I found this bit of lengthy excerpt quite relevant while reading Francis collins’, The language of God.
A major stumbling block for many earnest seekers is the compelling evidence throughout history that terrible things have been done in the name of religion. This applies to virtually all faiths at some point, including those that argue for compassion and nonviolence among their principal tenets. Given such examples of raw abusive power, violence, and hypocrisy, how can anyone subscribe to the tenets of the faith promoted by such perpetrators of evil?
There are two answers to this dilemma. First of all, keep in mind that many wonderful things have also been done in the
name of religion. The church (and here I use the term genetically, to refer to the organized institutions that promote a particular faith, without regard to which faith is being described) has many times played a critical role in supporting justice and benevolence. As just one example, consider how religious leaders have worked to relieve people from oppression, from Moses’ leading the Israelites out of bondage to William Wilberforce’s ultimate victory in convincing the English Parliament to oppose the practice of slavery to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s leading the civil rights movement in the United States, for which he gave his life.
But the second answer brings us back to the Moral Law, and to the fact that all of us as human beings have fallen short
of it. The church is made up of fallen people. The pure, clean water of spiritual truth is placed in rusty containers, and the subsequent failings of the church down through the centuries should not be projected onto the faith itself, as if the water had been the problem. It is no wonder that those who assess the truth and appeal of spiritual faith by the behavior of any particular church often find it impossible to imagine themselves joining up. Expressing hostility toward the French Catholic Church at the dawning of the French Revolution, Voltaire wrote, “Is it any wonder that there are atheists in the world, when the church behaves so abominably?”
It is not difficult to identify examples where the church has promoted actions that fly in the face of principles its own faith should have sustained. The Beatitudes spoken by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount were ignored as the Christian church carried out violent Crusades in the Middle Ages and pursued a series of inquisitions afterward. While the prophet Muhammad never himself used violence in responding to persecutors, Islamic jihads, dating to the earliest of his followers and including present-day violent attacks such as that of September 11, 2001, have created the false impression that the Islamic faith is intrinsically violent. Even followers of supposedly nonviolent faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism occasionally engage in violent confrontation, as is currently occurring in Sri Lanka.
And it is not only violence that sullies the truth of religious faith. Frequent examples of gross hypocrisy among religious
leaders, made evermore visible by the power of the media, cause many skeptics to conclude that there is no objective truth or goodness to be found in religion. Perhaps even more insidious and widespread is the emergence in many churches of a spiritually dead, secular faith, which strips out all of the numinous aspects of traditional belief, presenting a version of spiritual life that is all about social events and/or tradition, and nothing about the search for God.
Is it any wonder, then, that some commentators point to religion as a negative force in society, or in the words of Karl Marx, “the opiate of the masses”? But let’s be careful here. The great Marxist experiments in the Soviet Union and in Mao’s China, aiming to establish societies explicitly based upon atheism, proved capable of committing at least as much, and probably more, human slaughter and raw abuse of power than the worst of all regimes in recent times. In fact, by denying the existence of any higher authority, atheism has the now-realized potential to free humans completely from any responsibility not to oppress one another.
So, while the long history of religious oppression and hypocrisy is profoundly sobering, the earnest seeker must look beyond the behavior of flawed humans in order to find the truth. Would you condemn an oak tree because its timbers had been used to build battering rams? Would you blame the air for allowing lies to be transmitted through it? Would you judge Mozart’s The Magic Flute on the basis of a poorly rehearsed performance by fifth-graders? If you had never seen a real sunset over the Pacific, would you allow a tourist brochure as a substitute?
Would you evaluate the power of romantic love solely in the light of an abusive marriage next door? No. A real evaluation of the truth of faith depends upon looking at the clean, pure water, not at the rusty containers.