Was Hitchens right: Does religion poison everything?

No. But it does far more harm than good

When Christopher Hitchens was asked if the subtitle of his book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything was exaggeration for shock value, he said No. He meant it literally. And indeed his book, which so abundantly documents the harm done by religion, is like a bucket of cold water in the face—for those who have sentimental delusions about “all the good” that religion does.

As a supplement to Hitchens’ blast, I recommend John Loftus’ introductory essay to his 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails. This title is indeed a play on the Hitchens’ title, and the purpose of the volume is to survey the damage done by Christianity. Even so, Loftus concedes at the outset: “Even in as big a book as this one is [500+ pages], we could not have chapters on all the harms of Christianity.” Those of us, however, who have lived many years inside religion, Christianity in particular, can acknowledge some good that religion does. Loftus speaks as a former preacher who has seen the positive aspects of religion: “When Christians have faith in their God they find hope, encouragement, strength, and confidence to meet the challenges of their lives in a community of like-minded believers. I’ve seen Christians with faith overcome insurmountable obstacles, in part because of the support of their Christian communities.”

But having acknowledged this, Loftus moves into a “take no prisoners” mode, and explains precisely why it’s the better part of wisdom to outgrow and overthrow faith as an approach to the world, i.e., faith is a placebo, reliance on placebos can kill, and, quite bluntly—no sugarcoating here:

“Faith stunts one’s intellectual growth. Faith forever produces immature people. We must learn instead how to think exclusively in terms of probabilities based on the available evidence. Faith doesn’t add to the probabilities, so faith should be rejected by all reasonable, thinking, emotionally healthy adults.”

Caught up in their enthusiasm for faith, most of the folks in the pews really don’t have a grasp of how horrible Christian history has been—and why Hitchens would choose such a scathing subtitle. Well, they have homework to do, and Loftus gives a descriptive tour of some the books that should be required reading to wake people up…to provide the bucket of cold water in the face. For example, Jack David Eller, Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence across Culture and History and Hector Avalos, Fighting Words: The Origins of Religious Violence. He points out a couple of liberal Christian authors who have made contributions as well: Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil and John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture. Loftus also smacks down Dinesh D’Souza’s smarmy defense of the faith, What’s So Great About Christianity.

The pushback from many Christians will be that the grievous mistakes of the past are not their fault—and they disavow the horrors that church history reveals: “I wasn’t there, I didn’t do that.”

But it’s not that simple: the horrors are ongoing, and Christians are complicit; every day they are co-conspirators if they drop money in the collection plates. They may point to the countless acts of kindness and mercy that believers do every day—motivated by Christ—supposedly disproving Hitchens’ accusation of ubiquitous poison. But there is plenty of religiously motivated damage that we witness every day. Church policy and practice mean that Christianity is part of the problem of evil, e.g., televangelism, truly the sewer of Christian piety; the evangelical crusade against LGBT rights and marriage equality, and the suffering that this brings; the ongoing compulsion to build, build, build opulent places of worship—instead of using the money to reduce human suffering; systemic child abuse and its cover-up; the smiling pope visits the Philippines (with more than a million street children) and preaches against birth control: that is evil.

Why can’t the pope budge on the issue of contraception? Because of his theological certainty, on which he cannot yield without damaging the brand, and that is dangerous. Loftus quotes Greta Christina: “I’m realizing that everything I’ve ever written about religion’s harm boils down to one thing. It’s this. Religion is ultimately dependent on belief in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments after we die. It therefore has no reality check.”

It is also worth pointing out that millions of secularists/humanists/atheists do countless acts of mercy and kindness every day. No, we don’t need religion and a commitment to Christ to make that happen. The indictment of Christianity—that it causes more harm than good—is based on the evidence of history, updated daily.

Loftus ends the essay with a challenge: “With regard to Christianity, believers just need to honestly ask themselves if they would accept any other religion that had such a terrible track record. If they wouldn’t, then they should not continue identifying as Christians. It’s that simple.”

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published last year by Tellectual Press.