(This article was featured on http://religionandatheism.wordpress.com)
Few of the currently active public atheists have failed to adopt this conviction: religion is “the root of all evil”.[i] Most have, however, utterly failed to define religion. Not for the want of trying, of course. Despite, for instance, Daniel Dennett’s bold attempts, he has been embarrassingly exposed here by the intelligent retorts of the gadfly theologian Alister McGrath:
“Professor Dennett tells us that “a religion without God or gods is like a vertebrate without a backbone”. Now if I were leading a sixth-form discussion about how to define religion, this would be the first definition to be considered – and the first to be rejected, precisely because it is so inadequate. What about nontheistic religions? Vertebrates by definition have backbones. The concept of religion simply does not entail God.”[ii]
The convenience of conflating religion and belief in God in such a way are relatively self-evident when you consider the approach taken by so many of the atheists. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens all deplore beliefs lacking the support of evidence. The physicist Victor Stenger’s book makes the sentiment clear in its title: God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. And wouldn’t it be convenient to equate God with religion? Dismissal of one would spell the other’s end.
That aside, let us turn to the old chestnut of moral indictments. “Just look at the harm religion has done,” cries the atheist. “The Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch-burning, the wars around the world…” To which, almost inevitably, the believer replies: “The most brutal century of all, the 20th, gains that status on the back of the efforts of three atheists: Hitler, Stalin and Mao – history’s most prolific mass-murderers.”
These are, of course, merely the opening salvos. Attention turns to the 20th century; that much is granted to the theist – it is, after all, a bloodbath of proportions hard to ignore. “Hitler,” the atheist explains, “was not a disbeliever. And all three tyrants (and some others to boot) were drunk on fanatical and morally warped ideologies. They may not have worshipped God (read “been religious”), but it was not for their atheism that they massacred so many.”
“Not so!” The believer shouts. And here we witness some variety:
- “Atheism informs Marxism; it is a central tenet. Chesterton tells us, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything.” That is how the tyrant becomes drunk on power and is led to committing terrible evils.”
- “Massacres have taken place for and in the name of atheism. Two examples: Mao’s destruction of Tibetan monasteries, as well as the anti-religious campaign in China; and, Enver Hoxha, the Albanian leader who razed mosques, churches, monasteries, and forbid parents from giving their children religious names. Believers were imprisoned, tortured or executed (or all three). All in the name of declaring “the world’s first atheist state””.
Now, the more savvy atheist shifts down a gear: “What about the false consolation of belief? What about the corrupt Church? What about the dogmatic opposition to contraception in Africa? The AIDS pandemic? What about the subjugation of women, the repression of sex and sexuality, what about circumcision – the mutilation of children? And how about Jihad and international terrorism?”
“No institution is morally perfected,” the believer replies. “And The Church is not the religion. Look at all the good deeds religious people have done, how many charities exist inspired by Jesus, for example. Islamic fundamentalism is a minority position, exacerbated by the way, by the incessant and inhumane military interventionism in the Middle East. You can’t just ignore politics and blame everything on God, you know. And what about slavery? It was a religiously-inspired Wilberforce whose efforts resulted in a commendable leap forward.”
“We don’t need the fear of your invigilator-God to be good people. Any human goodness is innate, not read off stone tablets. And surely the existence of evil in the first place undermines your faith. If evil exits, God cannot be both benevolent and omnipotent. If he were, he would not allow for evil to exist. This is the traditional theist inconsistency.”
Now the believer moves the goal-posts:
“There are many different answers to this. But quite apart from anything else, who says God must be omnipotent? You can still believe in a non-omnipotent God. As for the academic question of theodicy, there are many proposed answers. It is an intellectual discourse. Lots of matters of belief aren’t settled beyond all criticism. For example, is euthanasia ever right? Such things are not problems of logic alone. This does not mean that engaging with the issue at hand is not a valuable in and of itself.”
“It’s a waste of time,” the atheist concludes. “You can live a good life without all these superstitions.”
“Maybe, but you haven’t shown they’re evil either.”
Innevitably, some atheists would respond negatively to this imaginary dialogue. A predictable criticism would be that such a reasoned discussion rarely takes place with a religious believer. But that, of course, is no problem for religion per se. That is the atheist’s problem. Obviously, intelligent and collected believers exist ‘out there’; their minority is no evidence for how unviable what they believe is. And the argument from “evil” is far more prickly than atheists would admit to. The debate between atheists and believers is far from over on the moral plane, at the very least. In fact, it is irresolvable for the very simple reason that both sides have an almost inexhaustible list of examples in support of their case. What is more, the frequently touted “indictment” against religion that the consolation it may offer is no witness to truth (a criticism Richard Dawkins is particularly fond of mentioning) cuts both ways; even if religion was the “root of all evil”, that does not mean it is not true. What really harms the debate about the morality of religion isn’t the possibility of an interminable exchange between prosecution and defence, but rather that the poverty of atheist arguments stems mainly from the reluctance of intelligent believers to come out and challenge their weaknesses. How many academic theologians engage in debate publicly with the popular atheists? Why are they hiding? It’s not that they would win if they didn’t. But without an intellectual challenge to atheism in the public sphere, the “free”-thinkers have a free ride.
[i] Richard Dawkins himself presented a two-part “documentary” on religion with this very title, The Root of All Evil. He denies it was his decision. The phrase is, of course, lifted from the Bible: “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Timothy 6: 9-10).
[ii] This remark comes from a public debate between McGrath and Dennett held in 2006. It can be found on page 4 of the following document: http://cis.org.uk/resources/articles/article_archive/mcgrath_rsa_lecture.pdf
Audio from the debate can be found here: http://religionandatheism.wordpress.com/2007/06/17/alister-mcgrath-vs-daniel-dennet/