Violence, atheism and yes, religion is a problem

I posted an article from which was titled To the militant atheist from a religious progressive [1]. The general gist was that the aggressive nature of militant atheists being aimed at all Christians in light of the religious right wing is simply unjustified. The article argues that the opposition to the religious right is shared. An atheist responded to this on my Twitter and it’s their comments I’d like to address since its hard to fully in the 140 characters Twitter allows you. They said;

“”1) You won’t ever be taken seriously using the term ‘militant atheist'” – Do they self-detonate or use any violence”

“”2) “Why the aggressive attitude towards me” – B/c your backing of the Christian faith gives the Religious Right their power”

As far as I can tell, they see all religions as dangerous and identifying as a Christian is the same as supporting the religious right which they see as a particular problem. They also see atheists as being peaceful and non-violent. These are serious claims being made about Christianity and atheism so lets start here.

Christianity has a blood soaked history with the Crusades between the 11th and 13th centuries, Salem witch trials and the like. These events are deplorable and roundly condemned by everyone including Christians. There’s no point denying they happened or had nothing to do with Christianity. But simply saying something was done in the name of something doesn’t mean that it is. Jesus’ stance on violence being used in his name is pretty clear. When one of his disciples took a sword and chopped off a centurions ear during Jesus’s arrest, Jesus rebuked them saying ““Put your sword back in its place,” “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52) . Luke goes on to say Jesus healed the ear (Luke 22:51). One of his famous teachings is turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) Many of the justifications used today to carry out violence is taken from the Old Testament, which ironically is quoted more than anything by atheists in their critique of Christianity. That’s not to say the New Testament doesn’t contain anything about using violence. Luke 22:36-38 has Jesus advising the disciples to take swords with them. Some commentaries have it as Jesus referring to the sword in a spiritual sense, others see it as Jesus advocating self defense in the face of mortal danger. Debates over passages have raged for centuries and it’s not always easy. Lets not mask the fact though, that many atrocities have been committed in Jesus’s name and I very ashamed of that fact.

September 11th 2001 is an event that is very often cited by people during discussions about religious violence. Richard Dawkins cites it as the event that radicalized him and compelled him to write The God Delusion. He couldn’t see how an atheist would ever bulldoze Mecca, Chatres, York Minister or Notre Dame [2] . Many Christians, and indeed atheists, have pulled him up on this, citing the reigns of Stalin and Pol Pot. Stalins target was the Orthodox Church of the day [3]. He saw them as a threat that needed to be neutralized; not too different to the views of some atheists today. Some say “but it wasn’t his atheism, it was his communism that led him to do this” First off his communism espoused atheism and second, you’re still left with an atheist wiping out his enemies like the Christians did; something Richard Dawkins couldn’t see happening . Incidentally Stalin and Pol Pot were listed first and second in a recent article about atheists who have given atheism a bad name [4]. Moral philosopher Peter Singer and evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser have realized that atheists are far from innocent;

Lest we be charged with a blinkered view of the world, atheists have also committed their fair share of henious crimes, including Stalins slaughter of millions of people in the USSR, and Pol Pot’s creation of the “killing fields” in which more than a million Cambodians were murdered. Putting these threads together, the conclusion is clear; neither religion nor atheism has a monopoly on the use of criminal violence [5]

I must state as with the Crusades, just because someone says they do something in the name of something doesn’t mean that they are. Atheism does not inevitably lead to violence or is inherently violent. This brings me onto the notion that all religions are violent. It is a common tactic to lump all religions together, compare them to the most extreme sides of it then proceed to dismantle religion on that basis; a perfect example of a straw man [6]. Over the last few years, this type of approach has largely been abandoned with author Sam Harris presenting the obvious problem to this line of thought in an essay;

While I have no doubt that the Amish are mistreating their children, by not educating them adequately, they are not likely to hijack aircraft and fly them into buildings. [7]

Indeed not and Richard Dawkins, albeit a bit late, has conceded just as much;

There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death. I have mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse [8]

It needs to be said that there are many Muslims who are appalled by the acts of violence carried out in the name of Islam; but what about the charge that by being a Christian, I am supporting the religious right. You may not be familiar with the term religious right but I suspect everyone knows about Westboro Bapstist Church. This is the church led by Fred Phelps which blames natural disasters on acceptance of LGBT people and pickets funerals of soldiers. This is probably the face of religion that many regard as the norm and may be the only face they see. Indeed, during the writing of this, the commenter who inspired this responded back explaining how he sees the religious right causing damage within politics and the decisions they want to make which excludes everyone except white males and those they agree with and do so purely because they think they have the truth. As he put it to me; being religious zealots, they inherently believe they’re God’s chosen people. That’s all they need. It makes a lot of sense; see one group claiming to be chosen people of God doing damage, you’re not likely to trust another group claiming the same no matter what else they say.  Tim Keller, author and Christian apologist, admitted that religion is part of the problem with the world, or more accurately exclusive truth claims cause problems. He outlined the way religion causes division and conflict:

1) Gives you a sense of superiority as you have the truth and see others as not having it

2) Separation, you don’t spend time with others of different beliefs as a result

3) Because you don’t know them, so you caricature them which leads to

4) Passive oppression and then

5) Active oppression [9]

This is very indicative of the Pharisees and right wing Christians (indeed many Christians regardless of being right wing or not) are doing something similar today; but to say that because I also identify as being a Christian therefore I’m giving these people power is absurd logic. I’m sure many atheists would be offended (and rightly so) if I suggested that because they are atheists, they support what Stalin did. They would distance themselves and say “we’re not like that” Exactly, and I would totally agree, so why would you then think that I am like the right wing you so actively oppose purely because I’m a Christian? Some atheists are upset at being compared to Richard Dawkins never mind Stalin. It’s lazy and ignorant thinking to suggest to associate with a worldview means supporting the views of everyone who claims to hold that worldview. Within any religion or movement, you will have people who take an extreme view which does not reflect the majority; or indeed the reflect what that movement stands for. Humans seem to find ways of killing each other, no matter the worldview involved. If someone wants to criticize a view by showing its darker side, they probably won’t have to dig too far.

Interfaith is a word I think we are going to hear more of as people look to engage with people of different faiths, to find a less combative way forward. I’m not sure whether helps or harms that cause. I wanted to address the points made to me, but it’s come across as rather negative. If you’re reading this then I’ve obviously decided to post it anyway. But I see acknowledging that both sides have made mistakes can help us move forward; burying the past means we can’t learn from it. It’s time look forwards and ask “how can we work together?”

This is my challenge to me.




[2] Lennox, John C. (2011) Gunning For God; Why the new atheists are missing the target. Lion Hudson Plc, Oxford, England (page 90)



[5] Lennox, John C. (2011) Gunning For God; Why the new atheists are missing the target. Lion Hudson Plc, Oxford, England (page 91)



[8] Lennox, John C. (2011) Gunning For God; Why the new atheists are missing the target. Lion Hudson Plc, Oxford, England (page 91)



First published 30th July 2013


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