“Religion Kills” is the title of the second chapter of Hitchens’ book, god is not Great. In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post yesterday (“Has religion made the world less safe“), Steven Pinker suggests that the subtitle of the book, “How Religion Poisons Everything,” is an overstatement, since, as he points out,
Religion plays no single role in the history of violence because religion has not been a single force in the history of anything. The vast set of movements we call religions have little in common but their distinctness from the secular institutions that are recent appearances on the human stage.
And then he goes on to point out that the plasticity of religion is such that it may follow the broader trends at work in the surrounding society. When that is liberal, religion may become liberal. In his words:
Many accommodations instigated by breakaway denominations, reform movements, ecumenical councils, and other liberalizing forces have allowed other religions to be swept along by the humanistic tide. It is when fundamentalist forces stand athwart those currents and impose tribal, authoritarian, and puritanical constraints that religion becomes a force for violence.
While this may be true, there is one thing that Pinker seems to ignore, and that is that when religions take on humanistic colouring from the surrounding culture, it is not religion that is providing the liberalism, but something else. Where religion has had cultural power, as it had, for example, in Christendom from the year 381, or as it has in Saudi Arabia and many other Muslim majority states, its effect has been generally poisonous.
We can go further than that. Religion still bears its poison at its heart, even during those periods of history when religious institutions have been a force for stability and peace. Religions may take on the secular colouring of the surrounding society, but they contain forces which can always be perverted in violent and anti-humanistic ways. Centred, as most large, international religions are, on sacred texts, which reflect the turbulent times in which they were written, but which can be interpreted ad libitum, so that they are pliable enough to act as a moderating influence on violent and unruly periods when such violence and misrule are particularly dangerous to religions themselves, the seeds of exclusivism and totalitarian puritanism are present at such times in the religions themselves. Religions do not lend a hand gratis, in peacemaking, or in irredentist resistance to what is perceived of as alien power (as, for example, in Communist Poland); they do so only in the interest of their own accession to power and influence.
Religion may not, then, as Pinker suggests, play a single role, but its role is always to the benefit of religion itself, and religion itself, whatever else it may be, is poisonous, and that for the very simple reason that Hitchens outlines in this second chapter. You would think, he says, that people, having possession of a belief that the creator of the universe created everything with the believing individual in mind, would be happy and content to carry on their lives in the sublime conviction that these things are true, that they are created by God, that their lives are supervised by God, and that God has prepared for the faithful ”an eternity of bliss and repose.” (15) Why is this not enough to be going on with? Why do they have to intrude their beliefs into the lives of others? Why, for instance, to take the case that Hitchens takes, did Catholics in Ireland insist that everyone should obey Catholic rules about marriage and divorce? In the referendum that was held to determine whether a constitutional amendment should be made to provide for divorce, Catholics argued strenuously against it, even importing Mother Teresa to help in the campaign to retain the state prohibition of divorce.
There was not even the suggestion [Hitchens writes] that Catholics could follow their own church’s commandments while not imposing them on all other citizens. 
He points out that the same Mother Teresa who campaigned against divorce is quoted as having said in an interview with Princess Diana after her divorce that she hoped that Diana was now much happier having escaped such a miserable marriage. This is precisely the point I was making in the last paragraph. The seeds of theocracy are present even while religions seem to endorse more humane attitudes and principles. But religions seek power, and when they have it, they impose their own rules, regardless of their cruelty.
Hitchens points this out in a number of examples. In a debate with Dennis Prager he was asked to answer a question with a yes or no answer. Suppose you are alone in a strange city as night is falling. You are to imagine a large group of men coming towards you.
Now — would I feel safer, or less safe, if I was to learn that they were just coming from a prayer meeting. 
Hitchens said he was happy to answer the question, but it could not be answered yes or no. He had had such an experience in many cities all beginning with the letter ‘B’: Bombay, Beirut, Belfast and Belgrade; and in each of them he would have felt, he says, much less safe if he knew that people had just come from a prayer meeting. For in each of those cities religion had played a distinctly violent role, and prayer meetings would not have boded any good at all. Had he lived, Hitchens could point to the “dustup” in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem that is reported in the news this morning. The BBC headlines the story, “Priests brawl in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity,” telling us that around 100 priests fought each other with brooms as they cleaned the church in preparation for the celebration of the Orthodox Christmas on the 6th January. Police were called in to quell the rioters, and “Palestinian police armed with batons and shields broke up the clashes.”
In the end, says Hitchens,
In all these cases, anyone concerned with human safety or dignity would have to hope fervently or a mass outbreak of democratic or republican secularism. 
This is not to say that religion and religious people never do any good. This would be a foolish claim, and Hitchens’ belief that religion poisons everything does not make it. But that religion poisons everything does not depend upon this claim. The claim is upheld simply by the fact that the sources of evil are to be found in the religions, and it would be hard to uphold the claim that these sources are not present in the bloodthirsty and fratricidal words of so many religious texts. The point is that religion looks after itself first, and then it may be used, in some cases, to bring about peace. But peace is not the first thing one thinks about when the issue is the influence of religion. Hitchens makes this very clear when he considers the reaction to the fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie:
In considered statements [Hitchens writes], the Vatican, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the chief sephardic [sic] rabbi of Israel all took stand in sympathy with — the ayatollah. 
In other words, they sided with the man who had just said that he would pay money to someone who would murder Salman Rushdie! They sided with the man who had put out a contract to kill the man who had published a novel. Many other public figures, writers amongst them, took the same position, that, by offending a great monotheistic religion, Rushdie had brought these troubles upon himself. So much for the humanising effect of religious belief.
In my view Steven Pinker is deeply mistaken, and does not take into consideration the evidence for religion’s poisonous influence on self and society, an influence which is truly pervasive, regardless of the fact that religion can be manipulated in some cases to enable it to act, on occasion, for good. Religion may sometimes be a force for good, but that is almost always because religion itself stands to lose from some kinds of violence and misrule. It is not because religion is humanistic that religion comes to play a moderating role, but that religion itself is sometimes endangered by violence and instability. Tom Chivers has published in the Telegraph’s Christmas Eve edition, a short article “In praise of Jesus Christ.” In the course of this article he says this about Jesus:
The humanity and intelligence of his teachings is what shines through: at a time when Jewish law was based on very rigid precepts, he stressed that observance of the law was not enough. Notably, with the laws covering divorce and providing for the poor, he made it clear that the Mosaic prescriptions were bare minimums, and that people should strive to do more.
First of all, while this is good Christian propaganda, namely, that the Jews were rigid and unrelenting in their application of the law, is it true? And, in requiring people to do more, was Jesus adding to the rigidity, or was he relaxing the law’s hold on people? I suggest that he was, in fact, increasing its rigidity. Later Christianity used the Pharisees as the type of Jewish rigidity which the church opposed, but this was more in the nature of a caricature of contemporary Judaism of the first century. And this caricature is one of the sources of the Christian antisemitism which characterised Christianity from early times until today. When I read the gospels I do not see the humanity and intelligence of Jesus’ teachings. The idea that by looking at a woman with lust a man had already committed adultery with her, or that anger at one’s brother puts one in danger of hellfire, are examples of Jesus’ tendency to take the law to extremes, making it impossible for anyone to be faithful, and thereby making them dependent on the absolving power eventually vested in bishops and priests. While every Christmas someone will try, once again, to extol Jesus’ moral exceptionalism, a critical reading of the texts does not produce an ideal worth striving towards, and reveals, at the same time, so many contradictions as to raise questions as to which moral ideals, if any, came from the man called Jesus himself.
I have ignored in this discussion of the second chapter of god is not Great Hitchens’ arguments in favour of American intervention in Iraq. This is widely thought to be one of Hitchens’ most egregious errors of judgement. On that question I have no settled opinion. It seems to me that, on the whole, the American response to 9/11 was expensive, caused far more harm than the original 9/11 bombing, cost the lives of many young Americans and other young Westerners who participated in either the Iraq war or the NATO intervention in Afghanistan, and achieved very little. If removing a dictator is justification enough for a war, then many wars could easily be justified in the world today. If invading Afghanistan was in reprisal for the Taliban’s giving safe haven to Al Qaeda, which masterminded the 9/11 bombing, that now seems much more like using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut, and, by its general failure to bring about enduring social change in Afghanistan, has shown itself to be not much wiser than the invasion of Iraq.
About these things I have not much to say. But the role of religion in these disasters should not be underestimated, from the widespread failure to take Islam seriously as a danger to Western forms of governance, to the more local part that religion played in various military adventures. President Bush used the word ‘crusade’ in relation to American military intervention in the Middle East, a word which has a very complex religio-cultural meaning. That anyone need be apologetic to Muslims because of the original Crusades — which were an early expression of European expansionism and colonialism with an obvious religious subtext – seems to forget the fact that Islam was, almost from its inception, an imperial religion, which subjugated many formerly Christian lands, and which attempted to conquer Europe and reduce it to the status of a Muslim colony. To a certain extent it succeeded, in Spain and the Balkans, in imposing Muslim rule over Christians and Jews. But renewed warfare between the West and Muslim lands was probably the least helpful way in improving relationships and coming to some kind modus vivendi with Islam, if such is possible.
I suspect that abiding peaceful relationships, with countries affirming Islam as their guiding cultural myth and basis of law, is not possible. This video clip explains why. This is normative Islam, the poison at the heart of Islam. Christianity and Judaism have their own poisons, but this is an example of the poison of religion.
(h/t richarddawkins.net) As I say, I do not think there is room here for negotiation and peace. Nor do I think that Islam provides enough plasticity to allow it to overcome this kind of stupid fundamentalism. Luckily, perhaps, I will probably not live long enough to find out. But that there are still serious questions here that need to be dealt with goes, I think, without question, and we are not really discussing them. Scholarship is so keen to find ways of interpreting Islam so that it can adapt to democracy and human rights that it tends to dismiss the possibility that Islam and human rights are in deadly conflict, as I think they are. Religions of the book, the most successful religions known in history, are in fact deeply rooted in orthodoxies, and it is these orthodoxies, orthodoxies that remain even during periods of relatively liberal and humanistic interpretation, that constitute the poison of religion. Religion does, as Hitchens says, poison everything, and there are no satisfactory ways of expressing religions of the book without retaining the poison. This is something that needs, in my view, to be more widely recognised. There is no satisfactory resolution to the problems of religion in the modern world unless religions themselves can be culturally marginalised, where, as historical curiosities, they may survive for a time, but where they can have little or no influence on the culture around them. Rather than convince religious people that religion and science are compatible, we should be doing everything in our power to show that they are not, and that religions are cultural holdovers from more primitive times that, while having the capacity to provide comfort for a few, have no significant role to play in the global world that is now in the course of being born.