The problem, in my mind, is the abuse of power. Now let me tell you what I am talking about. Over the past several years, I have spent a large amount of time reading about what has been called “The New Atheism” and its critique on religious faith. Having grown in popularity after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, this movement points to the 9-11 attacks as an example of the evil that can be done in the name of religious faith. That is often followed with a longer list of historical events in which evil has been done by religious believers – the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Salem Witch trials, etc. The number of books that have been written criticizing the philosophical underpinnings of the New Atheism, along with their near complete blindness concerning the benefits of religious faith on culture (criticism that has even come from fellow atheists) is no small number. These books often point out, accurately, that some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were perpetrated by governments committed to an atheistic philosophy – Stalin and the USSR, Pol Pot and Khamer Rouge, Mao and the PRC, Kim Sung II and the DPRK, etc.
Now, my reason for citing these examples of the evil committed by certain atheistic regimes is not for the purpose of “tit-for-tat.” It is not a “right back at you” moment; not a “Yeah, but look at what you did” kind of thing. Honestly, I think those of us who claim religious faith need to listen with a discerning ear to those who have claims against us. And though I have many philosophical disagreements with the current atheist movement, I will grant them this truth, there have been times when evil, even great evil, has been done by those of religious faith. There has been evil that has been done in the name of God. That is a painful reality, but it is the truth, and we who have faith should own it. It is by no means the whole story of religious faith, but it is as a part of the story. But those of no religious faith have the same problem. Great evil has been done by those with a purely materialistic worldview. Apparently, evil makes for strange bedfellows.
So when it comes to the human capacity for cruelty, the issue of religion or non-religion does not seem to be the necessary factor. As I look at this matter, it is the presence of power, and its abuse, that is the common characteristic. Every human community has some kind of structure of power. In regard to political structures, power is the possession of control or command over others. I heard a famous American politician once say, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Power becomes the precursor to evil when it is used to impose one’s worldview or one’s will on others. In explanation of the evil done by the atheistic regimes, Bo Jinn offers this critique, “The governing ideology behind every one of these [acts], . . . involved the proposition that there was no power greater than their own.” I would add that for the times when evil has been done in the name of religion, it has occurred because those in power felt empowered by God to maintain orthodoxy or to purge away what they considered evil.
For those of us who are Christian, it was our Lord who reminded us that power is something that we should be suspicious of. Two of his disciples once asked him to sit on his right and on his left when he came into his kingdom. Which means they wanted to sit in seats of power. To this request Jesus replied:
You know that the rulers of Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. . . . Just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
Our understanding of power is to be different. It is not about the imposition of our way of life on others through the strength of force. It is about the sharing of our way of life through acts of service and commitment to the common good. It is not the love of power that motivates us; it is the power of love that moves us to act. Dr. King said it this way:
Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands for justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.
For both people of faith and people of no faith, the issue of power and how it is used is of utmost importance. We must always ask ourselves, what principles, ideas and beliefs are behind the use of whatever power we have been given. As can be seen, we are all more than capable of using power to achieve the wrong end. Which means we also have the capability of using power for the right end—a more just and compassionate world. It is within our power to make the right choice.
Bo Jinn, “Illogical Atheism: A Comprehensive Response to the Contemporary Freethinker From A Lapsed Agnostic”