A common claim made by many atheists is that religion causes evil, suffering, division and war. For example, at the Munk Debate in Toronto last November, Christopher Hitchens argued this very point against Tony Blair. Religion, Hitchens claimed, causes sectarianism, division, strife, disagreement, war, poverty and a host of societal evils. In his best-selling book, God is Not Great, Hitchens even wrote that “religion poisons everything.”
How might a Christian respond? Well, first, I’d point out there’s a major problem with Hitchens’ argument. You could remove the word “religion” from his statement “religion poisons everything” and replace it with many other words. Politics, for example. Politics causes division, bloodshed, argument, and war. Politics poisons everything. Or what about money? Money causes crime, resentment, bloodshed, division and poverty. Money poisons everything.
You see the problem is that atheists like Christopher Hitchens have built their worldview on the idea that human beings are essentially good and that the world is getting better—a kind of naïve utopianism. But the world isn’t like that, is it? Rather, it seems to be the case that whatever human beings lay hold off, they use to cause damage. That applies to money, politics, government, science—and religion. The problem is not with religion or politics, the problem is not out there somewhere, the problem lies in here, in the human heart.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist and political commentator, who survived the Russian gulags and wrote with amazing insight into the human condition, once famously said this: “The dividing line between good and evil runs right through the middle of every human heart.” What the world needs, as an answer to violence and injustice, poverty and pain, is not a clever philosophy, not a religious system, not a new politic, not more money, more education—none of these will fundamentally change anything. Rather, it needs individual transformation, a radical transformation of the human heart. Only Jesus Christ offers that possibility if we are willing to surrender our lives to him.
I often find it interesting to point out to my atheist friends that Jesus himself was also anti-religion. He regularly clashed with the religious leaders of his day because he saw empty religion as powerless, damaging, and enslaving. Ultimately that stance led to his crucifixion. And Christians, of course, cannot talk about suffering and evil, pain, and violence, without talking about the example of Jesus, one to whom violence was done. His example has inspired millions if not billions of Christians to give sacrificially, to love their neighbors, to engage in peace making. One of the most powerful recent examples was the Amish School Shooting in 2006. Not only did the families of the victims publically forgive the perpetrator and offer pastoral support to his family, they set up a trust fund to help the wife of the shooter, who had killed himself too. Only Jesus Christ offers the transformative power that makes that kind of choice possible.
Andy Bannister is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Toronto, Canada.