With the advent of the Internet, you might have already noticed that intelligent, rational conversation about religion is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Online identities have been constructed somewhat anonymously and disconnected from any real “community,” thereby allowing many to pass off opinion for fact, with an absence of accuracy, honesty, and personal integrity.
For example, I cannot begin to count the number of times I have read this on an Internet message board: “Religion kills more people worldwide than anything on the planet.”
Of course this is nonsense, but proof that if we repeat something loud enough and frequently enough, we can get a majority of people to believe it. Let’s leave the debating about what is “religiously-motivated” violence versus “ethnically-motivated” violence for the scholars to debate. The lines are always going to be blurry there, although I believe the evidence from these scholars would be more than enough to put this disinformation to rest. Still, we don’t even need to dig that deep—all we need to do is crack open a beer.
In 2011, the World Health Organization released a staggering statistic that garnered almost no media attention. Approximately 4 percent of the world’s annual deaths are attributed to alcohol. That’s more than AIDS, Tuberculosis, and yes… even more than deaths from violence. Rising incomes in Africa and Asia have created a perfect storm of alcoholism, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives annually. Coupled with the abuse that already exists in the West, alcohol ends up taking the lives of an estimated 2.5 million people every year, according to the report.
Understand, I am not a teetotaler, but I do struggle with my support of an industry that claims so many lives. One thing does seem certain to me: If religion claimed even a fraction of lives that alcohol takes every year, the world would be in a genuine uproar, not a socially constructed tizzy maintained by Internet bloggers with an anti-spiritual axe to grind.
Consider also: evidence suggests that 59 percent of the violent crimes in the United States occur in either the attempt to obtain illegal drugs or while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Once again, if there were a religion in this country which was truly responsible for over half the violent crimes committed, I can only imagine the kind of press it would receive.
Truthfully, we could go on like this for hours. For example, 1,500 women die every day during childbirth from common, easily preventable medical conditions. What if we could directly link these women’s deaths to a reduction in quality of life that was orchestrated for religious causes? Wouldn’t that make a front page? The fact that the West typically won’t provide these medicines and cures unless there is a profit attached reveals another killer that stalks us: greed.
Things like greed and addiction are silent killers. Tossing up a blanket charge against religion sounds reasonable at first; religion is a clumsy and awkward hunter—an easy target for “enlightened” scholars to chase while sipping a red wine in luxurious Western homes equipped with wireless Internet.
But the evidence doesn’t really support the blanket charges. Religious violence certainly happens, but it is the exception, not the rule. So these same scholars must dredge history in order to help make their case seem legitimate. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials are held up alongside recent religious malpractices like Sept. 11, shootings in Gaza, or hate crimes perpetrated against homosexuals. However, these comparisons are as intellectually disingenuous as saying that the widespread use of leeches in the 1800s is related to modern-day medical malpractice. In reality, both religion and medicine have changed—malpractice still occurs, but it is the exception, not the norm.
Discussion about past atrocities has merit, and so does conversation about violent aberrations that sometimes appear in our modern religious culture. The ugly parts of our religious history have put the world on edge, and rightfully so. We do not get to sidestep the long, bloody shadow cast by our most abusive adherents. All must be brought into the Light.
Nevertheless, it is beyond time for the other side of the table to get honest. The Spanish Inquisition no more defines religion today than surgical lobotomies define modern psychiatry. Genuine students of history have not forgotten that Antonio Moniz won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for popularizing this grossly inhuman procedure in 1945. Try tossing that objection at your therapist during your next appointment and see what kind of diagnosis you receive.
Religion is not responsible for more death or more violence than any other force on the planet; the facts simply don’t add up. Maybe they never did. In all my years of discussing the relationship between religion and violence, I have never heard a single person talk about the killing fields of Cambodia, or the genocide and starvation exacted by Stalin and Mao—these were not motivated by religion and yet they claimed more lives than the Holocaust, the Crusades, and the Inquisition combined.
The more sobering truth, however, is that bottle of Merlot on my kitchen counter. Fermentation eats away human life with unmatched efficiency, and the money I spent on it could have easily provided medicine to a dozen dying mothers. Integrity requires me to admit that any defense I muster for religion in this article comes with a wag from my own crooked finger. That’s because the most deadly killers on this planet don’t wave banners or recite prayers. The deadliest killers always stalk us with the silence of a skilled hunter. And if we should happen to catch a fleeting glimpse of these predators at work, we discover that they are blissfully seductive.
David Allred is the lead pastor of High Places Community Church, 123 Randolph Road in Oak Ridge, working alongside founding pastor Martin Fischer. High Places owns and operates the historic Grove Theater, which is also home to numerous arts organizations that share a vision for improving quality of life in Oak Ridge. For more information, see http://highplaceschurch.com.