Religion in the Cross Hairs

Secular World Attacks Organized Belief

By Father John Flynn

LONDON, NOV. 26, 2006 ( Organized religion is coming in for harsh criticism in many parts. English singer Elton John said religion turns people into “hateful lemmings.” He also accused it of lacking compassion. His comments came in an interview with the Observer newspaper’s Music Monthly Magazine, published Nov. 12.

The aging pop star’s criticisms were sparked off by the matter of how religion deals with homosexuality. “I think religion has always tried to turn hatred towards gay people,” he said.

He is far from being alone in this view. In the United States, talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell likened Christianity to radical Islam. Her attack, in a nationally broadcast program in October, was not well received, according to a Nov. 13 press release by the California-based Barna Group.

A nationwide survey by the Barna Group found that although few Americans would challenge O’Donnell’s right to make such statements, just as few share her point of view.

Across the Pacific, Pamela Bone, writing in the Australian newspaper on Aug. 15, rejoiced over data which, she argued, showed that “in nearly all prosperous liberal democracies, atheism is strong.”

Bone accused religion of being “directly responsible for countless world conflicts, resulting in the loss of millions of human lives.” Religion is still a danger today, she contended: “The truth is that it is now too dangerous for religion to be given the special status it has always had.”

Bone added: “The best hope for a less religious and thus safer world is for religion — all religion — to be open to rational and stringent examination and criticism, and yes, to ridicule.”

Meanwhile, in Canada, author Christopher Hitchens recently explained why he “hates religion,” reported the National Post on Nov. 18. Speaking at the University of Toronto, Hitchens declared he hates Islam because it exhibits a “horrible trio of self-hatred, self-righteousness and self-pity,” while making a “cult of death, suicide and murder.”

He also hates Judaism, because it leads to Christianity. His negative view of Christianity is well known, particularly after his infamous attacks on Mother Teresa of Calcutta in the 1990s.

In the midst of declaring his multiple hatreds, Hitchens declared: “I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion.”

Anti-religious books

During the Toronto address Hitchens gave some details of his forthcoming book, “God Is Not Great.” The book, he said, is “a general case against religion.”

Anti-religious books are in fashion these days. American author Sam Harris has just published a brief (112-page) sequel to his 2004 book, “The End of Faith.” At a recent presentation at the New York Public Library, Harris condemned the God of the Old Testament, in addition to the New Testament, “likening the story of Jesus to a fairy tale,” the Washington Post reported Oct. 26.

For good measure Harris also attacked the Koran, calling it “a manifesto for religious divisiveness.”

According to the Washington Post, “The End of Faith” has sold more than 270,000 copies. In that book, Harris described religion as “a desperate marriage of hope and ignorance.” He also slammed religion for promoting intolerance. Nor was his argument limited to extremist groups. “One of the central themes of this book,” Harris declared in the opening chapter, “… is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma.”

In a curious use of religious terminology, Harris concludes the book by describing faith as “the devil’s masterpiece.” The book also appeals for a sustained campaign against religion, and faith in general: “We must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it.”

British author Richard Dawkins also recently published a book decrying religion, “The God Delusion.” Dawkins is well known for his hostility to religion. “The celebrated atheist and high priest of popular science” is how a review of the book in the Observer newspaper on Oct. 29 described him.

Dawkins is not limiting himself to publishing. The Sunday Times on Nov. 19 reported that he plans to set up a charity that will subsidize the publication of educational materials for distribution in schools.

His organization, according to the article, will also attempt to divert donations from the hands of “missionaries” and church-based charities. His foundation, which is in the process of seeking registration in the United Kingdom and the United States, will have a database of charities free of “church contamination.”

The Times article cited the concern of Anglican clergyman John Hall, dean of Westminster. Hall criticized the project as not being based on reasoned argument.

Dawkins and other critics of religion have often come under fire for their superficial view of religion. This was repeated recently by Verbite Father Vincent Twomey, a retired professor of moral theology at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland. He took part recently in a debate at the College Historical Society in Trinity College Dublin, on the topic “That Religion Is a Block to Progress.”

“Apart from the crass vulgarity of some student speakers, what shocked me most was the apparent ignorance of many speakers about what constituted religion in general and Catholicism and Christianity in particular,” Father Twomey noted, writing in the Irish Times on Nov. 13.

So many things that are taken for granted today — education, hospitals, the very notion of a person, the distinction between sacred and secular — owe their origin to Christian inspiration. “Cultural amnesia is a dangerous condition for any society,” he observed.

Bring forth treasure

While not referring to these recent attacks specifically, Benedict XVI recently addressed the issue of how religion is portrayed as a negative force. “So often the Church’s countercultural witness is misunderstood as something backward and negative in today’s society,” he commented to visiting Irish bishops on Oct. 28.

What the Church needs to do in these circumstances, the Pope recommended, is to act like the wise householder who brings forth from his treasure “what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). In this way the faithful will be able to discern what society offers them today. “Help them to recognize the inability of the secular, materialist culture to bring true satisfaction and joy,” the Holy Father continued. “Be bold in speaking to them of the joy that comes from following Christ and living according to his commandments.”

Moreover, even though the bishops need to warn against the evils around us, “we must correct the idea that Catholicism is merely ‘a collection of prohibitions,'” Benedict XVI said. In order to do that Catholic teaching must be formulated in such a way that it communicates “the liberating power of the Gospel.”

The Gospel is good for society, the Pope argued in his Sept. 28 address to the new German ambassador to the Holy See. Commenting on the favorable reception by the German people to his recent pastoral visit, Benedict XVI noted: “Wherever society is growing and people are strengthened in good, thanks to the message of faith, this also benefits social coexistence, and the readiness of citizens to assume responsibility for the common good is reinforced.”

This message is not imposed by the Church, and therefore faith exists in the context of tolerance. “Tolerance, however, must never be confused with indifferentism, for any form of indifference is radically opposed to the deep Christian concern for man and for his salvation,” the Pontiff pointed out. A concern that means the Church will not allow itself to be intimidated by those who wish it to remain silent.

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