Some years ago I was asked a question that has haunted me. It came during a telephone conversation I had with a young man whose Internet book club has selected one of my books to read. The young man wanted to find out more about me, and he began asking what I thought about various subjects. Finally, hesitantly, he said, "Would you mind if I asked you a very personal question?" How personal, I wondered briefly, but gave my consent anyway. His question was, "Are you for or against religion?"
I have lost a clear recollection of my reply, but I recall being shocked at the radical and remorseless either/or with which I had been confronted: Either a person is for religion, or a person is against it.
Suppose I had answered by saying that I was for religion. Would this imply that I approved and admired the blood-thirsty rites involved in the worship of the Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochti? On the other hand, what if I had said that I was against religion. Would I thereby commit myself to condemning the ethical teachings expressed by the prophets of ancient Israel, with their stern injunction to protect the weak and defend the downtrodden? To me it was obvious that certain religions have been ghastly, like those religions that required the sacrifice of young children, while it was equally obvious that other religions have lifted human beings out of the squalor and brutality of mere animal existence.
Take the case of those fundamentalist Protestants in the small French village of Le Chambon who, at great risk to their own lives, opened their hearts and homes to French Jews who were being hunted down by the Nazis—an astonishing story movingly told by Philip P. Hallie in his book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. The villagers' Huguenot religion gave them the strength of will to resist the temptation to do nothing when doing nothing would have been far easier and far less dangerous to their own survival. It made them perform heroic actions and yet it also made them see these actions as their simple duty. They saved Jews, as they put it, because "it was the right thing to do."
In reflecting on the miracle of La Chambon, it would be possible to argue that a village of highly ethical atheists might have acted in the same way the Huguenots did. Certainly they would have recognized that saving the Jews was the right thing to do; but the intellectual apprehension that we have an ethical duty to risk our own lives for the sake of others is not always accompanied by the visceral courage required to take this risk. There must have been millions of decent Frenchmen who were horrified that the Nazis were rounding up Jews, and thousands who would have been willing to offer them sanctuary if the risk of getting caught had not been so great and so terrible. In the abstract, these other Frenchmen shared the same ethics as the villagers of La Chambon, but their ethical principles could not convince them to endanger themselves and their own families. In the face of despotism, mere decency is not enough. There must also be courage.
A person does not have to share the Huguenot religion in order to admire the courage of the villagers of La Chambon. Indeed, a person can find that religion absurd. But is it possible to be against a religion that can produce a whole community of men and women who are willing to stake their own lives in order to offer help to people of a different faith?
It is easy to make the case against religion by pointing to the multitude of examples where religion has brutalized men, and by carefully avoiding any mention of those instances where religion has given men the courage to struggle against despotism. "How Religion Poisons Everything" is the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens' recent book God Is Not Good. But did the Huguenot religion poison the village of La Chambon or ennoble it?
The villagers of La Chambon were Christian fundamentalists: to them there was no higher authority than the Bible. Today their attitude to the Bible is treated with scorn by those who identify themselves with the modern scientific spirit. But this was not the attitude taken by the great nineteenth century English scientist and thinker, Thomas Huxley.
Today Huxley is remembered for two things. He coined the word "agnostic" and he devoted his enormous intellectual energy to the defense of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Huxley himself did not believe in God, nor did he believe that the Bible was literally true. Yet if someone had asked Huxley whether he was for or against religion, he would have responded that he was emphatically for those religions that had created communities made up of men and women like the villagers of La Chambon. In fact, this is almost exactly what he wrote in 1892, at the end of the Prologue to his book, Science and the Christian Tradition.
"So far as...equality, liberty, and fraternity are included under the democratic principles which assume the same names, the Bible is the most democratic book in the world. As such it began, through the heretical sects, to undermine the clerico-political despotism of the middle ages....; Pope and King had as much as they could do to put down the Albigenses and the Waldenses in the twelfth and thirteen centuries; the Lollards and the Hussites gave them still more trouble in the fourteenth and fifteenth; from the sixteen century onward, the Protestant sects have favored political freedom in proportion to the degree in which they have refused to acknowledge any ultimate authority save that of the Bible....I do not say that even the highest Biblical ideal is exclusive of others and needs no supplement. But I do believe that the human race is not yet, possibly may never be, in a position to dispense with it."
The villagers of La Chambon were collectively committed to carrying out the highest Biblical ideal, even if it meant their personal extinction. They were prepared to defy a despotism far more hideous than that of the European middle ages. They remind us that the simplistic "for or against" approach to religion inevitably obscures the startling differences between the various religions of mankind, between those religions that demand human sacrifice to appease a blood-thirsty god, and those that have inspired self-sacrifice in the name of a better world.