With the rest of the world, I’ve felt deeply grieved over the recent terrorist attacks. I feel a true sense of despair that there is no end in sight to events like these.
If you’ve been online much lately, you’ve probably noticed the endless articles pointing fingers of blame for the attacks in all directions. As has been the case since 9/11, many of those fingers are pointing squarely at “religion.”
For example, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science Facebook page published a post that expressed condolences and stated, “Let us continue to be an opposition to religious fundamentalism!” This was followed by a “Don’t pray for Paris” meme which has been shared over 53,000 times.
Similarly, a cartoonist from Charlie Hebdo (the French magazine whose office has been the target of two terrorist attacks) published a drawing stating, “Friends from the whole world, thank you for #prayforparis, but we don’t need more religion! Our faith goes to music! Kisses! Life! Champagne and joy!”
These negative sentiments about religion in general are hardly new in the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Ever since 9/11, atheist authors have used religious violence as a major impetus for their own war on religion (as an example that can be extracted from the title alone, consider Christopher Hitchens’ book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). Their conclusions are generally two-fold: 1) that religion is bad and 2) that religion is (consequently) false.
But terrorist attacks and other religious violence don’t tell us those two things at all.
In a world where such violence is increasingly becoming an issue, and where atheists are increasingly using that issue to challenge any notion of God, it’s important that our kids understand how to think critically about such claims. Note that this isn’t even about Islam specifically; it’s simply about what a person can or cannot conclude about religion based on the existence of religiously motivated violence.
Here’s what your kids should understand about the two erroneous conclusions that religion is bad and religion is false.
1. That religion is bad.
I’ll be honest with you: I find it very difficult to understand why otherwise intelligent people make the seemingly obvious logical error of proclaiming that “religion” is a bad thing based on the morally grievous actions of any particular “religious” people. In fact, if you’re unaware that this is a common claim by atheists—that violence attributable to religious people shows religion is a bad thing in general—you might wonder why I even need to explain it here. But, rest assured, this is an argument many atheists put forth and one that your kids are sure to eventually encounter.
We can establish why such an argument holds no logical weight with three basic points:
- First, the word religion simply means “the belief in and worship of God or gods; a system of religious beliefs and practices.” Depending on your criteria for grouping belief systems, there are several hundred to several thousand religious groups in the world. The beliefs of these groups are extremely wide ranging. It’s logically impossible to make an evaluation of how moral “religion” is in general when religion is simply a collective term for thousands of different beliefs. Most evaluative statements using the bucket term “religion,” therefore, are meaningless.
- Second, even if we focus on one specific religion for the sake of argument, it doesn’t logically follow that we can make moral judgments about that religion based on the actions of specific individuals who claim to hold that worldview. Those individuals may or may not have been acting in accordance with the “instructions” of their religion. The appropriate question for moral evaluation is, What are the instructions of that religion?
- Third, once you drill down to the actual instructions of a given religion, you have to have some kind of basis for moral evaluation. In other words, when we ask the question, “Is (this) religion morally good?” we have to have a definition of morality. Interestingly, it’s usually atheists who question the morality of religion…yet atheists have no objective basis for defining morality! With no moral authority (such as God), everyone’s opinion on morality is of equal value. If there’s no objective basis for morality, it’s meaningless to say religion is morally bad (except in one’s personal opinion). You can evaluate evidence as to whether or not a given religion is true, but you can’t claim that it’s objectively immoral.
2. That religion is false.
Stating that religion is a morally bad thing (see the first point) is often just the first step in the broader argument that the history of religious violence demonstrates God-based religion is false…that God doesn’t exist because He wouldn’t permit such evil in His name. Once again, we can show how this doesn’t logically follow by looking at three basic points:
- First, this really isn’t as much a question about faith-based violence as it is about the broader “problem of evil”—why is there any evil or suffering permitted in the world? Even if no one committed violence in the name of God, this difficult question would still have to be answered, so it’s important to identify it as the real issue to address.
- Second, the stated “problem of evil” truly is difficult, but it’s not without answers. As it’s traditionally stated, the problem is this: If God is all good, He would eliminate evil; if God is all powerful, He could eliminate evil; but evil still exists, so how can the existence of evil be reconciled with the existence of God? While it remains a tough question, it’s one that theologians and philosophers have answered in varying ways for centuries. To casually dismiss God’s existence due to the problem of evil—without having investigated some of those thoughtful answers—is, frankly, naïve. I’ve written a whole blog post explaining one such answer here. (For more on this and related topics, see my chapters on the problem of evil, the killing of the Canaanites, the history of Christian violence, and the questions of biblical slavery, rape, and human sacrifice in my upcoming book.)
- Third, as in the last bullet of point one, an atheist has no objective basis for labeling something evil. If some things are objectively wrong and not just a matter of opinion, that’s actually evidence for the existence of God—a moral law giver. For more on the “moral argument” for God’s existence, see this blog post.
Get the Conversation Going
If your kids are old enough for this discussion, ask them if they think terrorist attacks and other religiously-motivated violence show that religion is a bad thing. They’ll probably say no, but probe further on why not. Help them learn to think critically by leading them through the bullets here as talking points (What do we mean when we say “religion”? How do we know if people are really acting according to their religion? How do we define “bad”?). Then ask them if they think terrorist attacks and other religiously-motivated violence show religions aren’t true (i.e., that there is no God). Use the same method of walking them through the key questions raised by the bullet points.
What indictments of “religion” in general have you seen stemming from the attacks?