Answering atheism: Religion, good and evil

Answering atheism: Religion, good and evil October 27, 2008
Is religion toast?

Religion seems to be under a sustained attack recently, especially in media and popular culture. From books such as God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins to films such as Religulous by comedian Bill Maher released on October 3, more and more people seem to be saying that – in the 21st Century – religion should be discarded in exchange for rational thinking.

Bill Maher, in fact, told the New York Times in a recent article, “It’s just the ultimate hustle. It’s just selling an invisible product, and so if I can be Toto in The Wizard of Oz pulling back the curtain, which is how I see religion, great, that’s fine, I’ll do that and get off the stage.”

Even as a religious person, I can understand this disdain for religion. Throughout history, truly horrible crimes have been committed in the name of God. Since ancient times, people have been butchered, raped, pillaged, burned alive, and torn to pieces to fulfill the “will of God.” During the Crusades, where the blood of Jews and Muslims was knee high to the horses in Jerusalem, the battle cry of the Christians was “God wills it.” And in modern times, terrorists — who also claim that “God wills it” — have no hesitancy to kill themselves and scores of innocent people with them, whether it be with a bomb or a passenger plane, like the Al Qaeda terrorists did on September 11, 2001.

It is quite easy to look at all this pain and suffering committed in the name of religion and conclude that religion itself is the problem. It is quite easy to conclude that, if only religion were eliminated, the world would be a much better place. Yet, this criticism misses the point.

Religion is not the problem: It is the so-called “religious” who are.

Religion is a set of principles, guidelines, and doctrines that seek to guide human conduct on earth. It is a tool, among many other tools, that help human beings navigate earthly existence. Yes, religion has been used by countless people to spread evil and mischief across the earth, and this is the thing to which its critics point to claim that religion is itself evil. Yet, these critics frequently fail to acknowledge the tremendous good that religion has inspired throughout the centuries of human history.

All true religious traditions have a common basic message: There is a transcendent power open to humanity providing meaning to life; there is a great purpose to life. The moral message of religion states that a person should live a good life, doing unto others as he would have them do unto him. Religion teaches us that we are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers, that compassion for humanity is not a sign of weakness, but, in fact, great strength.

Religion inspires billions of people around the world today to live honest, decent, law-abiding lives. Faith-based charities of every religious tradition have brought comfort, hope, and healing to millions of people who would otherwise starve, lay homeless, and be left to fend for themselves. Religion gives comfort and consolation to so many who have faced adversity in their lives, whether it be suffering from illness, natural disaster, or the loss of someone whom they loved.

Religion has done as much, if not more, good throughout human history, and this reality cannot and should not be dismissed by the critics of religion.

Yes, various religious traditions have their stories about the origins of existence and other mysteries of life on earth, and as a follower of the Islamic tradition, I have them as well, including the story of Adam and Eve, Moses and the staff, Jonah and the fish, and others. Yes, some followers of the various faith traditions interpret these stories in a literal manner, and they are ridiculed by the non-religious.

But, as far as I understand it, these stories have a larger moral lesson, and that is the most important thing that should be taken away from them. It is as the Qur’an itself says: “Verily, in their stories is a lesson for those of deep understanding…” (12:111).

For instance, it may be true that Adam was tempted by a “talking snake” in the Garden of Eden, but the story of the fall of Adam is one of hope and the soothing mercy of God. That is its most important lesson. Yes, Moses may have turned his staff into a serpent in front of Pharoah, but the story of Moses is one of the triumph of good over evil, even if that evil seems to be completely overwhelming. I have suffered personal adversity in my life, and it was precisely those stories in my religious tradition – of Moses, of Joseph, of Jonah, and others – that helped me cope and ultimately made me a much stronger person. That is the value religion brings.

I do not dismiss the horrific crimes that have been, and continue to be, committed in the name of religion. I condemn them with all my heart, all my mind, and all my soul. It is, in fact, my deep religious faith that motivates me to speak out against the terrible injustices that are done in the name of God. Yet, let us not “throw out the baby with the bath water,” as the proverbial expression goes. In the wrong hands, religion has been a force for tremendous terror, pain, and madness. In the right hands, however, religion has been, and can continue to be, a force for tremendous and overwhelming good. In fact, if someone simply made religion disappear, evil would still exist, because evil people would still exist. It is those people that need to be changed and opposed, and religion, in fact, can be an excellent tool for that fight. Like any other thing that is associated with fallible human beings, religion is not the problem. It is the so-called “religious” who do evil its name that are.

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at

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