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A Theologian Answers the Atheists
BY FATHER THOMAS WILLIAMS, LC
In their attacks on God and religion, the neo-atheist
authors such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are
especially vehement in their accusations concerning the effects of religion on
the public order.
The atheists charge that religion is a net evil for
civilization, and allege that, on the whole, our society would be healthier and
more secure without religious belief.
Hitchens, for instance, in his book God Is Not Great, asks
whether the net effect of religion is positive or negative. Does religion do
more harm than good (p. 217)?
He answers with a resounding “Yes!”
Religion is the cause of all social woes. The provocative subtitle
of his book — How Religion Poisons Everything — seems to imply that religion
does nothing but harm.
This may strike us as strange, since the common wisdom of
humanity has always held that religion makes people better, not worse. Our own
experience often backs this up.
So what possible reasons could the atheists have to make the
extravagant claim that religious belief has a negative effect on people’s
behavior? What evidence do they put forward?
On close examination, it turns out that the atheists’ real
evidence is rather thin.
Rather than examine religious teachings and practice to
discover their effects on society, Hitchens, for example, prefers to offer
anecdotal evidence for his claim. He begins his 13th chapter titled “Does
Religion Make People Behave Better?” with a personal attack on Martin Luther
Here Hitchens makes a clever, though absurd, assertion. He
asks whether King’s Christianity made him a better person. His answer is that
yes, Martin Luther King did all sorts of good things for society in the area of
civil rights, but … here’s the kicker … he wasn’t a Christian. He may have said
he was a Christian and thought he was a Christian, but he was mistaken, and
Hitchens knows better.
“In no real as opposed to nominal sense,” Hitchens avers,
“was [King] a Christian” (p. 176).
By what rhetorical legerdemain does Hitchens arrive at this
The only proof he puts forward to back up this thesis is
that King didn’t advocate violence and didn’t threaten people with hell, so he
must not have been a true Christian.
This is like saying that Hitchens couldn’t be a true
atheist, since he is too nice a guy.
So what do our neo-atheist authors make of Christianity’s
undeniable contributions to society?
They basically start with the Martin Luther King premise: If
a person did good things, he couldn’t have been religious. If he did bad
things, he must have been religious — despite whatever evidence to the
And if a clearly religious person did something good, he
must have done it despite his being religious, and not because of it. And so
the deck is hopelessly stacked against religion from the start.
Hitchens and company claim to follow the Gospel principle of
judging a tree by its fruits, but as for the tree of religion, they consider
only the rotten fruits, never the good ones. The innumerable saints, geniuses
and benefactors nourished by the Christian faith simply count for nothing.
In making their case, Hitchens and company refrain from
considering the almost countless ways that Christianity has benefited the world
as we know it today.
What of the hospitals? What of the orders of nuns
established to care for the dying or educate young girls? What of the soup
kitchens and orphanages? What of the preservation of classical culture? What of
the artistic and literary treasures?
Instead, they choose to enumerate the things that
Christianity hasn’t done to better the world or hasn’t done well enough or has
simply done too slowly!
This pseudo-methodology can be used to discredit anything.
Let’s take the example of one of the most beneficent
disciplines there is: medicine. Imagine if you were to undertake a study of the
biggest blunders committed in the name of medicine throughout history — from
botched surgeries, to bleeding with leeches, to cranial boring, to the hellish
experimentation afflicted by Nazi doctors on war prisoners — and used such
research as an indictment of the entire field of medicine.
During the unprincipled years of the late 19th century, for
instance, medical quackery abounded, and hundreds of traveling medicine shows
extolled the virtues of worthless potions and products, from Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp
Root, to Dr. Pierce’s Nasal Douche, to Kickapoo Indian Sagwa, to Dr. Hercules
By Hitchens’ standard, medicine has been an unmitigated
disaster for humanity, and all doctors should be shuffled off to the
guillotine! Yet if there can be good medicine and bad medicine, why can’t there
be good religion and bad religion?
Moreover, in their search for historical examples to make
their case, the atheist authors spill very little ink calmly confronting the
teachings and practices of religions today (except in the case of Islamic
fundamentalists) and instead spend page after page describing the most hideous
examples they can find of errors committed in the name of religion in centuries
For example, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II before
him have repeated over and over again that God and religion cannot be co-opted
to justify violence. Violence in the name of religion is an aberration. Yet
nowhere do Hitchens or his cronies acknowledge this.
Time after time Hitchens makes the claim that anything done
in the name of religion could just as well be done in the name of secular
humanism. Thus — he says — religion really contributes nothing.
He seems to miss the more important point: People actually
do many good things by religious motivation that they wouldn’t do otherwise.
People could be compassionate and selfless in the name of secular humanism, but
the fact remains that they more often are compassionate and unselfish in the
name of religion.
There is no doubt that religious people could do more, and
Hitchens’ accusations, though mean-spirited, do oblige us to a serious
examination of conscience and a renewed commitment to offer a more consistent
Yet an impartial examination of the facts will lead any
objective observer to the conclusion that religion, and Christianity in
particular, has been and continues to be an overwhelming force for personal and
Legionary Father Thomas D. Williams is Vatican analyst
for CBS News and author of, most recently, Greater Than You Think: A
Theologian Answers the Atheists About God (June 2008).