David Bentley Hart on “Religion Kills”

David Bentley Hart sums up the relevance of the claim “religion kills.” This or something very much like this is my response to atheists who claim that “religion” (usually in the abstract) is especially bad because it is a cause of violence.  The claim, while it has some truth to it in the way many general claims do, is neither intellectually interesting nor significant. It certainly isn’t any sort of substantial criticism of “religion” in general, and particularly not of Christianity in specifically.

Rather than court absurdity, however, let us graciously grant that there is indeed such a thing as unthinking religious conviction, just as there is a great deal of unthinking irreligious materialism.  Let us also, more magnanimously, grant the truth of the second conviction I attributed to these writers above: that religion is violent, that religion if fact kills.  At least, let us grant that it is exactly as true, and as intellectual significant, as the propositions “politics kills” and “color reddens.” For many things are true in a general sense, even when, in the majority of specific cases, they are false. Violent religion or politics kills, and red reddens; but peaceful religion or politics does not kill, even if it is adopted as a pretext for killing, just as green does not redden, even if a certain kind of color blindness creates the impression that it does. For, purely in the abstract, “religious” longing is neither this nor that, neither admirable nor terrible, but is at once creative and destructive, consoling and murderous, tender and brutal.

I take it that this is because “religion” is something “natural” to human beings (as Dennett so acutely notes) and, as such, reflects human nature. For the broader, even more general, and yet more pertinent truth is that men kill (women kill too, but historically have had fewer opportunities to do so). Some kill because their faiths explicitly command them to do so, some kill though their faiths explicitly forbid them to do so, and some kill because they have no faith and hence believe all things are permitted to them. Polytheists, monotheists, and atheists kill—indeed, this last class is especially prolifically homicidal, if the evidence of the twentieth century is to be consulted. Men kill for their gods, or for their God, or because there is no God and the destiny of humanity must be shaped by gigantic exertions of human will. They kill in pursuit of universal truths and out of fidelity to tribal allegiances; for faith, blood and soil, empire, national greatness, the “socialist utopia,” capitalism, and “democratization.” Men will always seek gods in whose name they may perform great deeds or commit unspeakable atrocities, even when these gods are not gods but “tribal honor” or “genetic imperatives” or “social ideals” or “human destiny” or “liberal democracy.” Then again, men also kill on account of money, land, love, pride, hatred, envy, or ambition. The kill out of conviction or out of lack of conviction. Harris at one point cites a platitude from Will Durant to the effect that violence follows from religious certitude—which again, like most empty generalities, is vacuously true.  It is just as often the case, however, that men are violent solely from expedience, because they believe in no higher law than the demands of the moment, while only certain kinds of religious certitude have the power to temper their murderous pragmatism with a compassionate idealism, or to freeze their wills with a dread of divine justice, or to free them from the terrors of present uncertainty and so from the temptation to act unjustly. Caiaphas and Pilate, if scripture is to be believed, were perfect examples of the officious and practical statesmen with grave responsibilities to consider; Christ, on the other hand, was certain of a Kingdom not of this world and commanded his disciples to love their enemies.  Does religious conviction provide a powerful reason for killing? Undeniably it often does. It also often provides the sole compelling reason for refusing to kill, or for being merciful, or for seeking peace; only the profoundest ignorance of history could prevent one from recognizing this. For the truth is that religion and irreligion are cultural variables, but killing is a human constant.

–David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, Kindle Edition, location 221

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