Is religion evil? Weighing centuries of war, body counts, abuse

Gruesome deaths, sexual molestation, a wicked hierarchy — assembling an atheist argument against the church

Published February 7, 2015 4:00PM (EST)

  (HBO/Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia/Reuters/Chris Keane)
(HBO/Simon & Schuster/Ray Garcia/Reuters/Chris Keane)

Excerpted from "Atheism: What Everyone Needs To Know" . This is the first of a two-part excerpt.

Why Aren’t We Finished?

We have gone through the history. We have dug through the facts and figures. We have looked at the arguments for and against. We have peered into the naturalistic reasons for belief. Why aren’t we finished? The simple and true answer was given in our opening pages. Atheism, for or against, has never been just a matter of the facts. There have always been the moral issues, personal issues, the social issues. Remember, Richard Dawkins doesn’t just think that religion is false. He thinks that bringing a kid up Catholic is a form of child abuse. Sam Harris thinks that Islam is responsible for 9/11. And everyone endorses Steven Weinberg. Say it yet again: “Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things—that takes religion.” Don’t be scared of the bullies. Martin Luther scotched purgatory. Would that he had done the same for the rest of the false, frightening nonsense. No God is going to descend on you. “There probably is no god, so stop worrying and get on with your life.”

Well, let’s start off with the question of whether religion is morally pernicious. I will reverse the tables and ask whether a life without religion can be fulfilling, morally and in any other way.

Is Religion Evil?

You can certainly make a pretty good case for this. As a child in England, for a couple of years I went to Queen Mary’s Grammar School in a town in the British Midlands (Walsall). We were very proud of our school, for uniquely it was founded in 1554, during the short reign (1553–1558) of the queen of that name. This has filled me with a lifelong sneaking regard for Queen Mary. There is very good reason for me to keep my regard sneaking, for she worked hard to merit her sobriquet of Bloody Mary. Remember, Mary was the oldest child of King Henry VIII, his daughter by Catherine of Aragon. After Anne Boleyn (1501–1536), who gave birth to Elizabeth (1533–1603), finally with his third wife, Jane Seymour (1508–1537), Henry produced a male heir, the fiercely Protestant Edward VI (1537–1553). When Edward died while still a teenager, the Protestant faction at court put Lady Jane Grey (1537–1554) on the throne, but the people would have none of this, and within nine days the Catholic Mary was queen. Jane’s days were numbered, although whether her execution was because of her usurping the throne or because she was Protestant remains a nice point. No such nicety was needed for Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), archbishop of Canterbury; Nicholas Ridley (1500–1555), bishop of London; and Hugh Latimer (1487–1555), bishop of Worcester. They went to the stake because of their Protestantism. As did another three hundred of Mary’s subjects. It makes for gruesome reading as one brave person after another—many of them very ordinary people: clerks, cobblers, hatters—died for their faith. What is striking is how many of those who went to their deaths were women.

And in the end, it was all so pointless (MacCulloch 2004). Mary died, probably of stomach cancer, in 1558, and her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth was queen of England. She in her turn set about showing that Protestants were pretty good at putting down Catholics. There was a brisk trade in disemboweling, hanging, and quartering her subjects, especially those who made the mistake of going abroad to be ordained into the Catholic priesthood and then returned home to practice. English men and women being put to death in the most horrible ways, because they differed on such things as whether Jesus was actually present in a piece of bread, and if he was what that meant and if he wasn’t what that meant.

If anything, so much of the gruesome killing backfired—or perhaps rather went on doing harm long after it was all over. Cranmer was pressured into renouncing his faith, but then at the last moment declared for Protestantism, famously thrusting his right arm into the flames as punishment for having been the vehicle of his signed recantation. Latimer turned to Ridley as the flames licked their feet: “Be of good comfort, and play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” I learned these words in primary school in England in the late 1940s, and it was undoubtedly a factor in the underlying sense of anti-Catholicism that still marked that society. Four hundred years of prejudice by people who claimed to worship the same God as those they belittled. Not that the Catholics would have been much better. In the past two centuries, there has been a lot of beatification and subsequent canonization by popes of their martyrs, as English Catholics have started to assert their places in society. If you know just how high the English regard for Good Queen Bess is, if you know the joy with which every November 5 the English light bonfires and burn the effigy of Guy Fawkes, a Catholic who tried to blow up the English House of Parliament, then you know how provocative an action this is.

I am writing of just a few that stick in the memory because we know so much and they proved so important historically. If you are talking about the Reformation and its aftermath as a whole, then the English Civil War in the seventeenth century took at least 100,000 lives, perhaps twice that number. The Peasants’ Revolt in Germany (1524–1525) took at least 100,000 lives and perhaps three times as many. And the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) on the Continent killed from 3 or 4 million to at least 10 million. No one would say that these conflicts were purely religious. In England, a lot of the tension was over who would rule the country, king or parliament. But anyone who thinks that Calvinism had no causal role in the actions of Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads or that other forms of Protestantism did not factor into the actions of Charles I and the Cavaliers had better return to the history books.

Was the Modern Era Worse?

You might say that awful as these conflicts were, they pale in comparison to conflicts like the First and Second World Wars, conflicts that were not ostensibly religious at all. There is some truth in this. The death total in the First World War was about 10 million military deaths (Hart 2013). The first day of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916) saw twenty thousand Britons lying dead on the fields of France and another forty thousand wounded. Brought low by enemy gas, my grandfather coughed his lungs out for twenty-five years, dying a few days before I was born (in June 1940). Two months later, sitting on a box outside our shattered home in a suburb of Birmingham, my mother held me in her arms, as my father dashed home to see if we had survived the German bombing attack. In the Second World War, there were about 20 million military deaths and more than that number of civilian deaths (Beevor 2012). Terrible numbers, although I am not quite sure why this is taken to let religion off the hook. In any case, it is not as if religion comes out pure and uncontaminated from these events. We all know about the padres on both sides in the Great War earnestly praying to God to bring down death and destruction on the enemies. “Gott strafe England.” (A slogan incidentally from a German Jew, something that even then did not entirely endear him to his fellow religionists.) The Second World War is no better, perhaps in respects far worse, although more complex. Two thousand years of anti-Semitism by the Catholic Church and four hundred years by Protestants had to have an effect and be a causal factor in the persecution and killing of the Jews. The Goldhagen thesis so beloved of Sam Harris has to have some truth. However, Germany of all places was the country that in the nineteenth century had made greatest strides with Jewish emancipation (Evans 2003). On the verge of the First World War, there were thirty-five mixed marriages for every hundred purely Jewish marriages, so obviously the separation and hatred was not universal. Far more at fault causally was the intense anti-Jewish indoctrination in the years of the Third Reich of young people—at school, in the media, and above all in the Hitler Youth (Hitler-Jugend) and the girls’ equivalent, the Band of German Maidens (Bund Deutscher Mädel). As one of the major historians of the era (Richard Evans) has said, by the early 1940s, when it came to “lesser” races, young Germans were no longer “ordinary men,” to use the term used by one recent historian trying to understand the awful events of the Second World War (Browning 1998). To this day, my aged German stepmother, the child of people who loathed Hitler and all he stood for, wrestles with this dreadful legacy. The monsters of manipulation left their marks on the young and vulnerable.

In the Second World War, some of the churches, the branch of the Protestant Evangelische Kirche known as the German Christians, went along with and indeed encouraged the Nazis. Others, the branch of the Evangelische Kirche known as the Confessing Church, were as much as possible a major voice of opposition. Karl Barth, although Swiss, was the primary author of the Barmen Declaration, the church’s statement of dissent from the Nazi state. The Catholic Church’s response, although there was no formal split, was likewise mixed. A major factor was that Eugenio Pacelli (1876–1958), first papal nuncio to Germany, then cardinal secretary of state, and finally (1939) Pope Pius XII, was always first and foremost a diplomat. Given the rise of the Nazis, he was intent on keeping as much of the church structure and organization (and power) in place in Germany as he could. To be candid, this met with but mixed success, but the downside was a failure to come out bluntly in moral condemnation of the regime. The church protested bravely at the Nazi program of selective elimination of the physically and mentally handicapped, but other than for converts did little or nothing to help the Jews. Overall, not a sterling record.

Are things any better today? The New Atheists protest that they are not. Christians may not be killing each other in the name of their Lord in the numbers of yesterday—although remember Northern Ireland—but as a function of their religion, they are still responsible for huge amounts of harm, either because of the beliefs or because of the social structure. Above all, there is the Catholic Church and the problem of sexual abuse of the young. It is hard to know where to start. In America, the first trickle was when a priest in Louisiana in 1985 pled guilty to eleven counts of sexual molestation. By the 1990s, the trickle had become a torrent. The dam had broken. One authoritative survey found that in the second half of the twentieth century, about 4,500 priests—4% of the active priesthood—were the subject of 11,000 allegations (John Jay Report 2004). Eighty percent of the victims were male, about 25% of the victims were ten or younger, and another 50% were under fifteen. Surely significant, pointing to the life of a supposed celibate as a causal factor, is that fewer than 10% of the offending priests had histories of being sexually abused. These were not men who entered the priesthood emotionally crippled, whatever the effects on them later. Certainly, a lot of the cases were basically fondling (often to climax), but let there be no mistake: many of the sexual acts involved oral and anal penetration. Men of God sodomizing ten-year-olds.

Other countries have equally sordid tales to tell. What compounds the great wickedness of people in power and authority, claiming to speak for a savior who died in agony on the cross, is the unbelievable behavior of the church hierarchies. Again and again, the tale is of actions covered up, of police uninformed or pressured, of priests moved to new locations where their behavior started all over again, of denials in the face of evidence, and above all of a determination not to give way financially or in any other way until extreme legal pressure forced otherwise. The response of Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston beggars belief. One abusive priest after another was moved around, always one step ahead of the authorities. And when he was finally caught out and forced to resign, Pope John Paul II gave him a post in Rome. As a cardinal, he participated in the election of Benedict in 2005. More recently, he is reported as one of those pushing most strongly for punitive action against activist American nuns.

Excerpted from "Atheism: What Everyone Needs To Know" by Michael Ruse. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2015 by Oxford University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Michael Ruse

Michael Ruse is Lucyle T. Werkmeister professor and director of the history and philosophy of science program at Florida State University. He is the author or editor of over 50 books, including "The Oxford Handbook of Atheism"(co-edited with Stephen Bullivant, 2014) and the founding editor of Biology and Philosophy.

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