On toxic religion

John Haldane weighs the claim that religion poisons everything.



John Haldane weighs the claim that religion poisons everything.


I think if somebody is going to make large claims about the nature and influence of, say, religious ideas or political ideas, they’re going to have to be quite serious about providing evidence in support of those claims. The point is this, I mean the term religion is so broad and encompassing a notion. Scholars spend a lot of time trying to define what religion is, and there’s no consensus in that definition. But I suppose if people want to say things like, you know, religion is a kind of toxic presence, then they’re going to have to focus in on particular religions. And I would say today, if I look at some of the New Atheists, people like Sam Harris for example and the late Christopher Hitchens, they do tend to see Islam as being the most threatening and toxic expression of religious identity.

For the most part, they tend to regard sort of Christianity as washed out, as weakened and one thing and another, so they see it as less threatening. So they do think that historically it was a kind of toxin, that it … and they would point to historical events, let’s say things like the religious wars of Europe or persecutions, the Inquisition, whatever else it might be, as evidence for this. But the fact is, if you’re a serious historian and you start to look at history in detail, then you very quickly are going to discover that what we’re dealing with here is the complexity and diversity of human life. And if you try to add up the score, as it were – just to put it most crudely and brutally – of deaths, then there are more, many more, deaths attributable to ideologies at the doorstep of atheistic or secular ideologies than there are at religious ones.

Now I don’t myself think this is a very useful way to try to discuss these matters, because I think this is … just plays into the kind of crudity of the discussion. But clearly there are aspects of religion, or at any rate there are aspects of religious adherence that have been problematic in the past and will continue to be problematic in the future. But I think that’s less … unless somebody is going to make a very detailed case tracing this to the particularities of some claim in religion, then this is, you know, one could as easily say, you know, well liberalism has, you know, caused many deaths, conservatism, socialism, you can just, you know … business has caused death. I mean these are the kind of … they’re the sort of thing that teenagers say, but if we’re to get beyond the teenage phase then we have to actually start to get serious and do some serious history.