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By Alan Jacobs

Making Trade-Offs

The balance-sheet for Christianity.

A few months ago Jaron Lanier wrote an essay on how science and religion might be able to get along. Lanier is a computer scientist, best known for coining the term "virtual reality" and for creating various VR applications, and I cite his essay not because it's especially innovative but rather because it's typical in several ways. He makes the kind of comments people often make about religion and violence, and his core assumption is close to universal in discussions of these matters: anything that causes violence is bad, and should be discouraged. What distinguishes Lanier from the religion–poisons–everything crowd is that he wants to tolerate (even encourage) religious beliefs and practices that promote nonviolence. Fair enough.

Except for this. Presumably the problem with violence is that it brings physical (and often emotional and psychological) harm to people. But of course we do many things that bring physical and other kinds of harm to people. We drive cars, for instance. Yet hardly anyone says, "Driving cars harms people, so driving cars should be eliminated." Instead, people bring in the concept of the trade–off: they argue that the violence produced by the misuse of automobiles is compensated for by the various benefits of automobiles. And people calculate trade–offs when they consider the desirability or otherwise of almost anything we human beings do that has some dangerous component to it.

Notice, though, how rarely the famous critics of religion do this. That can be because they think that religion simply has nothing to put on its side of the ledger: it is wholly bad and, according to Richard Dawkins, the only real source of bad things in the world. (Asked once what life would be like if children were raised without religion, Dawkins replied, "It would be paradise on earth.") Or they may think that religion's promotion of violence is so horrifically bad—so much worse than, for example, the violence created by the use of automobiles—that it would be morally unforgivable even to consider possible trade–offs.

But are religion's opponents consistent on this point? Assuming that they are somewhat more rational than Dawkins and are willing to acknowledge that violence sometimes occurs without the support of religion, do they repudiate non–religious violence with equal vigor? How many of them are pacifists, for instance? Certainly we do not get a consistently peaceful ethic from Sam Harris, who in The End of Faith suggests that people who hold certain religious beliefs, regardless of how or whether they act upon them, should be executed. ("Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. … Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion.")

So those who do not hold to an absolute prohibition on violence of any kind should be willing at least to entertain the idea that there could be in religion some compensation for its tendency to promote violence. (Now, I should be clear about something: I think the claim that religion causes violence has little evidence to support it. I think the argument holds a fraction of truth, no more. But I am not debating that matter here.) So if we were to try to do some calculations, how should we go about it?

Well, Rodney Stark's booksOne True God,For the Glory of God,The Victory of Reason— do it in one way, showing all the cultural and intellectual benefits of religious belief. And those benefits may well be real; but I must say that I'm not especially interested in them. For one thing, it seems to me that Stark's arguments in favor of Christianity can sometimes be as one–sided as the atheists' arguments against it. But more important, Stark's kind of argument locates the "value of religion" calculus in the realm where the atheists live and move and have their being. And if I must calculate the utility of religion, I'd rather calculate it on the basis of what religions are for, what they fundamentally and essentially claim.

That is, I'd rather say something like this: even if we grant that some people have done some nasty things in the name of Christianity, and that the absolutist character of some Christian teaching may even encourage people to act in nasty ways—if they disregard other teachings equally intrinsic to Christianity that would restrain them—nevertheless Christianity offers us reconciliation with God, and teaches us how to live eternally in His presence and in charity with one another. And this is a trade–off worth making.

Of course, Dawkins, Harris, Christopher Hitchens and their kin would deny that Christianity does this—if forced to. But they rarely if ever bother when acting on their own. They assume that Christianity is false, and then, empowered by that assumption, they go on to try to demonstrate that it is also bad. This is, not incidentally, a version of what C. S. Lewis called "Bulverism," after Ezekiel Bulver, the imaginary founder of an unfortunately common mode of debate: "Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and amp;hellip; our age will thrust you to the wall."

As I have said, I doubt most of the claims made about the perfidy of religious belief in general, or monotheism, or Christianity in particular. But I wonder whether in responding to those claims of perfidy we sometimes neglect the prior claim, the claim of falsehood. After all, if the best that can be said for the Christian faith is that it has produced or helped to produce good things in this world—even the finest goods of, say, modern medicine—then it does not have a very strong claim upon us. It may be merely a kind of stepping stone, a way of understanding the world that has been useful but may now safely be abandoned for something better. Or perhaps the best things that it has produced are inferior to the best things that would be produced by another governing philosophy. Christianity only matters vitally and permanently if it brings what it fundamentally claims to bring: the redemption of humanity and the deliverance of the whole Creation.

Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois; his history of Original Sin will be published in Spring 2008 by HarperOne. His Tumblelog is here.

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