In 2008 Bill Maher released his film, Religulous, yet another addition to the current assault on theistic belief by what is being called the “new atheists.” Part of Maher’s claim is that religion is the source of great evil in our world, and is the source of making religious believers intellectually suspect, i.e., religulous [read ridiculous]. What are we to make of his claims?
When we look around our world, we often see horrendous evil being done in the name of religion. The conflict in the Middle East, and the genocide in Rwanda are just two of many examples of “religiously motivated” conflicts. Given these examples, what can Christians say to the charge that, indeed, religion “poisons everything” and is at the heart of the world’s problems?
First, it must be acknowledged that religion has been used for good and for evil in this world. People have abused religion, and people have done horrendous evils in the name of Christ. But, these abuses run contrary to the teaching of Jesus as presented in the Scripture. One need only look at Jesus’s own words to know that any violence perpetrated in his name directly contradicts his own teaching: “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39).
Based on Jesus’s own teaching then, the blanket statement, “religion poisons everything” is about as logical as saying “science poisons everything” simply because science has created such ghastly things as napalm, anthrax, and the nuclear bomb. We wouldn't throw out the "baby with the bathwater" in the case of science, why are we so quick to do so with religion? The use and the abuse of religion must be distinguished from blanket statements such as these that generalize the function of religion to being the source of all evil.
Second, we must take a long, hard look at the record of so-called “atheistic” regimes, or anti-religious regimes. For example, we don’t have to look beyond the last century, to see the results of regimes like Stalin in the Soviet Union, Chairman Mao in China, and Pol Pot in Cambodia. Regimes without any ties to religion have perpetrated horrific atrocities. Millions of people lost their lives during the reign of these three regimes alone. But, perhaps these regimes show what Dostoevsky wrote years ago: “But what will become of man then?, without God and the immortal life? All things are lawful then, and they can do what they like. Didn’t you know, a clever man can do what he likes?” (The Brothers Karamazov, translation rev. by Ralph E. Matlaw (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1976), p. 558).
Interestingly enough, even atheists have acknowledged the good function of faith in this world. Jurgen Habermas, a noted philosopher who claims agnosticism with regards to faith, admits that Christianity is the foundation of Western civilization. Christianity is the cultural form that has given us our values, our cultural institutions and our universities. (Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, edited by Eduardo Mendieta, MIT Press, 2002, page. 149). Matthew Paris, who also claims to be an atheist, wrote a recent article in the Times of London suggesting that belief in God has been good for Africa. Recently, Alain de Botton wrote the book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion which advocates for the importance of religious faith for society. Perhaps religion is not so religulous when even acknowledged atheists allow for its good purpose and role in civilization.
Finally, it is worth asking how individuals like Bill Maher and other atheists can make moral statements about religion without any external referent for what makes something “religulous” after all. It is inconceivable, within an atheistic framework, to come to the conclusion that religion is evil, or a great threat when there is no external referent noted for what is evil, or what is good. In the end, all that is left as an option for Bill Maher is his opinion--which may indeed be ridiculous.
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