5 New Testament Promises for the Church Today, Tomorrow, and Forever

Image from the Waldburg Prayer Book (1476),
showing the Coronation of Mary, and the Sacrifice of the Mass
Stat crux dum volvitur orbis is the motto of the Carthusian religious order. It's Latin for “The Cross is steady while the world is turning.” It's a recognition that the Gospel is timeless and eternal.  But the Gospel is also historical. The Gospel is part of history, because Christ entered history in His Incarnation. So we see, in every age, the Church presenting the timeless truths of the Gospel in a way that the surrounding world can understand. She's used different methods, but always with the same message.

This understanding of the Gospel is challenged from two sides. On the one hand, you have those who claim that the Church needs to “get with the times” by abandoning her teachings. It's sadly common for people to leave the Church due to disagreements over political issues. They've become so convinced of their own political views that they treat the Church's views as outdated and false. This is a rejection of the Gospel's timelessness.

On the other hand, you have those who treat Christianity as a do-it-yourself project, as if the way to discover the truth of Christianity is to pick up the Bible and piece together what you imagine this to mean. This is a rejection of the Gospel as historical. It would be a bit like starting your own country, based upon your interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. No matter how close you got to the original spirit of the Constitution, the end result wouldn't actually be America. So it is here, in the Church's relationship to the Gospel,

Both of these errors - rejecting either the timelessness or historicity of the Gospel - are answered by the Bible.

Five Promises of Scripture for the Post-Apostolic Church

Several promises are made to ensure us that the truths of the Gospel will remain uncorrupted forever, This means that they don't need to be “updated” to get with the times, or “rediscovered,” as if they could be lost. Let's look at five specific times that Scripture points to the future to tell us what the post-Apostolic Church would be like.

1. The Church will Always have the Fullness of Truth

At the Last Supper, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit, to guide the Church into the fullness of truth (John 14:25-26):
“These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
What's more, He promises that this Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, will remain with us forever (John 14:16-17):
And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.
A little later in the same discourse, Jesus reiterates this same point (John 16:13):
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
This is really a twofold promise: that the Holy Spirit will remain with the Church forever, and that the Holy Spirit will preserve the Church in the fullness of truth.

2. We will be Called to Remain with the Church Forever

On the surface, this isn't a promise at all, but a prayer. It's also from the Last Supper discourse in John's Gospel, in which Jesus prays for us, the post-Apostolic Christians (John 17:18-23):
As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.

I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.
But if you look closely, there's a promise contained in this prayer: that we'll be able to preserve unity because of the glory that Christ has given the Church. He has consecrated the Church in the truth. And it's only due to this that we can remain with the Church forever.

If this weren't the case, we'd be forced into a catch-22. If the Church somehow lost the fullness of truth and started teaching heresy, we would be forced to either accept heresy, or go into schism. But Scripture condemns both of those things, so we would be damned if we did, and damned if we didn't. In instructing us to remain with the Church forever, Christ is letting us know that we'll never have to make that choice.

Josefa de Ayala, The Sacrificial Lamb (c. 1680)
3. The Eucharistic Sacrifice will be Offered Continuously

The Passover was established as a perpetual celebration, to last forever (Exodus 12:13-14):
The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever.
Christ doesn't abolish the Passover. Rather, He fulfills and perfects it. In His Passion and Death, “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). But this Paschal Sacrifice begins at the Last Supper - which, not coincidentally, is a Passover meal (Luke 22:14-16):
And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”
Luke's description of the Last Supper is filled with meaning, as when he says that it all happens on the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed” (Luke 22:7). He plainly has two lambs in mind: the lamb of the Old Covenant, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

In the Jewish Passover, there are two separate actions, performed on separate days: (1) the lamb is slaughtered, and (2) the lamb is eaten. These correspond to (1) Good Friday, and (2) the Last Supper and the Mass.

Good Friday, Jesus' death on the Cross, occurs “once for all” (Romans 6:10; Hebrews 7:27). But the Last Supper isn't designed to be “once for all.” Rather, Christ instructs His Apostles to Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19). The memorial of the Passover becomes the Memorial of the Last Supper.

St.  Paul explains this view of the Eucharistic Liturgy as a Sacrifice by comparing it to Jewish and pagan sacrifices (1 Corinthians 10:18): are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?” Therefore, the Eucharistic Sacrifice incorporates us into the Body and Blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16-17):
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
In addition to fulfilling the Old Testament promise that the Passover sacrifice would continue for all generations, the Eucharistic Sacrifice also fulfills Malachi 1:11's prophesy of the New Covenant:
For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.
We hear this in the first century Didache, which describes the Sunday Mass:
But every Lord's day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: "In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations."
So we can rest assured that the Mass will continue, day after day, week after week, from the time of Christ until the end of time. And in fact, beyond that: if you read Luke 22:14-16 closely, you'll see that Christ promises the ultimate fulfillment of the Last Supper will occur in the Kingdom of God.” This is a reference to the Eucharistic Banquet of Jesus the Bridegroom and the Church His Bride, in which our union is perfectly consummated (Revelation 19:9). 
Sandro Botticelli, Virgin and Child with the Infant St. John the Baptist (1500)
4. Mary will be Praised by all Generations

In Mary's famous Magnificat prayer, she proclaims (Lk. 1:46b-49)
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
Mary is both prophesying what's going to happen -- that every generation of Christians will praise her -- and letting us know that this is what ought to happen. She says that this praise of her is due to the holiness of God. In other words, Mary tells us that honoring her doesn't detract from God's holiness, but flows from it.

Stop and think about what this means. Mary's not just talking about the tepid, lukewarm praise of modern Christians who are afraid that praising Mary will somehow make her Son jealous. Mary's talking also about all of those generations who praised her unabashedly,

For example, the praise offered by the third-century Church included St. Gregory the Wonderworker's prayer:
Now is it meet and fitting for me to wonder after the manner of the Holy Virgin, to whom in seemly wise before all things the angel gave salutation thus: "Be thou glad and rejoice"; because with her are quickened and live, all the treasures of grace. Among all nations she alone was both virgin and mother and without knowledge of man, holy in body and soul. Among all nations she alone was made worthy to bring forth God; alone she carried in her Him who carries along all by His word.
It would be easy to write texts like these off as the excessive devotion of one or two individuals: as not representative of their generation. That doesn't work, however, when dealing with popular devotion, or with the Liturgy.

The Liturgy in both the West and (especially) the East praises Mary in strong terms. For example, in the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, the most common Eucharistic liturgy for Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics, the people pray:
It is truly right to bless you, Theotokos [Mother of God; lit. God-bearer], ever blessed, most pure, and mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. We magnify you, the true Theotokos.
That's what Mary means when she says that all generations will call her blessed. And she says this as if this is a good thing.

5. The Church will never be Abandoned or Overcome

One last promise from John's account of the Last Supper. In John 14:18, Jesus promises, “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” One way that He fulfills this is by sending the Holy Spirit. But He also promises to remain with us, as the last line of Matthew's Gospel shows: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20). And in His promise to the Church, Jesus famously says to Peter (Matt. 16:18-19):
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
To be sure, we might still fall away from the Church (although Christ prays that we won't: see #2). But the Church itself will last forever. And not just last forever, but remain with the fullness of truth (see #1).

Protestantism, Secularism, and the Promises of God

Compare what Christ and Mary promise in Scripture with what the Reformers and modern secularists offer. Broadly speaking, the Protestant Reformers denied each of these promises, claiming that:

  1. the Church didn't have the fullness of truth anymore; 
  2. it was morally right (even necessary) to break away from the Church;
  3. that the Mass wasn't a real sacrifice, and should be eliminated; 
  4. the sort of devotion to Mary offered throughout prior generations was offensive to the glory of God, and should be stopped; and 
  5. the entire Church fell into apostasy at some point in the past.
Modern secularists also deny each of these five promises, but for different reasons. The Reformers were interested in leaving aside the teachings of the present to try to recover those of the past, in the belief that the true faith had lost. Secularists want to abandon the teachings of the present for the teachings of the future, in the belief that society, and Christianity, are headed towards some new and better moral system. 

Both sides are wrong. The living God has promised us a Church, sanctified in the truth, that we can hold on to: past, present, and future. The Church, her orthodoxy, her Marian veneration, and her Holy Sacrifice of the Mass aren't going away. Neither is our need to be a part of that great Church. The Cross is steady while the world is turning.

Faith Alone v. Forgiving Trespasses: How the Lord's Prayer Contradicts the Reformation

Lines from the Lord's Prayer, in various languages.
From the Eucharist Door at the Glory Facade of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain.
It's Lent in Rome. That means it's time for one of the great Roman traditions: station churches. Each morning, English-speaking pilgrims walk to a different church for Mass. This morning, on the way to St. Anastasia's, I was once again struck by a line in the Our Father: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That's a hard thing to pray, It doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room. Even the Catechism seems shocked by it:
This petition is astonishing. If it consisted only of the first phrase, "And forgive us our trespasses," it might have been included, implicitly, in the first three petitions of the Lord's Prayer, since Christ's sacrifice is "that sins may be forgiven." But, according to the second phrase, our petition will not be heard unless we have first met a strict requirement. Our petition looks to the future, but our response must come first, for the two parts are joined by the single word "as."
Upon arriving at Mass, I discovered that the Gospel for the day was Matthew 6:7-15, in which Christ introduces this prayer. That seemed too serendipitous to simply be a coincidence. Then Archbishop Di Noia, O.P., got up to preach the homily, and it was all about how to understand this particular petition. So here goes: I think that the Lord's Prayer is flatly inconsistent with sola fide, the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. Here's why.

In this line of the Lord's Prayer, Jesus seems to be explicitly conditioning our forgiveness on our forgiving. Indeed, it's hard to read “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” any other way. What's more, after introducing the prayer, Jesus focuses on this line, in particular. Here's how He explains it (Matthew 6:14-15):
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
So to be forgiven, you must forgive. If you do, you'll be forgiven. If you don't, you won't be. It's as simple as that.

So Christ has now told us three times that our being forgiven is conditioned upon our forgiving, using the most explicit of language. How does Luther respond to this? “God forgives freely and without condition, out of pure grace.” And what is Calvin's response? “The forgiveness, which we ask that God would give us, does not depend on the forgiveness which we grant to others.”

Their theology forces them to deny Christ's plain words, since admitting them would concede that we need something more than faith alone: we also need to forgive our neighbors. They've painted themselves into a corner, theologically. To get out of it, they change this part of the Our Father into either a way that we can know that we're saved (Luther's approach: that God “set this up for our confirmation and assurance for a sign alongside of the promise which accords with this prayer”) or a non-binding moral exhortation (Calvin's: “to remind us of the feelings which we ought to cherish towards brethren, when we desire to be reconciled to God”).

Modern Protestants tend to do the same thing with these verses, and countless other passages in which Christ or the New Testament authors teach us about something besides faith that's necessary for salvation. We see this particularly in regards to the Biblical teaching on the saving role of Baptism (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21) and works (Matthew 25:31-46; Romans 2:6-8; James 2). There are three common tactics employed:

  1. Reverse the causality. If a passage says that you must do X in order to be saved, claim that it really means that if you're saved, you'll just naturally do X. Thus, X is important for showing that you're saved, but it doesn't actually do anything, and certainly isn't necessary for salvation (even if the Bible says otherwise: Mark 16:16).
  2. No True Scotsman. If Scripture says that someone believed and then lost their salvation (like Simon the Magician in Acts 8, or the heretics mentioned in 2 Peter 2), say that they must not have ever actually believed (even if the Bible says the opposite: Acts 8:13, 2 Peter 2:1, 20-22).
  3. Spiritualize the passage into oblivion. If the Bible says that Baptism is necessary for salvation, argue that this is just a “spiritual” Baptism that means nothing more than believing. And if you need to get around the need to be “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5) spiritualize this, too, to get rid of the need for water. Reduce everything to a symbol, or a metaphor for faith.

In fairness to both the Reformers and to modern Protestants, they want to avoid any notion that we can earn God's forgiveness or our salvation. This doesn't justify denying or distorting Christ's words, but it's a holy impulse. And in fact, it was the theme of Abp. Di Noia's homily this morning. Grace is a gift, and what's more, grace is what enables us to forgive others. This point is key, because it explains why Christ isn't teaching something like Pelagianism.

God freely pours out His graces upon us, which bring about both (a) our forgiveness, and (b) our ability to forgive others. But we can choose to accept that grace and act upon it, or to reject it. And that decision has eternal consequences. Such an understanding is harmonious with Christ's actual words, while avoiding any idea that we possess the power to earn our salvation.

So both Catholics and Protestants reject Pelagianism, but there's a critical difference. Catholics believe that grace enables us to do good works, whereas Protestants tend to believe that grace causes us to do good works. To see why it matters, consider the parable of the unmerciful servant, Matthew 18:21-35. In this parable, we see three things happen:

  1. A debtor is forgiven an enormous debt of ten thousand talents (Mt. 18:25-27). Solely through the grace of the Master (clearly representing God), this man is forgiven his debts (sins). He is in a state of grace.
  2. This debtor refuses to forgive his neighbor of a small debt of 100 denarii (Mt. 18:28-30). The fact that he's been forgiven should enable the debtor to be forgiving: in being forgiven, he's received the equivalent of 60,000,000 denarii, and he's certainly seen a moral model to follow. But he turns away from the model laid out by the Master, and refuses to forgive his neighbor.
  3. This debtor is unforgiven by his Master (Mt. 18:32-35). The kicker comes at the very end: “And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Now, consider all of the Protestant work-arounds discussed above. To deny that this debtor was ever really forgiven would be an insult to the Master and in contradiction to the text. To say that, if we're forgiven, we'll just naturally forgive is equally a contradiction: this debtor is forgiven, and doesn't. To treat the need to forgive the other debtor as a non-binding moral exhortation would have been a fatal error. 

This parable gets to the heart of the issue. The Master's forgiveness is freely given, and cannot be earned. But that doesn't mean it's given unconditionally or irrevocably. Quite the contrary: Christ shows us in this parable that it can be repealed, and tells us why: if we refuse to forgive, we will not be forgiven. It turns out, the Lord's Prayer actually means what it says.

Stump the Seminarian, Vol. 1: The Angel Uriel?

St. Uriel, mosaic in St John’s Church, Boreham (England) (1888)
I'm teaming up with St. Michael Catholic Radio in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 102.9 FM, to do a twice-monthly Stump the Seminarian feature. Here's the description:
Have a question about the Catholic faith? Don't know who to ask? St. Michael Catholic Radio is starting a new blog called "Stump the Seminarian"! Submit your question and Joe Heschmeyer, a seminarian in Rome, will answer a few in upcoming blogs.
You can submit your questions over there, if you'd like. I'll be cross-posting answers here, as well. I've gotten a few questions already, and I've picked out one that I've never heard asked before. It's about the archangel Uriel. Read on:

From: Darren

Why does the Catholic Church only recognize St. Michael, St. Gabriel, and St. Raphael as Archangels? Why do we not recognize Uriel the Archangel, as well as others? Is it against Catholic teaching to pray to these archangels?

The Bible tells us that there are seven angels who stand before the Throne of God, interceding on our behalf. We first hear about this in Tobit 12:15, in which the archangel Raphael describes himself as “one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One.”

Tobit is part of the Old Testament Deuterocanon, the set of seven books of Bible accepted by Catholics but rejected by most Protestants. So it's significant that this account from the Book of Tobit is confirmed in the New Testament book of Revelation, a book rejected by Luther rejected but accepted by virtually all Protestants today. In Revelation 8:2, St. John says:
Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.
Additionally, in the Gospel of Luke, the archangel Gabriel's introduction closely tracks with Raphaels (Luke 1:19).

But while there are seven of these angels, Scripture only gives us the names of three of them: Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael (Daniel 10:13, 21; Revelation 11:9). Popular Jewish and Christian devotions and legendary accounts gave us the names to the other four, including Uriel, although these names varied. I wouldn't put any stock in these accounts, particularly because the Vatican's Directory on Popular Piety (¶ 217) cautions: “The practice of assigning names to the Holy Angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael and Michael whose names are contained in Holy Scripture.”

That said, the Directory describes that popular devotion to Holy Angels as “legitimate and good.” ¶ 216 explains that a healthy devotion to the angels should be marked by:
  • “devout gratitude to God for having placed these heavenly spirits of great sanctity and dignity at the service of man;” and

  • “an attitude of devotion deriving from the knowledge of living constantly in the presence of the Holy Angels of God;- serenity and confidence in facing difficult situations, since the Lord guides and protects the faithful in the way of justice through the ministry of His Holy Angels. Among the prayers to the Guardian Angels the Angele Dei is especially popular, and is often recited by families at morning and evening prayers, or at the recitation of the Angelus.”
So devotion to the angels is good, but the only angelic names that we actually know are the three that we get from Scripture.

In Christ,


Is Religion Responsible for the World's Violence?

Sébastien Mamerot, Second Battle of Ramla, from Les Passages d'Outremer (1475)
Last week, a “gun-toting atheist” and self-proclaimed “anti-theist” killed three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There's some question still about whether the killer was motivated by atheism or some other motivation. What there's no question of is that much of the secular response was predictably tasteless and exploitative. For example, the Daily Beast's Suzi Parker responded with an essay on how hard it is to be Muslim “in the most religious—and Christian—part of the country.” How are Christians to blame for this one, again?

CNN's response was perhaps worse, lumping the Chapel Hill murders in with seven other attacks as examples of “religion's week from hell,” blaming the attacks on the “religious violence” that either “is fueled by faith or is a symptom of larger factors.” There's been a lot of talk lately about so-called “victim blaming,” and it's something of a nebulous term, but I think that blaming religious people for an atheist murdering them probably constitutes victim blaming.

The Chapel Hill murders have upset the popular “religion is what makes people violent” narrative, and both the Daily Beast and CNN's response amounted to shutting their collective eyes and repeating the “religious people are bad” mantra. So let's talk about that narrative: is it true that religion is the main cause of violence in the world? Or if not all violence, what about terrorism? Or if not all terrorism, what about suicide bombings?

I. Which Group Commits the Most Terrorist Attacks? the Most Suicide Bombings?

In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Sam Harris tries to lump “religion” in with “terror,” pitting the two against “reason.” He opens with this story:
The young man boards the bus as it leaves the terminal. He wears an overcoat. Beneath his overcoat, he is wearing a bomb. His pockets are filled with nails, ball bearings, and rat poison. The bus is crowded and headed for the heart of the city. [...] The young man smiles. With the press of a button he destroys himself, the couple at his side, and twenty others on the bus. [...] The young man’s parents soon learn of his fate. Although saddened to have lost a son, they feel tremendous pride at his accomplishment. They know that he has gone to heaven and prepared the way for them to follow. He has also sent his victims to hell for eternity. It is a double victory.
At this point, he hasn't told you the man's religion (although his inclusion of Heaven and Hell in his story conveniently exonerate atheists). He then asks, rhetorically:
Why is it so easy, then, so trivially easy, “you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy,” to guess the young man’s religion?
As I've mentioned before, Harris wants you to guess Muslim, an answer he claims is “you-could-almost-bet-your-life-on-it easy.” But there's just one problem with this claim, which is that it's factually incorrect. Worse, Harris knows this, but buries that fact in an endnote:
Some readers may object that the bomber in question is most likely to be a member of the Liberations [sic] Tigers of Tamil Eelam—the Sri Lankan separatist organization that has perpetuated more acts of suicidal terrororism [sic] than any other group. 
So if you bet your life on the suicide bomber being a Muslim, chances are, you were wrong. And the Tamil Tigers aren't just the deadliest in regards to suicide bombings. They're the deadliest terrorist group on earth, period. You can check out the numbers for yourself at the University of Maryland's Global Terrorism Database or Periscope's summary by group. Since 1975, the Tigers have killed nearly 11,000 people, and wounding nearly 11,000 more.

If you're not familiar with the Tamil Tigers, here's how the Library of Congress describes them:
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) strongest of Tamil separatist groups, founded in 1972 when Tamil youth espousing a Marxist ideology and an independent Tamil state established a group called the Tamil New Tigers; name changed in 1976.
The University of Chicago's Robert A. Pape, whom Harris cites in the endnote, is even more direct:
“Religious fanaticism does not explain why the world leader in suicide terrorism is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a group that adheres to a Marxist/Leninist ideology.” Marxist-Leninist groups are hardly what you'd call “religious.” Here's what Lenin had to say about religion:
The philosophical basis of Marxism, as Marx and Engels repeatedly declared, is dialectical materialism, which has fully taken over the historical traditions of eighteenth-century materialism in France and of Feuerbach (first half of the nineteenth century) in Germany—a materialism which is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion. [...]

Religion is the opium of the people—this dictum by Marx is the corner-stone of the whole Marxist outlook on religion.[1] Marxism has always regarded all modern religions and churches, and each and every religious organisation, as instruments of bourgeois reaction that serve to defend exploitation and to befuddle the working class.
So the deadliest terrorist group in the world, and the one responsible for the most suicide bombings in history isn't just a secular group, but one advancing an ideology that is is absolutely atheistic and positively hostile to all religion.

Nor are the Tamil Tigers an isolated case in this regard. The 25 deadliest terrorist groups in the world are responsible for most of the terror deaths since 1975. And the Tigers are just one of several Marxist-Leninist, Maoist, and Communist groups on that short list. They're joined by Peru's Shining Path, El Salvador's FMLN, Colombia FARCthe Kurdistan Worker's Party, the Philippines' New People's Army, Angola's UNITAthe Communist Party of India (Maoist), Spain's Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA), Colombia's National Liberation Army (ELN), and Chile's Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front (FPMR).

II. Is Religion the Chief Cause of the World's Violence?

Having seen that the world's deadliest suicide bombers and the world's deadliest terrorist group are the Marxist-Leninist Tamil Tigers, what about the world's deadliest ideologies? Compare the number of killings done in the name of religion to the number of killings done in the name of an anti-religious ideology. 

At the top of the list of the twentieth century's deadliest regimes, you'll find three anti-religious states: Communist China, the USSR, and Nazi Germany. These three alone were responsible for an estimated 130,000,000 victims, which dwarfs the number of people killed in the name of all religions throughout all of history. And that number doesn't even take into account the millions killed by Pol Pot's Khmer Rogue, the Communist North Korean regime, or the Derg (the Ethiopian Communist state, headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam).

Religion isn't the cause of most of the world's violence: it's not even close. In fact, in each of the deadliest states of the twentieth century, we see the same pattern: an aggressive campaign to neutralize or eliminate religious belief (and believers). Ross Douthat pointed this out, using the example of the Soviet Union, in a debate with Bill Maher:
Maher: “Someone once said: to have a normal person commit a horrible act almost never happens without religion. To have people get on a plane and fly it into a building, it had to be religion.”
Douthat: “I think that what's true is: to get a normal person to commit a crazy act, it does take ideas, right? But those ideas can be secular as well as religious. A lot of normal people ...”
Maher: “But mostly, in history, they've been religious.”
Douthat: “Not in the twentieth century. Not in the Soviet Union. A lot of dead bodies there, not a lot of Christians... except among the dead bodies.”
Maher: “I would say that's a secular religion.” (Maher then quickly shut down debate before Douthat could respond.)
In a way, Maher ends up conceding one of Douthat's points: that secular ideas can be just as deadly religious ones (and in fact, have been many times deadlier). But Douthat's other point is worth drawing out: religious belief serves not only as a potential motivator for violence, but as a check against state totalitarianism

For a totalitarian regime, religion is dangerous. As a believer, I recognize that human rights come from God, not the state or social convention. I recognize that there's an authority higher than the state to Whom both I and the state leadership will someday be accountable. It's precisely this sort of belief system that serves as a check on ideology and state authority that made these Soviet and Nazi states so anti-religious: they don't want you to render unto both God and Caesar. They want you to obey Caesar alone. 

That's one reason that the bloodiest regimes in history have tended to be atheistic and anti-religious. But there may be a second, related point. Maher calls Soviet totalitarianism a “secular religion,” and that's something of a cop-out. He's trying to pin all the blame for violence on religion, by labelling all potentially-violent ideas as “religious,” even (as in the case of Soviet Communism) the ideology's founder and adherents were fiercely anti-religious. This evasion would seem to turn everything, even atheism, into at least a “secular religion.” 

But Maher may yet be on to something in referring to these totalitarian systems as a “religion,” of sorts. Nazism and Soviet Communism did mimic religions in certain fashions, and did hold themselves out (implicitly and, at times, explicitly) as replacements for religion. That's because there's something inescapable about religion. Michael Crichton described the phenomenon like this:
I studied anthropology in college, and one of the things I learned was that certain human social structures always reappear. They can't be eliminated from society. One of those structures is religion. Today it is said we live in a secular society in which many people---the best people, the most enlightened people---do not believe in any religion. But I think that you cannot eliminate religion from the psyche of mankind. If you suppress it in one form, it merely re-emerges in another form. You can not believe in God, but you still have to believe in something that gives meaning to your life, and shapes your sense of the world. Such a belief is religious.
At its core, this is a rudimentary point. All of us operate according to our beliefs about the world. Sometimes, we're conscious of this, sometimes, we're not, but we do it all the same. And these worldviews are heavily influenced by what we believe, or disbelieve, about religion. 

Christianity carries with it beliefs about every human being made in the image of God, and being worthy of dignity and respect, along with the notion that we'll be held accountable for our evil actions. If we really believe these things, these beliefs can't help but shape how we interact with the world. And when people stop believing these things, it's not surprising that something else sweeps in to fill that void. Sometimes, as in Crichton's talk, that religion-replacement is a movement like environmentalism. Other times, it's something much darker.

III. Which Religion?

I said in the last point that religion can either motivate you to commit violent acts (as with ISIS) or it can motivate you to resist violence and tyranny (as with the 21 Coptic Christians recently martyred by ISIS). But on the question of whether religion will spur or spurn violence, a lot depends on which religion we're talking about.

All of this brings me to my last point:  the whole question of whether or not “religion” is violent is badly-formed. People don't believe in “religion.” They believe in a particular religion, and different religions teach different things. Given this, we need to stop pretending that all religions are equally prone to violent extremism, as if a Quaker is as likely as a Wahhabist to be responsible for the next terrorist attack. That idea is both illogical and directly contrary to the empirical data (here again, I'd point you to the Global Terrorism Database or Periscope summary).

Denouncing “religion” for the sins of radical Islam is disingenuous, akin to blaming “politics” for the Holocaust. “Religion” wasn't to blame, but one particular, violent religious movement, just as the Holocaust was the fault of one particular, violent political movement. In both religion and politics, we're dealing with sets of ideas -- ideas about God, morality, human dignity, and the like -- and ideas have consequences. Good ideas tend to have good consequences, while bad ideas tend to have the opposite. Treating all ideas as if they're equally valid is ridiculous.

That's why it's foolish to approach this question in the way that it's typically formed – whether or not “religion” is to blame – and why it's wrong to blame all religion for the actions of a few (or one). Using violence done in the name of a particular religion to justify hating all religion is no better than the Daily Beast using violence committed by an irreligious atheist against Muslims as a stick with which to bash Christians.

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