Evil and Religion

First, this is post #250. If someone would please blow-up a balloon or send out a little woot! woot! right there in front of your screen, I’d appreciate it. I’m curious if any of you have been reading along from the beginning. If so, (1) May God grant you mercy for the words you’ve endured, and (2) A very sincere thanks. A writer has a rough time if there’s no place for his words to land. I’m glad, every now and then, some of them land here.

Second, I have a piece over at CSLewis.com on Lent, Dickens, Temptation and, of course, Lewis.

Last week, I was privileged to enjoy my second year as an author at the Virginia Festival of the Book (which, by the way, provides three days of absolute joy for any book lover – you’ll have to visit). This year’s event, Speaking of God, cast five authors writing from various vantage points. Reading the bios and book blurbs ahead of time, I knew the conversation would be spicy. I had no idea…

At one end of the table sat two smart and highly credentialed authors proposing that their work surveyed the most recent research in neuroscience, proving (in 144 pages, which I thought quite a feat) that God is merely a construct of the human mind and suggesting that the world would be a far better place if religion simply evaporated. Seated next to them, in the worst possible position if we wanted any chance at an evening of peace and harmony, was a philosopher whose spanking new Oxford Press book argues that a theistic worldview best explains the moral truths most of us say we believe. Meanwhile the two authors remaining (myself and another fellow) sat on the far end, which turned out to be a good vantage, out of the line of fire but close enough to watch the steam blow.

Needless to say, at some point the conversation ceased to be about the books.

I was struck, however, by the dogmatic, unequivocal claim that the world would be a kindler, gentler place if we simply abandoned our naive religious commitments and recognized science for the Almighty that it is. By this view, the evil in our world is fueled by religion, and science is the savior.

I’m hearing this claim as I’m immersed in Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, penned before the SS hung him by a thin wire in the grey courtyard of a Nazi concentration camp. Hitler did not heat up the smoke stacks because he was compelled by religious fervor. Hitler, madman that he was, was driven by a worldview he found compatible with the social science of his day. I’m not suggesting it was good science (it was bad science. Good science and good religion are friends not foes – neither have anything to fear if what we’re aiming for is the truth). I’m not suggesting that science gave us Hitler. I’m simply noting that if you were forced to choose between religion and science to find blame for the Third Reich, it would be science, hands down.

Six million Jews herded to the gas chambers had religious faith. Bonhoeffer had religious faith. Hitler had another kind of faith altogether.

I’m quick to admit, sadly and with horror, that much evil has been done in the name of Christianity (and other faiths too). This is to our great shame. However, in such moments, we stand judged – and rightly so – by the claims of our faith. It is precisely the view of God as a God of justice that allows someone to (rightly) name our actions evil. If God is simply something we dream up, then religion’s vision of evil is also something we conjure. And I’ve yet to hear a compelling, coherent response as to how, yanking that foundation, we reconstruct any meaningful case for the evils most of us instinctively acknowledge.

When someone names these evil moments evil¬†(at least evil in any ontological sense), they¬†affirm the fact that some reality in the universe has named certain actions just and certain actions diabolical. You can’t insist religion a farce while using religions’ criteria for what is right and what is wrong. Good science wouldn’t allow that double standard.

5 Replies to “Evil and Religion”

  1. Giving thanks that your words have landed in my lap over the last year through some pretty big transitions in my life.

    Cheers all around for the last 250 posts!! And here's to another 250 more!

    Emily Huff
    (friend of Robert Benson's who introduced me to your blog)

  2. Winn, I wish I could have sat in on that discussion, I hope you had the chance to voice some of those same words.

    Congratulations to 250, it's been good to be with you on this journey thus far. You have been a constant voice of truth and honesty in my life. Your words matter. You matter.

  3. -Congrats on your 250th post! I have been reading since the beginning and I'm looking forward to what I hope will be many posts to come. I echo Austin's words that your voice is so important to me and many of the folks I love.

    -Congrats on being published on CSLewis.com! I really enjoyed your post. I'd be curious to hear how you feel it interacts with this one, which a friend shared with me last week (apologies for the way it's written, the author's style made me gag).

    -Though I share your distaste for the New Atheist crowd and their deeply flawed views on history, psychology, and science, as someone who makes his living using science, I could not disagree with this statement more: "I'm simply noting that if you were forced to choose between religion and science to find blame for the Third Reich, it would be science, hands down."

    I understand where you're coming from historically, but I think blaming science for the warped, racist groupthink of Nazism is akin to blaming Islam for the actions of Osama Bin Laden. I think the choice you present between religion and science as a scapegoat for Nazism is a false one.

    Also (and I'm probably wrong here), it seems like you're implying that Hitler's execution of Bonhoeffer was evidence of Hitler's attitude towards religious faith. My understanding was that Bonhoeffer was arrested and hung because he was a member of a group which plotted to assassinate Hitler. Am I wrong?

    I feel our primary response to the accusations of the New Atheist crowd should not be to play their arguments in reverse (e.g. it is not religion, but science, that is the cause of suffering in the world), but to point out how Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, and other of history's bloodiest tyrants were not religious men.

  4. Thank you, Justin. Your words mean a lot to me. And thanks for passing along Hart's piece. After wading through the first half with dictionary in tow, the last several paragraphs had deep resonance with me, as you must know. I'm perplexed at times how some Christian theologians seem to downplay the reality our heart knows – and St. Paul tells us plainly – that death (and all its kin) is our enemy, God's enemy. Why do we want to concoct schemes that seem to almost make them allies?

    On my post: If I were blaming science for Nazism, you'd be absolutely right to call me out. Concerned some would misread me this way, I tried hard (though apparently not well) to clarify what I am not saying. I did say that Hitler was a madman, driven by a worldview (not science) that found traction with bad science (not good science). In an attempt to be extra clear, I reiterated: "I'm not suggesting that science gave us Hitler."

    I was responding to the particular charge that religion is the great polluter while science is the great purifier. Given the many ways the Nazis found (false) justification in the sciences and twisted the sciences to their cause, I find this assertion I was responding to (unfettered faith in science's ability to always give us the noble path) naive. What I was saying is that, in this instance, if you insist on a choice between religion or science (and I thought I had made it clear – apparently not – that it's a false choice, false dichotomy) as the fields where Nazis made their hay, the gavel will land on science. I stand by that statement.

    I'm not blaming science for the Nazis, absolutely not. Obviously, Hitler perverted science (just as he perverted much of the German Church) for his own insane ideas. I'm simply saying that religion did not cause Hitler's evil and science was not the great savior.

    If you hear me pitting science against religion or in any way suggesting that science "is the cause of suffering in the world," then, I'm a bit baffled – but certainly want to recant. I was responding to the particular nefarious charge that simplistically posits: religion= evil and science=good. The truth is that bad things have been done in the name of religion and in the name of science. That's all I wanted to say. And I still want to say it.

    I think your point on Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin, etc. is legitimate. However, that's also more than I'm trying to say. If someone wants to look for evil religious men who've done evil, vile things – they're easy to find. My point is that this is no simplistic slam dunk against the truthfulness of religion – you will find the same in the fields of science (and every other category we choose). The difference for the religions ones is that we are judged by the moral imperatives of our faith.

    On Bonhoeffer, no – I was not suggesting that he was executed for his religious faith. I was saying that in this historical narrative, Bonhoeffer and the Jews were oppressed by evil, they were not the oppressors. And the one oppressing was not wielding the sword of religion (as you rightly point out).

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