One of the most notable and repeated ways that atheist leaders such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have attacked religion is by attacking religious people. Quotes abound, but here are a few particularly juicy ones. No matter what you think of the content, you have to admire the punchy, clever style of their writing.
When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.
Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.
Bush and bin Laden are really on the same side: the side of faith and violence against the side of reason and discussion.
Organised religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.
To “choose” dogma and faith over doubt and experience is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.
Everything about Christianity is contained in the pathetic image of ‘the flock.’
To summarize their views: Religious people are deluded and irrational, racist and intolerant, suicidal and violent, and hateful towards both women and children.
Is this true? Well, to a certain degree, it is. There are religious people who have done all of these things, and probably even worse than Dawkins and Hitchens have said. It is a humbling and saddening set of facts to admit to. To whatever degree it is possible, I want to apologize for the ways that religious people have taken the wrong approach and harmed so many others. These are tragedies, they are wrong, and there is no defense of them.
However, let’s ask: isn’t it also true that atheists have done terrible things? Consider Stalin and Mao, both devoted atheists, who committed great evil. For instance, Stalin was responsible from somewhere between 4 to 10 million deaths. Mao is responsible for some 40 to 60 million deaths!
The best atheist response I’ve heard to this argument is to say, “Stalin and Mao don’t fairly represent atheism. Yes, they were atheists, but they did not uphold true atheistic values such as tolerance, reason, science and compassion. If anything, they were ideologically religious people who were devoted to communism.”
This reply assumes, or must argue for, some necessary link between atheism and those values. And it must in some way explain away the particular deaths caused by the implementation of Stalin and Mao’s anti-religious programs. So it faces both serious philosophical and historical challenges. But, even so, let’s accept for the moment that this reply is a good one.
Here’s the point: if atheists want to say, “Stalin was not atheistic enough, or he wouldn’t have killed so many people” then it must be equally acceptable to say “These Christians were just not Christian enough, or they would not have done such bad things.”
After all, it is easy enough to read through the gospels and find that Jesus lived a life of integrity, humility, love, justice, reason, compassion and goodness. And, likewise, that he called everyone around him to live as He did. And further, that Jesus specifically warned us about people who appear to be Christian but are by no means changed by God:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. (Matthew 7:15-18).
So it is grossly unfair, and almost a bit silly, to blame Christianity because some people, in the guise of being Christian, have done wrong actions. Christianity itself is opposed to both the hypocrisy and the wrongdoing.
If we are going to have serious, meaningful dialogue in this pluralistic age, we have to get beyond the name-calling, stereotyping, and pre-judging of one another. It really sets us back if we say, or believe, that all religious people, and all religion, only causes suffering. The Golden Rule, common to a great variety of the world’s religions, is a wise guide. As Jesus put it: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
We do need to call out those who promote bad stereotypes and invite them to join in on a more reasonable, fair, and kind conversation. But our larger goal is to become people of respect who look for the best in those with whom we disagree.