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Norwegians light candles in Oslo Cathedral on July 23, 2011. (MORTEN HOLM/AFP/Getty Images)
Norwegians light candles in Oslo Cathedral on July 23, 2011. (MORTEN HOLM/AFP/Getty Images)

Ray Pennings

Don't blame religion for Anders Breivik Add to ...

My stomach churned when I heard the first reports regarding the terror in Norway. As a confessing Christian, it erupted again when police said the perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, was a “Christian fundamentalist.” Mine was the adrenalin that evil inspires.

Mr. Breivik’s faith claim is destroyed by his own words. He admits that his Christianity is a “cultural, social identity and moral platform” but that he doesn’t “have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God.” A faith in Jesus Christ as the substitute for sin and a relationship with him is to Christianity what breathing is to life. Take it away and you have neither.

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So it’s easy enough to dismiss Mr. Breivik’s faith claim and condemn these terror acts for what they are: evil, horrific and cruel-hearted. I pray that those who suffer indescribable loss may be comforted.

But still there’s no escaping his claim to cultural Christendom, and some will use it as evidence that religion is inherently dangerous. Such logic proceeds from the premise that humans are by nature good and that it’s religion that corrupts: Were it not for Islam, the 9/11 terrorists would have been law-abiding citizens and Anders Breivik would be a Boy Scout leader.

And yet we all know we’re far less than perfect. Children don’t have to be taught to do bad things; they need instruction on what is good and what is evil and, no matter how cheerful their nature, they need to be loved in order to empathize.

There’s less societal unanimity on how we deal with the internal realities of evil or even the names we give to it. Some think it not so serious and simply part of life. Others struggle at a much more existential level. Religion is something people turn to in order to address life’s big questions – the ones we ask ourselves when it’s dark and we’re alone. For most, faith provides answers. For others – an exceptional few – it’s simply a tool to justify their evil intent. But exceptions don’t make the rules: Bad things that happen in the name of religion can’t define or devalue it any more than society’s endless series of domestic disputes define love.

Nor did Charles Manson or John Hinckley define the Beatles or Jodie Foster, even though such connections fatuously meet our need to find reason in the unreasonable.

Any fair-minded person will conclude that the overall contribution of religion to public life is positive. It generally motivates people to do good things and to contribute to society. As it did in Norway on Sunday, its institutions comfort the grieving and act as incubators of commonly held social virtues such as mercy, compassion, patience and forgiveness and try to answer the questions empiricism can’t such as “What is the purpose of life?” and “How do I deal with evil?”

People of faith don’t agree as to how these questions are best answered or even on what it means to be a human being. There are many religions and, on many issues, they contradict each other. But there is unanimity on the idea that life is precious and that the taking of innocent human life is evil.

The crimes of which Anders Breivik stands accused don’t show how religion can inspire evil. Quite the contrary: They are proof positive that a Christ-less Christianity is a cultural construct that can’t bring the depth of relationship required to prevent the horrors that evil inspires. It doesn’t show how faith makes us evil – it shows only why we so badly need to be inspired by the social virtues propagated by its institutions.

Ray Pennings is a senior fellow at Cardus.

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