The famous (and vocal) atheist Christopher Hitchens once wrote a book claiming that “religion poisons everything.” Is that true? Let’s work through that today.
For this topic, I’d like to narrow the scope in a couple of ways: 1) by looking at the Christian religion specifically, and 2) looking simply at some observable effects of it that Christians and atheists can perhaps agree on. Poison typically has the effect of harm, destruction, or death, so if Christianity is in that category of religions that “poison everything”, as Hitchens claimed, those effects should be readily apparent. On the other hand, if it instead redeems and heals what is already poisoned, that effect should be apparent as well. As Jesus said, we are known by our fruit [Mt 7:20, Jam 2:18].
Now, we need to start by clarifying what we mean by Christianity. I am referring specifically to the way of life characterized by sincere profession of trust in Jesus, the Son of God, as one’s Lord and Savior, and the subsequent life of living out the precepts and commands of Him and His disciples, as recorded in the Bible. For instance, if a person claims to be Christian, but is out cheating on their spouse [Heb 13:4], cheating on their taxes [Mt 22:17-21], stealing the tips off the tables in restaurants they visit [Dt 24:14-15, Jam 5:4], and running over little old ladies trying to cross the street and driving off laughing maniacally [Ex 20:13, Ro 13:9], hopefully we can all agree that person does not represent Christianity. “Poisonous” may be an apt description of that person, but we shouldn’t conclude that Christianity is poisonous based on that person’s behavior. Of course, none of us Christians represent Christ perfectly, but the point to remember is that the abuse of the term “Christian” does not negate the proper use of it. So what should we look at to judge the effects of Christianity? Let’s look at how the Bible says the Christian should live.
- It shouldn’t be too controversial to say that murder is bad. But Jesus took the basic commands of the Mosaic law such as not murdering, and ratcheted them up quite a bit by saying that the real issue was the angry thoughts that might lead to murder Mt 5:21-22]. Jesus addressed the motivations behind evil actions [Mt15:19-20]. Do you think the number of murders or attempted murders would go down if people didn’t get angry at each other in the first place? I should think so.
- Jesus said the 2 greatest commands were to love God with our whole selves, and to love our neighbor as ourselves [Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18, Ga5:14, Jam 2:8]. He then went on to redefine “neighbor” in His story of the Good Samaritan as not simply those living next to us, or even those of our own tribe or group, but as anyone we extend love towards [Lk 10:25-37]. Would the world be a better place if everyone acted like good neighbors to everyone they met? I imagine so.
- Jesus went a step further though, for the “good Samaritan” in His story hadn’t been directly hurt by the Jew he took care of. But Jesus tells us to love even our enemies, and to bless those who persecute us [Lk 6:27-28]. Would humanity living out that precept, even imperfectly, be poisonous, or be healing? It seems to me that it would be awfully hard to stay enemies with someone if both sides were committed to loving the other. And lest one think this was an isolated teaching, Jesus died forgiving the people crucifying Him [Lk 23:34]; the first Christian martyr, Stephen, mirrored that behavior as he forgave the people stoning him to death [Ac 7:60]; and the apostles Paul [Ro 12:14, 1Th 5:15] and Peter [1Pe 3:8-9] reiterated that precept to their readers years later.
- How did Jesus say the world would recognize we are Christians? Was it by a certain style of clothing, or a certain diet, or maybe certain symbols like crosses and fish…. No, it was to be by our love [Jn 13:35] and our unity [Jn 17:20-23]. Could the world use a little more love and unity? It surely couldn’t hurt.
- How did Paul say husbands are to love their wives? “As Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” [Eph 5:25]. Can anyone think for a minute that that kind of unconditional, self-sacrificial love would poison marriages today?
- Peter tells his readers to expect to suffer for Christ, but to make sure their suffering isn’t simply the punishment due for bad behavior like stealing and murder [1Pe 4:15-16]. Paul tells the Ephesians [Eph 4:28] that the one who used to steal not only shouldn’t steal anymore, but should work hard so he has something to share with others in need! That sounds like the makings of model citizens to me.
- Lastly, when Paul listed out the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – he finished by pointing out that “against such things there is no law” [Ga 5:22-23]. And that really highlights the oddity of Hitchens’ characterization of religion: things that are poisonous are usually prohibited or restricted, but the ideals of the Christian life are generally acknowledged as virtuous traits. Rather than being prohibited, these traits have historically been not only permitted, but promoted.
That’s just a sampling of the fruit of genuine Christianity, but that seems like good medicine rather than bad poison, if you ask me. Are there some false religions out there that are harmful? Certainly. Have some people claiming to be Christians also done great harm? Sure. But I would challenge anyone to show that a person actually living out the precepts of Christianity is poisoning society. Indeed, I would submit to you that Christ is the only antidote to an already-poisoned society. Don’t throw the cure out with the poison.