By Mikel Del Rosario| How did 9/11 change America’s attitude toward religion? An interesting post on CNN’s Belief Blog says: “Before 9/11, many atheists kept a low profile. Something changed, though, after 9/11. They got loud… Criticism of all religion, not just fanatical cults, was no longer taboo after 9/11.” Indeed.
Around the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, American Atheists hit the nightly news by suing to remove a steel cross from the September 11 memorial, even as others were calling it a national monument and a symbol of hope. Still, many atheists continue to say 9/11 is a perfect example of why religion itself is evil. Is Religion Evil?
Is Religion Evil?
Reminds me of reading Sam Harris’ The End of Faith years ago. I remember when he started to get popular by insisting that religion itself is dangerous and evil. Although he’s got a lot of fans, a Religion Dispatches article recently called him “more charismatic than credentialled” as a speaker. In the same article, Harris is quoted as saying, “I’m kind of self-taught in religion…I’ve never studied it formally with anyone.” But he’s not the only one who’s taken the spotlight.
Another popular atheist, the late Christopher Hitchens, once called religion a poison that makes people give up their reason. But after his now infamous debate on the reasons for belief in God with William Lane Craig, even an atheist reviewer called Hitchens a “rambling and incoherent” speaker, even a “loudmouthed journalist,” saying “Craig spanked Hitchens like a foolish child.” Indeed, some are saying this debate marked the beginning of the downfall of the so-called “new atheism” in America. Time will tell.
New Atheists: Just Say “No” to Tolerance?
Still, I’m not sure why atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens think they can convince you and me that it’s unreasonable to believe in God if they’re really convinced that we won’t listen to reason. Whatever the case, some who follow the New Atheists believe that religion is intolerant–so perhaps it shouldn’t be tolerated at all in America. But over a decade after 9/11, many Americans are still asking this question: Is religion evil?
In this post, I’ll show you a quick way to explain why religion itself isn’t evil—even in a post-9/11 America.
While teaching a couple of world religions courses at local universities, I often heard students say things like, “This is just like in all religion…” But lumping all religions together just tells me you haven’t done your homework. Saying religion itself is dangerous is like saying belief itself is dangerous.
Of course, we don’t just believe—we believe ideas, like “Barack Obama is the President of the United States,” “Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream is delicious,” and “It is always wrong to torture babies for fun.” Ideas are powerful. And they have consequences.
Apples and Oranges
Comparing the beliefs of religious people is often like comparing apples and oranges. Or take music as an example. Imagine you’re at a CD store browsing through a new age section with a bunch of quiet stuff like Enya and Loreena McKennitt. Then you see another section with a bunch of Megadeth, P.O.D and Korn.
You wouldn’t lump all this stuff together and say “all music is noisy.” After all, they’re all basically the same. They all use instruments and vocals to produce songs, right? Why do this with religion? Consider these two beliefs:
- It’s good to be a terrorist.
- It’s good to be a pacifist.
Obviously, a Muslim extremist’s belief that “it’s good to be a terrorist” is way different than a Quaker’s belief that “it’s good to be a pacifist.” For example, contrast the September 11 terrorist attacks with the Quakers’ influence on colonial Pennsylvania—which was basically unarmed as a matter of policy for about 75 years! So, is religion itself evil? Ask yourself:
“Are these beliefs both dangerous or evil? Do they produce the same kinds of people or actions?”
What Would Jesus Do?
There’s a reason the teachings of Jesus has been a force of good in the world–for Christians and non-Christians alike: When Jesus said “love your neighbor,” he didn’t just mean our friends and family. He meant anyone who needs help. Historically, these Christian beliefs resulted in the invention of hospitals, the abolition of slavery, and the alleviation of human suffering through countless humanitarian missions around the world.
Terrorists who wrap their evil actions up in religious terms don’t represent everyone who believes in God any more than communist governments that have collectively murdered hundreds of millions represent all atheists.
Of course, anyone can say, “I’m religious” or even claim to follow Jesus—and then turn around and commit some psycho heinous act that’s totally against what Jesus taught. But the Apostle John actually said that you’re a total liar if you live like that (1 John 2:4-6). Reminds me of how Greg Koukl likes to say, “Not everyone who claims Christ is claimed by Christ.”
Biblical Christianity shows that religion itself isn’t evil. So it’s not really religion itself that’s the problem. It’s the content of certain beliefs that we need to carefully evaluate for truth. Because ideas have consequences.
The Gardener and the Brain Surgeon
J.P. Moreland once illustrated this in a class by telling the story of the Gardener and the Brain Surgeon. And it goes something like this:
Imagine a gardener thinks a special bush you planted was a weed. You hired him to come out and weed your yard and he pulls up your special bush. That wouldn’t be good, but it’s not the end of the world. Just go to the store, buy yourself another special bush and tell the gardener not to pull your new special bush. No big deal, right?
But, what if you need brain surgery and you hear your brain surgeon asking one of the staff, “Now, when I operate on this guy…um…Isn’t the brain located somewhere near the heart?” Now, if that actually happened, you’d better run and find yourself another brain surgeon! Here’s the point. Sometimes being wrong about something isn’t a big deal, like the case of the gardener. Sometimes, it’s a huge deal, like in the case with the brain surgeon. As Moreland put it:
The more important the issue, the greater the harm in having a false belief. Your picture of God is more like brain surgery than gardening…How a person thinks about God has a huge impact on the way they live the rest of their lives.
Religion isn’t dangerous. Rather, it’s false beliefs about God that can have devastating consequences. In light of 9/11, William Lane Craig noted:
I think the Muslim terrorists have made a terrible mistake. And the reason is: I think they have the wrong god. The god that they think has commanded them to do this doesn’t exist. Therefore, they are terribly, and tragically mistaken.
Seems like 9/11 brought Americans together in a way no other national tragedy has—at least in my lifetime. We all stood back in horror and called it a “Day of Evil.” A decade after 9/11, even the late Christopher Hitchens wrote that this remains the best description and most essential fact about al-Qaida: Simply Evil. I agree.