In chapter 20 of their recent book Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God, Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan take up the question, “Does Religion Cause Violence?” This is by now a well-worn trope of new atheist accusation, typically stated without explaining what “religion” is, or how it is uniquely violence-producing in comparison to any other sphere of human activity (politics, sports, business, living in neighboring countries, etc.). Christopher Hitchens famously claimed that “religion poisons everything,” and Richard Dawkins asserts that religion is “one of the world’s great evils.” Other authors have made similar claims, but with more scholarly effort (e.g., Charles Kimball and Regina Schwartz).(1) At the same time, these critics (apparently willfully) overlook the overwhelmingly positive influences of religion (especially Christianity) in modern society, as well as Western civilization as a whole. Even honest non-Christians–at least those not driven by a hatred of religion–freely admit these influences, as Copan and Flannagan illustrate.
Consider what Europe’s most prominent philosopher, Jürgen Habermas–an atheist–says about the influence of the biblical worldview in the West:
“Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than a mere precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”(2)
Another atheist intellectual–the postmodern thinker Jacques Derrida–acknowledges the powerful and positive influence of the biblical faith:
“Today the cornerstone of international law is the sacred, what is sacred in humanity. You should not kill. You should not be responsible for a crime against the sacredness, the sacredness of man as your neighbor . . . made by God or by God made man. . . . In that sense, the concept of crime against humanity is a Christian concept and I think there would be no such thing in the law today without the Christian heritage, the Abrahamic heritage, the biblical heritage.”(3)
Time magazine’s well-respected correspondent David Aikman reported the summary of one Chinese scholar’s lecture to a group of foreigners:
“One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world,” he said. “We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next, we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”(4)
The speaker was a representative of one of China’s premier academic research organizations–the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
(1) See Copan’s and Flannagan’s responses in chapter 20.
(2) Jürgen Habermas, Time of Transitions, ed. and trans. Ciaran Cronin and Max Pensky (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), 150-151.
(3) Jacques Derrida, “To Forgive: The Unforgivable and Imprescriptable,” in Questioning God, ed. John D. Caputo et al. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001), 70.
(4) David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2003), 5.
The Tolle Lege (“Take up and read”) series focuses on excerpts from notable books in philosophy, theology, apologetics, and related areas.