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Thinking It Through: How to Refute the “Religion Is Violent” Myth

If you could wave a magic wand to get rid of either rape or religion, which would you choose?

Popular atheist Sam Harris would choose religion. In a 2006 interview he argued, “More people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology.” This is a common charge among New Atheists. They think religion causes violence, so we must rid the world of it.

I don’t blame atheists for being repulsed by violent religious fanatics. But I don’t believe that religion itself is the problem, or that religious violence is a good reason to be an atheist. When we examine the argument closely we find new meaning to Delbert McClinton’s classic “Standing on Shaky Ground.”

No “follow the leader”

The argument commits the logical fallacy of non sequitur (Latin, “it does not follow”). The conclusion “Religion is bad” no more follows from the premise “Religion is a source of violence” than the conclusion “Land ownership is bad” follows from the premise “Land ownership is a source of violence.” Kings and countries have fought and still fight over disputed land. But that doesn’t mean we should rid ourselves of private property.

Similarly, because individuals fight in the name of religion, it doesn’t follow that we should rid the world of religion. There may be other grounds on which to reject religion, but this isn’t one of them.

Turning the tables

Another reason the objection fails is because it proves too much. If an atheist rejects religion because he thinks it leads to violent conflict, then he would also have to reject atheism, since many atheists have performed (and still do perform) violent acts in the name of atheism.

In fact, atheist violence surpasses religious violence by a staggering degree. In his book What’s So Great About Christianity, Dinesh D’Souza explains:

The world’s population rose from around 500 million in A.D. 1450 to 2.5 billion in 1950, a fivefold increase. Taken together, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch burnings killed approximately 200,000 people. Adjusting for the increase in population, that’s the equivalent of one million deaths today. Even so, these deaths caused by Christian rulers over a five-hundred-year period amount to only 1 percent of the deaths caused by Stalin, Hitler, and Mao in the space of a few decades (p. 215).

Therefore, the “Religion is dangerous” argument also undermines atheism, which is something I assume no atheist would want to accept.

Not by the sword

Thirdly, the objection wrongly assumes that violent fanaticism belongs to all religions. Persuasion by the sword is not intrinsic to religion, especially not Christianity. Consider Jesus’ own words:

  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-44).
  • “Put your sword back for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 25:42).

These words are far from encouraging the spread of the Christian message by violence. So are the words from many early Christian writers:

  • Lactantius (c. 250–c. 325): “There is no occasion for violence and injury, for religion cannot be imposed by force; the matter must be carried on by words rather than by blows, that the will may be affected” (Divine Institutes 5:20).
  • Hilary of Poitiers (c. 310–c. 367): “God does not want unwilling worship, nor does he require a forced repentance” (To Constantius, quoted in Lord Acton, “Political Thoughts on the Church”).
  • Isidore of Pelusium (d. c. 450): “Since it seems not good forcibly to draw over to the faith those who are gifted with a free will, employ at the proper time conviction and by your life enlighten those who are in darkness” (Epistles 3.363).
  • Tertullian (c. 155–c. 240 AD): “It is not proper for religion to compel men to religion, which should be accepted of one’s own accord, not by force, since sacrifices also are required of a willing mind” (To Scapula, ch.2).
  • John Chrysostom (c. 349–407): “Such is the character of our doctrine; what about yours? No one ever persecuted it, nor is it right for Christians to eradicate error by constraint and force, but to save humanity by persuasion and reason and gentleness” (Discourses on Blessed Babylas and Against the Greeks, sec. 13).
  • Athanasius (c. 296–373) “It is that the devil, when he has no truth on his side, attacks and breaks down the doors of them that admit him with axes and hammers. . . . For the truth is not preached with swords or with darts, nor by means of soldiers; but by persuasion and counsel” (History of the Arians 4.33).

The teachings of Jesus and early Christian writers stand in stark contrast to Islam’s Quran:

Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and his apostle have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection (Sura 9:29).

The difference between Christian and Islamic belief on persuasion by the sword proves that a categorical rejection of religion on the grounds of violence is unwarranted. Atheists must take into account the beliefs and practices of each religion.

A safe haven for atheists

Atheists can rest assured that persuasion by violence is not part of the Christian religion. Christians who have carried out violent acts in the name of God throughout history only show their failure to live up to Christian standards. Such violence is an abuse of the Christian name and thus a perversion of Christianity.

If there is any religion that atheists should feel safe with, it’s the Christian religion. They can be sure that Christianity promotes the respect of their dignity as free human beings. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, “Man’s response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will” (Dignitatis Humanae 10). In imitation of Jesus, who bore witness to the truth (see John 8:32), Christians are called to propose the gospel of Jesus and invite others to believe in it but not “to use force to impose it” (DH 11).


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