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Does religion poison everything?

Refuting Christopher Hitchens’ extreme claim

Christopher HItchens in 2004 Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Does religion poison everything?

Christian apologist Larry Taunton, to his credit, befriended Christopher Hitchens during the agitator’s last years, and writes with feeling about their relationship in The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist (Thomas Nelson, 2016). We never know for sure what’s going on in another person’s head. It seems that Taunton’s apologetics did not move Hitchens toward Christ, but only God knows.

My own interaction with Hitchens was slight. I knew him only by debating him once at the University of Texas and by twice moderating debates between him and Christian apologists at The King’s College in New York City. He was a far better debater than I was, but he did need fuel from a flask he sipped from during the Texas debate. After a midday New York City debate, when we were about to break bread, he said he desperately desired a fifth, so I violated the dry college policy in the spirit of hospitality—at the table he drank a sizable lunch.

All of this suggests Hitchens sadly needed the opiate of the masses, not religion but alcohol—but he was a showman who gained attention by making extreme statements, and he stuck to them. I had the very limited objective of getting Hitchens to admit that the “How Religion Poisons Everything” subtitle of his 2007 book, God Is Not Great (Twelve Books), was extreme. I failed in that, but the examples I offered may be useful to others, so what follows is my opening pleading from our debate in May 2007.

Opening remarks

When the second terrorist airplane on 9/11 hit the World Trade Center, ABC’s Diane Sawyer was speechless for a moment. Then she uttered a soft “Oh my God.”

I appreciate Christopher’s guts in defending the war against terror. He’s taken a lot of heat for that. I also appreciate his remarkable accomplishments in both speaking and writing. As for me, I’m just a writer. I’ve been in about three debates in the past 15 years. I tend to sit with my laptop and try to think things through. So I hope you’ll excuse me as I work off some notes here. With a limited amount of time I don’t want to wing it.

Let me start with a confession: When Evan Smith pushed me to take on this debate, I finally agreed but predicted that Christopher would wipe the floor with me. Now, having read his book and listened to him, I’m more optimistic. The change is not because of my oratorical ability, which is minimal. It’s because Christopher has a weak case. Of course some people motivated by religion have created great mischief and mayhem. That’s irrefutable. But then he goes and insists in the subtitle of his book, and throughout it, that “Religion Poisons Everything.”

Everything! Everything? That sounds improbable. Are 1.3 billion Muslims all murderers? Are 1 billion Hindus all nutty? Might Judaism and Christianity have produced 50 percent evil and 50 percent good? If not, how about 45 percent? Forty percent? Thirty percent? Twenty percent? Will not Christopher relent from his anger if we can find 10 percent that’s good?

I could go page by page through all the extreme statements in God Is Not Great, but such a presentation would be very long and very dull. I want to stick by the Texas wisdom that if you don’t strike oil in 20 minutes, stop boring—so I’ll challenge only a few representative points.

On page 4, Christopher, you write that religion produces a “maximum of servility.” All religions? With the enormous variety of religions in the world today, do generalizations like that make sense? And, just looking at the Bible, were Abraham, Moses, and Job servile when they argued with God?

On page 5 you write that “No statistic will ever find that without [religious] blandishments and threats [atheists] commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful.” Well, I’ve been to Jester II prison in Sugarland, near Houston. The statistics there show that prisoners who go through an evangelical program there have much lower recidivism rates than others. There are similar stats from Brazil, from Iowa, from other prison populations.

On page 7 you write that “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago.” Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, with all their biblical imagery, were certainly inspiring. Many UT students heard the Dalai Lama speak here; they were inspired. Pope John Paul II’s words inspired many people to rise up against communism in Eastern Europe.

On page 17 you write that religion “does not have the confidence in its own various preachings even to allow coexistence between different faiths.” At the annual pro-life march in Washington over 100,000 Catholics and Protestants walk side by side along with groups from Jews for Life, Buddhists for Life, and so on.

On page 32 you write that “The nineteen suicide murderers of New York and Washington and Pennsylvania were beyond any doubt the most sincere believers on those planes.” Todd Beamer, the man who said “Let’s roll” on United Flight 93, and made sure it didn’t crash into the U.S. Capitol, was a strong, sincere Christian believer. So were others who stopped the terrorists, and died when Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania.

Let’s see … I’ll skip to page 102, where you write that “It goes without saying than none of the gruesome, disordered events described in Exodus ever took place.” Without saying. A slam-dunk. Or page 103: “All the Mosaic myths can be safely and easily discarded.” Or page 104, where all five books of Moses are called “an ill-carpentered fiction.”

Such pronouncements were repeatedly made in the 19th century, but again and again biblical accounts considered mythical back then have gained new archeological support. For example, scholars at one point said that the Hittites described in the Bible did not exist, nor did rulers such as Belshazzar of Babylon or Sargon of Assyria. Archeologists now have records of all those civilizations and reigns.

Many brilliant people have spent lifetimes studying these writings that you so blithely dismiss. Princeton’s Robert Wilson, who knew 26 ancient languages and dialects and so could read just about all that remains from the ancient Near East, was impressed with the accuracy of those accounts that you want to discard.

Christopher, you remind me of a character in that great movie The Princess Bride. The character Vizzini is so smart that he says, “Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons.” You are too quick to dismiss some great theologians and historians. And sure, we know more about science, technology, medicine, and many other things than people used to, but are we wiser than Socrates, or Isaiah?

You write on page 160, “One knew, of course, that the whole racket of American evangelism was just that: a heartless con.” Hmm—you know everything in American evangelism is a racket, a heartless con? Well, over the past 20 years I’ve reported stories around this country of folks who are evidently not just heartless but very stupid, because they’ve spent their lives in a racket that’s yielded them almost no money.

Since you live in Washington, you could easily visit some of these racketeers. You could drive for an hour or so to Harford County, Md., north of Baltimore, just west of the Susquehanna River. It’s a land of forested rolling hills, leafy neighborhoods, and small towns playing a losing game of tug-of-war with strip shopping centers, malls, fast-food eateries, and housing developments.

In other words, it’s pretty typical, but one small church in that county, Mount Zion, has at least 30 families in it who have adopted kids, often hard-to-place ones.

You could visit the home of one family, the Cooneys. They own what was a three-bedroom split-level at the end of a cul-de-sac, nothing special, but now it has seven bedrooms because the Cooneys have adopted nine children. Most have some kind of mental or physical handicap. One who is 19 has autism, mild mental retardation, and severe bipolar disorder. One who is 16 was born in Ghana and set on fire 10 years ago. She had daunting medical needs, but Terri Cooney said, “God was so clear.” Their 14-year-old, Stephen, weighed only 2 pounds when he was born with cerebral palsy. The Cooneys adopted him. Their 11-year-old, Isaac, was the sixth child of a drug-addicted prostitute. They adopted him. And in every case they did it because of their Christian beliefs. Does religion poison everything? The Cooneys could show you around what you call “a heartless con.”

Another friend of mine in that Mount Zion church is Benedict Schwartz, the CEO of a software company. He’s adopted a daughter, but he also wanted to save some AIDS orphans in Africa. He began praying with a group of Mount Zion members about whether the church should found an orphans’ home. Some folks wanted the sanctuary to get air-conditioning, but the pastor agreed with Benedict that helping people in Africa was a higher priority.

Two summers ago my wife and I visited the outcome of that discussion: the Children of Zion Village home in Namibia. We met the 50 children who live there. Most have lost at least one parent to AIDS. Several—including one boy who had been living in a tire—were rescued from slavery. Two deaf boys had lived on the streets. Eleven children are known to carry the HIV virus. That orphanage would not exist except for Christian belief. Next month my wife and I will be back in Africa visiting another orphanage that Benedict is building in Zambia. That’s what one church has done.

On the cover of this issue of WORLD is a photo of a child I met at a Christian work in South Africa. But you don’t have to go to South Africa. You live in northwest Washington [near Vice President Cheney’s residence and you] write books with absolutist rhetoric, but have you gone to poverty-stricken southeast Washington and visited the Children of Mine program in Anacostia? Hannah Hawkins started it and invested two decades in this after-school program. She said that “Without Jesus you’re empty. You’re just out to sea floating, and don’t know where to go.”

Efforts like this go on across the country. If any folks in the audience here believe that religion poisons everything, they don’t have to go to Maryland or Washington to see differently. I’ve driven down I-35 and visited with Freddie Garcia in his San Antonio home. He was not only an addict but a hater of white non-Hispanics. Then he became a Christian. Through Victory Outreach he led hundreds of people out of drug abuse. He counsels those of all skin colors whom everyone else has abandoned. So don’t tell me that religion poisons everything. Dozens of ex-addicts have told me that Christianity fought the poison that almost killed them.

You and anyone here can drive east on 290 to Houston and visit the youth home that Curt and Shelley Williams set up. They’ve helped to transform the lives of hundreds of teenagers who were heading into drugs and crime. “We are unapologetically a Christ-based program,” they say. Or anyone here could drive up I-35 to Dallas and meet Christians who have set up community centers in former crack houses. Tell them that religion poisons everything.

Tell that to a gymnast named Tim Street and lots of others in Indianapolis. Tell that to a paraplegic weightlifter named Nimo Colon and lots of other in Philadelphia. Tell that to a pastor named John Piper and lots of others in Minneapolis who work with Hmong and Somali refugees.

There’s so much out there, Christopher—I wish you would go see it. You might reply that you have seen terrible things done for religion reasons, and I’ll believe you. Sure, various religions poison some things. Maybe you’ll tell me that your subtitle was put there by the publisher over your objections, that you really don’t believe that religion poisons everything. Then we’re making progress. [But as of now, the Los Angeles Times called your book “An atheistic rant that is, well, just preaching to the choir.” The Washington Post reviewer wrote, “I’ve never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with his subject.”]

Christopher, you don’t show any acquaintance with the history of Christian poverty-fighting activities in America. Before you say that religion poisons everything, take the Metro from your home to the Library of Congress and read the records of Charles Brace. In the mid-19th century, motivated by his Christian beliefs, he walked the streets of New York to gain a personal understanding of problems. Over a 40-year period he built lodging houses in New York City that provided shelter to tens of thousands of abandoned children. He placed 91,000 of them in adoptive homes.

Go to the Chicago Historical Society and spend a day reading the journals of Helen Mercy Woods. Motivated by her Christian beliefs, from 1881 to 1903, she ran a shelter in Chicago for pregnant and unmarried women. Month after month she gave personal attention to each newcomer and rejoiced as their babies were born. She helped some of her charges to get married, others to place their children for adoption, others to get jobs.

I could mention hundreds more, but none of these heroes nor many others received much money. They weren’t in an evangelical racket. Their Christian beliefs helped them to understand that there were things more important than money.

Let me mention briefly another sector of American history. Christopher, the reason we can be independent journalists is because of Christianity. Until 1735 journalists had one job description: to make the king and his associates look good. If you wrote something negative about an important person, truth was no defense. In 1735 in New York a Christian newspaper editor, John Peter Zenger, wrote that the governor was taking bribes and stealing land, so of course he ended up in jail on a charge of “seditious libel.”

But then came the trial. Zenger’s lawyer appealed to members of the jury by reminding them that biblical prophets had criticized the kings of their time. Zenger’s defense, essentially, was that if God’s authors did this, so could he—and the jury declared Zenger not guilty. The verdict reverberated through the colonies and through England itself. On page 271, Christopher, you note your pleasure that you don’t have to put up with fatwas here. That’s because of Christians. Religion does not poison everything.

Others have concluded this as well. Bob Woodberry, a sociology assistant professor here, showed in his dissertation at the University of North Carolina how Protestant missionaries advanced education in British colonies because they wanted people to read the Bible in their own language. Wherever they went they created schools and had mass literacy campaigns. Sure, some missionaries did harm, but Woodberry shows with multiple regression analyses that “evangelism by 1900 is by far the most consistent predictor of modern elementary education.” That’s part of an overall pattern. As historians like Elizabeth Eisenstein have shown, the Protestant Reformation led to the development of mass literacy in Europe.

Christians also took the lead for centuries in setting up hospitals. You can read the work of historians Jonathan Hill of Oxford, Alvin Schmidt of Illinois, or Rodney Stark of Baylor. They can show you the long-term effect of Jesus telling His followers to love their neighbors as themselves. These writers I’ve just mentioned are by no means propagandists. Compare your subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything,” with the subtitle of one of Professor Stark’s books, “How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery.” The good and the bad.

The evangelical tendency to help others, not poison them, continues today. Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times that “America’s evangelicals have become the newest internationalists,” fighting “sexual trafficking in Eastern Europe and slavery in Sudan.”

The Jewish leader Michael Horowitz called me this afternoon. He reminded me of what he has written to evangelicals: “You have led the way in taking on the slavery issue of our time—the annual trafficking of millions of women and children into lives of sexual bondage. … You have led the way in organizing a campaign to end a growing epidemic of prison rape. … As you define your human rights successes as central to who you are and what you’ve done, it will no longer be possible for those who fear your faith to crudely caricature you or to ignore the virtue that Christian activism brings to American life and the world at large.”

Michael Horowitz spoke too soon—because despite all the evidence, Christopher still writes that religion poisons everything. My challenge to you: Tell us this was just your publisher’s idea of an edgy subtitle. You really don’t believe that, do you?

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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Wish I'd been at that debate, I would've loved to have seen Mr. Hitchens face after this wonderful opening.  

Good job....again, Marvin. 


Christopher is no longer an atheist. He now knows for certain that there is a God and that He is indeed great. 


Thank you, Marvin Olasky! WOW!

Librarian Nancy

Sure wish I could have been at that debate! Sounds like a great start, Marvin, though I am sure Hitchens did the usual twist and wriggle to deflect, ignore, redefine, or belittle your statements. When reason fails, attack the character. That seems to be the normal operating mode of many atheists, though some have the guts to say they don't know something, sometimes. Thanks for posting this!