Darwin’s Holocaust? (Part 3 of 3)

Go to Part 1.

Continued from Part 2.

Christopher Hitchens wrote a book called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As the title suggests, Hitchens blamed much of the evil in the world on religion. (For more insight into Hitchens’ views and where his thinking went wrong, see Lament for an Atheist—Part I and Lament for an Atheist—Part II. See also the video at Christopher Hitchens Makes a Startling Admission.)

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins makes a similar case in The God Delusion. And it’s true that many atrocities, savageries, and cruelties have been committed in the name of religion: The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, the execution of Giordano Bruno, the Albigensian Crusade, Martin Luther’s rabidly anti-Semitic treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, the Salem Witch Trials, the 1066 Granada Massacre and other pogroms, the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Lebanese Civil War, the Israel-Palestinian problem, Jonestown, India versus Pakistan, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jihad, 9/11, and on and on.

But does religion really poison everything? Well, it depends on how you define “religion.”

If, by “religions,” we mean the tribalistic societies that organize themselves around certain beliefs, rules, rituals, and traditions, and that often defend their beliefs through figurative or literal “holy wars,” then yes, I agree, that sort of religion has a distinctly poisonous history. (And by tribalism, I mean any social structure — including a religion or denomination — that prizes cultural conformity within the group and practices hostility toward those outside the group.)

But if, by “religion,” we mean a commitment to live according to the teachings of, say, the Sermon on the Mount — teachings that cut across the grain of our tribal instincts by commanding us to love our enemies, forgive those who sin against us, and pray for those who persecute us — then Christopher Hitchens was simply wrong. That kind of rational, selfless religion has never poisoned anything. In fact, in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins writes: “Jesus, if he existed … was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time. His ‘turn the other cheek’ anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years.”24

The Sermon on the Mount is the sort of religion that even Richard Dawkins can endorse. The compassionate, forgiving, anti-tribalist Christianity of the Sermon on the Mount really does exist, and is often found right alongside the corrupt, institutional religiosity that Jesus of Nazareth confronted and condemned throughout the gospel accounts.

Jesus seemed to know in advance that some of his so-called “followers” would corrupt and betray his message. He predicted that a day would come when many supposed “Christians” would say to him, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” And he said his reply to them would be blunt: “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”25

Hypatia, a woman  of Alexandria in Roman Egypt, was one of the leading scholars of the classical age. She was famed as a mathematician, astronomer, and public speaker, and she taught at the Great Library of Alexandria. Unfortunately for Hypatia, she also threatened the political power of Cyril, the corrupt Christian archbishop of Alexandria. In AD 415, Cyril sent his aide, known as Peter the Reader, to recruit a mob of monks to assassinate Hypatia. The monks ambushed her in her chariot, stripped her naked, dragged her through the streets to the Caesareum church, where they killed her, defiling their own house of worship with her murder. They tore her to pieces, then burned the body parts outside of the city. The stated rationale for Hypatia’s grisly murder was that “she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles” — but the true motive was Cyril’s lust for power.26 No doubt, Jesus would say to Cyril, Peter the Reader, and the murderous monks, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”

The Crusaders swept through Europe and into the Holy Land, slaughtered Jews and Muslims, pillaged and burned entire villages, raped women and put infants to the sword. They exhibited the heads of their slain enemies on stakes. Wild tales of miracles circulated among the Crusaders, bolstering their morale as they committed horrific atrocities under the banner of the cross. It’s no wonder that radical Muslims to this day identify all Christians as “Crusaders.”

Tomás de Torquemada was the first Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth century. Known as “the hammer of heretics,” Torquemada “enthusiastically supported the use of torture during interrogations,”27 and reportedly sent at least 2,000 supposed “heretics” to be burned at the stake. Yet if you compare Torquemada’s “enthusiastic” actions with the teachings of Jesus, you have to wonder: Who is the true heretic — Torquemada’s victims, or Torquemada himself?

Corrupt, tribalist, institutional religion is rife with human evil. To all those who torture, kill, rape, molest, seduce, and steal under the cloak of religion, the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount undoubtedly says, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”

But the religion of the Sermon on the Mount, the religion endorsed by Richard Dawkins, is another thing altogether. That religion has produced some of the finest achievements of our civilization.

Take, for example, our healthcare system. Compassionate religion has blessed the world with the creation of hospitals. In the Middle Ages, religious orders of monks and nuns ran the first hospitals in Europe. In medieval France, a hospital was called a hôtel-Dieu, a hotel of God.

Or, consider how religion has promoted education. Priests and monks preserved civilization and learning through the Dark Ages. The church also invented institutions of higher learning. In medieval times, writes historian Lowrie J. Daly, “there were no great state-supported educational systems, nor even solitary schools. Practically speaking, the Church was the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and cultivation of knowledge.”28

The first university in the world was at Bologna, Italy, founded around AD 1088 or earlier; next was Oxford, founded around 1096; the University of Salamanca, Spain, founded circa 1130; the University of Paris, circa 1150; and Cambridge, circa 1209. We don’t know the exact date any of these great universities were founded because they all had modest, unheralded beginnings as cathedral schools, taught by clerics.

Religion practically invented science as we know it. Medieval church clerics studied empirical phenomena and catalogued their findings. The study of science came naturally to the religious mind, because the early clerics believed that a rational God had created a orderly world that could be comprehended by human reason. Here are a few of those early clergy-scientists:

• Thierry of Chartres (died c. 1150) wrote and taught at a cathedral school at Chartes, France. In his Hexaemeron, he proposed a cosmology with similarities to the Big Bang and features of cosmic evolution.

• Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175-1253) was the Bishop of Lincoln and an Oxford scholar credited as the first mathematician and physicist of the Medieval era. Science historian Alistair Crombie called him “the real founder of the tradition of scientific thought in medieval Oxford.”29

• Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280) was a German Dominican friar who advocated the teaching of reason and science in the church. He catalogued thousands of insights and observations in logic, medicine, chemistry, and astronomy.

• Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294) was a Franciscan friar known as Doctor Mirabilis (“wonderful teacher”) because he advocated the study of nature through the empirical method.

• Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) advocated “natural theology” and “natural law,” rooted in reason as well as biblical revelation.

• French priest Jean Buridan (c. 1300-c. 1358) was one of the world’s earliest true physicists, recording observations that led to a modern understanding of inertia and momentum. In De Caelo et Mundo, he proposed an early version of the Copernican model of the cosmos — 200 years before Copernicus.

As the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, great scientific minds continued to seek out the laws by which a rational God had designed an orderly universe. Johannes Kepler envisioned God as the Great Mathematician, and he went on to systematize the laws of planetary motion that bear his name. Michael Faraday saw God as the Great Physicist, who laid down laws for Faraday to discover in the fields of electricity and electromagnetism. Isaac Newton saw God as the Cosmic Engineer, and his faith in a rational God drove him to discover the laws of gravitation, motion, and mechanics.

As Paul Davies observes, “The very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way.”30 Faith in a rational God and a well-ordered creation brought modern science into existence.

And then there’s the field of social justice — and particularly the abolition of slavery. While it’s true that many slaveholders rationalized their cruel trade from the Bible, it’s also true that religion founded on the Sermon on the Mount helped bring slavery to an end. The slave trade in England was abolished largely due to the efforts of a prominent evangelical, William Wilberforce. The American abolition movement was led by the Quakers and such evangelicals as Charles Finney.

So Hitchens’ blanket statement that “religion poisons everything” couldn’t be more wrong. The Crusades and the Inquisition and the pogroms weren’t caused by the Sermon on the Mount or anything else said by Jesus of Nazareth — just as Charles Darwin was not the instigator of the Holocaust or the Holodomor.

Theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson explains the seeming paradox that, down through the centuries, religion has inspired human beings to commit acts of both incredible evil and amazing good. He writes:

We have seen terrible wars and terrible persecutions conducted in the name of religion. We have also seen large numbers of people inspired by religion to lives of heroic virtue, bringing education and medical care to the poor, helping to abolish slavery and spread peace among nations. Religion amplifies the good and evil tendencies of individual souls.31

When evil people want to do evil things — when they want to commit acts of murder, genocide, sadism, oppression, theft, or terror — they will grab any rationale to make their evil seem “good.” If it weren’t some twisted pretense of religion or a pseudo-scientific rationale, it would have been some other excuse. But the evil would have happened in any case.

There is no evil in the words of Jesus. There is no evil in the theory of evolution. The evil is in people — in human nature itself.

That’s what poisons everything.


This is an excerpt from God and Soul: The Truth and the Proof by Jim Denney, copyright 2012, available as an ebook at Amazon.com. For permission to quote from this excerpt, contact the author in care of this blogsite.

24. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 283.

25. Matthew 7:22-23, Holy Bible, New International Version®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 Biblica. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

26. Sandy Donovan, Hypatia: Mathematician, Inventor, and Philosopher (Minneapolis: Compass Point, 2008), 75.

27. Michael C. Thomsett, The Inquisition: A History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010), 158.

28. Lowrie John Daly, The Medieval University, 1200-1400 (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961), 4.

29. Alistair Cameron Crombie, The History of Science from Augustine to Galileo (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1995), 27.

30. Paul Davies, “Taking Science on Faith,” New York Times, November 24, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/24/opinion/24davies.html?_r=3.

31. Frankenberry, 379.


God Bless Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury passed away on Tuesday, June 5, 2012. I only met him once, in the spring of 2007, plus we exchanged a few letters and a phone call over the years. But his impact on my life was immense. I would probably not be a writer today if not for the influence of Ray Bradbury. I have spent countless hours, from my boyhood to the present day, reading his stories and exploring his imagination.

One of the themes of my life and my writing is that science and religion are fully compatible fields of inquiry. They are NOT (as Stephen Jay Gould has called them) “non-overlapping magisteria,” mutually exclusive domains. Science and religion should support and empower each other in the search for truth, knowledge, meaning, and an understanding of who we are, where we came from, and why we exist in this universe. Many of my favorite writers have written on this theme (from a wide variety of viewpoints), including C. S. Lewis, Walter M. Miller, Jr., James Blish, Madeleine L’Engle, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert J. Sawyer, David Brin—

And, of course, Ray Bradbury. Here’s a brief passage from my favorite Bradbury novel, The Martian Chronicles:

The captain nodded. “Tell me about [the Martian civilization],” he said, waving his hand at the mountain towns.

[Spender replied:] “They knew how to live with nature and get along with nature. They didn’t try too hard to be all men and no animal. That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.

“We succeeded pretty well. We lost our faith and went around wondering what life was for. If art was no more than a frustrated outflinging of desire, if religion was no more than self-delusion, what good was life? Faith had always given us answers to all things. But it all went down the drain with Freud and Darwin. We were and still are a lost people.”

“And these Martians are a found people?” inquired the captain.

“Yes. They knew how to combine science and religion so the two worked side by side, neither denying the other, each enriching the other.”

Beautiful thoughts, profound insight. I agree with Ray’s Martians, of course. Here’s something else Ray Bradbury once said—and though I don’t know that he intended this particular interpretation, I take these words as Ray’s intuitive affirmation of the fine-tuning (anthropic) argument for the existence of God:

“We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.”

Yes we are. We live our impossible lives inside a universe that defies explanation. Every human life is a miracle of rare device—and Ray’s life was more miraculous than most. It’s going to be a lot harder living on this planet now that Ray Bradbury is no longer on it. A lot harder.

Thank you, Ray, and God bless you.

Robert A. Heinlein Quotations


“Take sides! Always take sides! You will sometimes be wrong — but the man who refuses to take sides must always be wrong.”
Double Star (1956)

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
Time Enough for Love (1973)


“Age is not an accomplishment, and youth is not a sin.”
Methuselah’s Children (1958)


“If tempted by something that feels ‘altruistic,’ examine your motives and root out that self-deception. Then, if you still want to do it, wallow in it!”
Time Enough for Love (1973)


“People don’t really want change, any change at all — and xenophobia is very deep-rooted. But we progress, as we must — if we are to go out to the stars.”
Double Star (1956)


“‘Die trying’ is the proudest human thing.”
Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958)

“Heaven help me, I could not see the far end! The smoke had billowed up and my eyes would barely open and would not focus. So I pushed on, while trying to remember the formula by which one made a deathbed confession and then slid into Heaven on a technicality.
“Maybe there wasn’t any such formula.”
Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984)


“Democracy’s greatest fault is that its leaders are likely to reflect the faults and virtues of their constituents—a depressingly low level, but what else can you expect? So take a look at Douglas and ponder that, in his ignorance, stupidity, and self-seeking, he much resembles his fellow Americans, including you and me . . . and that in fact he is a notch or two above the average. Then take a look at the man who will replace him if his government topples.”
“There’s precious little choice.”
“There’s always a choice! This one is a choice between ‘bad’ and ‘worse’—which is a difference much more poignant than that between ‘good’ and ‘better.'”
[Dialogue between Jubal Harshaw and Ben Caxton, [The Original Uncut] Stranger in a Strange Land (1991)

“Does history record any case in which the majority was right?”
The Notebooks of Lazarus Long (1978).

“If you are part of a society that votes, then do so. There may be no candidates and no measures you want to vote for, but there are certain to be ones you want to vote against. In case of doubt, vote against. By this rule you will rarely go wrong. If this is too blind for your taste, consult some well-meaning fool (there is always one around) and ask his advice. Then vote the other way. This enables you to be a good citizen (if such is your wish) without spending the enormous amount of time on it that truly intelligent exercise of franchise requires.”
Time Enough for Love (1973)


“Do not confuse ‘duty’ with what other people expect of you; they are utterly different. Duty is a debt you owe to yourself to fulfill obligations you have assumed voluntarily. Paying that debt can entail anything from years of patient work to instant willingness to die. Difficult it may be, but the reward is self-respect.
“But there is no reward at all for doing what other people expect of you, and to do so is not merely difficult, but impossible. It is easier to deal with a footpad than it is with the leech who wants ‘just a few minutes of your time, please — this won’t take long.’
“Time is your total capital, and the minutes of your life are painfully few. If you allow yourself to fall into the vice of agreeing to such requests, they quickly snowball to the point where these parasites will use up 100 percent of your time — and squawk for more!
“So learn to say No — and to be rude about it when necessary.
“Otherwise you will not have time to carry out your duty, or to do your own work, and certainly no time for love and happiness. The termites will nibble away your life and leave none of it for you.
“(This rule does not mean that you must not do a favor for a friend, or even a stranger. But let the choice be yours. Don’t do it because it is ‘expected’ of you.)”
Time Enough for Love (1973)

Excellence versus Mediocrity

“Some people insist that ‘mediocre’ is better than ‘best.’ They delight in clipping wings because they themselves can’t fly. They despise brains because they have none.”
Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958)


“Everything in excess! To enjoy the flavor of life, take big bites. Moderation is for monks.”
Time Enough for Love (1973)


“Expertise in one field does not carry over into other fields. But experts often think so. The narrower their field of knowledge the more likely they are to think so.”
Time Enough for Love (1973)


“Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything — you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.”
If This Goes On (1940)

“Free will is a golden thread running through the frozen matrix of fixed events.”
The Rolling Stones (1952)

“I will accept the rules that you feel necessary to your freedom. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do. ”
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966)


“I would say that my position is not too far from that of Ayn Rand’s; that I would like to see government reduced to no more than internal police and courts, external armed forces — with the other matters handled otherwise. I’m sick of the way the government sticks its nose into everything, now.”
(Interview, date unknown)

Human Beings (Humanity)

“If men were the automatons that behaviorists claim they are, the behaviorist psychologists could not have invented the amazing nonsense called ‘behaviorist psychology.'”
Time Enough for Love (1973)


“Every law that was ever written opened up a new way to graft.”
Red Planet (1949)

“My old man claimed that the more complicated the law the more opportunity for scoundrels.”
The Door Into Summer (1957)

“Nobody ever wins a lawsuit but the lawyers.”
The Door Into Summer (1957)


“Human beings hardly ever learn from the experience of others. They learn; when they do, which isn’t often, on their own, the hard way.”
Time Enough for Love (1973)


“Life is short, but the years are long.”
Methuselah’s Children (1958)


“Love is the condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”
Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)


“No philosophy that he had ever heard or read gave any reasonable purpose for man’s existence, nor any rational clue to his proper conduct. Basking in the sunshine might be as good a thing to do with one’s life as any other — but it was not for him and he knew it, even if he could not define how he knew it.”
Methuselah’s Children (1958)

“A zygote is a gamete’s way of producing more gametes. This may be the purpose of the universe.”
Time Enough for Love (1973)


“Patriotism is not sentimental nonsense. Nor something dreamed up by demagogues. Patriotism is as necessary a part of man’s evolutionary equipment as are his eyes, as useful to the race as eyes are to the individual.”
Speech to the U.S. Naval Academy (1973)

Reason, Logic, and Thought

“When a fact came along, he junked theories that failed to match.”
Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958)

“Logic is a feeble reed, friend. ‘Logic’ proved that airplanes can’t fly and that H-bombs won’t work and that stones don’t fall out of the sky. Logic is a way of saying that anything which didn’t happen yesterday won’t happen tomorrow.”
Glory Road (1963)

“Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.”
Assignment in Eternity (1953)

“One can judge from experiment, or one can blindly accept authority. To the scientific mind, experimental proof is all important and theory is merely a convenience in description, to be junked when it no longer fits. To the academic mind, authority is everything and facts are junked when they do not fit theory laid down by authority.”
Life-Line (1939)

“The capacity of the human mind for swallowing nonsense and spewing it forth in violent and repressive action has never yet been plumbed.”
Revolt in 2100 (1953)


“If it can’t be expressed in figures, it is not science; it is opinion.”
Time Enough for Love (1973)

Strong Drink

“Be wary of strong drink. It can make you shoot at tax collectors — and miss.”
The Notebooks of Lazarus Long (1978).


“I don’t trust a man who talks about ethics when he is picking my pocket. But if he is acting in his own self-interest and says so, I have usually been able to work out some way to do business with him.”
Time Enough for Love (1973)