Charlie Hebdo and the Beauty and Brutality of Religion

By on Jan 15, 2015

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The recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo are a sobering reminder of the brutality of religion. Religion has killed lots of people (and there’s no need to pick on Islam here…Christianity has plenty of blood on its hands). Religion is capable of arousing the ugliest passions and cruelest actions. It boils the blood of some, causing them to do things that make the blood of others run cold.


Maybe the new atheists are right. Maybe religion poisons everything. Maybe it is a crude, savage myth we’ve outgrown, best relegated to the caves of ignorance we stood up and walked out of long ago.


But I have my doubts.


And in the wake of a worldwide display of religion’s brutality, those with ears to hear detect whispers of its beauty.


Most of the world has sense enough to lament the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo. And yet, to my ears at least, the lament of those steeped in secular ideology shows all the signs of the morally impoverished vocabulary and imagination of strict secularism. The attacks were lamented, with considerable emphasis, as an attack on freedom of expression (or freedom of the press or freedom of speech).[1]


For the record, I’m quite fond of freedom, be it of expression or speech or the press. But when human beings are murdered, surely our grief must run deeper than this—surely the most precious thing that has been attacked is not an ideal, but a human being…a human being with a family and story…a human being, dare I say, created in the image of God.


We are on the horns of a dilemma in the modern world. Many secularists want to do away with religion and Charlie Hebdo certainly provides a case in point: religion kills people. And yet…


It nevertheless appears that religion (and of course, Christianity to my mind) is the only thing that can look at Charlie Hebdo and truly grieve—the only thing that can really call it brutal and cruel and tragic beyond measure instead of, well, something that happened…survival of the fittest perhaps.


As David Bentley Hart says it, to kill the person who stands in our way is “the most purely practical of impulses. To be able, however, to see in them not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored, is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls.”[2] And despite whatever rage might rightly be aimed at religion in general or Christianity in particular, it is a capacity that Christianity has bred with astonishing regularity, and often against all odds.


What happened at Charlie Hebdo was a damnable mockery of religion, but it was religion nonetheless—that much, all religious people must accept. But there is much more to the story, as it is only the mind informed (whether consciously or unconsciously) by the deepest moral sensibilities of religion—of charity, justice, and love—that looks at Charlie Hebdo and thinks to call it damnable and brutal.

And that is the beauty of religion.

[1] For example, check out the responses from many of the world leaders from “modern” countries. John Kerry’s are a good place to start.

[2] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, 214.