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Apologetics: Blaming religion

Does religion really ‘poison everything’? Dr Andy Bannister suggests the problem may be a little closer to home …

Does religion really ‘poison everything’? Dr Andy Bannister suggests the problem may be a little closer to home …

On a recent flight I got talking to a fellow passenger. After finding out about his work, life and family, he turned to me and asked “So what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a Christian speaker and writer,” I replied, “I answer people’s questions about Christianity.”

His smile evaporated and he snapped “I hate Christianity. Christians are anti-gay, anti-women, anti-progress, anti-science …” and the list went on. Finally he ended his tirade by quoting the late atheist Christopher Hitchens: “Religion poisons everything.” I looked at my watch – six hours until landing. It was going to be a long flight.

Perhaps you’ve heard similar critiques from atheist friends. In the minds of many, there is a truckload of guilt that can be dumped on religion: war, intolerance, hatred, bigotry, sectarianism, violence, dissent, tribalism, probably even halitosis. Religion is bad. Religion poisons everything.

If there were a secular anthem accompanying this, it would be John Lennon’s classic song, Imagine, which invites us to imagine what a world without a belief in heaven, hell, or religion would look like.
The implication is that it would be a peaceful, enlightened utopia.

To which I want to say: really? Do my atheist friends seriously believe that by waggling their magic wands (or swishing their Shamanistic Sticks of Secularism) and making religion disappear, they would instantly have universal peace and harmony? We already tried that experiment, several times, in history: the French Revolution, Communist Russia, Mao’s Cultural Revolution – the list goes on – all ended in bloody violence, brutal intolerance and millions dead.

Imagine no religion? We don’t have to imagine, we can just replay the historical tape.

“Well, OK,” our atheist friend replies, “maybe atheism has its own chequered history. But nevertheless, religion has caused more wars in history than anything else!” That’s a common charge, but it stands up about as well as a jelly skyscraper.

There’s a fascinating set of books that makes great bedtime reading for those of a more masochistic bent. Called The Encyclopedia of Wars, it documents some 1,763 wars between 8000BC and AD2003. Of these, the editors classify only 123 as “religious”: that’s less than 7% in over 10,000 years of history.

If religious types really are out to poison everything, they’ve got some catching up to do.

But I have one final problem with the “religion poisons everything” accusation – which is that it doesn’t go far enough.

You see, one could replace the word ‘religion’ with other words – politics, for instance. Politics causes war, division and sectarianism. Or money. Money causes greed, crime and jealousy. Or science. Science causes environmental pollution and created nuclear bombs. The list goes on.

The more you do this, the more you realise something: the problem is not science, money, politics – not even religion – the problem is far closer to home. The problem is us. Human beings have the ability to pick up all kinds of things and use them for great good, but also to use them for great evil.

And thus, as the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously remarked: “The dividing line between good and evil passes right through the middle of every human heart and all human hearts.”

And he’s right. You and I, each one of us, have the tendency to be cruel as well as kind, vicious as well as compassionate, mean-spirited and petty as well as generous.

How do we solve that problem, that dividing line in the human heart? Christianity says good efforts and intention aren’t enough: what we need is transformation, indeed only the transforming power of new life in Christ. And if that is not the answer, then we may ask our atheist friends: what is?

But one last thought: that religion can sometimes go wrong is not something that atheists discovered, but is a much older point, one made often, 2000 years ago, by Jesus Christ.

His most frequent clashes were with the religious leaders of the day, whom he accused of using religion for personal gain, or to marginalize people. Which means if you’re going to criticise bad religion, you’re standing much closer to Jesus than you may have realised. Perhaps it’s time you had a conversation with him.    

  • Dr Andy Bannister is the Canadian Director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM). From churches to universities, business forums to TV and radio, Andy regularly addresses audiences of both Christians and those of all faiths and none on issues relating to faith, culture, politics and society. His latest book, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist (or: The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments) is a fast-paced mix of comedy and theology that tackles many of the popular atheist soundbites about Christianity that regularly resurface in the media. Find out more and read a free chapter at


RZIM have also produced the popular Short Answers to Big Questions video series, tackling
50 of the common questions about (or objections to) Christianity in three-minute videos. You might enjoy:

“Does religion poison everything?”

“Why are Christians so judgemental?”

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