Does religion really do more harm than good?

Talking religion may be seen as a no-go area for dinner parties but when it comes to surveys, people seem much more forthcoming.

According to a new one from Ipsos MORI, 17,000 people across 23 countries are divided on religion's impact on the world, but closer to home a more negative view is prevalent.

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Six out of 10 Britons think religion does more harm than good, a reflection of views long-held by the so-called new atheists, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, who claimed 'religion poisons everything'.

According to Hitchens, war, terrorism, poverty, and an array of other evils preying on society can be laid at the door of religion.

And Sam Harris in his book The End of Faith states that religion is 'the most prolific source of violence in our history'.

But the historical facts tell a different story. According to historians Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod, religious violence is actually only a tiny minority of human violence, accounting for less than seven per cent of all wars.

Therefore, getting rid of religion won't solve the human problem of war and violence.

Matters of the heart

No, I would suggest our problems have deeper roots, ones that lie within the human heart.

Not all religion is dangerous but just about any ideology, including atheism, has the potential to be harmful because every single human heart has the potential to be bigoted, arrogant, superior, obsessed with power and violent.

Whenever violence is being carried out in the name of a religion, we should ask one key question: is the person or the people who are causing the violence acting in keeping with their worldview or in violation of their worldview? Every worldview has to answer that question for themselves.

As a Christian, I can only speak for Christianity and unfortunately our record is not without blemish. Christians should be the first to put up their hands and say the church has not always done a great job of representing Christ in the world.

At times, such as during the Inquisition, it has done a terrible job. Even today some of the vitriol that you read online from people who call themselves Christians against those who disagree with them is awful. It's petty, it's tribal, it's unloving and it's un-Christlike. And that's the point it's unlike Christ.

Whenever these things have been done in the name of Christianity they have been done in violation of Christianity and in violation of the teachings of Christ himself, without whom there would be no Christianity.

Tackling injustice

Jesus' example has inspired millions of Christians throughout history to love their neighbours and even their enemies in the most trying of circumstances.

Throughout the centuries, Christians have done more than any other group to champion reconciliation and to combat slavery, injustice, genocide, infanticide, and to promote education, science, the arts, political freedom and social justice. Christians have pioneered hospitals, orphanages, charitable societies and law reform.

Christians, of course, cannot talk about suffering and evil, pain, and violence, without talking about the example of Jesus, one to whom violence was done.

That's why at the centre of Christianity is the cross. Jesus experienced the reality of human evil on that cross and he defeated evil not by returning evil with evil, but by laying down his life on the cross for you and me.

Ultimately Jesus is not the cause of the world's problems, he is the answer to them.

Simon Edwards is UK Director of the Zacharias Trust, Oxford

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