What do I say to those who claim that religious people cause all the violence?

   Hey David!! I had a question about something I see come up a lot online when atheists and theists/religious believers debate the reasons why mass murders occur around the world. For example, with the Paris attacks, the murderers are clearly motivated by Islam, and this gives fuel for the atheists’ fire to say "See?!  Religion causes all the bad things in the world and all the wars!  Atheists are the superior beings, both morally and intellectually!"  And every time someone brings up the evil, murderous atheists that have existed throughout history (i.e. Stalin, Pol Pot, etc.), atheists ALWAYS say, "Well, those murders weren't done 'in the name of atheism.'"  So, apparently, they think this gets the atheism worldview out of being the cause of any wrongdoing among atheist murderers, but religion is bad because these other mass murders are done "in the name of (some religion)."  Even with Christianity, they will constantly point to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, etc., to try to show that Christianity is bad too (while completely ignoring all the good Christianity has done for society or showing that any murders or evil done in Christ's name goes completely against the teachings of Christ Himself).
   Anyways, I think it's ridiculous, and it's probably something you've seen a lot of too, but what's a good way to respond to someone like that?  Or, what's a good way to think about that, whether or not I respond to people online about it?  It seems that many, if not most atheists get SO defensive about anything that could make atheism look bad, and will come up with any explanation possible to free atheism of being a motivator for any wrongdoing.  How would you approach someone like that?  I have my thoughts, but I'd like to hear what you'd have to say on it.  Thanks David!!  God bless!!

- Ryan –

Hey Ryan,

It’s great to hear from you. Those are great questions.

Just to keep my general audience in the loop, let me unpack that a bit.

Recently, I attended a scholars’ panel discussion of slavery in the Old Testament. Peter J. Williams, PhD, the Director of Tyndale House, Cambridge said correctly: While previous atheists had as their chief critique of Christianity that the Bible cannot be trusted, the so-called “New Atheists” have a new chief critique. Theirs is that Christianity is vile, immoral, and causes all the wars. Williams’s assessment is absolutely correct (and I averred it to him after the discussion). While atheists are purely rational, peace-loving, and moral people; religious people are driven by delusional, war-mongering, immoral commands from a pretend deity. As far as I can tell, this is a unique development among atheists in Western history. (I say more in my Preface in my book, A Skeptic Challenges a Christian and offer more reflections.)

Christopher Hitchens used to say (before he died of cancer) repeatedly how atheists are the “good guys” while it’s Christians who are the “bad guys” (you can watch any debate on YouTube or read his literature for this ubiquitous sentiment). Moreover, one also finds it Richard Dawkins’s corpora and debates, along with Sam Harris and other atheist authors (the picture above shows the most popular atheists in the media these days).

You’re right: it is a very common critique among atheists. In fact, several Christian authors have responded to such claims (e.g., Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Or Contending with Christianity’s Critics by Copan and Craig).

I have a slightly different view than William Lane Craig and others (like John Lennox). I don’t think the belief, “there is no god,” nor the belief, “I don’t think a god exists” entails doing violence. I think Dawkins and others have a point. My lack in the belief of the tooth fairy doesn’t mean I hurt someone.

Now, to the specific historical arguments of various leaders (e.g., Stalin, et al.), that is an historical question that is beyond my bailiwick. Stalin might have actually said, argued, and believed that atheism necessarily meant that he must murder people. But—and this is key—even if that’s what he thought, he would have been wrong. Murdering people is not, in any way whatsoever, the logical corollary to atheism.

Instead, I would suggest that while atheism doesn't promote violence, it certainly provides a worldview within which violence/murder is permitted (i.e., not prohibited). Why? For either or both of these reasons one might hold within atheism: (1) objective moral values don’t exist; (2) there is no higher power to judge the actions.

(Now, many atheists do believe in objective moral values. This is why so many atheists would never murder an innocent person even though they are atheists. Of course, I would debate this point: there is no reason whatsoever to ground morality in an atheistic worldview. “Morality” is simply “social etiquette”: a biological delusion to help us survive as a species. If we are merely evolved primates on a speck of dust in this infinite universe, what possible reason is there not to murder everyone who gets in the way of our survival? It happens all the time in the animal kingdom. As you know, I’ve recorded two podcasts on this issue.)

So, does the belief in atheism lead to violence or murdering people? No. Simultaneously, morally, there is no reason not to murder (e.g., if your culture doesn’t like you murdering, just go join another culture that does). Once again: atheism doesn’t cause violence, it just doesn’t prohibit it.

Does the belief in deism (= a creator God that doesn’t reveal him/her/itself to humans) lead to murdering people? No. Simultaneously, morally, there are powerful reasons not to murder. Deists believe that this creator God is the source of objective moral values and duties, which makes murder immoral. Moreover, one might also believe that this distant God might hold humans morally accountable at some point in the future.

Does the belief in a particular theism (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism) or polytheism/monism (e.g., Hinduism, Daoism) lead to violence or murdering people? That depends on the religion. One must analyze the murderer’s claims and motivations and decide if the person’s motivations are a logical, accurate product of the religion’s claims.

So, for example, when a person claims that the KKK or the Spanish Inquisitors are excellent examples of how Christianity produces murderers, one can see quickly how this is nonsense. Not one teaching of the Jesus of Nazareth supports persecuting or killing non-whites (KKK) or converted Muslims or Jews (Inquisitions—though most people have a grossly inadequate understanding of the Inquisition). When a person claims that the Christian God wants them to harm someone, they are certainly wrong. How do we know? We can read the Gospels, at minimum.

This works both ways. I can just as easily say that when an atheist claims that his worldview leads to violence that he is mistaken. There is nothing morally stopping him from doing it, but there is also nothing leading him to commit violence.

To say it once again: The New Atheists are right in that religion is very often claimed to be the cause of violence. Absolutely. This is especially true of Muslims. However, the New Atheists’ claim isn’t sociological or psychological—viz.., a study of what violent people say led them to commit violence. Their claim is more than that: it’s that because so many people claim that their god told them to commit the violence, (a) that religion is immoral; and (b) false.

Once more, this works both ways. I can just as easily say that when an atheist claims that his worldview leads to violence that this proves that (a) atheism is immoral; and (b) false. So, this gets the atheist nowhere in argumentation.

Therefore, finally to answer your final question, I admit to atheists quickly that I concur with them:
(1)   I don’t think the belief in atheism necessarily leads to murdering or committing violence;
(2)   It is true that many people claim that their religious beliefs do lead to committing violence.

Then, I ask them what conclusions they draw from these statements. That is, “So what?” If they say, “Oh…I’m just making a sociological/psychological point about religious people.” Then, we’re cool. If they say, “See! Religious people are all immoral and their religions are false!” Then, I discuss all that I’ve put in this blog.

I would bring up several issues with the atheist:
·        Where did you get this notion of “morality?” In what is it grounded? (And I don’t move on from this until I’ve covered it in depth. I do my best to get him to see that while atheism doesn’t promote violence, it most certainly doesn’t prohibit violence.)
·        Do you grant that “religious people” do many moral things because their religion demands it? (Like giving billions of dollars each year for the poor, millions of hours of service, millions of orphans helped, millions of schools and hospitals built, etc.) If not, why not? (Christopher Hitchens would never, ever grant that religion can be the cause of a moral choice—only immoral ones! Thankfully, many other atheists, like Michael Shermer, disagree with him.)
·        Do you see that a person can claim something that is incorrect or correct according to the founder of the religion, and that it’s crucial to determine if the founder would concur with that behavior? (E.g., my own children often get my “commandments” wrong!) We must ask, Is that what Mohammed did or commanded? Is that what Jesus did or commanded? Etc.
·        Finally, are you really, honestly open-minded about learning more about this? If so, will you commit to reading even one book that addresses this issue? (If they are, I’d suggest that Christianity is true and then recommend a relevant book, like the ones I’ve mentioned already.)