Monday, January 23, 2012

January 22, 2012 - Answering the Skeptics - When Evil Is Done in the Name of God

I John 4:7-21

Look closely at the following picture. I debated whether or not to use this picture, because I really don’t like it. I find it offensive and unfair and I believe it draws incorrect conclusions about faith in general, not to mention that it is disrespectful to people who were victims of 9/11. The reason I chose to use the picture is because it sums up the way some people look at religion.

Would the Twin Towers still stand if there were no religion? That is certainly the implication of this picture. This morning, as we continue our series Answering the Skeptics, we come to the topic When Evil Is Done in the Name of God. This is a challenge that skeptics consider to be one of the strongest arguments in their arsenal when attacking faith – that religious faith is the source of all the ills of the world and is responsible for almost all the wars and human history and has been responsible for more deaths than any other factor throughout human history.

Well, let’s start with the obvious –

1. Is religious faith the cause of the world’s problems?

No, it isn’t. Plain and simple.

Having said that, it would be both naïve and wrong to say there have not been terrible things done in the name of religion. In the case of Christianity, we must contend with the Crusades, the Inquisition, the support of slavery, the subjugation of women – all terrible acts in which some used religious faith to justify their actions. But even when people use religious faith to justify their evil actions, is religious faith itself the cause of the evil? I would say that it is not.

The fact that many people commit evil in the name of God does not mean that belief in God is the cause of that evil. What causes people to commit horrific acts is a very complicated question, but it is certainly far too simplistic to say that religious belief is to blame.

When we look at all the atrocities and the hatred and the cruelty of history what is the common denominator – humanity. It is humanity that perpetuates the evil inflicted upon others and some of the greatest evils – such as the Holocaust – are evidence not so much of the problem of religion but the depths to which humanity will go in some acts of madness.

When I hear someone say that religion is the cause of most or all of the wars in human history I have one basic question – where are your statistics? Can you back up that claim?

Matthew White is the author of The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, a book released last year and which documents the 100 worst atrocities in the history of humanity. The book demonstrates the false claim that religion is the cause of more deaths than any other reason in history. The Encyclopedia of Wars (Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod) will make the same point. The authors document 1,763 wars throughout human history, 123 of which involve religious conflict. Even one, of course, is too many, but some of them can be debated. Northern Ireland, for instance, though it pits Protestant against Catholic may be more about independence from, or continued allegiance with, Britain than being about religion. We could also ask, did religion cause World War I? No. Did it cause World War II? No. The claim that religion has been the cause of most or all of the wars in human history is such an oft-made claim that many people never question it.

I watched a debate between Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins, and the first question Dawkins asked McGrath was this – doesn’t it bother you to be in the same camp as some of the religious extremists? What he was doing was making McGrath, and by implication all of us, guilty by association. McGrath was very polite in his answer and let Dawkins off the hook rather gently, in my opinion. He said he doesn’t like the religious extremism he sees and distanced himself from such people. I agree. I don’t like religious extremism that manifests itself in violence either, but I would have gone further.

I would have asked Dawkins are you comfortable with some of the people in your camp? If I have to answer for every crazy religious extremist how do you feel about being in the same camp as Stalin? Do you have to answer for him? Do you have to answer for Pol Pot, who murdered millions of his countrymen in Cambodia? Do you want to answer for the atrocities committed during the French Revolution, which was very much an attack on faith by people who had rejected belief and embraced atheism?

I would also point out that if you follow the logic of rejecting something because of past history we would find it necessary to reject almost everything. A citizen of any country, including our own, would have to reject belief in the principles of their own country because of what was done in the name of that country. What would Richard Dawkins have to say about being a British citizen and the beneficiary of the British Empire, which committed their share of atrocities throughout history? I imagine he would condemn Britain’s role in the slave trade, but is he going to reject his own country?

2. The very false assumption that an absence of faith will make the world a better place.

As portrayed in the earlier picture, and in John Lennon’s song Imagine (which I very much like, by the way) the world would be a much better place without religion. Remove religion and you would have an almost utopian atmosphere. Gone would be war, prejudice, and hatred. In its place would be a human species ruled by reason and blessed by the advances of science. What a wonderful world it would be, if it weren’t for religion.

But what if all the religions of the world were suddenly gone? Let’s take Richard Dawkins’ supposition and run with it for a moment. Would a peaceful world exist? Would evil suddenly cease to exist? No. Evil would continue unabated, and to believe that the evil of the world would end if religion were nonexistent is a very naïve view of the world and of history. Besides, it has been tried, and it didn’t work out very well. It didn’t work out very well in the Soviet Union, the killing fields of Cambodia, or during the French Revolution.

One of the assumptions of this position is that only religious people are capable of committing acts of evil or violence. But listen to what Sam Harris writes in The End of Faith. Harris is vehement in his opposition to any kind of religious faith, and often points to religion as being the source of the world’s ills. It is astounding then, that he writes the following – The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them (The End of Faith, pp. 52-53).

3. Evil done in the name of God is not authentic faith.

My friend Martin Cothran says it this way, as he responded to a skeptic –

Please explain to me which tenets of Christianity contribute to making someone worse than they were before. Is it Christianity's stress on humility? Justice? Honesty? Or maybe its advocacy of charity?

In fact, all you can do is to cite examples of bad Christian behavior…But, again, that is completely irrelevant. The question is not whether some Christians act badly; the question is whether there is something in Christianity itself that is to blame for them acting badly.

How can you say that the bad behavior of some Christians is attributable to Christianity when that behavior violates the very principles of Christianity?

Is it Christianity that makes them act badly, or their lack of adherence to it? Is it the practice of Christianity that is the problem? Or their lack of practice of it?...The abuse of something does not nullify its proper use.

(Source – Martin Cothran’s weblog, Vere Loqui).

Several years ago I heard Bill Maher – who is by no means a fan of Christianity or religious faith in general – comment that even when the church was at its worst, there has always been the person of Jesus to stands as a corrective, and no other religion has any such thing or any such person. That’s a pretty good observation.

In his book The Case for Faith, Lee Strobel quotes John D. Woodbridge, who says Nobody was more outspoken against hypocrisy or cruelty than Jesus. Consequently, if critics believe that aspects of the Crusades should be denounced as hypocritical and violent – well, they’d have an ally in Christ. They’d be agreeing with him.

(The Case for Faith, by Lee Strobel, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000, p. 207).

Just because something is done in the name of God doesn’t mean that it is of God. Any expression of evil is not an expression of authentic faith, and evil done in the name of God is not of God. Even in the darkest days of the church there were always voices calling out for repentance. In the darkest days of the Inquisition there were voices – Christian voices – crying out for it to end; in the days of slavery there were voices – Christian voices – crying out for it to end. Christians have stood in opposition to tyrants and despots from the beginning. Those voices are the voices of authentic faith; they are the voices reflecting the voice and the truth of Jesus, who is always the corrective of our wrongdoing.

Authentic Christianity does not abuse people; it does not seek power for the sake of power; it does not inflict violence upon people and it does not seek to force people into faith. Authentic faith stands up for the freedom and competency of individual souls; authentic faith is the defender of the powerless; authentic faith is that which would choose to perish by the sword rather than to wield the sword in compelling force.

4. Power is better left in the hands of God, not the church.

To me, the most influential event in the history of Christianity, after the resurrection of Jesus and the conversion of Paul, was the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who turned Christianity from a faith victimized by the sword to one that wielded the sword of the Empire. Constantine did Christians a favor by ending the terrible persecutions, but in the process he may have robbed the church of one of its greatest strengths – that of being dispossessed of any political power but possessing tremendous spiritual power. Constantine’s conversion made us the inheritors of a church rich in political and economic power, which in turn allowed for some terrible abuses to take place. Without Constantine’s conversion and his patronage of the church, there could not have been an Inquisition, the tragic consequences of Geneva under John Calvin, and some of the other dark moments in church history.

In America, we still deal with some of the implications of this combination of faith and power, but I think one of the great geniuses of America has been the attempt to keep government neutral toward religion; as Americans we are free to practice the religion of our choosing or none at all. It’s a free-market approach to faith – it stands or falls on its own. If you can get enough market support for your beliefs they will thrive; if not, they will fail. I believe this is why there is such vibrancy of faith in the Untied States, which is virtually alone in the Western world in terms of religious vibrancy. This is not so in Europe, where the legacy of state religion and church-sanctioned oppressive rulers have resulted in a large-scale rejection of not only Christianity but also any kind of belief in God.

The tragic condition of faith across Europe leads me to say that it is long past time for the institutional church to relinquish any temporal or political power it may possess or any goal it may have to attain such power. I am not saying we should give up our political voice, but it is clear from historical examples that political power in the hands of the church has too often led to disaster. The French Revolution cast aside the church because it was so closely aligned with an uncaring and oppressive monarchy and France has remained largely indifferent or hostile to faith since. Cathedrals throughout the rest of Europe sit largely empty, in my opinion, because of the emptiness of state-sponsored religion and the corresponding legacy of a church that was too often interested in capturing power rather than gaining influence that comes from humble and loving service.

It is important to note that power and influence are not the same. Influence is the ability to gain a hearing because people are impressed with how you live; power is the ability to force someone against their will to do what you want them to do. It is this kind of power that Jesus so often condemned, even as his disciples sought to attain it.

When James and John came to Jesus on the road to Jerusalem they said We want you to do whatever we ask of you (Mark 10:35). Pretty brazen, wasn’t it? They asked Jesus, Grant that we may sit in your glory, one on your right, and one on your left (Mark 10:37). They were seeking power, when they should have been seeking influence.

The danger of power is that it so often leads to force and violence, and it is never acceptable to inflict harm upon another person in the name of Jesus; better to endure harm or violence than to use it as a tool in the name of God.

Power has become the currency of the day. Many, in the name of faith, are pursuing power because they see this as the path to extending the kingdom of God. While tempting, this is but an illusion. The way to expand the kingdom of God is by following the example of Jesus, not the examples of kings, empires, and governments. The way of Jesus is influence born of loving service, which brings honor to the name of God. The way of power too often leads to harm and to dishonoring the name of God, and like the earliest Christians, we must be willing to lay aside all in being like Jesus.

May we pray.

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