Bad Religion?

There is a common misconception that religion is not merely one cause of society's ills, but the main cause, a relic of a bloodier past that is bloodying up the present as well. With visceral pleasure, people list the Crusades, the Inquisition, and (most obviously) today's Islamic terrorists as examples of the evils of religion. The implication, as always, is that (organized) religion is a man-made tool used to perpetrate violence.

The insipidity of this argument is rather startling.

First of all, there is no entity named "Religion" for us to scapegoat. Different religions and different branches of religions, in different places and times, operate quite independently of each other, and to blame each individual denomination for the sins of completely different people and belief systems is ridiculous. Examples of Christian violence, for example, do not detract from the claims of Islam, and vice versa.

More importantly, examples of Christian violence do not detract from the claims of Christianity. It would literally be impossible to justify either the Crusades or the Inquisition from the New Testament. The first Christians were some of the first pacifists, at a time when Roman society was extremely militarized. Origen, one of the leaders of the early Christian church, wrote, "Nowhere does He teach that it is right for His own disciples to offer violence to anyone, however wicked. For He deemed the killing of any individual to be against His laws, which were divine in origin. If Christians had owed their origins to a rebellion, they would not have adopted laws of so exceedingly a mild character... [These laws] do not even allow them on any occasion to resist their persecutors, even when they are called to be slaughtered as sheep [emphasis added]."

But weren't the Crusaders religious zealots? A lot of them were. They were also human, greedy, belligerent, and stupid. They were severely, severely misguided. The fact that certain people use religion as a tool does not mean that religion is only a tool. People will misuse and abuse anything they can.

(And please, please, let's not pretend that the Crusaders would have been happy, peace-loving flower children if it weren't for Christianity. The Crusaders would have been pillaging, raping barbarians if it weren't for Christianity - and a lot of them were pillaging, raping barbarians in spite of Christianity.)

If we were to dismiss religion because of the actions of the worst religious people, we would also have to dismiss every other good thing. The main perpetrator of large-scale war, after all, is not religion, but technology. Science led to nuclear bombs; should we throw out all of science? No! Do we blame all Muslims for Osama bin Laden? No! Do we blame Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Black Panthers? No! Then why, why in the world do we continue to castigate any and all conceptions of God because of what some asinine Europeans did centuries ago? The vast majority of the world's population is religious; is it really surprising that they're not all picture-perfect people?

If all that weren't enough, there is one final, fatal flaw in this argument: Anti-religionists in the past two hundred years have killed millions more people than all the religious throughout history ever did.

Castro. Stalin. Lenin. Trotsky. Mao. Robespierre. Milošević. Combined, they slaughtered millions of people. Is it a coincidence that all these men were either atheists or anti-religionists? Is it a coincidence that Karl Marx, one of their main influences, called religion "the opiate of the masses"? Is it a coincidence that Stalin effectively banned Christianity in the Soviet Union while he ruled, or that China still does not allow Christians their religious freedom? Is it a coincidence that the main German opposition to Hitler came from Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the members of die Weiße Rose? Is it a coincidence that Gandhi's major influence was Tolstoy, whose pacifist writings were inspired by his devout Christianity?

In a word: No.