On religious (and secular) violence

John Lennox faces up to the unacceptable side of religion – and asks some pointy questions about atheism.



John Lennox faces up to the unacceptable side of religion – and asks some pointy questions about atheism.


Many people instinctively react to religion as being the cause of many problems. When 9/11 happened, there was a front page on Der Spiegel – which is the German equivalent of Time magazine or something like that – and it said, with a photograph of the Twin Towers in flames, Gott ist an allem schuld, God’s to blame for everything. And there followed fifty pages of ranting at God, to blame for everything. And I recall when I debated Christopher Hitchens – whom I liked actually very much and lament his passing – at the Edinburgh Festival some years ago, he started giving a fifteen-minute talk just describing one religious abuse after another. And of course, they weren’t all Christian abuses. And when I stood up to respond I simply said well, Christopher, I agree with you. This is the totally unacceptable face of religion.

Now I cannot speak for religions other than my own, that wouldn’t be fair, they’ve got to defend themselves against the charge. Because clearly one can see that some religions have violence much closer to their heart than others. You’re not going to put the Amish in the same category as Islamist extremists. So there are differences. But I can only speak for Christianity in this case, and Christ himself gave the marching orders: you don’t take up weapons to defend him or his message, that is simply not Christian. Because of the nature of the message – how can you propel a message forward by using the barrel of a gun when the message is about forgiveness, peace with God, the love of God, eternal life and so on? It just … it doesn’t fit, it’s a monstrosity, it doesn’t work at all.

So religions stand accused. And some religions are clearly guilty, and therefore they must be challenged on these issues. I face the challenge as a Christian, but as a human being, as a citizen of the world I cannot avoid noticing what is done in the name of God around the world. And I said this to Hitchens privately: you’ve gone round the world as a war reporter and you’ve watched one religious group fighting another religious group, and I said, I’m not the least bit surprised that you think religions are a cause of a great deal of harm. But I said, I will admit that immediately – but Christopher, you need to also look at the track record of atheism.

John Lennon – not John Lennox, there is a difference between him and me – John Lennon wrote a famous song called “Imagine”. Imagine a world without the Taliban – all this kind of stuff, you see – and I often say to people, well, I agree with that criticism, but I’ve written a song called “Imagine”: imagine a world without Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao. What about that world? And those who criticise most loudly Christianity are often totally silent on the bloody history of the 20th century. And there comes to mind what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, that he was asked to give account for 100 million deaths in the former Soviet Union. And he said, if you want the short answer, it is we have forgotten God. And I will never forget speaking to a very senior academic in Siberia who told me, he said, you know, the problem, John, is this. We thought we could get rid of God and retain a value for human beings, and we found out too late that that isn’t possible.