Is Religion Dangerous?


A recent spate of books argues that it is. Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusions, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Letters to a Christian Nation, and now Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great all extol the virtues of atheism and excoriate the vices of faith.
Keith Ward begs to differ. A professing Christian, Ward is Professor of Divinity at Gresham College, London, and the author of numerous works of theology and philosophy.
At the outset of Is Religion Dangerous? Ward argues that flat-out denunciations of religion are “absurd.” “Worse than that,” he writes, “they ignore the available evidence from history, from psychology and sociology, and from philosophy. They refuse to investigate the question in a properly rigorous way, and substitute rhetoric for analysis.”
Lack of rigor and overabundance of rhetoric are displayed in the question itself. Is religion dangerous? That’s about as absurd as asking whether politics is dangerous, or big business, or science. The answer depends on which religion you’re talking about and when. (Or which form of politics, which big company, or which scientific enterprise.) At present, extremist Islam poses a danger to others in some part of the world. But is anyone even remotely afraid of the Amish? Of course not! But that means flat-out denunciations of religion fail to take into account the variety and complexity of religion.
Even if flat-out denunciations of religion are absurd, perhaps it’s the case that, on balance, religion does more harm than good. To answer that question, Ward divides the remainder of the book into four sections:
  • Religion and violence
  • Are religious beliefs irrational?
  • Are religious beliefs immoral?
  • And, by way of summarizing his conclusions, does religion do more harm than good?
A standard atheist argument against religion is that it promotes violence. “Look at the Crusades,” atheists say, “or the Spanish Inquisition, or the religious wars of the 17th Century!”
Two responses come quickly to mind: (1) Yes, but look also at the hospitals, charitable organizations, abolitionist and civil rights movements—all inspired by religious ideals! And (2) look at the 20th Century, during which officially atheistic communist governments killed upward of 100 million people! Surveying the historical evidence, Ward writes powerfully of “the corruptibility of all things human,” and shows how the texts of the great religions actually denounce violent behavior.
Another standard atheistic argument is that faith contradicts scientific method? But as Ward points out, “Many of the most important beliefs we have in life are not scientifically testable, but we still live our lives by them.” Indeed, one of the beliefs that cannot be tested by scientific method is the very belief that only the scientific method produces knowledge! Many intelligent people believe in God and practice their faith humanely. More than that, they offer reasons for their beliefs. They may or may not be scientific reasons, but they should be taken seriously nonetheless.
Is religion immoral? Atheists delight in pointing out the horror stories of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. Are these stories hard for Christians to explain? Frankly, yes. But what atheists fail to note is that hard cases make bad law. Jesus enunciated the main thrust of biblical ethics in Matthew 22:37-40 when he summarized Christian duty as love God and love your neighbor as yourself. What, precisely, is dangerous about love?
Even if religion is not violent, irrational, or immoral, perhaps it is simply not psychologically healthy. Ward considers this argument in the final part of his book. Citing numerous psychological, sociologically, and medical studies, he concludes: “As far as the data show, the influence of religion on personal life, while it may in many cases be bad, is overall and in general good.”
I have a few quibbles with Ward here and there. Although he is a Christian, Ward offers a general defense of religion rather than a specific defense of Christian faith. This leads him to defend Islam, for example, on a couple of points where I don’t think such a defense is warranted. Also, here and there, he makes a political remark with which I disagree (but then, Christians don’t need to be monolithic when it comes to politics!). But overall, I’m impressed by this readable and intelligent defense of faith against unreasonable atheistic attacks.

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