On what counts as religion

William T. Cavanaugh weighs Christopher Hitchens’ famous claim that “religion” poisons everything.



William T. Cavanaugh weighs Christopher Hitchens’ famous claim that “religion” poisons everything.

So when Hitchens says that religion gives people permission to act in hateful ways, part of the question is, what do you mean by religion? So you look at Hitchens’ book called God Is Not Great and the subtitle of which is … says with typical British understatement How Religion Poisons Everything, right, that’s the subtitle. So he presents an indictment of Christianity and Islam and Buddhism and Confucianism and so on. But at some point in the book he also says, well … he deals with the question, what about Stalin who was an atheist, what about Kim Jong-Il, he was an atheist? And he decides that they’re religions too, so basically whatever … because he says that totalitarianism is a kind of essentially religious impulse. 

So, part of the problem with Hitchens is this idea that the things that he doesn’t like count as religion – even atheism, you know, even though he declares himself an atheist, but when it suits his purposes atheists like Stalin and so on count as religion, and then whatever he likes doesn’t count as religion. So he says Martin Luther King was in no real as opposed to nominal sense a Christian – and that’s because he was non-violent and so he couldn’t possibly be a real Christian, because Hitchens knows that real Christians are violent and religion is violent. 

So part of the question there, then, is what do you mean by religion? If religion is defined as violent, you know, then of course religion poisons everything because everything poisonous is identified as religion, you know. So it seems to me like there are plenty of things that … certainly Christianity, Islam, etc, can be used to kind of ferment hatred. But there are lots of other candidates for that throughout history: you know, political loyalties, and greed, and ideologies including secular ideologies, including atheist ideologies. So I don’t think the indictment stands.