argument seems to be that we need to recognize that what we call ‘moral’ is nothing more than the reflection of our values. He seems quite willing to grant that science hasn’t got morality figured out (see first column on page 849) and that morality will likely never become a branch of the natural sciences.

    As to the explanation offered about how either cognitive or emotional brain functions can be at work in moral reasoning, I may be missing something but it seems like he’s doing a good job of telling us how the machine works without offering much help on why the machine works in the first place.

    August 2, 2007
  11. Marvin Dueck #

    Hi Ryan,
    I was told to check out this website by your parents because it had a good rant about washrooms (it was good), but then snooped around and found this page. I don’t presume to understand Hitchens’ mind, and could concur that the subtitle might sound like a crass generalization. I guess it depends on how you define “poisons”….. Perhaps his definition/viewpoint is most succinctly stated in his opening chapter, particularly page 10, last full paragraph. The fact that believers (of whatever ilk) “claim to know” that a creator god exists, and that its’ demands are discernable will already shape/cloud/”poison” these same believers’ perspective of life, living and interaction with the rest of the species.

    I have underlined two statements in my copy of the book, which perhaps underscore my understanding of the continuing search for Truth.

    “In other words, in a vast and complicated discussion where we know more and more about less and less, yet can still hope for some enlightenment as we proceed, one faction (religion) – itself composed of mutually warring factions – has the sheer arrogance to tell us that we already have all the essential information we need.” (p. 10) parenthetical insertion mine.

    The other quotation comes from Hitchens’ discussion about Socrates.

    “Even though he was not in fact an atheist, he was quite correctly considered unsound for his advocacy of free thought and unrestricted inquiry, and his refusal to give assent to ANY dogma. All he really “knew,” he said, was the extent of his own ignorance. (This to me is still the definition of an educated person.)” (p. 256) capitalization mine

    I think I agree.

    August 6, 2007
  12. Good to hear from you Marvin! I actually highlighted the same passages that you referred to. I think there is a good deal of wisdom in Hitchens’ words here, despite my disagreement with him regarding the implications of these statements.

    Re: the first quote…. I suppose it depends upon what is meant by the phrase “all the essential information we need.” “Essential for what?”, I would ask. I think that I do possess the essential information I need with respect to the purpose of life – I am to love God and love my neighbour as myself. But within that perspective, there is a huge amount of discovery, reevaluation, questioning, and development that can take place. The command to love my neighbour seems to oblige me to continue to learn as much as I can about the world in order to, at the very least, alleviate what suffering I can and contribute to the flourishing of the world. Unlike Hitchens, I don’t think that religious belief disqualifies honest engagement with the world, commitment to scientific discovery, or doubt. I think that all of these things can and ought to be a part of every Christian’s understanding of the world. Whenever someone claims to possess “the truth,” as in a fixed, unchanging entity which cannot be supplemented or augmented in any way, I would say that they are speaking in a sub-Christian and unbiblical manner.

    Re: the Socrates bit…. Like you, I could hardly agree with Hitchens more here – the further I progress in academic life, the more apparent my ignorance becomes. Again, though, I found myself wondering why Hitchens considers an appropriate view of human epistemological limitation to necessarily preclude a religious worldview. Human ignorance and limitation can, and ought to, spur deeper inquiry and greater humility, but I see no reason why this cannot be done within a framework of faith. In my view, authentic faith actually demands this type of response.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond – I appreciate hearing your perspective on the book.

    August 6, 2007

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