Is Religion the Devil?

Amid the din or debate over recent anti-theistic books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C. Dennett, and Sam Harris, I catch one recurrent strain that bothers me. These critics do not merely decline to accept arguments for God’s existence. They do not merely lament the great evils done by religious people and for the sake of their religions. They seem to go a significant step farther and declare that religion is inherently evil, and, worse yet, that it is the root of humanity’s problems. Call it a Utopian atheism that “imagines” John Lennon’s faith-free world as a paradise.

And it strikes me that I have heard something much like this before. What was it? Oh yes: the fundamentalist belief in Satan, the anti-panacaea, the source of all ills. Satan, without whom no evil would infiltrate existence, without whom evil, to borrow Hitchens’s term, would not “poison everything.” Some regard fundamentalism as pessimistic, seeing evil crowding everywhere, lurking behind every bush, as Young Goodman Brown did. Paranoid, yes, but pessimistic, no. Instead, I should say fundamentalists are naively optimistic. How simple a matter, in principle, to cure the world’s ills: get rid of Satan. “Cast out the scorner, and dissention will go out,” Proverbs tells us. And Satan is the Big Scorner, the one who pitches apples of discord everywhere, like hand grenades, in every direction, every chance he gets. If we could just stop him, like silencing a loud-mouth dog late at night, we could all go peacefully back to sleep.

I hardly need point out, that is to scapegoat Satan. Believing in the devil at all, as Feuerbach explained, is a refusal to take responsibility for our own actions and urges. God, too, is a scapegoat: upon him we pile our own greatness, our own virtues, because we are too lazy or too cowardly to bear them on our own shoulders.

If not for Satan, everything would be peachy. Once, in 1978, just after the Jonestown horror, I was chatting with a Professor of Missions at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. (Incidentally, he had once pastured a church for English speakers in Afghanistan—until the local savages tore it down.) He said to me, “Bob, don’t you think this Guyana tragedy attests the reality of Satan?” I replied, “No, Dr. Wilson, I’m afraid I don’t. What it attests is the perversity of human nature.” I only wish we required a handy devil to explain these things! I only wish evil was such a mystery that we had to posit some unseen, non-human source, to account for it. But we don’t.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I deny there are suprahuman agencies that screw things up for us. These are not the devil, but the similar myth of the Principalities and Powers. In sociological terms, there are corporate entities that we humans create, and which begin to run on their own steam till they do not need us and they rule us instead of serving us. Bureaucracies of various kinds are a prime example. Public Opinion, Big Business, Big Money, the Vatican, the Military-Industrial Complex, etc. These are powerful human creations run amok—like the Frankenstein Monster. It’s no longer possible to shut them down and correct them. But they, too, are our fault. There is no devil to blame.

If our strident atheists argued merely that people have done terrible things in the name of religion, they’d win the argument quickly because absolutely no one disagrees with this. Everyone laments such religious atrocities (except, of course, the fiends who are busy planning new ones!). And if that was where you had to leave the matter, the door would still be open to improving religion. One could not argue it would be best to repent of religion as a sin, to eradicate it as a disease. So militant atheists have to argue that religion is inherently evil and “poisons everything.” It is the sum of all fears, the root of all evils. If we could only get rid of it, all would be fine.

There is the same naivete I was talking about in fundamentalism! Doesn’t militant, “take no prisoners” atheism dream implausibly of a godless paradise? But surely it was not belief in God that caused Hitler to gas the Jews or Stalin the Ukrainians? I know the programmed reply of the atheist apologist at this juncture, ready on the tip of the tongue, is “Hitler and Stalin essentially were religious, being dogmatic zealots, holding to dangerous beliefs despite the evidence against them.” But it is merely circular to assign religion these negative predicates. What makes narrow-mindedness essentially religious? What makes fanatical zealotry religious more than merely psychological? You can’t just get away with saying, “The narrow-minded atheist is being religious insofar as he is narrow-minded”! Seems to me that narrow zealotry is a regrettable trait shared by religious and nonreligious people alike, while obviously neither religiosity and impiety are so shared. I suspect these atheists are claiming “Heads I win, tails you lose!” Haloed heads and pointed tails.

A friend and colleague just sent out an essay which took Richard Dawkins to task for taking religion too seriously as the source of our problems. I was amazed at how similar the point was to the one I wanted to make in this column. But then, as I read on, I saw that my friend had simply substituted a different devil: Capitalism, which I consider no devil, or evil, at all. Sure, there are greedy bastards who take advantage of the system, but that was just as true of Communism where it once flourished. Now I could say my friend is “religious” in his use of this tactic of scapegoating and oversimplification. But I won’t. Because it is in no discernable way “religious” if he is not using it in service to religion or as the direct outgrowth of religious beliefs. It is just a thing people do. Capitalism is not the devil, but my friend is not religious for saying that it is. He is just mistaken, as human beings often are. And as religions often are, with terrible consequences.

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
November 2007



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