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The New Atheists, Religion, and Violence
According to the New Atheists, religion nearly single handedly accounts for the proliferation of human aggression in ages past. However ideology is not the source of violence.

The New Atheists (e.g., Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great) blame religion for most of the evil perpetrated by human beings on their counterparts. Not only is religion abjectly stupid, according to the New Atheists, it nearly single handedly accounts for the proliferation of human aggression in ages past, such as the Crusades, to more recent ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Sudan, and today’s Jihadist terrorism.

… people will just as frequently pick on the opposing team’s fans at a hockey game.

Their point that depraved people have justified murder, exploitation, and oppression on religious grounds is indisputable. However, this critique of religion confuses the putative justification of aggression with its more fundamental source. Some people certainly victimize others on the basis of a religious rationale. But, other people will just as frequently pick on the opposing team’s fans at a hockey game. In recent years in the States for example, looters running rampant through the streets after professional sports finals have become expected, if not quite commonplace. Fans use team identity and the exuberance over vicarious athletic triumph or rout as the excuse to vandalize and ransack. Yet, does anyone with any seriousness accuse organized sports for the fights that break out between fans of opposing hockey teams or the pillaging of downtown areas of cities after an NBA finals game? Of course not.

How does this relate to the New Atheists’ charge that religion causes violence? The New Atheists are the same as the people who locate the cause of the fisticuffs in the stands of the hockey game in organized sports. The fallacy of this causal correlation is that there is nothing intrinsic to hockey (well maybe hockey) or sports in general that promotes violence and aggressive behavior among those in the bleachers. Though the actual activity of sports can be aggressive, the point is not to injure the members of the opposing team, but to score more goals, baskets, and touchdowns than the other team. Conversely, when a “Purple People Eater” takes on a “Cheese Head” at Lambeau field, a broken nose is more or less likely the intended goal. Fan rivalries and other such things may be explained by kin-group and in-group theories, but what they also show is that humans possess a penchant for aggression and the unique ability to justify cruelty toward others with abstract rationalizations.

Human beings have a predilection to perpetrate violence on others in the name of an ideology, whether the ideology is racial and ethnic, cultural, political, or religious. But the ideology is not the source of the violence. For example, communism never killed anyone, but communists have slaughtered tens of millions. In a twist on Joseph Schumpeter’s quip, “The first thing a man will do for his ideals is lie,” Thomas Sowell remarks, “As history has also shown, especially in the 20th century, one of the first things an ideologue will do after achieving absolute power is kill” (Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice [Free Press, 1999], 127). Even ideologies that explicitly call for violence, such as ethnic cleansing, do not spontaneously generate. Human beings devise them in order to justify their predetermined bloodlust. In other words, violence is not the product of the ideology; it derives from human minds that first desire to wreak the carnage called for by their ideologies. Once developed of course, ideologies can effectively catalyze the human instinct for aggressive behavior.

My point is that religion and ideologies per se are not the source of violence. If human beings were innately pacifists, then religion and ideologies would incite no one nor would violent elements in them exist in the first place. Moreover, the popular view that external social and economic factors cause human nastiness does not have the explanatory power to account for the ubiquity of human-on-human brutality nor the fact that many who orchestrate mass human suffering usually are members of the conceited and benighted ruling classes and not the unlettered masses. Rather, and less than flattering for us, the source of violent behavior comes from something deep within human nature. Something intrinsic to the human condition propels us toward violence. Religion is just one of the many handy pretexts used by some people to justify hostility toward others.

Now the question is why?

The New Atheists insist that human nature is purely the product of the long history of evolution. Let’s assume their right; then we must conclude that the human primal propensity for cruelty toward other humans is a product of natural selection or some other evolutionary mechanism. In other words, the human predisposition for pugnaciousness gave our predecessors a competitive advantage.

Speaking from an evolutionary perspective, David Livingstone Smith in The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War (St. Martin’s, 2007) describes primatology research that shows that lethal aggression toward other humans is part of the human distant past. He details that members of one Chimpanzee community behave with intentional warlike activities toward members of what they treat as rival Chimpanzee communities. He also shows that the inter-group fighting between Chimpanzees parallels very closely the inter-group skirmishes between “hunter-gather societies” (pp. 75-80). Expressing the evolutionary viewpoint, Smith maintains, “We inherited our warlike nature from prehistoric bands that were able to kill their neighbors and acquire natural resources. These groups flourished while the pacifists withered on the evolutionary vine” (p. 81).

That could very well be true, but it unhinges the New Atheists’ libel that religion is the source of violence and, on the contrary, suggests that lethal tendencies lurk deep within the human condition. Moreover, if the New Atheists are right that everything can be explained in terms of Darwinian natural selection, then religion too is the outcome of that process. Even Dawkins accepts this conclusion and strives to explain religion as an unfortunate by-product of what is otherwise a healthy evolutionary trait (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 190-240).

I have used the term “violence” and refrained from saying that religion or organized aggression is “evil” because if organized savagery toward others is the product of natural selection, which means it gives its practitioners a competitive advantage, what sense does it make to call it “evil?” It is only evil, if it can be called sin. That is, if it violates a transcendent moral principle that itself transcends the vicissitudes of natural selection. By the same logic, if religion is a result of natural selection, even a by-product, how can it be classified as evil?

Like the New Atheism, Christianity recognizes that religion and violence are part of the human primeval past. The biblical story of humanity begins with human innocence and a God who comes “walking to them in the cool of the day.” Yet, scarcely were human beings out of the Garden than the blood of Abel stained the ground.

Unlike the New Atheism though, Christianity sees violence as a sickening abnormality of the human condition and not an intrinsic part of it, which it must be if the New Atheists are correct that humanity is solely the result of the evolutionary process of natural selection.

Christianity sees evil as something that is ultimately inexplicable and destructive. But not so for the New Atheists, who must see the human capacity for violence as quite reasonable, whatever the ostensible justification for it, because it allowed one person or group to compete more successfully and, thereby, secure their future in the jackbooted march of evolutionary history. Thus, by its own account, evolutionary evidence suggests that if we desire to learn of the source of human belligerence, we will need to wander farther back down the trail of the “Descent of Man” than the advent of religion.

Steven M. Studebaker, Ph.D. is assistant professor of systematic and historical theology, McMaster Divinity College, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. E-mail:

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