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Letter to a Deist

I’ve been thinking about what you said at breakfast, and several lights have gone off in my head as I’ve been thinking. The real issue between us regarding Christianity is not moral or philosophical…it’s more historical than anything else, and political. And this fits in with everything I’ve been studying and thinking lately. So let me see if I can clarify the issue a bit.
Your contention is that “religion divides and causes violence, so why would I want to be a part of that?” There’s three things that could be said in response.
1) The first point is that “religion” is a pretty unhelpful term. In some sense, almost anything is a “religion,” in the sense of an ideology that causes people to act in a certain way. Atheism can be a religion. Even agnosticism, if held tenaciously, can be a sort of religion. The Enlightenment taught a religion of human autonomy and autonomous reason. But that’s a bit beside the point. Even with the organized, historic religions, there are many many differences (incidentally, this is where I disagree a bit with the book I just lent you), and to make an accusation against all of them together is like saying, “You know, I can’t stand food—food is evil, because it makes people sick.” In our present day, and historically since its foundation, Islam has tended to be by far the most violent, and the most eager to use war to succeed. An accusation against Islam is one that Christianity would completely agree with, so you can’t use Islam’s faults as a critique of Christianity. Of course, Christianity has some violence to answer for as well, which I’ll get to, but I think it’s important to be honest and make proper distinctions in your accusations.
2) History is really a large part of our disagreement. Many, perhaps including you, seem to think that history is an open book, with easily known facts, and trends that are easily understood. But anyone who really studies history knows that history is often as opaque as philosophy, and far messier, with different theories and interpretations going in and out of style all the time. So you feel content to appeal to history as a justification for your claim about religion, as if it’s that simple. But what you’re really appealing to is a particular version, a particular story of history, a story that many historians, I know, would disagree with. Of course, perhaps your story is right, but it’s important to realize that it is not self-evidently right, and there are other narratives which might prove far more compelling.
On my reading of history, your claim is just plain wrong. Here’s the other side of the story: for a very long time, you had various nations and tribes, each with their own sets of gods, making war on one another because they believed their gods would give them success over others. (At this time there was no distinction between religion and politics.) When Christianity came in, it preached a God who ruled over all nations, and hence, it made no sense for one nation to go to war against another in his name. It made possible for the first time the idea of many nations living together peacefully. Now, I don’t say it always lived out this idea, but in previous paganism, this wouldn’t have made sense—the gods were always fighting, so the nations had to as well. Of course, at the time of Christianity, there was a rival notion of peace being preached, that of the Roman Empire, which promised to allow all religions and unite all in peace. The only price they had to pay was slavery, and ruthless punishment if they disobeyed. So the Roman Empire brought peace within its bounds, but at the cost of great violence to create and maintain it. When Christianity came in, preaching and promising peace, it did it by serving. In medieval times, there were of course still wars going on, even between Christian nations, but more often than not, the Church intervened to force them to make peace, rather than to shed blood. It is a historical fact that Church authorities were usually the leaders in making peace treaties, though they made their mistakes as well. When Christianity divided after the Reformation, civil governments promised to pick up the slack and take over as the uniters of society. This they have tried to do for the last four hundred years. (The Enlightenment also tried to propose universal reason as the uniter of society and the solution to all differences and violence, however, it ran into the problem that different people have different ideas of reason, which turns out not to be universal, and how to persuade those who disagree? Ultimately, the Enlightenment types had to embrace the violence of revolution and the aid of the state to accomplish its goals. The French Revolution, and later, under a modified ideology of the Russian Revolution followed this pattern, and neither came close to the success they dreamed of.) What has happened then is a return to the Roman methodology—unity and peace through force and conquest. Hence the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, World War II, Soviet expansionism, etc. (As I said, Hitler killed more each day, probably each hour, than the Inquisition did in its entire history) Curiously, you blame precisely this—the attempt to force agreement through conquest—on religion, when it is precisely post-religious societies that have sought this kind of unifying mechanism.

3) The third point to make is that, yes, indeed, Christianity has much to answer for. I believe the narrative I just gave is substantially correct, and that Christianity has prevented far more wars than it has caused, but even so, we have a lot to answer for, and we come to the discussion table red-handed. However, this is not a damning criticism, if it can be proved that those who resorted to violence in the name of Christianity were clearly misunderstanding their faith. Everyone makes this sort of defense—Marxists can argue that Stalin didn’t get Marx right, and that’s why he did all those horrible things. If someone said to you, “Look how your daughter has gone off and become a fundamentalist—what’s wrong with your teaching?”) you would protest that it was precisely against what you had raised her to be that she went off and became a fundamentalist. You should at least be open to the possibility that the violence done in the name of Christianity has been a misuse of the name of Christianity. I do not wish to disown any of my Christian brothers throughout history, but many of them do need to be rebuked and called to look more closely at the content of their faith, and many of them have given Christianity a bad name.
I could attempt to prove that Christianity properly understood is innocent of your charge by examining historical counterexamples, but I want to go right to the heart. In our charter, our guidebook, our constitution to which we are all committed, the message is clear: “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord”—in other words, if someone really needs punishing (and occasionally, I think you will agree, people do), God will decide, but that’s not our job. Our job is to show love and mercy. James tells us “True religion in the sight of God is to visit widows and orphans in their distress,” and when Jesus is asked if he is truly the Messiah he proves his credentials by answering “Go and tell John the things that you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news preached to them.”
Just to pick from one of the hymns we sang in church this morning (actually from the Psalms):
“The Father to the fatherless, / Defence of widows in distress, / Is in His habitation. / He in the goodness of His grace / Gives lonely ones a dwelling place; / He grants them consolation. / He leads the captive out to see / The joys of newfound liberty / For bounteous is God’s mercy.”
What is the gospel? Paul says, “How beautiful are the feet of he who brings the gospel of peace,” and later says that Christ “came and preached peace to those that are far off, and peace to those that are near,” that “he made both one, abolishing the enmity, thus making peace.”
In other words, I think Christianity, far from being the cause of violence is the only tool we have in order to stop violence and war, that far from trying to bring others into line by force, Christianity believes in bringing grace to others by showing mercy and service to those who are in need. We have many mistakes in the past to atone for, but we also have much success to build on, and I think an honest look around at history, and Christian ministry in the world today, will prove that point.


Thanks for the post--interesting stuff.

I think (1) and (3) hang together pretty well. If I understand correctly, you're saying that the contention "religion divides and causes violence" is problematic for two main reasons. The first is, it runs the risk of unfairly attributing the bad tendencies of some religions to all religions, when it could be the case that some religions are either not so violent or not violent at all. In fact, if you have a damning critique of religion A, there may yet be a religion B that joins you in that critique, and so certainly you wouldn't want to dismiss all religions based on your feelings toward religion A. Second, it may not make a lot of sense to attribute bad deeds of history to a religion just because the person or people responsible for those deeds did them in that religion's name. In order for you to be able to blame the religion itself for crimes of history, you have to show that the crimes were committed in accordance with that religion as it is properly understood and practiced. In the case of Christianity, I think it's fair to say that the "religion itself" more or less begins and ends with the Bible ("our charter, our guidebook, our constitution to which we are all committed"). And, properly understood, it is pretty difficult to see how the Bible could condone things like violently Crusading against non-Christians, the Inquisition, or whatever other misdeeds our Deist interlocutor cites as reasons for not joining the flock.

Where things get dodgy, though, is (2). The main theme here seems to be: even if we do take a historical look at Christianity as it has been practiced (and not just how it ought to have been practiced), it turns out that it's really not that bad after all. But there are two problems I see with how you tried to make this approach work for you. The first is: while generally speaking it may be important to set the record straight with regards to Christianity's history scorecard, it is not really relevant to the current debate unless you show how this scorecard rates vis-a-vis the scorecard of Deism. Instead, though, you choose to contrast Christianity to such straw men as Stalin and Hitler. But unless the interlocutor is sympathetic to these monsters--which I'm sure he isn't--these comparisons provide you no purchase (and there's certainly nothing to be gained by leveraging Hitler to apologize for the Inquisition! Tsk tsk!). The Deist will simply say: yeh, Christianity is a lot better than paganism, Nazism, and Stalinism--but none of those things are as good as Deism. The second problem is that you commit precisely the error against "post-religious societies" that you warned your interlocutor against in (1), absurdly lumping together liberal capitalism with Communism and Fascism, and criticizing all of them for seeking "unity and peace through force and conquest". But surely this criticism is truer of Communism and Fascism orders of magnitude more than it is of liberal capitalism. Liberal capitalism, as it has been historically practiced, has perpetrated all sorts of crimes--you had Imperial oppression, violent expansion of the state, even slavery. But the tendency has been for these wrongs to be reduced and eliminated over time, as the practices buckled under the weight of their own ideological contradictions. Communism and Fascism, however, were built and maintained via systematic purges of millions of people and the iron-fisted oppression of millions more, and unapologetically sought relentless violent expansion. Far from these bad tendencies being reduced over time, they stubbornly persisted until the whole thing could no longer be sustained. And so I think that, as practiced historically, there is a mighty big moral distance between Deism's natural ally--liberal capitalism--and Communism and Fascism. By not leveling any criticisms against liberal capitalism (besides an oblique reference to the excessive violence of the French Revolution, which is really not that bad, I think, considering its duration and the terrible cruelty of the conditions that preceded it), not only did you fail to chalk up positive points for Christianity, but you failed also to chalk up (substantial enough) negative points for Deism.

So, to conclude, I think that emphasizing the religion itself as something distinct from how it is practiced in history is the best approach to use against the Deist's contention (and judging from your impassioned quoting of the Bible itself in (3), I'd say you agree). I do think that the Deist could definitely come back with some persuasive arguments of his own--but I'll leave that alone, as this comment has gone on long enough. Also, I realize I may be misunderstanding a lot of what you wrote here, since it was written as a follow-up to a private conversation and so I'm reading it out of context.

July 4, 2008 at 8:57 AM  

In response to 2, well, fair point in some ways, but I think it is possible to lump all these things together in an important sense. If the argument is made, "Religion (or Christianity) is the cause of violence and division in the world and getting rid of it will cure the problem," then a pretty obvious counterargument is to say, "Well, if you will appeal to history, to history you must go. So let's see which type of civilization has in fact included more violence and division. Well, guess what? A pretty clear historical verdict says that it's post-Christian society, not Christian society." Of course, their response will be that this was just because we haven't figured out the proper kind of post-Christian society, and the deist ideal has been distorted. But then they've nullified their own argument against Christianity and organized religion, because they've appealed to history for vindication and have then had to seek vindication outside of history. Does that clarify, or am I missing the force of your objection?

July 5, 2008 at 3:53 AM  

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