Quoting the Bible in Public. What our engagement with slavery should have taught  us.

Quoting the Bible in Public. What our engagement with slavery should have taught us.

For much of the history of the church the practise of slavery went unchallenged. It’s not difficult to see why. Slavery was a longstanding feature of human society that was rarely questioned by those who were free. In the sixth century BC the philosopher Aristotle argued that slavery was a dictate of nature, that some human beings were by nature given to be ruled while others were by nature given to rule (Politics 1.1).

The Hebrew bible read by Christians and Jews celebrated the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt, but did not conclude that slavery was an evil from which all people should be liberated. It was assumed that Israelite households would include slaves (eg Exodus 20:10,17; Deuteronomy 12:12,18;  16:11) and, while no Israelite was to be subjected to slavery,  the Israelites were permitted to take slaves from among the foreigners living in their land and from other nations (Leviticus 25:39-46). Alongside the declaration that

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.

Leviticus 26:11

came this

As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.

Leviticus 25:44-46

Slaves taken from foreign nations were considered the property of their owner and could be bought and sold. They were incorporated into the covenant with God as members of their master’s household, and so were to eat the fruit of the land, enjoy rest on the sabbath, and participate in Israel’s festivals (eg Exodus 20:8-11,17; 21:1-27) but they never ceased to be the property of another. 

The New Testament letters recognised that slave and free were included in Christ (Galatians 3:26-28). For Paul this enabled a slave to reframe his/her thinking, to see that whatever his/her status in Greco-Roman society, his/her status in Christ was very different (1 Corinthians 7:17-24). Slaves should gain freedom if the opportunity arose (1 Corinthians 7:17-24), yet there was no expectation that Christian masters would free their slaves. Paul sent the runaway slave Onesimus back to his master Philemon (Philemon ) and in a number of NT letters the proper relationship between slave and master – in which slaves were obedient and masters kind – appears as a staple of instruction to households (eg Ephesians 5:21-6:9; Colossians 3:18-25), to which slaves were to remain true even when treated badly (1 Peter 2:18-24).

It is not surprising then that throughout the church’s history there was little objection to slavery. Prior to the US Civil war evangelicals in both the North and South routinely defended slavery (Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological  Crisis, University of North Carolina Press, 2006). This did not mean they supported every expression of slavery. Some US evangelicals opposed the international slave trade, in which free people were kidnapped, transported to another country and sold as slaves, yet passionately defended the American system of trading people who were already slaves and their children. It was common to argue that America’s slaves were the descendants of Noah’s son Ham, who were cursed with slavery in Genesis 9. 

In addition to the “biblical mandate”, Christians argued that slavery could be seen as a benefit to slaves (the Editors, “Why did so many Christians support slavery?”, Christian History, Issue 33, 2002). Slaves, it was argued, were provided with far greater security of access to food, shelter and community than they would be if they joined the ranks of poorly paid labourers with insecure employment. And slaves were exposed to the Christian gospel and the opportunity to find eternal salvation. 

Bishop Stephen Elliott for example, warned that critics of slavery were

“checking and impeding a work which is manifestly Providential. For nearly a hundred years the English and American Churches have been striving to civilize and Christianize Western Africa, and with what result? Around Sierra Leone, and in the neighborhood of Cape Palmas, a few natives have been made Christians, and some nations have been partially civilized; but what a small number in comparison with the thousands, nay, I may say millions, who have learned the way to Heaven and who have been made to know their Savior through the means of African slavery! At this very moment there are from three to four millions of Africans, educating for earth and for Heaven in the so vilified Southern States—learning the very best lessons for a semi-barbarous people—lessons of self-control, of obedience, of perseverance, of adaptation of means to ends; learning, above all, where their weakness lies, and how they may acquire strength for the battle of life. These considerations satisfy me with their condition, and assure me that it is the best relation they can, for the present, be made to occupy.

quoted in Noel Rae,  The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery,  The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. 2018

Members of the Abolitionist movement argued that slavery was fundamentally incompatible with the overarching themes of Scripture – God’s concern for justice, the dignity and worth of all human beings as created in God’s image and the call to love our neighbour as ourselves. Some offered a more nuanced argument that it was the practises of American slavery that were incompatible with the overarching themes of Scripture. (Noll, The Civil War as a Theological  Crisis). For traditionalists this was a step too far. They accused abolitionists of turning the Bible against itself, denying the simple, plain and clear reading of the texts, and calling evil something God had permitted and authorised. Abolitionists were deemed guilty of one of the gravest sins of evangelicalism: questioning the authority of the Bible (Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis). 

Yet despite this, the abolitionist argument won the day. It did not do so because it could demonstrate superior exegetical argument, but because the growing recognition of individual civil and human rights was becoming a fundamental assumption of western civilisation. Once it was accepted that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” it was only a matter of time until “all men” came to be seen not only as white men, but all men and women, and that this would make readings of the Bible that subordinated one group of people to another untenable.

In the century prior to the US civil war evangelicalism had spread as growing literacy and cheap forms of printing allowed people to own a bible and read it for themselves. They were encouraged to accept “the plain and simple” reading, which was soon equated with what “common sense” told the farmer sitting at his table with the Bible open before him. For some time that meant embracing the simple affirmation of slavery over against clever sophists who appealed to the grand themes of Scripture.

Historically however, the notion of a “simple and plain” reading was developed as a counter to allegorical readings, in which the text of Scripture could be assigned almost any meaning. It was never intended to mean an ahistorical reading nor a simplistic reading. It was never intended to mean that every text was to be taken as a direct word from God to the believer with the Bible open on the kitchen table and who would read a verse, assume it was God’s word to them and dismiss objections with the pious declaration that “God says it. I believe it. That’s good enough for me”.

The engagement with slavery taught us that biblical texts are historically conditioned, that practical guidance issued to ancient Israel and the early churches on how to manage their households and other dimensions of their lives should not be read as universal principles to be applied across space and time, but were part of working out how to live with grace, love, kindness, compassion and generosity in the midst of the messy circumstances of their time and place. 

To hear God’s word to us we need to do precisely as the abolitionists did, to listen for the grand themes of Scripture, and allow these to shape the direction of our ethics, recognising that at times this will mean championing things that contradict some of the time bound guidance offered in the biblical documents.  This does not represent a step away from the Scriptures but a faithful and thoughtful engagement with them.

This message is particularly resonant in view of the saga surrounding Israel Folau and his freedom to quote the bible in public. Sure, Israel should be free to say whatever he feels is a faithful expression of his faith, but this should not be mistaken with the assumption that by quoting bible texts in public we are articulating the word of the Lord.

Israel Folau, Religious Freedom & Standing for “the Truth”. Some Thoughts

Israel Folau, Religious Freedom & Standing for “the Truth”. Some Thoughts

Last week rugby star Israel Folau posted an image on social media that said “Warning: Drunks. Homosexuals. Adulterers. Liars. Fornicators. Thieves. Atheists. Idolaters. Hell awaits you.”  Folau then offered a comment to the effect that God loves all people and wants them to repent of their sin and be forgiven. His employers, New South Wales rugby and the Australian Rugby Union, have signalled their intent to sack him.

The whole episode is rather ugly. 

First, in the rush to condemn Folau, few people seem to have listened to what he said.

Public communication is fraught at the best of times, even more so when it takes place within the constraints of social media platforms. Israel’s post was confrontational and ill-advised  (more on that later), but it did not single out members of the LGBTI community. Rather, he placed homosexuals on the same level as drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters. And if we pressed further into Israel’s faith we would likely discover that he places his own sinfulness on the same level.  At the heart of the type of Christianity Israel Folau espouses is the idea that every human being is so offensive in the sight of God that they deserve to be sent to hell. Far from isolating gay and lesbian people as the most heinous sinners,  Israel’s faith declares we are all heinous sinners.

If, instead of the rush to condemnation and outrage, people had sought to pause and tease out what Israel was saying, they would have discovered  a theology that is (theoretically at least) humble, sees judgement as the prerogative of God not us, and believes that our responsibility is to love and care for every broken sinner.

Second, in their rush to defend “the truth” many Christians have failed to hear the pain of LGBTI Christians.

Having said that, the social dislocation of LGBTI community over the past 2000 years,  means that “homosexuals” are likely to hear what was said in a way that adulterers, drunks, fornicators  and atheists do not. For the greatest irony of this whole episode is that the only group who genuinely embrace Folau’s theology are LGBTI members of  conservative churches. Israel’s theology is grounded in the idea that human beings are so thoroughly corrupt at the very core of their being and God’s holiness is so offended by our corruption that justice demands we be afflicted with the most indescribable torments not merely for a moment but for age upon age upon age. Or as Jonathan Edwards put it in his famous sermon,

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire … you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes, as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours.”

Anyone who genuinely believes this,  who holds this not simply as an article of faith but feels it deep in their soul, is headed for depression and breakdown. Now while most of us who belong to churches own the fact that we are sinners,  I don’t know too many of us who genuinely feel the weight of the  mediaeval and Reformation formulation of it in our hearts or are driven to the point of despair and mental breakdown that afflicted Martin Luther.  A culture that is affirming of our strengths and personhood  and a doctrine of God’s love that sits clunkilly and uneasily alongside our doctrine of sin, prevent us from truly believing we are abominable in the eyes of God. So while we may all repeat words declaring we are unworthy of God’s love, the only group I know for whom this theology of abomination has sunk deep into their souls to the point that is not simply an article of faith but an article of self conviction, are LGBTI Christians raised in evangelical churches. And it drives large numbers of them to mental breakdown, depression and suicide. 

This is why Israel’s post was hurtful.  Statements like his may rhetorically treat all people in the same way, but to many LGBTI people they represent the cold hand of the mediaeval God  pulling them or people they know back down into the mire of self-hatred.

And this is why a bare statement of “the truth”  can be so damaging. I know many Christians feel that in the face of our society’s acceptance of diverse forms of sexuality it is necessary to hold fast to what they understand to be God’s truth. But  communicating truth is never simply a matter of speaking propositions into the ether. Propositions are spoken into a context,  and in our context Folau’s way of speaking is unlikely to succeed in communicating the holiness, compassion, grace and love of God to members of the LGBTI community. If a traditional view of sexuality is to be defended, this is certainly not the way to go about it.

Third, now is a time for introspection & reflection.

As I have argued previously, the challenge to the church’s tradition on sexuality has come under fire not only from without but from within. There are growing numbers of conservative bible scholars and leaders who argue that the church has got sexuality fundamentally wrong and are calling for us to reflect critically on our understanding of sex, sexuality and gender. They may well be wrong, but so might the majority position. It may well be that repentance needs to begin with the household of God. But in our rush to defend ourselves we are simply not taking the time to seriously weigh this up.

Fourth, in the rush to protect the recent gains of the LGBTI community, a lot of Australians seem to be laying aside foundational social freedoms

Having said all of this, it nonetheless seems to me outrageous that Israel Folau is to be sacked for stating his religious perspectives. At the core of a free society is the idea that every person is free to choose what he or she does and doesn’t believe about life, God and reality, and is free to say what they believe. Even when what they say is hurtful and offensive to others. Certainly  those who are hurt and offended  are also free to speak their mind, to express their anger and pain. But the day we penalise people for their beliefs  by stripping away their employment or seek to force their silence  through contractual agreements is the day we abandon the principles that allowed feminists to speak up at the time their speech was  deemed hurtful and offensive,  members of the civil rights movement to speak up at a time their speech was deemed hurtful and offensive,  and members of the gay community to speak up at the time their speech was deemed hurtful and offensive.

Why the right to speak does not make it right to speak

Why the right to speak does not make it right to speak

A few weeks ago Israel Folau made news with his twitter response to the question, “what was God’s plan for gay people?”

“HELL…unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”

His tweet evoked strong comment and emotion. The activist CEO of Qantas, Alan Joyce, weighed in, expressing disappointment and threatening to pull Qantas’s sponsorship of rugby if there were any more comments like this in future; there was widespread discussion about what sanctions his employer, Rugby Australia, might or might not, should or should not impose. Christians and others, including broadcaster and former Wallabies coach, Alan Jones, described the public reaction as an attempt to shut down Israel’s freedom of speech.

For for all the huffing and puffing, there was no challenge to Israel’s freedom of speech nor his freedom of religion. His views were widely reported; his employers affirmed his right to his religious beliefs and resisted any pressure to sanction him for holding those views; and  Players Voice magazine gave him a platform to elaborate on his perspective.  This is important, for freedom of religion and freedom of speech are bedrock liberties in a society that is free from tyranny. The moment we demand everybody express only the majority view,  we will  be well on the way to George Orwell’s 1984. People  should be and are free to express whatever opinions they please  (with the caveat that they’re not free to  incite violence against others),  but it does not mean that what we have to say will be popular  or correct. Freedom of speech  grants us the right to say things that are hurtful, offensive and ugly.  It grants others the right to say things about us that are hurtful, offensive and ugly.

Freedom of speech does not grant us freedom from criticism.  No one should be surprised that speech  that challenges central values of those in our society will almost certainly invite torrents of protest and condemnation. This pushback can be nasty and offensive, and when it comes from media, politicians and community groups we might feel that we are unfairly treated. That may well be the case but criticism does not violate freedom of speech. It simply means that when you hold unpopular views, exercising freedom of speech may require a very thick skin.

The  protection of our freedoms of speech, thought, conscience, and religion are necessary for a society in which we are free, but  they are not sufficient to create a society in which we are  all loved.  For this we need  civility, grace, and  empathy.

Free-speech  is all too often  exercised as thoughtless, uncaring  or demeaning speech. The rhyme we learned as children, “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never harm me”  is an  exercise of self-delusion. Words  can heal and words can harm. They can build up and they can pull down.  They can tear a hole in someone’s psyche that takes decades to repair or repair a hole that has festered for decades.

If we are to have a society that builds people up it is critical that our free speech is exercised in such a way that it communicates respect, consideration and kindness to those who hear it.  Strident denunciations, insult,  the perpetuation of mythologies and untruths, and the belittling of others never achieve this end.

Above all, speech needs to be empathetic. From childhood we are taught “to imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes”, but the memory of this fades as we age and we all too often withdraw into  conversational ghettos,  where the only conversations we have are with those who see the world the way we do.  Yet it is precisely when we move outside our ghettos and  hear the stories of those who see the world differently that we are able to engage in  speech that is both free and empathetic.  When we listen to others we not only start to understand them and  their experience of the world, but to better understand ourselves.   It was only when I got to know some indigenous people and heard their stories that I  saw the daily discrimination to which they were subject.  It was only by meeting women training for pastoral ministry but locked out opportunities to serve that I began to appreciate the privilege I enjoyed and the need for systemic change in our church systems. And it was my experience growing up in a fundamentalist environment that allows me to understand why people can be so  self assured of  their belief system.

So let us not be afraid of debate, nor confuse criticism with a loss of freedom, but let us be committed to the exercise of speech that is not only free but is kind, considerate and empathetic.


Challenges for the Church #2. Living as a Minority in a Pluralist Society

One of the great achievements of Western society has been its embrace of religious and political pluralism as a way of enabling peaceful diversity. Throughout history diversity has commonly been met with violence, either the state enacting violence against dissidents, or conflict between groups. We easily forget that the sort of conflicts we see between Islamic groups in the middle east today was also found between Christian groups in pre-twentieth century Europe. Pluralism operates within the framework of Western liberal values of individualism, freedom, and rights. That is, with a shared commitment to the common good and respect for one another’s freedom, diversity of religion, values and lifestyles is protected by the state and seen as a good.

For many Christians this has been a difficult experience. First, it has meant surrendering the privileged status Christianity enjoyed for many centuries. Second, Christians operate with a vision of the reign of God in which all things reflect the vision and values the Creator. This makes it very difficult for them to celebrate a pluralist narrative. Third, with the rise of secularism and other religions Christians find themselves far less influential than in the past. In November 2015, for example, an episode of the ABC’s Q and A program focussed on euthanasia. None of the panellists was a religious practitioner or faith-based ethicist. If the program had been held 20 or 30 years earlier it is difficult to imagine a religious voice being left out.

It is no surprise that many Christians have yet to come to grips with this. Rather than viewing the public space as a place in which groups with different value systems share life together in a cooperative fashion, some Christians see it as a space of conflict in which only one set of values and one vision for life can triumph. Every time Christians lose voice, and every time legislation is passed that fails to reflect Christian morality, they see it as an attack upon their faith, upon the Judeo Christian heritage of our nation, and the rise of an alternate social/religious philosophy above Christianity. Every interaction in the public space is viewed as a competition for dominance and Christians perceive they are losing. The introduction of ethics classes as an alternative to scripture lessons, the safe schools program, the possible legislation of same-sex marriage, the absence of Christian symbolism from Christmas celebrations, Muslim migration, are interpreted through this narrative.

If faith is to flourish in this environment we need to find a better way forward. In his highly influential To Win the World James Hunter Davidson argue for “faithful presence”. In the Australian context I think this works itself out as follows:

Call for justice, practise mercy, live faithfully

Micah 6:8 issues the well known declaration that what the Lord requires of us is to “do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God”. This threefold summary of godly living was reiterated by Jesus (Matthew 23:23). It remains relevant for us today, with appropriate nuancing to the context of a pluralist society. First, let us act justly in all our relationships and call on the State and corporations to practise justice. Glenn Stassen and David Gushee’s widely referenced text on Gospel-framed ethics defines biblical justice as “delivering justice”. They argue that the biblical image of justice is of people being delivered from exploitation, oppression and evil. This also happens to be a key role of governments in a liberal, pluralist society.

When it comes to public engagement this is where our focus should be. We rightly celebrate the work of William Wilberforce and the Clapham sect in opposing the transatlantic slave trade. What’s less well-known is that Wilberforce also worked tirelessly for the “reformation of morals”. This may have made sense in a State that identified itself as Christian, but it doesn’t make sense in a State that is pluralist. In pluralist States morals are not the responsibility of government; the preservation of freedoms and rights are. So let’s focus our public voice on justice. My simple rule of thumb is that this means our advocacy should always be on behalf of someone who is exploited, oppressed or marginalised. If we are not doing this our advocacy has passed from justice to the wider set of Christian values and is inappropriate.

Second, let us practise mercy. Mercy is inherently inter-personal. It is to respond to those in need and vulnerability with generosity and grace. It is to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner as suggested by Jesus in Matthew 25. It is extended to the deserving and the undeserving alike. Jesus’s justice delivered a woman caught in adultery from a mob of angry men. His mercy meant that despite the fact she was guilty of adultery he extended grace to her.

Third, let us live faithfully before God. Let’s cultivate strong, fulfilling and mutually enriching marriages; households where we learn to live together with love; honesty and integrity as we go about our work; church communities where we both challenge sinfulness and forgive from the heart.

Practising justice, mercy and faithfulness would lead us into a very different public engagement than the attempt to hang onto the last vestiges of Christian privilege or recreate a mythic “Judeo-Christian” society.

Commonality, complementarity, contrast

Second, could we not adopt a more nuanced approach to our relationships with other religions and secular bodies? Rather than a conflict narrative, would not a cooperative narrative prove more fruitful? When we look at other religions and groups in society we will find points of commonality – ie we affirm the same things; points of complementarity – ie we may not share the same outlook/value/insight but these are consistent with the Christian narrative; and points of contrast – ie our outlook/value/insight and those of the other are contrary to one another.

Rather than seeing everything through the lens of a competition for dominance, can we not accept that diversity is here to stay and look to cooperate with other groups where there is commonality and complementarity while at the same time respectfully acknowledging the contrasts? Thus would mean seeing ourselves not only as Christians but as fellow human beings and fellow citizens working together for the good of all.

What might this look like in practise? It might mean Christians abandoning the crusade against same-sex marriage and instead advocating loud and clear for the homeless, poor, disadvantaged, marginalised. It might mean Christians and Muslims working together to build mutual understanding in our communities. Although this is not widely reported it occurs frequently in many so-called “developing countries” – imams taking Christians into the mosques to protect them from fundamentalist violence and Christians helping Muslims rebuild a mosque destroyed in a natural disaster. It might mean more focus on ministries of mercy into our local communities and giving time in our personal lives to listen, care for and love people. It does not mean surrendering our distinctives but it does mean celebrating commonalities.

These approaches would, in my opinion, energise faith, build our churches and strengthen our witness.

Finally Some Good News on Refugees

The Federal Government today announced it had reached an agreement with the United States to resettle refugees on Manus Island and Nauru in the US. This is incredibly welcome news. The indefinite detention of refugees drove them to despair and hopelessness. Now they have the prospect of starting afresh in the United States.

We will now have a hiatus during which we just might be able to have a fruitful dialogue about a better refugee policy. We will soon have no children in detention, very few adults in detention, and no refugees detained on Manus or Nauru. This should afford us the opportunity to reconsider refugee policy in an environment where the political constraints on government and opposition have been loosened and the moral outrage of people like me ratcheted down.

We should address three things:

  1. An increased refugee intake;
  2. A multi-country approach for accepting refugees in our region;
  3. An approach for resetting refugees from outside our region.

It may only be a short window of opportunity, for anyone who arrives from now on will be subject to the same policies as in the past and we will be thrown back into the same cycle of protest and resistance that has characterised the debate to date. Let’s seize this opportunity with both hands.

Religious instruction is child abuse? Give me a break.

Religious instruction is child abuse? Give me a break.

It’s become a popular claim of the new atheists that teaching children religion amounts to child abuse. The latest to make this claim was Paul Ehrlich on the ABC’s Q and A program earlier this week.

According to Richard Dawkins, it’s acceptable to teach children about the existence of religion, but an act of child abuse to teach them to believe the tenets of any religion or to inculcate in them a sense that they belong to a particular religious tradition. This is a subset of the broader claim that religion is bad for you and bad for the world.

There is no doubt that religion can be used to justify violence, bigotry and fear. Christians only have to look back to the Inquisition or the hatred and disdain that sometimes accompanies Christian opposition to same-sex relationships. In the Middle East we see tragic examples of Islamic religion used to justify appalling violent crimes. But the same can be said of atheism, which gave us the Communist bloc and the murder of millions of Jews by Stalin. In each of these instances the problem was not Christian faith, Islamic faith, or atheism, but the expression of these in politically illiberal forms. Political illiberalism refuses to recognise the freedom of others to think and act differently and instead seeks to impose its will through the use of coercion and violence.

When practised in a politically liberal context, religion and atheism are freed from the need to coerce and can be powerful means for people to grow, find meaning, and live hopefully. This has been my experience a Christian and it is backed up by hard data.

First, consider charitable works. In March last year Pro Bono Australia published a list of the top five charities in this country in terms of the amount of income they raise.

1. World Vision
2. Salvation Army Eastern
3. Salvation Army Southern
4. Compassion Australia
5. Australian Red Cross

The first four are all Christian faith-based organisations, while the fifth, the Red Cross, is part of the International Red Cross, which was founded by the devoutly Christian man Henry Durant.

Second, consider civic involvement. In 2004 the Australia Bureau Of Statistics reported on the relationship between religion and volunteering (4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, 2004). It found that people who participated in church or religious activities were twice as likely to have volunteered in a welfare or community organisation (18% v 9%), and almost twice as likely to have volunteered for an organisation concerned with education, training or youth development (12% v 7%).

Third, consider the relationship between religion and mental health. In an article published by the ABC, John Dickson, Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, summarised some of the findings published in the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Health. Religion and spirituality have been found to be associated with greater hope; expectations of social support; lower rates of depression, faster recovery from depression; and less suicidal ideation, fewer suicidal attempts, and fewer completed suicides.

At the personal and anecdotal level history is replete with stories of people whose religious faith drove them to do great things. Many have become household names. Think Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale.

Yes religion can be used to bind people up and keep them trapped in fear. I experienced this firsthand in my fundamentalist youth. But that was only part of the story. Alongside the fear and guilt I experienced incredible love and a call to be a vehicle for the love of God to the world around me.

Yes, religion can be used to provide divine sanction for horrific acts. But it can also be the inspiration for the most incredible acts of forgiveness, kindness, and healing.

The new atheists point to destructive impacts of religion when it is at its worst and completely ignore the positive impacts of religion that has freed itself from the need to coerce. And so they set up a straw man. If the same logic was applied to atheism, we would banish it from the world for having given us the Communist era; were the logic applied to science, we would banish science for giving us weapons of mass destruction and the madness of the Nazi eugenics program.

It seems to me that the problem is not religion or atheism but political illiberalism. When we want to shut down opposing views and opposing systems of belief we end up with a totalising narrative that will brook no competitor and will violently coerce dissenters to submit to its demands. But when we recognise that neither the state nor any religious authorities can or should command the conscience of individuals, religion is liberated to be an amazing force for good. By equating religious instruction with child abuse, the new atheists identify it as something that should be stamped out of our society in favour of the singular totalising narrative of atheistic materialism. And in the process they will only become the very thing that they decry. My own religious tradition, Christianity, learned this the hard way. It is my hope that we will not repeat the error.

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