Does Religion Poison Everything?

By Ed Buckner | 8 January 2024
Letters to a Free Country

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I have long admired the late Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) and agreed with him on many things. I think his book, god is not Great (2007), is excellent:

And I appreciate how provocative and, in my opinion, mostly true his subtitle—How Religion Poisons Everything—is. But I’ve come to doubt, at least a bit, the absolute truth of that subtitle. I’m still a firm atheist, still persuaded there is no good reason to believe in any gods as great or even as existing. And I still think religion has seriously poisoned much of human life and still is doing so.

But not quite “everything.”

This means I have some doubts as well about the implicit truth of Nobel-prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg’s most famous nonprofessional quote—

With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.

I still think that explains many things many times. But not all things all the time.

First, let me clarify and enumerate some examples of just how I do think religion helps to poison things—

  1. In Burundi the national leader, based on his “African values” that are nearly certainly grounded in religious values, declared, just late last year, that gay people should be taken to a stadium and stoned to death.
  2. In Israel, a sephardic Jewish leader has declared that even more ashkenazi Jews deserved to die in the WWII era holocaust.
  3. In Gaza and many other Islamic societies, school children are taught to hate Jews based on religion.
  4. In the US, especially in Indiana and across the American South, Christians were taught, effectively, that their religion required them to hate, persecute, terrorize, and kill black people, Jews, and Catholics.
  5. Buddhist believers and nationalists have relentlessly and viciously persecuted and killed Muslims in part over religion.
  6. The Protestant and Catholics of Northern Ireland hated and abused each other for reasons beyond religion, but religion was certainly part of the motivation, part of the deadly poisoning of neighborliness there.
  7. Nor was Catholic vs. Protestant vicious evil limited to Northern Ireland. In Europe and in England, religious wars killed thousands, often quite cruelly, in the name of religion over several hundred years.
  8. And it was not just that religion poisoned via war. Untold numbers of people—mostly women but some men, too—died, often horribly, as “witches” fueled in large part by religion. The Bible—Deuteronomy 18:9–12—says,

    When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord.

  9. And of course, it was not only witches who were persecuted based on religion. Many heretics and “blasphemers” like Michael Servetus (unknown birth date—around 1510—to death in1553) were burned alive for disagreeing about religious ideas.
  10. Hitler used the Christian religion, with plenty of cooperation from Christians and leaders as high as the Pope, to justify and actively support the murder of millions of Jews, gay people, “Gypsies,” and others—https://blogs.bu.edu/guidedhistory/jews-in-russia-and-eastern-europe/shoshana-koff/ .
  11. In the part of the US where I live, “The South,” man’s inhumanity to man took the form of the peculiar—and hideous—institution of slavery. And Southern leaders like Governor and US Senator James Henry Hammond and many others were at pains to show that God ordained this race-based slavery. (My son Michael and I wrote at length about this in Free Inquiry in the June/July 2023 issue).
  12. On a much smaller and less important scale, Christians (like George Daly of Canada) condemn Israeli bombing of Gaza in ways that clearly seem to connect that condemnation to Jewish failure to accept Jesus Christ as the perfect God.
  13. What about the lack of religion as cause for evil? Stalin and Pol Pot were unquestionably evil and when at the peaks of power, they weren’t religious. But were they engaging in evil because they lacked religion? Possible—but impossible to be sure, and that leads to another point.

In all of the above, religion may well not be the only cause for making things worse—for poisoning—but it seems overwhelmingly clear that in most or all of these, religion was a major negative factor.

Why Is Religion Dangerous?

Not just a religion, but any set of ideas, whether a philosophy, a set of political principles, etc., can be dangerous and destructive. People have slaughtered and tortured other human beings for being the “wrong” nationality, skin color, sex, ideology, ethnicity, and more. The Irish “troubles,” for example, were tied up with things like opposition to British rule, devotion to a geographic place, etc.—but religion was certainly entangled with all of it, too. Correlation and causation are often confused and correlation can obscure whether actual causation is present. More about that and our neighbor, “Sunny,” in a moment.

But why isn’t the danger from religion the same as the danger from ideology or nationalism, or the like? It’s not just because religion involves powerful emotions—other ideologies can do so as well. Religion alone hinges directly on unprovable assertions. If you’re ready to kill or torture a foreigner because you think “My king wants me to kill or torture him,” at least you can verify whether his royal highness actually said that, as well, at least in principle, as whether others can provide arguments to the contrary. But if you’re ready to kill or torture the same foreigner because you think “Allah wants me to to kill or torture him,” you can test His wishes only indirectly—only if someone else tells you He wants that or that His wishes are inscribed in a sacred text which this someone else assures you is “Allah’s word.” And if you’re convinced that Allah speaks directly to you, that bespeaks a form of insanity—and won’t stand up in any reasonable court.

Correlation, Causation, and “Sunny”

We have a great neighbor, whom I’ve written about much earlier (a year ago—see link here) who I will call (as I did then), “Sunny.”

Everyone who knows Sunny—her husband, my wife, her daughters, other neighbors—counts her as genuinely good person. Sunny would never knowingly hurt anyone else and almost always knows ways to make things better for others. She is, in the lingo of this part of the world, “good people.” And she is a deeply, sincerely, religious person.

So, does Sunny prove that religion can be non-poisonous? Or does she prove Weinberg, above, right?—that good people will be good with or without religion? Is she good because of her religion? Or in spite of it?

There’s no way to be sure. And that’s why, in part at least, I have my doubts about religion poisoning everything. And even doubts about the possibility that religion can contribute causally to good. I have no doubts about Sunny’s decency and graciousness—her goodness—and we’ve known other deeply religious people who’re compassionate, kind, and loving of others. Including others who insist that they’re sinners who’d be selfish and mean if not for their religion. The correlation among people we’ve known seems to be weakly positive: more religious people are somewhat more likely to be good people, with mean-spirited religious people and gracious, good irreligious ones common but not pervasive.

How people were raised, how they developed character, how they became broadly educated, how they’ve grown, who they’ve known, what they’ve read—all may have involved religion or not, and I’m not sure it’s possible to measure religion’s specific personal power.

But boy are we glad we know Sunny.

Ed Buckner is an American atheist activist who served as president of the organization American Atheists from 2008 to 2010. He served as executive director for the Council for Secular Humanism from 2001 to 2003 and was once the Council’s southern director. He is the author (with Michael E. Buckner) of In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty (Prometheus Books, 2012).

Christopher Hitchens interview on “God is Not Great” (2007)

Christopher Hitchens 2017 – Lecture on How Religion Poisons Everything

God Bless America: How the US is Obsessed with Religion | ENDEVR Documentary

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