As I drove back to Colorado Springs from Denver today, the fog was so thick I could barely see the car ahead of me, much less the usual splendor of the Rocky Mountains to the west. I was listening to Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, who made some interesting points about the nature of faith. In the ongoing dialogue between theists and atheists that permeates society today, theists are often said to rely on faith while atheists rely on reason in the formation of their respective worldviews. Yet, such a stark dichotomy is too simplistic and out of touch with reality.
Adherents to both views arrive at their beliefs through a combination of faith and reason. Neither the atheist nor the theist relies solely on reason. Both rely on a component of faith. For that matter, there are very few beliefs any of us hold that do not involve faith to some degree. The simple act of driving through a green light requires faith that nearby drivers who are faced with a red light will actually stop.
Oxford biologist and author Richard Dawkins suggests that religious “faith” is a “virus of the mind.” In his 1991 article entitled “Viruses of the Mind,” he states that, “Like some computer viruses, successful mind viruses will tend to be hard for their victims to detect. If you are a victim of one, the chances are that you won’t know it, and may even vigorously deny it.” So, sufferers of the memetic virus of religious faith may not even know they have been affected by an outside agent.
Conversely, the apostle Paul wrote of non-believers that, “their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ.” (2 Cor. 3:14) According to Christianity, Richard Dawkins may have been similarly blinded; a viral virgin infected by a God who disdains his arrogant air of superiority.
But here’s the rub. It wasn’t the fact that faith exists within all of us that beguiled Dr. Keller; it was how each of us expresses our faith that captured his imagination. Think about it. By virtue of our various worldviews, each of us discovers a sense of belonging. Whether you are a Muslim, a Christian, a Hindu or a Freethinker, you will find other people who share your belief system. You will also soon appreciate that there are many more people who disagree with your beliefs and consider them simply wrong. What is common to all of us is the tendency to marginalize those who don’t believe as we do; to consider ourselves better than those who haven’t been similarly enlightened.
In this sense, we can’t help but agree with Christopher Hitchens. Religion does poison everything. And he certainly made that point clearly in his debate with Frank Turek. Christopher emoted, “Isn’t it as plain as could be that those who commit the most callous, the most cruel, the most brutal, the most indiscriminate atrocities of all, do so precisely because they believe they have divine permission?” In many cases, we must humbly admit, he is correct. However, wasn’t Pol Pot cruel and indiscriminate? Wasn’t Joseph Stalin callous and brutal? Stalin was also indiscriminate. He copiously murdered people of all religions.
Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, suggests that while these men were indeed atheists, it wasn’t their atheism that drove them to commit such atrocities. Stalin’s atheism may not have led him to murder had it not been that his atheism first led him to marginalize the masses. His atheism led to self-supremacy and the marginalization of others, which in turn led to his genocidal acts. In his Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx described religion as the “opiate of the masses.” Supremacist thoughts would come easily to someone convinced that everyone else is walking around in a metaphorical drug-induced stupor. When it comes to atrocities, all religions, and even atheism, are in a dead heat.
But why is this so? The bottom line is that people are not led to commit atrocities by either religion or atheism, but rather by the insidious seduction of power and the serpentine invasiveness of pride. These lead to a misguided sense of moral superiority. When an individual of one group sees himself as superior to those of another group — as more deserving, more enlightened, more noble — he is bound to subjugate outsiders mentally, verbally and eventually physically.
This process of self-aggrandizement is fueled to an even greater degree when one’s holy book(s) specifically encourage the mindset of supremacy. Consider the writings of Muhammad in The Koran:
You [true believers in Islamic Monotheism, and real followers of Prophet Muhammad] are the best peoples ever raised up for mankind . . . . And had the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) believed, it would have been better for them. (Surah 3:110)
Verily, those who disbelieve (in the religion of Islam, the Qur’an, and Prophet Muhammad) from among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) . . . will abide in the Fire of Hell. They are the worst of creatures. (Surah 98:6)
Is it any wonder that radical Islam seeks the subjugation of outsiders? Their holy book tells them, in no uncertain terms, they truly are superior.
When religion leads people to view others as lower than themselves, then it does spoil everything. Consider these sentiments from Richard Dawkins in his Preface to The God Delusion:
Being an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about. On the contrary, it is something to be proud of, standing tall to face the far horizon, for atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind. 1
The supremacist leanings of Dawkins’ analogy are rather obvious. Atheists have healthy minds, whereas theists have been infected by a virus that causes a form of psychopathology. Sam Harris, in Letter to a Christian Nation, writes:
While believing strongly, without evidence, is considered a mark of madness or stupidity in any other area of our lives, faith in God still holds immense prestige in our society. 2
The clear implication in Harris’s words is that “faith in God” should not hold prestige, but rather, should be considered a mark of madness or stupidity. Both Harris and Dawkins project an air of superiority by insinuating that the religious, and especially Christians, are ill, mad or stupid. Some people who claim the title “Christian” may indeed deserve these labels, such as those whom Harris claims sent him hostile emails and letters after the publication of his first book, The End of Faith. Yet, hostility from those who disagree with you is par for the course in this day and age. I, too, have received my share of hostile communications from atheists subsequent to my rebuttal of Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation: Counter Point.
So, it would seem the score is tied. Or is it? We’ve considered the writings of leading atheists and the words of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. But what does Christ himself say? While there are self-professed Christians who hold supremacist views, do they come upon these notions through a reliable study of the Bible? Is supremacy consistent with the teachings of Jesus? Consider His words:
If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? (Matthew 5:39, 43, 44, 47)
Jesus commands His followers to love their enemies. And the apostle Paul encourages Christians to:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:15, 16)
The dictates of Jesus and Paul, when followed by professing Christians, mitigate against superiority and thoughts of supremacy. Christians the world over, who live consistently with the mandates of Jesus Christ, find a joy and a peace they long to share with others . . . all others . . . . for they realize that they are recipients of grace and mercy. The recognition that they are no more deserving than the next person of that blessed grace leads them to humbly look upon others as greater than themselves. Religion may indeed poison everything, but Jesus Christ came to offer each of us the antidote.
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), p. 3.
- Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York, NY: Knopf, 2006), p. 67.