Tag Archives: Apologetics

Caution: Religion can be hazardous to your health

Review of Chapter 4 “God Is Not Great” by C. Hitchens

Blazened across every packet of cigerettes is a warning: smoking can be harazardous to your health, smoking kills or smoking causes lung cancer. It’s as if the powers-that-be think that if only we realised the consequences of smoking we would stop doing it. But as every nicotine addict can tell you, the warnings are put there for everyone else. In this chapter of God Is Not Great Hitchens wants to slap a similar banner across the entrance to every church, synagogue and mosque.

He goes full out to illustrate the danger that religion poses to our physical and mental health through a series of stinging anecdotes. He highlights how religious leaders have responded to medical advances in areas such as polio, AIDS and cervical cancer. In one example he cites religious leaders in Africa promoting ignorance and mistrust regarding AIDS treatment in order to maintain their position of power. He powerfully argues that when it comes to prophylactic (i.e. preventative) treatment of medical conditions, religion has not covered itself in glory.

As I read this chapter there is little one can say to argue against the black picture painted by Hitchens. It is too true that many heinous crimes have been committed and promoted by the church in an attempt to enforce moral obedience. I am left reflecting that the church is not good in dealing with those who reject its teachings to embark on their own. Too often we have absolved ourselves of our responsibilities of care for even the most rebellious child. Nevertheless, it remains true that the choices we make have consequences we cannot escape. It is the church’s desire to save others from these consequences that motivates its moral stance.

It seems to me that over the years our improved understanding of biological systems has enabled science to increasingly mitigate the consequences of our moral choice. For example, it used to be the case that sexual promiscuity would inevitably lead to unwanted pregnancy, and that in some cases the fear of this would be enough of a deterrent to prevent the activity. However, science has, perhaps inadvertently, steadily removed the natural consequences of this action. Hitchens wants the church to celebrate in this freedom and join in the promotion of sexual liberty. He wants a God who will allow us to live as we please and still bless us in whatever we do.

But are our actions now free from all consequences? What about the trail of broken relationships, loneliness, betrayal, and emotional damage caused by one night stands? What pill do we take to take away the pain of a broken heart? How do we remove the present consequences of our past actions? We cannot. And we cannot expect the church to only be concerned about a person’s health, when their lifestyle has greater consequences. We are not a hospital, where treatment is free at the point of care, no questions asked. Our concern for our fellow person is holistic – mind, body and soul.

So, we are left wondering, how should the church treat those who choose not to follow its teaching? What responsibility does it have towards those who reject its core beliefs? At the heart of the issue is this question – what is more important people or doctrine? People, I can hear you cry. But not so fast, sometimes even enlightened, educated, civilised people need protecting from themselves. Which parent would allow their child to experiment with power tools? Which father would allow his 6 year old daughter to walk the dark streets at night? So too with God, from his vantage point he sees where our choices are taking us, and wants to protect us from our own decisions. What is our sexual liberation producing in our land? Are we really freer, satisfied and fulfilled? Or rather are we more isolated, shallow, fragmented and detached? The pervasive inability of young men to commit to one woman for life gives the answer.

I agree with Hitchens that the church is not good at being pragmatic. We are best at dealing with black and white, truth and error, right and wrong. By leaving specific but relatively broad moral principles to live by, God has delegated to each individual a certain degree of responsibility to use our understanding alongside his eternal truths to build a biblical framework for life. Unfortunately the church has sometimes not had the same confidence in delegating responsibility for matters of conscience and this has often resorted in it erring on the side of caution rather than give room for individual freedom.

I think it was Stephen Covey who said: “While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of our actions”. Like any smoker will tell you – we are completely free to leave the cigerette pack on the counter and walk away, but sometimes the promise of guaranteed immediate pleasure outweighs a potential risk of severe penalty. May we choose the way of wisdom and the better path, leading to the healthiest of all possible life – eternal life for evermore.

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.

A Passionate Plea

“God Is Not Great” Chapter 1

Right from the first page Hitchens reveals that his book is not a cold calculated critique of religion but an effervescent boiling pot of passion. This is something Hitchens feels extremely passionate about and in his passion his prose quickly crosses disparate themes. He briefly describes his religious upbringing before delivering a mesmerising array of accusations and charges against his nemesis – the ignorant & deceived religious.

Two encounters in particular are highlighted as being the pivotal points in his young life – one being a less than logical explanation of why the grass is green by his primary teacher “God made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the colour that is most restful to our eyes” and the other a masterclass in nominalism by his headmaster: “You may not see the point in all this faith now, but you will one day, when you start to lose loved ones.” Not surprisingly these misguided attempts to answer the big questions in life of creation and suffering and death drove the rational Hitchens away from his religious heritage.

His atheism is a passionate rejection of all the alternatives, seeing religion as at best wishful thinking and at worst a source of manipulation and corruption. He offers realism not hope, science and reason not faith and beliefs. And he speculates that “it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better towards each other and not worse.”  His argument is that it is better to admit you only have a few thousand days to live and get on with it as best you can than pretend there is more to it and ruin everyone else’s experience.

Throughout this first chapter Hitchens repeatedly presents his polar extremes – the rational, fair, honest atheist and the irrational, ignorant, unstable religious zealot. This is not a book of balance and well thought out reasoned arguments, it is a force ten gale in the wind-tunnel of atheistic teaching. No sooner are objections to religion brought up, they are summarily dismissed and ridiculed. He even states that anyone who is certain of his belief “and who claims divine warrant for his certainty belongs now to the infancy of our species”, as if the atheist has evolved beyond the need for emotional props. As if it is ok to be absolutely certain of your belief if it comes from your own neurons, but not if you believe it has been made known to you by God.

Although I struggle to like the way he says it, there is much in this chapter that I have to agree with. When he says things like “religion is man-made” and “we believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion” I can say a hearty Amen! Religion (without revelation) is man-made and it is an indisputable fact that religion has caused many of the worlds personal & national conflicts, even to this day. And I have many kind and generous friends who do not have any religious beliefs. However, as someone who considers themselves fair, rational and honest I must object to his straw man that he presents in this chapter. If there is one error that is systemic throughout this chapter, it is that he lumps all faith into the same skip and then takes the worst examples and presents them as the norm.

For all the abuses and excesses of religious people it is a bold claim that Hitchens makes in this chapter – to pronounce on his own authority that there has never been and will never be, anywhere in the world, to any person, any interaction with the a higher power. Its one thing if you don’t believe in such a power or being, but how can you know, given our limited knowledge, that every single person who has ever claimed different is either deluded, deceptive or down-right dishonest.

Moreover, all of Hitchens’ arguments would come crashing down if there had ever been one single encounter of a human with the divine. This is the one indestructible virus that threatens to erase his entire case. My question to Hitchens is: say this encounter happened to him, then how would a fair, honest, logical person respond to such an encounter? He would no doubt argue that this is impossible because he, she or it doesn’t exist, but even Hitchens admits in this chapter that “some problems will never be resolved…and some things are indefinitely unknowable”.  So while clinging to his certainty of a materialistic worldview, he still wants to leave the door open for mystery, as long as that mystery is defined on his terms.

In response to Hitchens I am forced to make a passionate plea – that it is possible to have an encounter with a higher power whilst retaining your reason. That it is possible to have a consistent, reasoned worldview that is not purely materialistic. How we know the certainty of whether these encounters really happened, or whether we like what is revealed about this power by these encounters is a different objection. The choice is not between rational atheism and irrational religion, but between a materialistic atheism and a reasonable faith. It is a faith where reason is its servant not its master, for we recognise that reason is limited in its understanding and often misdirected in its bearings. A faith that is reasonable not because it leaves no room for doubt, but because there is sufficient evidence in the truth of that belief to warrant a trust in the one who asks for your hand.

Christianity: Unscientific, Corrupt and Intolerant?

I also spoke in the evening of the 1st August at CBC. My evening message was an apologetic argument that unlike how many view Christianity today in the UK, it is actually a reasonable faith. The themes within this message have been brewing within me for many years and are a response to the increasing hostility that Christians experience in UK society and the corresponding crises in confidence that afflicts our churches.

The slides are available here and the sermon here.

I should point out that the sermons at CBC are simultaneously signed for the deaf – you will need to know this to explain the laughter when I question how the interpreter will handle the word “homology”.