Is Religion Poison?

            This morning’s news reported rioting in Israel. An ultra-conservative religious group is agitating for the separation of men and women in Israeli society, and one of their demonstrations dissolved into violence.

            And I thought of Christopher Hitchens.

            A British social commentator and literary critic who died a few days before Christmas, Hitchens was a leader in the so-called New Atheism movement. He was a colorful character and an independent thinker, and I’ve long considered him “my favorite atheist” (if indeed a pastor is permitted a favorite atheist). His most prominent work on religion was God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Certainly he would have seen the Israeli fight over segregating women as a good example of how religion promotes delusional ideas and leads to strife and division.

            In the most memorable chapter of God Is Not Great, Hitchens sketches the poisonous effects of religion, and confines himself only to places that start with the letter B: Bethlehem, Beirut, Belfast, Belgrade, Bombay, and Baghdad. Religion, according to Hitchens, has brought horrific violence and division to these places.

            I can’t say that Hitchens is wrong on this issue. Religion often does poison things. Sometimes it’s used to justify hatred and prejudice, even murder. Certainly religion has a “control freak” aspect about it–religious leaders often love to boss other people around with lots and lots of rules. The attempt to separate men and women in Israel reeks of this “religion-as-control” theme. (I appreciate more and more a prayer that appeared in our church’s 1971 Worship Supplement: “Take from us the desire to control the freedom of others.”) Religion can make people self-righteous and superior. Religion can be bad news indeed.

            Hitchens was a literate man, and certainly knew the Latin motto Corruptio optimi pessisima est (“the corruption of the best is the worst”). In other words, when something good goes bad...it goes really, really bad. Military force is a good thing when it keeps the peace and defends a country’s freedom; it becomes a very bad thing when it’s used by countries to invade their neighbors and suppress freedom. Morphine is a good thing when it’s used to treat pain; when it’s refined into heroin, it becomes a destroyer of lives. The same is true of religion. It can bring beauty, joy, and comfort into the world. It can also incite violence and hatred between people. Bad religion is a bad thing indeed–but good and true religion can enrich individual lives and the world as a whole.

            Some Christians actually suggest that Christianity is not a religion at all. Religion, they say, is the human search for God–people reaching upward toward God and creating Him in their own image. Christianity is something quite different–it’s God reaching toward us, God coming to us in Jesus Christ. The more I see of bad religion, the more sympathetic I am toward the idea that Christianity isn’t a religion at all. I see almost no similarity between the joyful Gospel message of God’s love that we proclaim at St. Paul’s and the delusional ideas that have wrecked the “places that start with a B” on Hitchens’ list. We don’t shackle people to a massive body of religious law–we have just ten rules. As St. Paul says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (II Corinthains 3:17) We don’t proclaim God’s hatred for anyone–rather, we declare that He loves all people: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). (God even loves Christopher Hitchens–whose death so rattled me that I accidentally consecrated the Sacrament twice during the service at which I prayed for him!) “Religion” may poison everything, but I don’t see any poison in the faith we preach and live at St. Paul’s.

            Maybe, though, it’s like Coumadin--a blood thinner that lots of people take to avoid blood clots. For many, it’s a life-saving medication. However–Coumadin began life as a poison. It was originally formulated back in the 1930s to kill rats. In the 1950s, however, someone came up with the bright idea to use Coumadin as a medication. It has to be monitored, so that the level in the blood doesn’t become dangerous. But when kept at the proper level, Coumadin–the rat poison--helps keep people from having devastating strokes.

              Maybe religion is like that. It can be poisonous. But it can also be healing, joyful, and therapeutic. It can bring destruction–but it can also prevent destruction. It can ruin and wreck lives–but it can also enhance and save lives. It

motivates people to do loving and caring things for others. It helps people turn their lives around, and shake off dependence on drugs and alcohol. It gives people a reason to live and a vision for the future.

            But even if religion really were poisonous, that wouldn’t affect us in the slightest. Because in the end, what we’re involved with is not “religion”–what we’re involved with is a Person, Jesus Christ. “I resolved to know nothing among you except Christ and Him crucified.” (I Corinthians 2:2). This wondrously loving Person who is God and man...the One who was born for us, and who died for us...the One who lives to all eternity...the One who offers us a personal relationship and a personal friendship with Himself..this is what our faith is about! It’s not about rules, not about “controlling the freedom of others”, not about feeling superior to those around us...it’s about Jesus. He’s not “religion”–He’s a loving and compassionate Saviour!

            God loves you and so do I


Vol. 83 - No. 1