Bad Atheist Arguments: “Religion Poisons Everything”

Bad Atheist Arguments: “Religion Poisons Everything” July 29, 2021

In today’s opening story, Sven comes downstairs one morning and finds that all the kitchen appliances don’t work. Hmm—he wants to be scientific about this. What do all the failed appliances have in common? They’re white—that must be the problem! So he paints everything and is surprised to find that they still don’t work. When our hero suggests the circuit breaker box, Sven wants to paint that, too.

This continues our review of The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist by Andy Bannister (part 1), which critiques a number of atheist arguments.

What causes what?

Sven has confused correlation and causation. Yes, whiteness does correlate to the failed appliances, but was that the cause of the problem? Bannister wants to imagine that this confusion applies to today’s atheists as well. The argument in the hot seat today is the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: “How Religion Poisons Everything.”

Almost everyone is familiar with John Lennon’s “Imagine” (“Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us, only sky”). Bannister says in response:

What I really wanted to question . . . is that quaint suggestion that, if you simply remove religion from the equation, everybody will automatically begin living their lives in peace. Seriously? Is the suggestion really that if we waggled our magic wand . . . and made religion disappear, then instantly we would have brought about universal peace and harmony?

No, most atheists wouldn’t say that. Even Hitchens doesn’t say that. I wouldn’t want to defend “religion poisons everything” myself, but it’s quite different from “religion is the sole cause of all problems,” which Bannister apparently wants to set up as a strawman.

He gives as examples of atheist dystopias the French Revolution, the Soviet Union, and Mao’s China. I agree that even in the absence of religion, conditions can be bad. I think we’re on the same page.

What about “Religion poisons most things”?

Bannister argues that most wars weren’t caused by religion and indirectly cites the Encyclopedia of Wars, which concludes that just seven percent of their catalog of nearly 2000 wars through all of history were religious.

Huh? This is coming from an apologist? “Well, religion didn’t cause most wars!” isn’t much to brag about.

Think of what religion poisons: love and sex will always be tricky to navigate, but religion makes that worse; we’ll always have wars, but religion makes it worse; science isn’t perfect, but religion makes it worse; and so on (h/t commenter Otto).

Bannister wonders, “If it were possible to magically remove all religion from the Middle East, do you imagine that all the competing land claims would instantly vanish?”

Trying to untangle the various religious and political positions in the Middle East is an interesting puzzle, but it’s academic since today’s positions of the various parties happened in part because of religion. How many illegal Israeli squatters in the West Bank justify their position in part because God gave the land to them? How many Muslim suicide bombers were motivated by religious beliefs?

Bannister is again asking if conditions would be blissful without religion. No, they wouldn’t, but Hitchens didn’t say that, and neither would I.

He runs through other categories that can cause problems such as access to scarce water, politics, and business. “The basic problem with ‘religion poisons everything’ is that it’s woefully simplistic and naïve. For sure, religion can sometimes be poisonous, but so can many other things.”

But not really in the same way. Everyone seems to hate politics (at least now and then), and yet it may be a necessary evil. We have to make laws and engage with other countries somehow. Capitalism does a lot of good—it drives the innovation that gave us electronics, transportation, food, and so on—even though greed can get in the way.

What good within religion can’t come from elsewhere?

He wants to imagine that religion is like this—an imperfect product that is a net good. But what good within religion can’t be provided elsewhere? Community, philanthropy, self-improvement, working to improve the lives of the less fortunate—these are human activities. Religion can encourage them, but religion isn’t necessary.

The biggest example in favor of religion for me is groundless hope. When life sucks—I’m talking about Third World, “I’m starving while living in the middle of an interminable civil war” suckage—what keeps you going? Mother Teresa had an answer: “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.”

Teresa’s embrace of suffering is contemptible. But would we want to reproduce groundless hope with secular means? I don’t think so. Instead of the dead end “Just trust God—this is all part of his plan,” shouldn’t we focus on solving the problem? This was what Marx meant when he said that religion is the opium of the people. Marx agreed that religion helped, but only in the same way that opium does—it reduces pain. Let’s concentrate instead on solving the problem rather than merely reducing the pain.

The positive side of the ledger

Bannister says,

Despite all of Hitchens’s flustered fulminations, religion has done some good things, too. Do a little historical delving and you’ll discover from where we got the idea for one or two important things such as universities, hospitals, the modern scientific method, and human rights.

And where was that? Modern universities, hospitals, science, and attitudes toward human rights didn’t come from either the Bible or Judeo-Christian society. They’re the result of thousands of years of tinkering by society. The most generous spin I can think of is that Christianity gave us the germ that became modern universities and hospitals, it didn’t stand in the way of science much, and the Bible can be cherry picked to support modern ideas about human rights.

So where should we put the blame?

Bannister wants to replace “religion poisons everything” with the idea that imperfect humans are the common thread (the word he uses is “fallen”). Solzhenitsyn said, “The line between good and evil passes . . . through the middle of every human heart,” and Christianity is quick with an explanation: original sin.

This Iron Age just-so story, that two people with zero moral understanding disobeyed a moral command that condemned all future generations, does nothing to inform society today because first, it didn’t really happen, and second, it condemns God (more).

Let’s respond to one concluding zinger. Bannister says that, if atheism is true,

Religion simply shows, on your view of the world, just how utterly irrational humans can be: in which case, could you perchance explain precisely why we should trust you and the rest of the New Atheist Illuminati to run the world on enlightened secular principles?

Enlightened secular principles? You mean like those defined in the completely secular U.S. Constitution? This idea of a secular government, the world’s first, is one of the greatest examples the U.S. has set for the world. Its very clear church/state separation is the ally of both the atheist and the believer. Another example: the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). What alternative could Bannister possibly have in mind? You don’t have to ask atheists why enlightened secular principles are wise; just look in every Western constitution.

Continue with “Science can explain everything”

To read the Bible without horror,
we must undo everything
that is tender, sympathizing, and benevolent
in the heart of man.
— Thomas Paine


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 1/10/17.)

Image from Konga Access (license CC BY 2.0)


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