Review: Christianity Is Not Great: Chapter 1

John Loftus writes chapter 1: Religious Violence and the Harms of Christianity. He addresses seven issues in a question-and-answer format.

(1) What is it about religion that instigates violence like nothing else?

In this section he summarizes, but does not really argue for, the views of Jack David Eller. Eller says there are six levels of conditions that make it increasingly possible for human beings to commit acts of violence (all beginning with the letter I). The first is an individual’s instincts to act violently. The second is integration into groups. The third is our identity as members of a particular group and our need to support and defend the group. The fourth is institutions to regularize the behavior of group members. The fifth is the interests of a group and the possibility that its interests will conflict with those of another group. The sixth is the ideology or worldview of the group. Then Eller claims that the six conditions converge on a single point: they provide the grounds for the lack of empathy towards other people outside the group. This lack of empathy can lead to violence since empathy provides a restraint against violence.

The summary is so generic that it is hard to know what to make of it. Nearly any human group could fulfill all six conditions. Yet Loftus, through Eller, asserts:

Although political movements can satisfy all six of these conditions, when it comes to religion, or a certain kind of religion, Eller claims that “no other form of human organization and mobilization is so shaped by its ideology.” In fact, he argues, “religion may be the ultimate ideology, since its framework is so totally external (i.e., supernaturally ordained or given), its rules and standards so obligatory, its bonds unbreakable, and its legitimization so absolute . . . no other social force observed in human history can meet those conditions as well as religion.” Religion, then, “can actually be the reason and the justification for actions that, without the religion, people would either condemn or would never contemplate in the first place” [Eller’s emphasis]. Continuing, Eller says, “In situations of authority, especially ‘ultimate’ authority like divine command, the normal human empathetic responses that prevent us from perpetrating injury are overridden. Individuals may not even ‘want’ to commit crimes and abuses, but they are commanded, and religious orders tend to trump individual objections.” While Eller candidly admits “not all religions are equally violent, and not all violent ones are violent in identical ways . . . without the religious ideology, some forms of violence and crime would be not only undoable but also unthinkable.”

This is, again, mainly assertion. It is not self-evident that religious organizations are shaped by their ideology more than, say, political organizations. It is not self-evident that a religious framework is any more external than, say, a moral framework. Likewise, the rules and standards of a moral framework are just as obligatory as the rules and standards of a religion. Surely the bonds of religion can be broken through apostasy. Nor is it self-evident that religious motives cause more violence than secular motives. Individuals living under tyrants might not “want” to commit crimes and abuses but they do so anyway. Political orders trump individual objections.

In conclusion, we are not provided a convincing argument that religion instigates violence like nothing else nor are we told what it is about religion (as opposed to politics, for example) that instigates said violence.

(2) Is religious violence worse than other kinds of violence?

In this section Loftus starts by summarizing the views of Hector Avalos. Avalos claims that religions are prone to violence because they fight over scarce resources that don’t exist or can’t be verified. These resources include: sacred space, exclusive revelations in holy scriptures, group privilege for the chosen people, and salvation by only one religion.

Once again we are given little in the way of argument. We are pointed to the book Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Even stranger is the fact that Loftus quotes an Amazon reviewer who wrote:

Simon’s aim has been to provide a comprehensive treatment. He has succeeded. Why has he done it? His family have been players in the conflicts.

The amount of murder, massacre etc for 2,000 years is appalling. Religious madness is the theme. Christians murdering Jews and being murdered and both murdering Muslims and being murdered in their turn.

WHY? Because Christ was crucified here, Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac here and Mohammed road a horse with a human face aerially around the city, receiving insights as he went. So the murders and massacres are about the places where religious events are believed to have taken place.

What is the answer to this 2,000 years of murder and massacre? BLow up the places!!!

If Jesus and Mohammed were alive now, they would agree that the places be blown up. For these are the cause of the massacres and murders! What matters are the messages of living at peace. Loving your neighbour as yourself.

Simon has not taken it forward so far. That is his error. That is all that matters.

William Scott

Loftus only quotes the bold section. One cannot help but note the irony of someone writing about religious violence pointing to an Amazon review that thinks blowing up holy places is the answer to violence. Not surprisingly this review was found helpful by only 11 of 198 people (as of this writing). I at least found it helpful in providing a good laugh.

In short, we are given little reason to believe religious violence is worse than other kinds of violence. Is being executed by a jihadist worse than being executed by an atheist?

(3) What other factors lead to religious violence?

Loftus continues by noting the opinions of the likes of Charles Kimball, John Shelby Spong, and Bertrand Russell. Assent to absolute truth, certainty in belief, blind obedience, attempts to create an ideal society, believing the ends justify the means, and believing one’s wars are holy are said to be factors that lead to religious violence. We are repeatedly told that more people have been killed in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history.

The claim that religious institutions are more violent than secular institutions is hard to take seriously:

According to the Encyclopedia of Wars (Phillips and Axelrod, Facts on File, December 2004) of the 1,763 major conflicts in recorded history, only 123 of them were classified as having been fought over religious differences. That’s just under 7 percent. The encyclopedia also explains that the number of people killed in these conflicts amounts to only 2 percent.

The factors that are said to lead to religious violence can just as easily be factors that lead to secular violence:

The first, absolute truth claims, is a regular feature of the discourse of nation-states at war. As Kimball himself states, George W. Bush, while “determined to keep the ‘war on terrorism’ from descending into a conflict between Christianity and Islam,” invoked a “cosmic dualism” between good nations, led by the United States, and the forces of evil: “You had to align with the forces of good and help root out the forces of evil or be counted as adversaries in the ‘war on terrorism.'” Are not claims to the universal goodness of liberal democracy absolute truth claims? If not, what distinguishes them from being “absolute”?

The second warning sign, blind obedience, depends on the rather subjective adjective “blind.” Obedience is rigidly institutionalized for those whose job is to do violence on behalf of the nation-state. In the armed forces, there is, for example, no allowance for selective conscientious objection, that is, the individual soldier deciding on the basis of conscience that any particular war is unjust. Once inducted, the soldier must fight in any war his or her superiors deem necessary, and the soldier must fight as he or she is ordered. Is this blind obedience in the service of violence?

The remaining three warning signs also seem to apply to nationalism. The third warning sign, the establishment of an ideal time, is so broadly defined that “making the world safe for democracy” or Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” would seem to qualify. The history of modern warfare between nation-states is full of evidence of the fourth warning sign — the belief that the end justifies any means — from the vaporization of innocent civilians in Hiroshima to the practice of torture by over a third of the world’s nation-states, including many democracies. As for the fifth sign — the declaration of holy war — what counts as “holy” is unclear, but arguably the battle of good versus evil that President Bush believed his nation was leading would fit. Secular nationalism, then, would appear to exhibit — at times — all five of the warning signs.

Perhaps at this point Kimball would want to acknowledge the difficulties with claiming that religious ideologies have a greater tendency toward violence than do secular ideologies, and simply claim that his book is only meant to be about one side of the problem. In other words, “yes, secular ideologies can be violent too, but this is a book about how to deal with religious violence. Someone else can write a book about other types of violence.” This answer would be inadequate, however, for the very distinction between religious violence and secular violence is what needs to be explained and defended. Without such an explanation and defense, there is no reason to exclude putatively secular ideologies, as Kimball has done, from his analysis of absolutism, blind obedience, and the rest. If the five warning signs also apply to secular ideologies, why not frame the book as an analysis of the circumstances under which any institution or ideology becomes evil?1

(4) Is Christianity beneficial or harmful to society?

Loftus grants that Christianity has been of some benefit to Christian cultures (but not to non-Christian cultures). I agree with him that the fact that Christians have done some good is not a reason to conclude that Christianity is true. But the fact that Christians have done some evil is not a reason to conclude that Christianity is false. Loftus asserts: “What we wouldn’t expect is for a religion to cause as much harm as Christianity does, which is the major point of this book.” No reason is given for this expectation.

The author tells us that conservative or evangelical types of Christianity have caused a great deal of harm. That will be the focus of many chapters of the book. He claims:

To the degree that various kinds of Christianities have done good in the political, scientific, social, and moral spheres, it is not because of believers’ faith. Instead, the good done has followed from reasoning about how to solve real human problems and service real human needs.

This is a false dichotomy like the one between religious violence and secular violence. A Christian may do good deeds because of his faith and because of his reasoning abilities. If evils done by Christians are negatives against Christianity then it is only consistent to view the good deeds done by Christians as positives for Christianity. Loftus seems to be deploying the “heads I win, tails you lose” approach.

(5) Is Christianity beneficial or harmful to individual believers?

In this section Loftus states that there is no doubt in his mind that Christianity benefits the individual Christian living in a Christian culture (although he compares it to the placebo effect). Note that, only a few pages earlier, certainty was said to be a factor leading to religious violence. While it may be tempting to contact the police and have John locked up to prevent his impending violent outburst, I will use this blunder to note how the factors mentioned earlier in the chapter offer little in the way of explanation. A pacifistic atheist could conceivably match every factor leading to religious violence but not ever be likely to commit a single act of violence. Of course, the author also thinks Christianity can harm Christians because it is not true. Presumably later chapters will provide more details.

(6) Does Christianity cause more harm than good overall?

Loftus tells us that this book is not arguing that Christianity causes more harm than good. Rather the contributors believe atheism and a commitment to secular humanism would be better for the world. Nonetheless, Loftus himself believes Christianity probably causes more harm than good.

(7) What does this book attempt to show?

Loftus thinks we can evaluate the fruits of Christianity and thereby show that God is not the author of the Christian faith. A problem is that Loftus provides no independent ethical standard by which to judge Christians. He also fails to provide a sound argument for why wrongs committed by Christians show Christianity to be false. There is no promise in the Bible that Christians will be morally perfect.

Loftus ends his chapter by appealing to his tired outsider test for faith:

All that believers must do is test their religious faith from the perspective of an outsider, a nonbeliever, with the same level of reasonable skepticism they already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject. With regard to Christianity, believers just need to honestly ask themselves if they would accept any other religion that had such a terrible track record. If they wouldn’t, then they should not continue identifying as Christians. It’s that simple.

If I thought Islam, say, was true but also had a violent history I would nonetheless become a Muslim. The track record of human beings is bloody. Nearly any belief, including atheism, could be connected with violence. Yet, in light of this, no one decides to hold no beliefs at all.

  1. Cavanaugh, William T. (2009-08-06). The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (p. 23-24). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. 

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