Monday, January 24, 2011

does religion poison everything?

Atheist Christopher Hitchens subtitled his book "How religion poisons everything". But does religion, specifically christianity, merit this comment? What is the evidence?

It isn't a simple question to answer, for there are many barriers to a reasonable understanding:

  • None of us really knows enough to say - we have to generalise wildly and avoid our own biases.
  • We can only properly assess religion by comparison with what people are like without religion.
  • People and nations act out of multiple motivations, and it is over-simplistic to single one motivation out for blame.

Nevertheless, I have had a go, and here is a summary.

the good ....


Christianity has set high aspirations in our ethics and culture, and been responsible for great music, literature art and architecture. Modern and more secular culture sometimes seems more dynamic, but sometimes drab, in comparison, and with lesser aspirations and less idealism.

foundations of western society

Many of the institutions we take for granted (universities and schools, hospitals, legal system, trade unions) were introduced by christians. However many modern secular movements (anti-war, pro environment and anti-discrimination against women, gays or racial minorities) have had a predominantly secular basis (though with some christian involvement).

community welfare

Christians have long been active in community welfare, via hospitals, schools, aged care, care of widows, orphans, the poor and disadvantaged. This continues today, with christians much more involved in, and likely to give in support of, community welfare projects at home and abroad, than unbelievers are.


Christians have higher levels of mental and physical health and wellbeing than non-believers. Both believers and non-believers feel their worldview has brought them peace, contentment and freedom from oppression.

... the bad and the ugly

genocide, war and mass killings

It has been estimated that secular and atheistic regimes in the twentieth century alone were responsible for far more deaths than those caused by christian nations in two millennia. Atheist David Ramsay Steele sums it up: "The history of the past one hundred years shows us that atheistic ideologies can sanctify more and bigger atrocities than Christianity or Islam ever did. The casualties inflicted by Communism and National Socialism vastly exceed - many hundredfold - the casualties inflicted by theocracies. In some cases (Mexico in the 1930s, Soviet Russia, and the People's Republic of China) there has been appalling persecution of theistic belief by politically empowered atheists, exceeding any historical atrocities against unbelievers and heretics."

oppression, intolerance and opposition to progress

Religions have often supported discrimination and intolerance, from the caste system in Hinduism and slavery in christian and Islamic countries to apartheid, repression of women and anti-Semitism, though christians have also fought against them. Totalitarian atheist regimes have also been guilty of some of these. The church has been accused of opposing scientific progress in the Middle Ages, but this is mostly exaggerated - the church established universities and many early "scientists" were priests. Some present day christians oppose some aspects of science (principally evolution and climate change) and some forms of social change (e.g. anti-discrimination against women and gays).

modern western values

Many people believe modern secular western society has lost its way, and no longer offers citizens strong ethical values or meaning, with increased family breakdown, suicide and depression as a result.However others blame the church for much that is wrong.


Overall, it is hard to think that western society, and many less developed countries, would have been better off without christianity. Both belief and unbelief have been associated with great evils, and it seems that both are more benign when not linked to state power structures. It seems that christianity has done more good than has flowed from non-belief. The church has been a mixed blessing, with much we can be thankful for, but much that requires repentance. The teachings of Jesus have motivated many people to altruism, but non-belief has yet to demonstrate the same power for improvement.

read more

Do you think I've made these assessments fairly, or not? Check out the evidence for yourself, or read in more detail my assessments of belief and unbelief.

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