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Christopher Hitchens famously claimed that religion poisons everything. Is this rhetoric, or do the facts bear him out? To answer the question, we need to compare the good, the bad and the ugly of both belief and unbelief.
The evidence suggests that when it is practiced by sincere believers, religion, especially christianity, is beneficial to both the believer and humanity generally, but when used by powerful forces to further their own ends, religion can be very harmful. Unbelief has the same problems, though not so intensely.
Religion – the good
The western world owes a lot to christianity. It has inspired art, music, literature, architecture and culture. It has supplied a basis for our legal and governmental systems. Christians in the middle ages began universities, schools and hospitals and undertook scientific research. Christians pioneered social welfare. Christians today continue to provide education, medical and hospital services and social support services at home and in many less developed countries, and people with religious faith are more likely to give time and money in community service. Christians, on average, have higher levels of happiness, wellbeing and physical and mental health than other members of our society, and faith has provided billions of people with meaning and contentment.
Religion – the bad and the ugly
Religion, including christianity, has often been associated with intolerance, killing (including war, genocide and terrorism), apartheid, slavery, colonialism and other repression. (It is true that many of these evils can be shown to have political rather than religious cuases, but religion can often provide support.) Religion, especially christianity, has brought us US televangelists, Mormon doorknockers, abortion clinic bombers, paedophile priests, gay-bashers, anti-Semitism, Ned Flanders, suicide bombers, harsh treatment of children in Catholic schools and institutions, female circumcision, sacred cows, hypocrites and wowsers.
Non-belief – the good
Since western societies became more secular, we have seen serious efforts to stamp out racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination (e.g. against gays, women and minority groups), and strong movements to protect the environment and oppose war. While these haven’t been exclusively the domain of non-believers, many of these movements have had a significant secular basis. Many of those who have abandoned religious belief feel liberated from pressures, obligations, superstitions and dogmas they found oppressive.
Non-belief – the bad and the ugly
In the twentieth century alone, non-theistic and often avowedly atheistic regimes have been responsible for atrocities, persecution, oppression and murder on a scale never seen before. Many people see increasing secularism as being responsible for a loss of moral values, purpose and meaning in life, leading to shallow values, family breakdown, suicide and depression. These ills cannot be only sheeted home to non-belief, but it seems secularism is a major factor.
And the winner is …. !!!???
It is clear this isn’t a straightforward question to answer. Religious and irreligious people alike are also representatives of nations, political parties and movements, and their actions cannot be easily attributable to just one cause. Many of the evils perpetrated by both believers and unbelievers seem to be more due to political, national or personal causes than to religion or lack of it. Christianity is seen to its best advantage when individual believers follow the teachings of Jesus, and is at its worst when allied with the power of the state. The same is true to some degree of unbelief.
Overall, it is hard to think that western society, and many less developed countries, would have been better off without christianity. Both belief and unbelief have been associated with great evils, but it seems that christianity has done more good than has flowed from non-belief. The church has been a mixed blessing, with much we can be thankful for, but much that requires repentance, but the teachings of Jesus have motivated many people to altruism. Non-belief has yet to demonstrate the same power for improvement.