godfather problem: why your plane is probably not going to crash

A couple of weeks ago my son and I boarded a plane to Boston. I had an empty week in my schedule and airline miles burning a hole in my pocket, so I decided it was time to take Logan to a game at Fenway. We would spend some time with one of my best friends and his family, go hiking, and swim in the ocean all leading up to watching the Red Sox play in the second greatest stadium in this or any country. It was a fantastic week filled with a lot of memories.

The only problem was that my son was dead-set against it, and he had a bit of a freak out when I bought the tickets. Oh, he wanted to go. He just did not want to fly. We could drive. We could take the train. We could even walk! But he was convinced that flying was suicide. I couldn’t understand. He’d flown before and had a good time doing it. But this time he was a basket case. It was so bad that the day before the trip he looked at me with complete seriousness in his expression and declared, “I’m going to live today assuming that it is the last day of my life!”

We had a long talk. I explained to him that flying is safer is driving, that the pilots were professionals, and that modern commercial airplanes are among the most reliable machines ever made. I told him that he had a better chance of becoming the President, or getting killed by a bear, or becoming a nudist (!) than dying in a plane crash. It’s true. None of my convincing seemed to make any impact. After digging a little further, I understood the reason. It turns out that my son had been active on YouTube. He had been binge-watching plane crash videos, and as a result, he had become convinced that what was rare was actually common and what was safe was actually quite dangerous.

If you’ll bear with me, there is a lesson here in addressing our “Godfather Problem.” I introduced this problem in my last post. There’s a lot that I want to say. There’s a lot that I plan to say. But I had a little difficulty in knowing where to start. I decided that in order to address the problem well we might first need to put the problem in a proper perspective.

Christopher Hitchens loved making the argument that “religion poisons everything.” He even wrote a book about it. His basic contention is that religion – ALL religion – is toxic, dangerous, and violent. And it always has been. It gets in the way of scientific and technological progress. It is socially regressive. And people who believe in another world become less than useless in this world. They become positively evil. In other words, Hitchens would say that religious people don’t really have a Godfather “problem.” Michael Corleone is who we really are!

Hitchens is more noteworthy for his wit and his rhetoric than his novelty. Versions of this same argument have been on the lips of Christianity’s “cultured despisers” for centuries. I recently stumbled across this brief article written by James Watson who, along with Francis Crick, discovered the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule. I’d encourage you to read it. He argues in a way that’s fashionable among many secularists today. We need more belief in Jesus (at least the parts he apparently likes) and less belief in God in the modern world. No, he doesn’t believe in God…

Instead, I place my faith in the unchanging, universal aspects of human nature that have allowed us to work together as social animals to constantly improve our existence…Religion, however, has often gone against this human instinct to support others. Throughout history, religious edicts have been at the root cause of much human violence.

Similar to Hitchens and others, Watson is asserting that religion is not merely unnecessary. Religion is harmful. Watson may be more generous than Hitchens and not pronounce every member of the family of God to be a member of the “the Family,” but nevertheless he seems to be saying that religion and religious folk are harmful enough on balance that we are justified in relegating religion to the dustbin of history.

But this is clearly committing an error of distortion similar to my son concluding that because some planes crash, every or most planes must crash. You could also call it a hasty generalization, arguably the most common fallacy of thought.

This argument doesn’t even take the time to carefully understand the evidence being used against religion. So many of the Godfather examples that are routinely trotted out as evidence of the Church behaving badly are much more complicated than we have been led to believe. For example, David Bentley Hart argues convincingly that the “wars of religion” in 16th and 17th century Europe were not simply wars caused by competing religious claims. They were wars fought because of the emergence of nation-states throughout Europe in the vacuum left by crumbling of the Holy Roman Empire.

Far from the secular nation-state rescuing Western humanity from the chaos and butchery of sectarian strife, those wars were the birth pangs of the modern state and its limitless license to murder. And religious allegiances, anxieties, and hatreds were used by regional princes merely as pretexts for conflicts whose causes, effects, and alliances had very little to do with faith or confessional loyalties.”[1]

Similarly, Rodney Stark dedicates an entire book to dispelling the modern mythology that surrounds the Crusades. And the supposed wars over science have been thoroughly debunked by Pearcey and Thaxton among others. And what about other dark seasons from the Church’s past where there have been followers of Jesus on both sides of the issue? Yes, many slavers used scripture to justify their actions, but virtually every abolitionist was operating out of Christian convictions. The same observation could be made about the civil rights movement. Hitchens argues that Martin Luther King’s religion was simply a garnish to his activism, but you can’t read his Letter from Birmingham Jail and conclude that King’s faith was anything other than his driving force. We should acknowledge that Godfather moments are often much more complicated than we have been taught.

It’s also curious to me that Watson and those who would argue like him are so quick to condemn religion for its various offenses while eagerly placing their faith (as Watson does) in “human gods.” Any honest assessment of history will show that human gods are the most bloodthirsty of all gods.

But here is the main point. It is possible to believe that some airplanes crash while also acknowledging that air travel is overwhelmingly safe and a positive societal good. In the same way it is important to acknowledge that the Church and the individuals who make up the Church have our Godfather moments. Those moments are tragic. For those caught in their wake, they are hurtful. They demand our repentance. Like a plane crash, they dominate the headlines and stir our collective outrage. But it is also important to acknowledge that the Gospel has arguably been the greatest force for good in the grand scope of history and in individual lives every day. Alvin Schmidt’s book How Christianity Changed the World is a helpful resource that catalogs all of the different ways that Christianity has blessed societies and civilizations – from human rights, medicine, science, education, etc. We don’t want to turn a blind eye to the damage that has been done by Christians or by the institution of the Church, but neither do we want to ignore how the Church has positively blessed every civilization that it has entered.

To put it simply, it is not reasoning in good faith to dismiss the Church or religion because of its occasional failings. Thomas Williams applies this same “Hitchensian” logic to the realm of medicine.

Let’s perform an experiment and substitute medicine for religion.  Let’s take the example of one of the most beneficent disciplines there is: medicine. Imagine if you were to undertake a study of the biggest blunders committed in the name of medicine throughout history — from botched surgeries, to bleeding with leeches, to cranial boring, to the hellish experimentation afflicted by Nazi doctors on war prisoners — and used such research as an indictment of the entire field of medicine.  During the unprincipled years of the late 19th century, for instance, medical quackery abounded, and hundreds of traveling medicine shows extolled the virtues of worthless potions and products, from Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root, to Dr. Pierce’s Nasal Douche, to Kickapoo Indian Sagwa, to Dr. Hercules Sanche’s Oxydonor. By Hitchens’ standard, medicine has been an unmitigated disaster for humanity, and all doctors should be shuffled off to the guillotine! Yet if there can be good medicine and bad medicine, why can’t there be good religion and bad religion?[2]

Please don’t take this post as some sort of sweeping away of our Godfather problem. Or, to return to the other metaphor, when a plane crashes you don’t simply throw up your hands and say, “Well, but think of all the ones that didn’t crash today.” But neither do you throw up your hands and say, “We never should have attempted flight in the first place.” No, you weep for those who have been lost and you investigate the crash with the hopes of perhaps avoiding a future crash. Perhaps a similar response is in order when the Church fails.

[1] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions (Yale, 2013), 89.

[2] Thomas Williams, Greater than You Think: A Theologian Answers the Atheists about God (FaithWords, 2008).

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