Pastor David Robertson of St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee and founding member of SOLAS – The Centre For Public Christianity, my old rival from my days debating on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? and their now alas deleted online forum has set up a new blog: theweeflea. Robertson recently decried the lack of mainstream media coverage over the deaths of 81 Christians in Pakistan at the hands of Islamist suicide bombers in September of this year.
I’ll begin by conceding one of Robertson’s points. The Pakistan bombing could have and maybe should have received the same level of attention from this country’s media and government that the Kenya shopping mall bombing did. Perhaps the latter was considered more “televisual” by media editors. I’m sure there are many parents of missing and murdered children who are aggrieved that the media coverage of their torments is dwarfed by the attention piled on Madeline McCann. In this respect, we can more or less swallow Robertson’s post whole.
However, Robertson’s piece unwittingly reveals a deeper motive of his apologetic. One of the categories it is filed under on his blog is called “The Persecuted Church” and during our debates on Unbelievable? in 2009, Robertson made out the Christian beliefs were coming under disproportionately harsh attack by “militant atheists” and “atheism fundamentalists”. I am reminded of Paula Kirby’s excellent review of four of the “flea” responses to Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion (which includes Robertson’s The Dawkins Letters), “Fleabytes”. Kirby addresses the topic of Christian paranoia in detail:
It is simply impossible to read these four books back-to-back and not be struck by the extraordinary degree of paranoia that is apparent in them. Their authors seem determined to see themselves as persecuted and to predict worse persecutions in the future. And this characteristic is not limited to the “fleas”: only recently one of the more evangelical Christians on this site declared his conviction that he would face imprisonment for his Christian beliefs in his lifetime. Since, whatever these fears are based on, it’s not the actual content of TGD or the intentions of any atheist I know of, where do they come from and why have they taken such a hold of believers’ brains?
I would argue that it is pure wishful thinking. This may sound unlikely: why should anyone wish to be persecuted? But when we recall the persecution that the early Christians did suffer — incarceration, public floggings, other forms of torture, being ripped apart by lions or slowly roasted over hot coals (and bearing in mind that history teems with examples of Christians inflicting similar torments on others whose beliefs did not take precisely the approved form) — it becomes apparent that the mockery and candid scepticism that is the worst they face in Western societies today are a feeble trial indeed. Would-be disciples in the 21st century can be forgiven for feeling slightly inadequate when compared with their more heroic predecessors.
It is not just the Koran that welcomes martyrs: the Bible, too, makes it clear that being persecuted is part of the job description for any serious Christian. Consider these quotes:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5: 10-12)
A Christian’s instructions are clear. Suffer for your faith! Be persecuted! If you’re not being persecuted, you’re just not trying hard enough! But oh dear: how hard that is when they are surrounded by people who tolerate their belief, even if they don’t actually approve of it. There is only one solution, and that is to make the very moderate criticism that they’re subjected to sound like the most vicious of persecution. Write of the desire to ban religion, to wipe it out, annihilate it, exterminate it. Claim that those who practise it will be imprisoned, disenfranchised, physically assaulted. That their children will be forcibly removed from them. Recreate the horrors of the Holocaust and the gulags in believers’ imaginations.
How else, in a liberal democracy, are they to stand any chance of claiming the rewards of the persecuted?
Kirby’s analysis strikes at the heart of the religious persecution dilemma. On the one hand, Christians are being persecuted for their beliefs ranging from moderate criticism via the written and spoken word to the extreme religious conflict like that seen in Pakistan. But on the other hand, persecution is very much part of their agenda. Their founder was allegedly publicly executed for his beliefs and the Church has always taught that many of his followers died for their faith in the following years (even though the Bible doesn’t mention what happened to the 12 apostles!). At the end of the 20th Century, the Church of England positively celebrated the sacrifice made by martyrs to the cause with the unveiling of ten statues in the stones of Westminster Abbey.
Therefore, persecution and martyrdom is very much part of the Christian religion and makes it all the more sickeningly masochistic for it, as both Kirby’s analysis and the Manic Street Preachers’ song I posted at the head of this piece demonstrates.
Robertson has argued elsewhere on his blog that the existence of evil and suffering in the World is all part of God’s plan. If we take this appalling “theodicy” to its natural conclusion then in a similar way to theists arguing that atheists have no basis to judge any action as “right” or “wrong” because there is no cosmic outcome beyond the grave; equally the atheist could argue that the theist has no basis for saying that an action is morally right or wrong since those murderous religious persecutors were ultimately instruments for God’s will in testing their Christian victims’ faith, conducting Job-like trials and sending them to a martyrs death where they will experience everlasting bliss beyond the grave!
I have not seen Robertson reproduce this claim directly on his newest blog, but all over the Internet you will read the “statistic” that 100,000 Christians die for their faith ever year. However, as this article by the BBC’s Ruth Alexander neatly demonstrates, this figure is at best a massaging of the figures and at worst an exaggeration. Many of the Christians dying in the World every year are actually victims of other Christians in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR), which has claimed the lives of in excess of four million from 2000 to 2010:
This means we can say right away that the internet rumours of Muslims being behind the killing of 100,000 Christian martyrs are nonsense. The DRC is a Christian country. In the civil war, Christians were killing Christians.
For the record, I disagree with the following paragraphs in Alexander’s article that religion had no part to play in the Rwandan genocide. Religion was an essential factor in the mass murder of civilian non-combatants as the post-war genocide trials featuring the prosecution of priests and nuns amply demonstrates.
The remainder of the issue actually speaks to the atheist’s side of the argument. Conflict, persecution and balkanisation of communities along religious lines are very much part of our case against God. Who is carrying out the persecutions? Secular humanists? Godless Marxists? No, they are Islamic fundamentalists! This is not so much a case of Christian persecution as it is religious conflict.
Robertson continually barks on about “militant atheism” and “atheist fundamentalism”. Yet if this charge is to stick, I challenge him to name a war that is currently being fought by atheists/secularists/humanists in the name of their non-belief in his invisible deity and/or their love of reason, honest debate and scientific scepticism or a non-believing terrorist movement whose adherents are blowing themselves and innocent members of the public to smithereens for the promise of an eternal reward. In his post, he admits that the Islamist suicide bombers belief that they are acting under God’s instructions. Yet as Sam Harris stated in his debate on morality against Christian apologist William Lane Craig (who Robertson clearly thinks very highly of):
Just think about the Muslims at this moment who are blowing themselves up, convinced that they are agents of God’s will. There is absolutely nothing that Dr Craig can say against their behaviour, in moral terms, apart from his own faith-based claim that they’re praying to the wrong God. If they had the right God, what they were doing would be good, on Divine Command theory.
This is a system of morality that is nothing short of psychotic and not for the first time, Robertson’s apologetics has fallen down like a house of cards once a step is taken outside his own personal echo chamber.