Culture At Large

Wonderful, terrible believers: what to make of religious people?

Andy Rau

Christopher Hitchens is a sometimes-caustic cultural critic and an outspoken atheist (although he prefers the term "anti-theist"); in a recent dialogue he went so far as to state that

I can't stand anyone who believes in God, who invokes the divinity or who is a person of faith. I mean that to me is a horrible repulsive thing.

Self-described atheist, Hitch admirer, and blogger Norman Geras takes a hard look at Hitchens' statement of apparent contempt for the faithful, and tackles that most difficult of questions: given that religion has alternately inspired the best and worst in humanity throughout history, what are we to make of religious believers?

In a nutshell: religious belief has no monopoly on harm; conversely, good is not exclusively associated with the irreligious. It is not religious belief as such which leads to persecution, torture, murder, it is dogmatic and intolerant belief of every kind. Think of the millions killed in the last 150 years in the name of political beliefs, including would-be socialist and liberal beliefs as well as racist and fascist ones, deaths that cannot be laid at the door of religious faith. At the same time, it is a straightforward empirical fact that countless numbers of people - and I use 'countless' here advisedly and literally, not just loosely to convey the sense of very many - have been moved by their religion to do good in the world, to behave well. And this is to say nothing of what they have been moved to create.

Geras is touching on an important concept, one that is often overlooked even by Christians: faith is powerful; deeply-held belief is not a passive trait but a dynamic force in our lives. As Geras concludes, "That is the way the world is, a bit complicated." (Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith