By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, JULY 25, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Religion is not only mad, but also bad, at least according to many of the new atheists who have vociferously attacked God and religion in the last few years. Many of them accuse religion of being a propagator of division, hate and violence.
Not true, replied David Brog in his book, “In Defense of Faith: The Judeo-Christian Idea and the Struggle for Humanity,” (Encounter Books). Brog is a Jewish author and executive director of Christians United for Israel. The Judeo-Christian tradition has been the West’s most effective curb on the dangerous tendencies in human nature that can propitiate violence, he argued.
Yes, there have been times in the past when faith tended toward intolerance, but we must see beyond some of the imperfections of our religious tradition and recognize the many benefits of our spiritual heritage, Brog explained. We are not simply born good, he noted, and in the past most people were divided into tribes, races and nations, each pitted against the other. The radical change brought about in the Judeo-Christian tradition, he pointed out, is the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God and that we are called upon to love all our neighbors without exception.
Brog calls this the “Judeo-Christian idea” and said that not only was this an innovation in the West, but that it continues to inspire our highest ethics up to our present times.
The compassion we feel for a victim of an earthquake in Haiti, or for a victim of AIDS in Africa, is an altruism that is exceptional in human history, and we have the Judeo-Christian tradition to thank for it, he added.
Crusades and Inquisition
One of the book’s chapters takes a look at what Brog considers to be myths about atrocities. It deals mainly with the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, topics that almost inevitably come up when Christianity comes under attack. It is true that both of these historical episodes saw atrocities committed, but we need to consider what happened in the correct perspective, Brog maintained.
The Crusades took place in an era of continual warfare between Christian and Muslim powers. During these conflicts the Muslims were normally the aggressor, and also most commonly the victor. So, Brog contended, it is incorrect to depict the Crusades as some kind of Christian bloodlust and intolerance. Instead they were one of a number of rounds in a conflict between two civilizations. There were some atrocities carried out by the Christian forces during the Crusades, but Brog argued, Church leadership was at the forefront of trying to stop this unjustified violence.
When it comes to the Inquisition, Brog explained that, far from being the driving force behind some sort of violent persecution, the Church was more often a barrier to be overcome and a brake on the excesses.
It is true that in 1478 Pope Sixtus IV issued the bull that authorized the Spanish Inquisition, but Brog continued his defense by saying that as soon as the Vatican learned of the excesses of the Inquisition it intervened to try to stop them. A number of popes in subsequent years continued to take measures to contain the Inquisition, he added.
In concluding this section of the book Brog affirmed that the Catholic Church was not the driving force behind the anti-Semitic violence of the Crusades or the Inquisition, and on the contrary sought to limit such violence. Thus, these two episodes do not prove that religion is a great source of human conflict. Yet, he cautioned, they do reveal the need to be vigilant lest faith be corrupted by flawed human nature.
One of the book’s chapters examines the issue of the sanctity of human life. Brog compared this to the common practice of infanticide in the Roman Empire. The Roman legal codes permitted the killing of any deformed or weak males or any female infant, no matter how healthy. Both Jews and Christians were strongly contrary to this and affirmed that it is not licit to kill an innocent. The only reason, Brog argued, that in the West we recognize the sanctity and equality of all humans today is due to the Judeo-Christian heritage.
“Most civilizations throughout most of human history never arrived at this view,” he added.
If some of the Enlightenment philosophers took up and embraced this concept of the sanctity of human life they can hardly be credited with any original contribution in doing this, Brog argued, as the idea was right there in the Bible that most of them had read.
The danger today, he affirmed, is that science is chipping away at the wall between humans and the animal kingdom, and is treating man as just another animal. We are frequently warned about the danger of religion intruding in fields where it does not belong, Brog observed, but where it comes to morality science needs to respect its lack of competence.
“When science ventures beyond its core areas of competence into the realm of morality, it often leaves corpses in its wake,” Brog warned.
The same advertence applies to philosophy, Brog continued. While we have all benefitted from the classical tradition and Enlightenment philosophers, there are limits to what philosophy can teach us.
The Judeo-Christian tradition attributes to humans a value beyond our individual skills and contributions. Unfortunately, he argued, too often secular philosophy has sought to break down this situation and subject us to far less benign systems of valuation.
Among other dangers Brog recounted was the eugenics, popular in the 1920s and 30s, which justified sterilizing so-called inferior people, sanctioned as a legitimate practice by no less an authority than the United States Supreme Court. Lest we think this is some historical oddity Brog pointed out that today there are philosophers such as Peter Singer who argue in favor of infanticide and euthanasia.
A chapter titled “Transcending Our Selfish Genes” is dedicated to showing how both the Jewish and Christian religions place great importance of the love of others. This is based on what is written in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, where in Genesis we are told that God created man in his own image. This may well be the single most revolutionary idea in all of human history, Brog asserted.
Believing this implies accepting we are imbued with a worth above all other created beings and is the foundation of all human rights. Not only does it establish the supreme value of each human life, but it also affirms the equality of all humans.
In an interesting section, Brog explained that the love of others is at at the center of the Jewish tradition, rejecting the idea that by the time of Jesus, Judaism was reduced to the observance of cold laws and rituals.
There are, however, significant differences between Christianity and Judaism, he admitted. Yet, putting aside the many theological issues that separate the two, when it comes to the question of morality there is a remarkable affinity, Brog commented.
Like Judaism, Christianity stresses the need to act in the name of the love it preaches. Moreover, the author noted, the ultimate example of love in action is the crucifixion of Jesus.
Jumping to the present day he remarked that the fact Pope Benedict XVI chose as the topic for his first encyclical the subject of love was very significant.
We can disagree as to whether there is a God, but Brog observed, we cannot deny that the Judeo-Christian tradition has been the primary means by which we have been able to make ethical progress. Rejecting religion will only lead to increased human suffering and evil.