Criticism of Religion
Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1834), quoted in Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2010: Thomas Nelson), p. 115.
Christianity — and that is its greatest merit — has somewhat mitigated that brutal German love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and finally Thor with his giant hammer will jump up and smash the Gothic cathedrals. ... Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder. German thunder ... comes rolling somewhat slowly, but .. its crash ... will be unlike anything before in the history of the world. [W]hen you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world's history, then you know that the German thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll.
In The Early Life, Correspondence, and Writings of Edmund Burke, ed. Arthur Purefoy Irwin Samuels (Cambridge University Press), p. 176. Originally in the Reformer (April 7th, 1748).
The two greatest enemies of religion are infidelity and blind zeal, the former attacks it like an open enemy, and the latter like an indiscreet friend, does it more harm than good. The first gives rise to the free thinkers, the latter to our sectaries. A truly religious life has the same efficacy to the prevention of both.
How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God (Macmillan: 2003), pp. 71-2.
From the Crusades' numerous attempts to cleanse the Holy Land of infidels (anyone who was not a proper Christian), to the Inquisition's efforts to purge society of heretics (anyone who dissented from Christian dogma), to the Counter Reformation's push to extirpate reforming Protestants from Catholic lands, to the Holy Wars of the late twentieth century that continue to produce death rolls in the millions, all have been done in the name of God and One True Religion. However, for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go largely unreported in the history books or on the evening news. Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil; shades of gray complexity abound in all such societal structures, and religion should not be treated any differently than, say, political organizations. One could easily build a case that state-sponsored terrorism, revolutions, and wars make even these horrific religion sponsored catastrophes appear mild by comparison. If God is a meme, so is King and President; and if religion is a virus, politics is a full-blown epidemic replete with copy-me memes such as nationalism, jingoism, and outright racism. Yet no memeticist would propose that we do away with the state. Why? Because the state is a complex social entity with countless nuanced beneficent effects that go along with the pernicious.
"Is Religion Evil?" in God Is Great, God Is Good, eds. William Lane Craig and Chad Meister (IVP Books: 2009), pp. 128-9.
When a society rejects the idea of God, it tends to transcendentalize alternatives — such as the ideals of liberty or equality. These now become quasi-divine authorities, which none are permitted to challenge. ¶ Perhaps the most familiar example of this dates from the French Revolution, at a time when traditional notions of God were discarded as obsolete and replaced by transcendentalized human values. In 1792 Madame Rolande was brought to the guillotine to face execution on trumped-up charges. As she prepared to die, she bowed mockingly toward the statue of liberty in the Place de la Révolution and uttered the words for which she is now remembered: "Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name." Her point is simple, and I believe it to be irrefutable. All ideals — divine, transcendent, human or invented — are capable of being abused. That's just the way human nature is. And knowing this, rather than lashing out uncritically at religion, we need to work out what to do about it. The problem lies in human nature.
The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends On It (HarperCollins: 2008), pp. 1-2.
It would be a safe but sad bet that someone, somewhere in the world, is killing someone else at this very moment in the name of religion or ideology. ¶ Currently, the world's newspapers give us each day our daily read of the Sunni Muslims ferociously slaughtering Shia Muslims in Baghdad, and of Shia Muslims ferociously slaughtering Sunni Muslims in revenge. Elsewhere it might be Muslims and Hindus killing each other in Kashmir, or Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka, or Muslims and animists in Sudan. Earlier it would have been Protestants and Catholics in Ulster, and Muslims, Orthodox, and Catholics in the Balkans. ... But before anyone drifts off into the well-rehearsed litany of blaming it all on religion, we should remember that modern "terror" began in France in 1789 in the name of secular Reason, killing several million in its wars and committing a near genocide in the Vendée on its first outing. Nearer our own time, close to a hundred million people were slaughtered in the twentieth century by secularist ideologies — far more than the deaths from all the religious persecutions and repression in Western history combined.
The True Intellectual System of the Universe, Vol II (Gould & Newman, 1838), pp. 554-7.
Christ came not into the world to fill our heads with mere speculations, to kindle a fire of wrangling and contentious dispute amongst us, and to warm our spirits against one another with nothing but angry and peevish debates; whilst in the mean time our hearts remain all ice within towards God, and have not the least spark of true heavenly fire to melt and thaw them. Christ came not to possess our brains only with some cold opinions, that send down nothing but a freezing and benumbing influence upon our hearts. Christ was vitae magister, not scholae: and he is the best Christian, whose heart beats with the purest pulse towards heaven; not he, whose head spinneth out the finest cobwebs. ¶ He that endeavors really to mortify his lusts, and to comply with that truth in his life, which his conscience is convinced of, is nearer a Christian, though he never heard of Christ, than he, that believes all the vulgar articles of the Christian faith, and plainly denieth Christ in his life.
Morality Without God? (Oxford University Press: 2009), 192 pages.
Atheists often claim that religion fuels aggressive wars, both because it exacerbates antagonisms between opponents and also because it gives aggressors confidence by making them feel as if they have God on their side. Lots of wars certainly looks as if they are motivated by religion. Just think about conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, the Balkans, the Asian subcontinent, Indonesia, and various parts of Africa. However, none of these wars is exclusively religious. They always involve political, economic, and ethnic disputes as well. That makes it hard to specify how much role, if any, religion itself had in causing any particular war. Defenders of religion argue that religious language is misused to justify what warmongers wanted to do independently of religion. This hypothesis might seem implausible to some, but it is hard to refute, partly because we do not have enough data points, and there is so much variation among wars. In any case, the high number of apparently religious wars at least suggests that secular societies are unlikely to be more prone to murder in war.
Atheist Delusions (Yale University Press: 2009), pp. 33-34.
Hence modernity’s first great attempt to define itself: an 'age of reason' emerging from and overthrowing an 'age of faith'. Behind this definition lay a simple but thoroughly enchanting tale. Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjugation to dogma. All was darkness. ¶ Then, in the wake of the ‘wars of religion’ that had torn Christendom apart, came the full flowing of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress. The secular nation-state arose, reduced religion to an establishment of the state and thereby rescued Western humanity from the blood-steeped intolerance of religion. ¶ This is, as I say, a simple and enchanting tale, easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail. This tale of the birth of the modern world has largely disappeared from respectable academic literature and survives now principally at the level of folklore, 'intellectual journalism,' and vulgar legend.
"Christianity's Despicable History" on the CPXtra blog at PublicChristianity.com (Oct 31, 2009).
Christians have to acknowledge just how serious is the complaint today that the church acted despicably throughout its history. This is not just a Roman Catholic problem, with their Crusades and Inquisitions. Protestants have their own dark history. Martin Luther, the German founder of Protestantism, wrote the most awful things about European Jews in his 1543 tract “The Jews and Their Lies”. John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed tradition and one of my favourite theologians, was brutal in his treatment of heretics like Michael Servetus, whom he had executed in 1553. The case is serious. But there is also something wrong with most modern versions of the complaint. First, retellings of the evils of Christianity frequently involve gross exaggerations in popular discussion. This is the product of an unnoticed propaganda. ... [E]very new era retells the past in a way that elevates its own position as the great deliverer, the bringer of special freedoms; and that necessarily requires exaggerating, even lying, about the horrors of the past. We do this on a small scale when we talk about the moralism of the 1950s or the prudishness of Victorian England. It happened on a macro scale in the 18th-19th centuries ... when Enlightenment leaders popularised the expression 'Dark Ages'. Here was an attempt to describe the era of Christendom as an era of oppression, ignorance and violence, as opposed to the era of freedom and peace brought about by secular reason. No serious historian today could go along with this story. ... I ... ask readers to contemplate an important insight. Experts aside, most of us have picked up our knowledge of the Crusades, the Inquisitions and other horrors of Christendom from sources other than respectable academic literature. Is it not possible that we have simply accepted mere propaganda as fact?
Reason, Faith, and Revolution (Yale University Press: 2009), pp. xi-xii.
Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology. I therefore have a good deal of sympathy with its rationalist and humanist critics. But it is also the case, as this book argues, that most such critics buy their rejection of religion on the cheap. When it comes to the New Testament, at least, what they usually write off is a worthless caricature of the real thing, rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to match religion's own... If the agnostic left cannot afford such intellectual indolence when it comes to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, it is not only because it belongs to justice and honesty to confront your opponent at his or her most convincing. It is also that radicals might discover there some valuable insights into human emancipation, in an era where the political left stand in dire need of good ideas. I do not invite such readers to believe in these ideas, any more than I myself believe in the archangel Gabriel, the infallibility of the pope, the idea that Jesus walked on water, or the claim that he rose up into heaven before the eyes of his disciples. If I try in this book to "ventriloquize" what I take to be a version of the Christian gospel relevant to radicals and humanists, I do not wish to be mistaken for a dummy. But the Jewish and Christian scriptures have much to say about some vital questions — death, suffering, love, self-dispossession, and the like — on which the left has for the most part maintained an embarrassed silence. It is time for this politically crippling shyness to come to an end.