Religion is extremely dangerous. It convinces people they have a corner on the Truth, that they are right and everybody else is wrong. This leads to a feeling of superiority, which, in turn, breeds intolerance, fanaticism, and, many times, violence.
Religion turns people into bigots. Religion ruins everything.
This was a major theme of Christopher Hitchens’ now famous book God is Not Great, and it struck a deep chord in most Americans, whether they agreed with his atheistic critique—that religion is a cancer on humanity that must be cut out—or not.
In fact, it has become a “truism” among most Americans that religious zeal is dangerous. It inevitably leads to fanaticism which leads to violence and so it should be avoided at all costs. It’s OK to be religious as long as you’re not too passionate about it. As long as you keep your beliefs to yourself. As long as you admit that other people’s truth—no matter how contradictory—is just as true and valid as yours. As long as you acknowledge that we all have a “piece” of the truth and no one’s truth is better than anyone else’s.
It really isn’t surprising that as a country we feel this way. Recall September 12, 2001. The image of George Bush speaking through a megaphone with his arm around a New York firefighter while standing on the smoldering debris of the World Trade Center is etched in our memory. He looked shell-shocked. We were all shell-shocked. I have friends who are or were New York firefighters. They still can’t talk about that day. It’s just too much to take, too big to process.
The day a group of religious zealots decided to fly airplanes into heavily occupied buildings our lives forever changed. As a nation, we continue to suffer from a kind of collective PTSD.
So it’s no wonder that this notion of religious zeal being dangerous resonates so powerfully. It’s no wonder we are so wary of people who make absolute Truth claims, such as Jesus is the way to salvation. It’s no wonder that we’ve settled for the idea that all truth is relative, that what’s true for me isn’t necessarily true for you. It’s no wonder that, in our zeal to avoid another 9-11, we’ve decided to adopt an understanding of tolerance that refuses to question anybody else’s sincerely held beliefs.
However, as philosopher Stephen Davis points out, there’s a serious problem with our logic. (Stephen Davis, Rational Faith: A Philosopher’s Defense of Christianity, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, pp. 18-20) It’s deeply incoherent. If a rapist, for example, said they sincerely believe rape is morally acceptable, would we be tolerant of their belief? It’s what’s true for them after all. Indeed, the 9-11 attackers were sincere in their beliefs. Shouldn’t we be tolerant of them too?
Of course not! That would be ludicrous, outrageous.
We have no problem saying that rape and terrorism are wrong, are evil.
See, when you probe a little deeper, it becomes clear that we don’t really believe truth is relative—there is such a thing as Truth. It also becomes clear how absurd our contemporary notion of tolerance really is.
On the opening day of the 2011 baseball season, Bryan Stow, an avid San Francisco Giants fan, took his family to Dodger’s Stadium in Los Angeles to watch the two teams play. After the game, he was attacked—unprovoked—by two Dodger’s fans who beat him so badly they put him in a coma. He spent seven months in the hospital and has permanent brain damage as a result of his injuries. The reason his attackers became so enraged was because Stow is a Giant’s fan.
Religion isn’t the only thing that inspires fanaticism and violence.
In fact, as many of his reviewers have pointed out, Hitchens’—along with the other so-called New Atheists who frequently make the same argument—seriously distorts the picture. While religious fanaticism is responsible for many deadly episodes throughout history, the record clearly shows that secular ideologies have reaped far greater violence.
Between the Crusades, Inquisition, and witch burnings, about 200,000 people were killed by the Church. Communist Russia, Communist China, and Nazi Germany were the most powerful atheist regimes in history. It is estimated that Stalin was responsible for 20 million deaths, Mao, 70 million, and Hitler, 10 million. Adjusting for the population increase, over a five-hundred-year period the Church was responsible for about one percent of the number of deaths these three atheistic regimes caused over a few decades. (See Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity, Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008, pp. 217-226 for a detailed discussion.)
Yes, it’s absolutely true that religion has been one of the most powerful instruments for absolutizing our sense of superiority. The intolerance and violence that has resulted is absolutely inexcusable. It is right to be vigilant about the dangerous tendencies in religion.
But religion isn’t the only thing we need to be wary of. There are many other ideologies that are equally as dangerous. Moreover, religion—or any other ideology—isn’t the root cause of all this violence. Human nature is.
Religion doesn’t ruin everything. Human beings do.
We have an uncanny ability to find ways of defining ourselves, our group, our “tribe”, over and against others; to make ourselves feel superior, whether religiously, racially, ethnically, nationally, and on and on. I’ve been in groups of people who are exactly like me: white, Irish-American, middle-age males. And yet, we somehow inevitably find a way to be tribal, to form cliques that define one small group of us over and against the others.
It’s like a disease.
When a British newspaper asked readers to submit a response to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?”, the renowned writer G.K. Chesterton famously responded with a one world essay: “Me!”
When it comes to what’s wrong with the world, Christianity provides the most realistic answer. In a way that distinguishes itself from every other religion, it says that we are the problem. We are fundamentally broken. This doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of doing good, even of being heroically selfless. But we are prone to bigotry, intolerance, and violence. We can’t help ourselves. (If you think you might be an exception, just take a drive—a few minutes in traffic will convince you that other people can’t drive as well or safely as you—that you are a superior driver—and will probably unleash some violent thoughts.)
Christianity gives the truest account of who we are, and therefore offers the best hope for transforming us—before you can cure a disease you have to diagnose it correctly. (More on how this transformation happens in future blogs.)
Moreover, Christianity is the world’s best hope for avoiding the bigotry and violence religion and, more accurately, human nature breed. The premise of Hitchens’ argument is that it is the nature of religion to make people feel superior and absolutize their intolerance.
But the grace which is at the center of the Christian faith radically subverts any notion of superiority. The only way to receive this grace, to live in it, is with humility, the very opposite of pride, arrogance, and self-righteousness. As has often been said, Christians are simply one beggar telling other beggars where they found bread.
When you “get” grace, you can never look down on anyone.
You can only look up with gratitude.
Grace is the one true antidote to intolerance.
What is absolutized in Christianity is non-violence and true tolerance. Think about it, the absolute norm for Christian living is a man who taught people to turn the other cheek and love your enemy, and who, on the cross, did just that, forgiving the very people who violently executed him. A man who also taught and lived by the notion that greatness is defined by humble service and compassion for the most vulnerable and marginalized. Since Christians believe this man is also God, these are the attitudes and behaviors that are absolutized.
True tolerance isn’t affirming everything someone else believes and does. It’s treating them with love and respect even when you vehemently disapprove. This is exactly what love of enemy entails. And turning the other cheek categorically rules out any use of violence against those with whom you disagree. Being zealous in this way is anything but dangerous and bigoted.
Christianity isn’t dangerous.
The real danger is ignoring the resources it provides—grace, humility, all-encompassing love—to transform us into truly tolerant and non-violent human beings.
E.J. Sweeney is a pastor, author and public speaker whose passion is to show skeptics like himself the overwhelming evidence for the Christian faith. A graduate of Trinity College, BA and Yale University, MDiv, summa cum laude, E.J.has taught theology and scripture in two high schools and has served as a pastor at two churches. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, where he is a volunteer firefighter. You can follow E.J. and his writings at www.RaisingJesus.com and on his Raising Jesus Facebook page.