Religion – virtue or vice?

“God Is Not Great” – Chapter 2

Is religion a force for good in the world, or a hindrance to mankind’s attempts to create a civil society and embrace one another? Or to put it another way, do we wish for the type of world that John Lennon longs for, where there is: “nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too, imagine all the people, living life in peace”. Well if you needed convincing that religion is the bane of the world, then this chapter is for you. The way Hitchens seeks to do this is by giving examples of religious groups repressing and imposing their views on the non-religious.

He would not mind if religious people would be content to have their own faith and keep to themselves, but, to his intense annoyance, he admits that “the true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee.” In framing his argument he discusses a range of examples where various religions have imposed their views, either legally or criminally on their neighbours.

He begins with the example of Ireland, and the debate over the legalisation of divorce. A proposal to legalise divorce was brought to the government and the conservative Catholic Church fought this attempt to change the law. Hitchen’s objects to this attempt to legislate morality and enforce one particular group’s moral views on the rest of society. He wants each to have the right to follow their own conscience rather than impose their views on those who don’t share their faith.

This is a good point and I agree that most of the time this is a worthy objective. However, his argument raises the interesting question of who should decide the moral laws in society. We presume that in a democratic society it should be a majority decision. But we know that a vocal and militant minority are able to change significant ethical laws to their own outcome. Given this is often how politics works, is it only the secular humanists who are allowed to lobby for a change in the law? Don’t also the conservative groups have this same right to lobby to maintain the law? Let the debate be taken to the public square and each side make their claims to the right to impose their views on all of society. But let’s not restrict the rights of any group, just because they do not share our ethical code, to fight for what they believe. Both groups’ positions are underpinned by a worldview – one theistic, one humanistic. Each has the right to present their case and argue their points.

He then moves on to a series of examples where one religious group has exercised repression, violence or even massacred another religious group. His general point through all of this is religion is the root and cause of these events. From Belfast to Beirut, from Bombay to Belgrade, he argues that religion is a sociological virus, corrupting mankind and causing various groups to hate and kill each other. I am going to pass over the obvious argument of the less than unblemished record of atheism as a potential cause of war and social unrest (e.g. Stalinist Russia). Instead I want to focus on the cause and effect relationship between religion and war. Is religious violence an abuse of, or a natural outcome of, religion? For this I can only speak for Christianity, as this is my own faith. So, the question becomes: where the Crusades, Irish terrorism etc, a natural out working of the teachings of the bible, or are they an anomaly, an unfortunate stain on an otherwise peaceful and peacemaking religion?

Well, if we go to the source material the answer from the bible is clear – Paul states in 1 Timothy 2.1-2 that we should pray for our government and monarchy, as God wants a peaceful and ordered society. Also in Romans 13.1- 7 he again states that authorities are placed their by the order of God, and to rebel against them is to rebel against God. Peter says the same thing in his letters, and Jesus also teaches his disciples to pray for their enemies and seek their good, not seek to hurt them. Strikingly, the context for the famous “turn the other cheek” saying is a man on his way to an unjust and violent “religious” death, not an academic in his dusty study at a quaint university.

So, if there is no justification for such action in the original teachings, why do these things happen? Because of the corruption in the human heart! Even some of the first people to hear the message of Jesus sought to make financial gain from the message (Acts 8.18&19), which is only one step away from seeking political power through the cause. But as well as realising there is no justification for these actions in the bible, it is also important to understand that the abuse of a substance does not invalidate the worth of this substance. Take alcohol for example, in Scotland the negative social impact of alcoholism is enormous, but does this make alcohol an evil and degrading substance? No, in itself it is neither good nor bad, but how we use it determines the worthiness. Similarly, the violence sometimes seen with animal rights groups does not automatically invalidate the worthiness of the cause. Nevertheless, I agree that in the words of Jesus himself “you will know the tree by its fruit”.

My challenge to Hitchens is this – if you find mouldy fruit you need to check if it’s the tree or a maggot inside the fruit. Thus, the effects of a religion need to be assessed to see if this is an abuse of the faith or a genuine out working of it, and then taken alongside the positive effects of this same religion. In conclusion, all worldviews whether they include God or exclude him can, when used to serve our own purposes, produce devastating results. At these times we must then seek to understand whether this is an appropriate application of this worldview or an abuse of it. Only then can we determine the moral worthiness of the worldview and decide whether this invalidates its claims to our allegiance.

2 thoughts on “Religion – virtue or vice?”

  1. Tobias Jones had Hitchens (and others) in mind when he said “Until a few years ago religion was similar to soft drugs: a blind eye was turned to private use but woe betide you if you were caught dealing.”!

  2. I would like to address your point that the abuse of a substance, does not invalidate the worth of a substance.

    When asked “virtue or vice” about religion, i immediately think of its foundation in faith. Faith is slightly different than belief, while a belief may or may not be supported by material evidence and logical reasoning, the process of faith replaces this (faith is the substance, faith is the evidence according to Hebrews) with a simple acceptance of something as true and without the use of real material evidence of logical reasoning.

    Faith as a substance (a simple acceptance of truth) may be neither good or bad, unless it is abused. So how and when is faith abused? If I have faith in a used car salesman or a Nigerian 419 email, clearly, my simple trust and acceptance may be abused.

    One of the most obvious signs that faith is being abused, is to look at the size of the tale you are told to swallow as true. Unfortunately, all religions rely on exactly this sort of abuse of faith. Too much of any “good thing” may be bad for you, and religion asks for the use of faith in great excess.

    Fundamentally, this “virtue or vice” question of the excessive use of faith is what I most object to in all religions. When I see the “mouldy fruit” of people who are taken advantage of, and harming others through their excessive use and abuse of faith/trust as made necessary in religion, I would have to say that in this case it is the tree. Religions are rooted in this abuse of the substance of faith, and they are all rotten to the core.

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