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When Is Religion Bad Religion?

- Abstract

In the wake of the murderous 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, one began to hear a great deal of talk about the appropriate role of religion in modern life. The attacks had, after all, been carried out by a gang of fanatical jihadists motivated by radical Islamist faith. Religion had not been incidental to their actions; it had been at the molten core of them. Hence it did not seem entirely implausible to wonder whether religion itself might be put in the dock for this offense—and, while we were at it, for all its many other offenses down through the centuries. Perhaps the monstrous inhumanity of the 9/11 terrorists, fed by their conviction that they were in possession of the absolute truth and their inability to abide by the tolerant norms of liberal democracies, was the typical fruit of all passionate religious faiths. Perhaps it was therefore a sign that the persistence of religion had become an unhealthy vestige of the past, incompatible with modern life, too dangerous to be tolerated any longer. Perhaps the time had come to crush the infamous thing once and for all.

Hence the emergence of the loud “New Atheism,” courtesy of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, among others. Skilled controversialists and attention-getters, they were not bashful or subtle in making their points and had no taste for polite qualifiers. God, quipped Hitchens, is “not great,” and those who believe in Him are not good. Religion, he declared, “poisons everything.” No quarter should be given even to mild expressions of religious sentiment, for, so contended Harris, “religious faith perpetuates man’s inhumanity to man” and cripples the constructive activity of science. And so it went.

About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.